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Book Reviews - The Cavalry Went Through

Great War Fiction

If you want a really good read, you can’t do better than Bernard Newman’s The Cavalry Went Through (1930). I’ve whizzed through it in a day; it’s definitely one of the unputdownables.

The novel is one of the first (actually the first?) in the genre of virtual history. It is the supposed memoirs of an officer (called Newman) who took a crucial role in the Great War of 1914-1917, and explains how the British, led by an unconventional and individualistic general, developed new tactics that broke the trench stalemate and scored an overwhelming military victory that left the German armies decimated. It comes complete with mock-scholarly footnotes referring to the more detailed and scholarly works that chronicle this triumph.

Newman imagines a colonial administrator, Duncan, who fights the Germans in West Africa, and discovers a genius for military thinking. C.E.Montague, in Disenchantment (1922) describes the naive trust that the soldiers of 1914 had in their generals:

One of the heavenly things on which the New Army had almost counted, in its green faith, was that our higher commands would have genius… We had indulged that insane expectation, just as we had taken it for granted that this time the nation would be as one man, and nobody “out to do a bit for himself on the quiet.

The generals by and large did not have genius, though many had ability, and the dreadful impasse of trench warfare dragged on into a war of attrition. As Montague could not help feeling, though:

Yes, there is always an impasse until genius shows a way through.

Bernard Newman must have felt the same, and in this book shows how genius could have managed it. The typical tactic of trench warfare was the mass dawn attack, which was heavily signalled by a previous artillery barrage, and whose timing was the result of negotiation between Allied politicians. Newman’s essential recipe for overwhelming success turns out to be the reverse of this:

  • Surprise, especially in night attacks.
  • Secrecy – doing things before the politicians can interfere.
  • Deception and traps – luring your enemy into false assumptions.
  • Relying on a small band of highly skilled thinking soldiers rather than a mass of undifferentiated cannon-fodder.
  • Breaking through on a very narrow front, to cause trouble to the enemy’s rear.
  • Making your aim penetration and destruction, rather than gaining ground.
  • Being willing to take risks, and to lose numbers of men if the corresponding gains are significant.
  • Ensuring that politics is put at the service of the military, rather than the other way around.

Duncan, Newman’s hero, is charismatic and authoritarian. Once successful, he knows that he can afford to be ruthless in order to get what he needs. An Admiral who refuses to cooperate with his plans is sent home; timid ministers are dismissed on his say-so. He gambles, and expects others to do so.

His gambles are invariably successful. After spectacular local victories on the Western front, he goes to Gallipoli, shows how it should have been done in 1915, and takes Constantinople. Then it’s back to France to deliver the knock-out blow to the numerically superior Germans. Victory is achieved before the Russians have time to revolt, or before the Americans can claim the right to dictate the terms of the peace settlement.

Newman was not the only novelist thinking about alternative strategies at this time. In John Buchan’s Courts of the Morning (1929) Sandy Arbuthnot leads a small guerrilla force against a much larger army that “has learned all the lessons of our little scraps in France and Flanders.” (I think that even the Gorbals Diehards in Huntingtower are a way of showing how a weaker force (numerically and physically) can defeat a larger one through lateral thinking.

Implicitly The Cavalry Went Through is a criticism of Haig’s generalship, but the portrait of Haig in the book is generous. He is thinly disguised as Sir John Douglas, who:

represented the finest type of British regular officer. His grey hair and moustache matched his clean-cut features.

When he meets Duncan for the first time:

After the formal salute they stood for a moment with hands locked: it seemed as if each instinctively recognised the greatness of the other.

Douglas supports Duncan in his early battles, and gives him the chance to show what his methods can do. Half way through the book, though, Newman gives Douglas a serious illness that gets him out of the way so that Duncan has a completely free hand, and is not hampered in his dealings with politicians by Douglas’s more appeasing approach.

The book is fantasy, of course, and Duncan’s victories come rather easily, with no major setbacks. Goodness knows if such tactics would have worked, but many of Newman’s criticisms seem valid – about the conventional thinking of regular officers, about the failure to trust the intelligence of ordinary soldiers, about the adverse effect of political tinkering on the military effort. And it’s a very exhilarating read.


The Daily Kraken

There are Real Things       (Duplicated comments)

While poring over Cyril Falls’ immensely useful War Books: A Critical Guide, a 1930 index of what Falls considered to have been the most important or interesting books about the Great War that had yet been written, I stumbled across an entry in the “Fiction” section that immediately caught my eye.  Everything else had been in the familiar line of short stories illustrating “slices of life”, or somewhat fictionalized memoirs, or novels drenched in painstaking verisimilitude.  Those who spend a lot of time studying the War will be familiar with the problem.  Anyway, The Cavalry Went Through, a book of which I had never heard written by an author of whom I had also never heard, stood out from the rest of them like fire on a mountaintop.  All the other books were focused on coming to grips with what happened, or with complaining about what happened, or with even just, in whatever sense, expressing what happened; The Cavalry Went Through is purposefully about what did not happen.

The field of speculative historical fiction is an especially rich one, albeit one often populated by second-tier (if prolific) writers.  Harry Turtledove is a prime example of this trend, though there are others.  For his own part, Bernard Newman was more at home in the espionage and counter-espionage genre, writing some hundred books (both fictional and non-fictional) on the subject while maintaining a lively career as a lecturer and public intellectual.  His first novel, though, was The Cavalry Went Through, and it was informed as much by Newman’s own very real experiences during the Great War as it was by whatever mischievous impulse tends to motivate those determined to unsettle history with their prose.

The concept of The Cavalry Went Through is simple enough: a brilliant, charismatic and entirely fictitious British general arrives on the Western Front in 1915 after astonishing successes in the African theatre and, through a mixture of unorthodox methods and an abandonment of the unofficial British “spirit of the defensive”, brings the War to a conclusion with the rout of the German army in Summer of 1917.  The way in which this happens is militarily sound but narratively difficult; it relies on coincidences and such that are, as Falls puts it, “wildly improbably and [which] could hardly stand detailed criticism.”  The fact that our victorious general never loses an engagement – never even comes close – is significant, but the ideas in play are nevertheless amazing.

For it is not just in some conventional manner that Gen. Henry Berrington Duncan establishes himself as the most famous man in the world.  Very far from it.  He is an intriguing mixture of Jan Smuts and Napoleon Bonaparte – beloved by his men, respected by his enemies, and never willing to let the established canons of military propriety get in the way of exploiting any weakness his opponents happen to offer.  His men wear any old uniform, and speak familiarly to one another regardless of rank.  Their parades and inspections are a disgrace.  More importantly, though, there is no respecting of persons: good ideas are good even if they come from a subaltern.  Every man under his command has been taught intermediate German – to expedite interrogations and the deciphering of captured documents – and instead of idling away with chess or checkers or cards in their leisure time they play a game of Duncan’s own devising, in which the practical possibilities of Western Front trench warfare are replicated on game boards constructed to be accurate topographical representations of the stretch of lines upon which the soldiers find themselves.

In short, General Duncan has no interest in merely holding on to the territory behind him.  He’ll never gain it for Britain even if he wins.   It’s not his territory: it belongs to Belgium and France.  There is no conceivable reason for him to be content with a stalemate, and he pushes for complete victory at all times.

The methods he employs in doing this are fascinating.  Realizing quickly that the tentative, cautious quality of British operations in general has been keeping them from making any significant gains (while also preventing them from incurring any significant losses), Duncan instead opts for bold strokes at unexpected points.  His means of achieving these bold strokes are notable.  Rather than sending the entire line forward in an attempt to take and hold the German trenches opposite them, he instead employs a squad of incredibly stealthy African scouts to go ahead in silence, kill everyone in the initial German trench for a hundred yards or so in both directions (again in complete silence), and then sends a single-file stream of highly-trained commandos through the gap – and this always in the dead of night.  This procedure is repeated at each successive support line, and more and more men pour through the aperture.  Some of them attack the German lines from the rear, acutely aware of how intolerable a night attack from that direction can be, but most of them disperse into the countryside behind the lines in groups of two or three to wreak as much havoc as they possibly can before being captured or killed.  Some of them return to tell the tale, but not many.

Duncan – and, by necessity, Bernard Newman – anticipates the absolutely essential nature of small, squad-based combat when it comes to modern warfare, but that isn’t all.  When the time comes to finish the fight and send the Germans rushing back to Berlin, the methods he employs are of a sort that seem more modern than the time in which he was writing would allow.  It comes down to this: to win the War in 1917, General Duncan employs a mixture of what we now call Blitzkrieg (which had not yet been really articulated by anyone), suicidal intelligence measures (which were then thought to be intolerably unsporting and are even now quite iffy), and the terror-bombing of Berlin from the air (which did not happen at all during the War, for any reason, so far as I’ve been able to discover).  He willingly gives up strategically useless territory regardless of its political significance, valuing the potential for pincer movements more highly.  He rejects utterly the interference of cabinet ministers and other nuisances, articulating (in some cases quite literally and not without anger) a vision of the successful general as being by necessity a sort of unaccountable dictator.  It succeeds in this case because Henry Berrington Duncan is a good man, but we must wonder at its universal applicability.

There’s lots more here to like.  While the book is not what I would call high literature when it comes to its depth or tone, there are numerous completely enjoyable vignettes in which the bolder exploits of certain minor characters are described.  Another source of fun (for those inclined towards such things) can be found in thinly-disguised historical figures under suggestive false names (Lord Kitchener becomes Lord Khartner, after his popular sobriquet, “Kitchener of Khartoum;” the two successive British commanders-in-chief, Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig, are collapsed into Sir John Douglas;  Worton Spender, one of the main characters, is apparently Winston Churchill; and so on).  Another high point is a thrilling section in which the 1915 failure at Gallipoli is avenged by the successful invasion of the Dardanelles and the fall of Constantinople.

Some criticisms must be offered, however.  Apart from the narrative implausibility of it all, as noted above, there’s a certain tendency towards under-description of action throughout the piece.  This often presents itself in the form of an annoying tic of Newman’s; I lost count very quickly of the number of times he resorts to describing something as “indescribable” or “beyond description” – once thrice on a single page.  The under-descriptive problem manifests itself most notably when it comes to the cavalry to which the book’s very title alludes.  It really is a thrilling and beautiful moment when the gap in the German lines is consolidated and the great wave roars in, but we don’t really hear much more about it afterward, unfortunately.  This is the moment towards which the book – and the actual war – had been working all along, but it’s all we can do to hear even a hint of what the cavalry actually accomplishes once the breakthrough is achieved.  That’s fine, I guess, because we can well imagine it, but still… come on, Newman.

There are also moral concerns.  Though Duncan takes a very sympathetic view of how soldiers with shellshock or other nervous problems should be treated (indeed, his position on this is exemplary), he is much less interested in questions of dignity and humane treatment when it comes the enemy.  At several points throughout their shared adventures Duncan and Newman-as-narrator complain bitterly about having had to take actual prisoners, preferring it immensely when the enemy is either caught by surprise before he can throw down his arms or else simply refuses to do so.  The tactics of the commando teams sent behind the German lines also warrant caution; while they are undoubtedly effective, there’s a monstrousness to them that cannot easily be vindicated in Just War terms.  Newman’s response to this problem in a footnote is hardly satisfactory: “Certain critics have condemned the methods of the [commando] troops as brutal: of course they were, but so is all war.  There is no differentiation in degrees of brutality.”  We cannot easily agree.

All in all, it’s a fast, basically satisfying read.  Those with a pronounced interest in speculative militaria generally or the Great War particularly will likely be better served by The Cavalry Went Through than most, but just because a book is narrow in application doesn’t mean it can’t be a success.  I doubt very much that it’s still appreciably in print, so you’ll probably have to consult a library (and likely inter-library loan, at that) to secure a copy, but it’s well worth the effort.

Book Reviews - The Flying Saucer


Strange rockets crash to earth in England, the USSR and in America’s New Mexico desert. The people of the world are stunned by these space ships—but what could the cryptic symbols and maps contained in them mean? Joining forces to decipher the messages, the world’s scientists reveal a terrifying threat: if the Earth does not turn over all its gold, Martians will annihilate the planet. To demonstrate their resolve, the aliens deploy both a representative—unfortunately killed on landing, but disturbingly unlike any human—and a bomb, far more powerful than any nuclear weapon known. The political and military leaders of the world are shocked into an unprecedented unity. To fight this common enemy, they must resolve their planet-bound antagonisms, from Cold War tensions to violent standoffs in Ireland and Palestine. But are these martians real?

The first book to use the term “flying saucer” in its title, this novel appeared in the wake of the Roswell incident and other UFO sightings, at a time when people feared both the threat from outer space and humanity’s tendency toward self-destruction. With a playful take on weighty matters, The Flying Saucer is a satisfying combination of science fiction and thriller, witty satire and political commentary.

“Refreshing . . . amusing. . . . contains plenty of action while leaving ample scope for thought.”—Fantasy Review

“An intelligent and plausible yarn, written with considerable humor and satire.” —Springfield Republican


The Mystic & the Spy

 1. The Flying Saucer, by Bernard Newman (1948)

flyingsaucerThis fictional book, published in the UK by Gollanz in June 1948, was possibly the first in the world to deal with the topic of Flying Saucers. Although said to have been ‘well- received in the American press’ on its publication there in 1950, it seems to have rapidly fallen into complete obscurity. The book never seems to have been referred to in subsequent UFO books, nor have I seen it listed in any published UFO bibliography.

The book was obviously not intended to be factual, nor a particularly substantial one: it appears to have been another in the long series of thrillers written by the prolific and versatile British author and lecturer Bernard Newman (1897-1968). Newman published over 100 books, at his peak publishing 4 or 5 every year. Many were non- fiction, with travel, current affairs, global politics and real-life espionage books featuring heavily. On the fiction side he concentrated on spy and detective stories, sometimes writing under the pseudonym Don Betteridge. [1]

Newman’s book The Flying Saucer is a tale of how a group of scientists, taking on the mantle of world peace-makers, stage a series of crashes of ‘Flying Saucers’ with the aim of uniting the world’s leaders. The idea that saucer crashes themselves have been staged or that stories have been deliberately manufactured as part of a Military ‘Disinformation’ campaign is one that has been around at least as long as the modern saucer retrievals stories have been current. The theme of an alien threat leading to world peace and unity is one that has cropped up on many occasions, a recent example being the often-quoted remark of Reagan to Gorbachev in1985. Newman’s inspiration was a speech by Sir Anthony Eden, who in 1947 said: “It seems to be an unfortunate fact that the nations of the world were only really united when they were facing a common menace. What we really needed was an attack from Mars 85″ The idea of a fake saucer crash serving this purpose is probably original to Newman’s book, but is one which may have been absorbed almost unknowingly into the popular folklore of UFOs. Despite the more recent amnesia regarding this book, it was once described as being one of three books for which ‘Newman is possibly best known in the United States’. Newman dismisses the book briefly in his autobiography but mentions that Anthony Eden was ‘very amused by the book’.

Newman’s book begins with an initial series of mysterious saucer crashes occurring first in England, then (where else but) New Mexico, and thirdly Russia. The crash sites are chosen carefully to involve all the three major powers of the post-WWII world. Then, as their grand finale, the scientists decide to include an alien occupant in the next crash. In modern tales of crashed saucers, the alien occupants seem to remain surprisingly unscathed, apparently sustaining nothing more than a grazed grey knee in the course of a high-speed crash. By contrast, Newman is gruesomely realistic with his staged crash: the alien ‘victim’ is apparently pulverised by the impact and this enables the scientists behind the scenes to confuse investigating pathologists by presenting them with a ‘body’ consisting of a grotesque melange of exotic animal remains.

An international league of scientists springs into action and with remarkable speed the differences between the world’s governments dissolve under the ‘Martian’ threat. The final chapter sees every international political problem speedily resolved, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland. This 1948 fantasy is very much of its time: it was published in the very month of the Russian blockade of Berlin. Newman’s heroes find a way around the frustrating limitations of the new United Nations, with, in the background, the emergence of the super-power blocs and the omniscience of the atomic scientists all playing their part.

Newman’s book, now nearly 50 years old, presents familiar themes to us today: a saucer crash in New Mexico, an alien autopsy (albeit a particularly messy one). In the background, an ultra-secret military disinformation campaign designed to create a New World Order hidden from the general population. In 1948 the New Order that Newman envisaged was that of brotherhood & peace to all men and is plotted by pipe- smoking, back-room boffins, fresh from their successes in the War.

With his fondness for writing books, both fiction and non-fiction, on espionage themes it is reasonable to assume that Newman had first-hand experience of the secret intelligence world. Several writers have alluded to Newman’s probable connections with the British Intelligence service, including Peter Rogerson who has speculated in Magonia on a possible intelligence connection with the Roswell incident of 1947. As one might expect, Newman’s intelligence career remains shrouded in obscurity and deceit. In his unrevealing autobiography Speaking From Memory [2] he describes how from 1919 onwards he was apparently employed in an undemanding Civil Service job in the Ministry of Works. Somehow he seemed able to take extremely long and, for those days, exceedingly adventurous holidays, including lengthy stays in Eastern Europe and Russia. His destinations invariably seemed to include areas of particular political interest: for example several extended holidays to Germany in the 1930′s.

However, one of his more remarkable claims remains a puzzle. He claims to have made a report on the secret Peenemunde rocket site in 1938, which he sent to the Foreign Office, but the report ‘was ignored’. This clearly contradicts Dr R.V. Jones description of the legendary ‘Oslo Letter’, received from an anonymous informant in 1940, which was said to be the first information that British Intelligence had of the significance of the rocket development site.[3]

To add to the mystery, an article in the New York Times in 1945 described Newman as having spent the three years from 1915 operating as a double agent in the German Intelligence Service.[4] Newman was indeed fluent in German, his mother having come from Alsace and he grew up speaking English, French and German. But the idea of an 18-year old boy spy operating within the German forces and influencing senior officers is stretching credulity and an addendum to Newman’s obituary in the Times contains a reference to the alleged episode that relegates it to the realm of fiction.[5]

Whether true or not, no hint of any such exploit is mentioned in Newman’s autobiography. The resemblance between incidents described in The Flying Saucer and the Roswell crash remains intriguing: we are left to speculate and can perhaps, one day, hope to learn some of the real facts about this enigmatic author.


Book Reviews - Danger Spots of Europe

Quotes are from 'Speaking from Memory' page 92

Actual articles may be sourced at a later date

 The Times - A very valuable book. His detailed knowledge, combined with his balanced judgement, makes this book an excellent guide to the vexed issues of European politics

The Times - 5th July 1938


Daily Telegraph - A masterly survey of the post-war discontents. The book is as readable as a novel, and as informative as a hundred blue-books

Sunday Times - This is as clear, as readable, and as helpful a book about European problems as has been published for many years...It is the combination of courage and reasonableness which makes his book so valuable

Bulgarian Background

The Times - 11th May 1961




The Times -15th March 1935