Book Reviews

Playing the Game Book Cover

Playing the Game Book Cover

Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-1918

by Christopher Moore-Bick
Solihull, UK: Helion & Company Ltd, 2011
328 pages, $40.00
ISBN: 978 1 906033 84 2

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Reviewed by Chris Buckham

The period 1914-1918 was witness to an unprecedented expansion of the army of Great Britain. This epic transformation may be viewed, not only in terms of numbers, but also speed, breadth of employment, and, one may effectively argue, it also represented the first revolution in military affairs from a technological perspective. During this time, in order to meet the demands of modern warfare, Britain was forced to expand its relatively tiny standing army through augmentation by the Territorial’s, “Kitcheners New Army,” volunteers, and by conscription. Each presented unique challenges that impacted and influenced the face of the British military as never before. Consistent through all of these upheavals were the challenges of fighting a war on a scale never before seen or imagined, with technology that served, not only to augment the ability of opposing armies to fight, but also necessitated specific skill sets previously not required (i.e. the operation of machine guns, aircraft, tanks, communications, and so on), as well as the development of doctrine to support these capabilities.

Christopher Moore-Bick’s book, Playing the Game, addresses these issues from the perspective of the junior officer (second lieutenant, lieutenant, and captain). When one considers the vast array of literature surrounding the First World War, a common theme tends to be that of the ‘lost generation,’ or the ‘inability of the senior officers to deal with the challenges of the new realities of war.’ What has not been addressed in any detail is the fact that despite all of the horrors of the trenches, Britain’s army did not suffer any general collapse in morale or fighting spirit despite being composed in majority measure of non-professionals. That this was so may be largely attributed to the skill and motivation of its junior officer corps; the leaders who were most closely associated with the soldiers on the front lines. What these factors were that defined and influenced the development of the generation of young men who made up this group is the focus of Moore-Bick’s book, and why those factors are relevant to the armed forces of today.

Moore-Bick is not interested in the experiences of the officers in the actual front line, except in so far as they add dimension to the traits of the officers themselves. Instead, he focuses upon the environmental elements that shaped their personalities (school, society, religion, and so on), and their sense of duty/obligation. Additionally, he draws distinctions between the different phases of the army’s expansion (standing professionals, volunteers of Kitchener, conscription). Specifically, he highlights how each group accepted, adapted, and ultimately supported (in the sense of undertaking one’s responsibilities) the war effort, and how these processes changed over the course of the war.

Drawing upon a vast array of primary source material, including diaries, letters, journals, and memoirs, as well as a host of secondary and presently-unpublished papers, Moore-Bick is able to paint for the reader a surprisingly complete picture of the views and thoughts of the junior officers who helped make up Britain’s army. Of particular interest is his analysis of the transition from civilian to soldier of these officers, and how that influenced outlook and expectation. This ‘professionalization’ process had to take place under the most trying of circumstances, and within a very short period of time. That these men were able to adapt as quickly as they did is a testament to their psychological strength and the environments within which they developed. Another area that is addressed in depth is the impact of the public school system on the development of the psyche of these men. He reveals the role that the structure and tenets of the schools, with their emphasis upon loyalty to one’s peers and school, manliness in sports, and the responsibilities of a system that resulted in early personal growth and development played in their development and maturation. The role of the ‘heroic’ figure in British literature is also incorporated into his analysis. However, what must be emphasized is the balance with which Moore-Bick approaches his subject. It was clear that as the war progressed, officers enlisted with a far different perspective of the war than those who did so in 1914, and that these enlistees were being drawn from a much more varied and non-traditional pool (commissioning from the ranks, non-public schools, civilian professionals and older generations), and yet they still undertook their duties in a responsible and forthright manner overall. The author’s analysis and insight into his subject explains why this occurred, and how their backgrounds influenced their decisions and development.

Moore-Bick’s work has drawn attention to an aspect of the First World War that has seen little evaluation, but the importance and significance of which cannot be understated. Armies succeed or fail on the strength of their leadership, particularly at the junior officer and senior non-commissioned rank levels. The lessons to be gleaned from the experiences of the First World War British junior officers in rapidly transitioning from a peacetime to a wartime footing in a very short period of time are numerous. While one may make the argument that these challenges were approximated during the Second World War, I would contend that they were far more profound during the First World War, due to the technological changes occurring during the period, the speed with which the standing army was required to expand, and the lack of wartime experience among the general population, as was not the case during the precursor expansion period prior to the Second World War. This is Moore-Bick’s first publication, and it is an excellent addition to the professional member of the armed forces library. I also strongly suggest that it should be read by anyone looking to expand their insight into the motivators and development of a junior leader.