The Donkeys



Back to The Sunday Times book reviews



THE DONKEYS (Hutchinson, 1961)


Alan Clark



HW wrote two very different reviews of this book. The first, composed more or less as he read the book, is roughly drafted in pencil on the review copy's preliminary pages. It was originally intended for publication, and indeed got as far as being set up and printed in galley proof by The Sunday Times (reproduced later on this page). It seems that HW then had second thoughts about the book and, while on holiday in Northern Ireland staying with his friend Sir John Heygate at his Bellarena estate, wrote the more considered review that was eventually published.


This is the manuscript of the published review:


reviews sunday6g


reviews sunday6h


reviews sunday6i




HW scribbled notes on a number of the preliminary pages of his review copy (a transcript follows):


reviews sunday6j p8


reviews sunday6k p10


reviews sunday6l p5


reviews sunday6m p4




Anne Williamson, who prepared the transcript, writes:


HW’s notes, made while reading the book, were written in very faint pencil on various pages of the preliminaries that begin the book, in preparation for writing his review. Almost unreadable in their original state, the notes become more visible when scanned and enhanced. One can see how emotionally disturbed HW became on first reading the book – and quite angry about the seeming arrogance of its author, until gradually he calmed down.


Alan Clark (1928‒1999), MP 1974‒1992, author and historian, was a great admirer of HW’s work and mentioned it in a number of articles. There is a note in HW’s diary recording a brief meeting they had – I think at a West Country Writers Association meeting; the details escape me but I think it was before the writing of this book. HW recorded that he had met and liked ‘Lord Clark’s son’ (Lord Leonard Clark, historian, of Civilisations fame). In later years it has been revealed that Alan Clark apparently admitted to a friend that he had made up the supposed Ludendorff/Hoffman dialogue about ‘The Donkeys’ that fronts his book and provides the title:


reviews sunday6n


One wonders what HW would have said about that.


* * * * *


HW’s notes begin on page 8 of the book’s preliminaries, moving both forward and backward as HW needed the space, as indicated below. Anne Williamson's additional comments are in square brackets.




(on p. 8 of prelims)




I have read this book very carefully, some of it several times. It opened up parts areas of my mind that I hoped, having completed certain works of my own last year, would now lie fallow until in due course it would be my privilege to give back this dust to England (with great respect to that older dust of Skyros). Then I turned back to the Introductory Note, and read that the author (born 1928, a boy in Hitler’s war, just think of it) was moved to write about the last of the professional army – ours – which was ‘machine-gunned, gassed, and finally buried in 1915’. A boy with a kind heart and a steady nerve, and an occasional glitter in his eye, not so much of anger but of lachrimae rerum. Tutored at Oxford by H.R. Trevor Roper and a protegée [sic], one guesses, of B. H. Liddell Hart; and mercifully free of satire – the only satire allowed to writers about the Great War is that of soldiers who helped to make it with their bodies, but not their minds (The old firm of Osbert [Sitwell], Siegfried [Sassoon], & Co.). [Nb – note the use of Christian names there.]


Why does Mr Clark write about our ‘bow and arrow’ war?


(on p. 10 of prelims)


He says, ‘Because in print they have no memorial’. I thought about that in the small hours of July the First, 1961, while reading this book; I could think only of odd bits of Sassoon, Graves, Sitwell, Blunden, Ewart, The Big Push by Patrick MacGill (‘The Irish Navvy Poet’), half of it sent home as letters written in the trenches & in off-duty moments by a stretcher-bearer at the battle of Loos, a very good & true book, which should be reprinted; ‘Spectre’ West, a survivor of Neuve Chapelle and Loos, who arose again before me as he did in life in ‘A Fox under My Cloak’. Otherwise, one supposes, as our very young author Mr Clark writes in his Introductory Note, these men of the original 1914‒15 BEF, of the red little, dead little army, have no memorial. Except perhaps that magnificent essay by HM Tomlinson The Nobodies, and his book Waiting for Daylight [1922], (which should also be reprinted). [HW has a number of titles by H. M. Tomlinson (1873-1968), writer and journalist, who was an official correspondent for the British Army in France in WWI: and they exchanged letters – with mutual admiration for each other’s writing.]


Mr Clark says that he is anxious that his book should not be thought an ‘indictment’. That is a measure of his sensibility. He need not fear. It is a good book. I was anxious, too, when I received it and saw the title from the supposed talk between General Ludendorff and his Intelligence Officer Colonel Hoffman:-


Ludendorff: ‘The English fight like lions.’

Hoffman: ‘But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys.’


and observed in the jacket photographs of three of the principal donkeys – Sir John French, Sir Douglas Haig, and Sir Henry Rawlinson. Not donkeys. French who was half-broke by 1915, erratic, withdrawn, irritable, afraid, haunted. Haig who kept his nerve and with a terrific lash-out of hind-legs, raised the dust of the Black Day of the German Army (our old friend Ludendorff’s remark to ditto Hoffman) on 8 August 1918, & kicked the ‘feldgrau, face-grey, the bled-white Wehrmacht’ over the Rhine and into revolution which (A) [Note (A) is on a separate page and reads:]


rolled its shabbier lions, (some like Gὃring, with the Pour le Merite, the German V C) in the gutter, and tore off their badges of rank, & otherwise beat them up.


But at what a cost to Europe. The two cousin-nations bled white, no more lions or donkeys, but here and there a jackal, once called profiteer, cracking the bones of Charlemagne’s Christendom.


(I read this book while the stars beyond my cottage window near the harbour grew pale and the sun rose up upon a day as hot and as blue and as bright as that first day of July forty five years ago. As I  (to Dedication page)


(on p. 5 of prelims)


read on I went back a little more in time, to Artois and its water logged plains, its dykes of rusty water, its canals and brick factories, and those terrible attacks across the open into machine-gun fire in the spring of 1915 – Festubert, Neuve Chapelle, Second Ypres, when gas came over & the only hope of choking men was (to use a Biblical word) to piss on their handkerchiefs, if any, & wildly hope, beyond agony, that the ammonia would neutralise chlorine. And those coming up to help, including my own battalion, lay under shell-fire & advanced under the machine gun fire and then lay down under the brutal black rendings of 5 9s until companies going out a few days later were hardly more than sections of platoons, while the nightingale were singing in the oak-wood around Ypres and hares still running in dismay between the lines. (X)


(X) Loos, where the swallows were gathering around the slag-heaps and the rusty pylons and other pit-head gear, when our gas (not German ‘poison’), but [continued in a balloon on the previous page] ‘reducing the enemy to insensibility for a few hours only’. British chlorine put the wrong side to sleep more or less for ever.


There are no complaints. Mr Clark, a young man (I repeat) is a writer. He has compassion, & he conceals it, like all good writers, under a display of facts. One day he must write more about the donkeys themselves, some of whom broke down, not through conceit or vanity or self-interest (as some readers of this book might possibly mistakenly imagine their dominant characteristics) but from exhaustion to duty, duty, duty, in that


(on p. 4 of prelims)


time when not only . . . “heaven was falling, and earth’s foundation” were going west, but, more comprehensively, in all countries at war, including Germany who gave us in 1914 the mass-attack targets we gave them in 1915, in the first Great War when the unprepared were confronted by the unimagined.




These notes form, almost word for word, the basis of HW's first attempt at a review, as shown by this galley proof:


reviews sunday6o        reviews sunday6p







Back to The Sunday Times book reviews