Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Six Weeks: the Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War

Six Weeks” is sub-titled “the Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War”. It’s a detailed, compelling and fascinating account of the Great War from the perspective of the British junior officer - the first and second lieutenants and captains on the Western Front.

There are many books focusing on the lives of British soldiers in the War, often from the perspective of the British Tommy. But this is the officers’ story. It is a book about (to paraphrase another famous title) “the war the officers knew”.

I should start out by saying I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It’s comprehensive, following the service history of officers from school, through training, to the trenches, and into battle. The journey traces the time after combat, looking at “rest and leave” hospitalization and (all too often) death.

It is a book which is rich with period details. Some of these are from a world which has passed up by – the world of the personal servant and of utterly rigorous class divisions. Other period details are infinitely personal, including the letters written by the officers to their wives and children. There are first-hand quotations from a wide variety of sources (including letters and diaries). The photographs are of excellent quality, most of which I had not seen before. Certain sections of the book are unremittingly grim, although parts are light hearted and amusing.

In all, “Six Weeks” is an excellent read which I thoroughly recommend to anyone interested in the Great War, and anyone interested in any war from the perspective of a junior officer.

So far so good, but I was keen also to mention “Six Weeks” on this Blog because I think it would also be of great interest to anyone wanting to wargame the environment of a junior officer on the Western Front in the Great War. A number of aspects which the book highlighted, and which I think have some great gaming potential, were as follows:

1. Age: Many of the junior officers were incredibly young. Officers could be as young as seventeen years old, rising to eighteen and a half years old in 1915. I thought this was something to remember, and be inspired by, when next ordering a Second Lieutenant “big man” on the table top.

2. Loyalty: The depth of the bonds of loyalty, duty, respect and devotion of the junior officers to their men in many circumstances (which seems to have been reciprocated in many cases by the Other Ranks) led officers to remarkable feats of courage, bravery and self-sacrifice. Unsurprisingly, those bonds also could lead to injury and death. Determined actions focusing on the rescue of a friend, finding a wounded man, or recovering the dead body of a fallen comrade were not infrequent.

3. Courage was contagious: The officer with his cigarette or pipe, the epitome of grace under pressure, was indispensible in beginning and maintaining the momentum of the troops. Other ranks followed their officer over the top for many reasons, but the inspiration of his courage and daring was paramount. Such courage had a cost – the rate of “shell-shock” amongst junior officers, unable to express their emotions in front of other ranks or superior officers, was particularly high.

4. Class distinctions remained: The distinction between gentlemen officers, generally from public schools, and “temporary gentlemen”, from lower-middle or working class backgrounds, was preserved. Perhaps this is a 21st century preoccupation which many of us focus upon. However, I feel there is some mileage here to be exploited, either in the background of a wargame, or perhaps in specific scenario rules.

So where does all this fit into the rules we use for our wargames? I’m not sure that there’s an easy point at which to integrate these, and other, aspects which flow from the book. I certainly don’t think there’s a solution as simple as saying a +1 leadership (or whatever) for a public school boy who’s now a subaltern.

However, over the next month of so I’m going to try and work some these aspects into the scenarios we play using “through the Mud and the Blood”. My feeling now is that the more I try to build in some of the background from “Six Weeks”, the more this should help to set the scene for our games, and will place the players into the shoes of the historical “Big Men” – the officers and NCOs leading troops in large skirmish actions on the Western Front. I’ll let you know how we get on!

Anyway, for those of you who like a rating, I’d give “Six Weeks” 5 out of 5 star-shells.

Next up, I hope to show you the results of my camo netting experiments (with thanks to all of you who commented on my last Blog post), as well as kicking off the next terrain boards project. Catch you soon!


  1. Sounds really good. I put it already in my "wish list" at Amazon's, awating your final review. It will be now upgraded to "basket" level. Thanks for the review

  2. Thanks for the excellent review! I've put the book on my amazon wish list, I'll be picking it up right away.

  3. Great book review. I may try to get my hands on a copy of this.

  4. Added in my ''Books to read'' list!
    Don't know much about WW1, but from a social perspective it will be a good book to read!
    Thanks for the review!

  5. Hi again, just checked in Amazon's Market place and there a couple of guys out there selling the book for less than 6 GBP (plus postage). Very good price for the hardcover edition, well below the price of the paperback edition, to be released in autumn. My copy is now on its way to Spain

  6. Thanks for the comments, Guys. It's a good read. Another for your growing library, Big Lee !

    @ Anibal - £6 is a very good price.

    If people have enjoyed the book review, I'm very happy to add other ones. If so, the next up would be "Landrecies to Cambrai" by Captain Wynne and "Boy Soldiers of the Great War" by Richard Van Emden. Let me know either way...

  7. Sounds jolly good. Provided the money-fairy's kind, I shall surely seek to acquire one of those. I certainly would like to see a few more reviews from you!

  8. Thanks for the heads up on this, I sall look out for a copy. Rather than go to the relevant posts, I would just like to say that your previous posts have been great, really inspirational as always. Have not been able to post has blogger seemed to have put me into a signing on loop, which appears to be sorted now.


  9. This is a brilliant book. My wife really enjoyed it as well.


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