THE OXFORD BOOK OF MILITARY ANECDOTES. Edited by Max Hastings. Oxford University Press. 514 pp. $17.95.
DURING WORLD WAR II the British army experienced some difficulty in finding a suitable post for novelist Evelyn Waugh, then an army captain. Waugh himself illustrated the problem when on March 2, 1944, he wrote in his diary:
"Luncheon with General Thomas, who accepted me as ADC (aide de camp) in spite of my warnings against it. I thought him a simple soldier but heard later that he is a man of insatiable ambition and unscrupulous in his means of self-advancement. On Tuesday I went to his headquarters for a week's trial -- today returned unaccepted. This is a great relief. The primary lack of sympathy seemed to come from my being slightly drunk in his mess on the first evening. I told him that I could not change the habits of a lifetime for a whim of his."
This is but one of the 384 well-selected anecdotes included in this fascinating collection of military stories, which range in time from biblical days to the Falklands War. Not all of the anecdotes are humorous, though many of them are, for the editor has sought out those with a quality of drollness or whimsy. Not all, in fact are proper anecdotes, some being simply interesting stories that illustrate the condition of the soldier in barracks or on the battlefield -- Hannibal crossing the Alps, Caesar landing in Britain, Cecil Woodham-Smith's superb account of the Battle of Balaclava with its charge of the cavalry's Light Brigade.
Some of the selections are classics: Joshua at Jericho, Horatius at the bridge, and Wellington and Uxbridge at Waterloo. And, of course, there is the famous quip of artist James Whistler, who was dismissed from West Point for failing chemistry: "If silicon had been a gas I might have become a major general."
The anecdotes are arranged chronologically by war and battle. Most are drawn from military experiences of the past two centuries, and the selections are mainly from British and American sources. Hastings has wisely settled for literary merit rather than an even sprinkling over the past 2,000 years. He has done his homework well, drawing on some surprising sources -- David Niven, for example, who served in the Highland Light Infantry, and Nancy Mitford, who served in no man's army.
This is a personal selection and it reflects Hasting's wondrous personal bias, allowing him to include even selections from his own works, such as his description of the last day of the Falklands War as seen from his own viewpoint as a journalist on the spot.
Every reader will have his favorite. Mine is of General Montgomery's austere habits and disinterest in food. When Monty captured German General von Thoma, he invited him to lunch, and this generous gesture provoked questions in the Hous of Commons as to the propriety of the invitation. Winston Churchill responded: "Poor von Thoma. I, too, have had lunch with Montgomery."
SOME OF the events described, particularly the ancient ones, are horrifying. One remembers how Joshua fought the Battle of Jericho, but we tend to forget that afterwards he brutally massacred all the inhabitants, "both men and women, young and old," proving that "the Lord was with Joshua." And Livy's tale of the consul Marlius, who executed his own son for disobeying his orders as his military commander, is even more bloodcurdling -- but it illustrates the discipline of the Roman legions.
Most dreadful of all is the tale told by Herodotus of Pythius, an old soldier who had five sons serving Xerxes. Pythius had been praised by the great king and given presents, and this emboldened him to ask as a favor that his eldest son be left behind when Xerxes set off to invade Greece. But Xerxes flew into a rage and at once ordered that Pythias' eldest son be sliced in two and the two bloody halves be laid on either side of the road down which his entire army would march. "The order was performed."
One of the selections is neither an anecdote nor a story, and many readers may find it incomprehensible. Hastings provides the background: During the siege of Lucknow (1857) the besieged British wanted to send a secret message to the relieving force, advising them of the best line of advance. Thomas Kavanaugh, a civilian with 14 children, made his way through the lines of the mutineers to deliver this message, an act which earned him the first Victoria Cross ever awarded to a civilian. The "anecdote" is the message he carried. In lieu of a cypher it was written in a mixture of English and French, but the Greek alphabet is used to spell out most of the words. Hastings provides no translation, assuming that none of his readers will need one.
The selections are all short; fewer are longer than three pages and some but a few lines. This is the sort of book that can be picked up at intervals and put down without loss of context -- except that there is a hearty peanut factor; once tasted, it is hard to put down; the temptation is strong to read just one more. Max Hastings, himself a former paratrooper and now a journalist and historian, has done a superb job. Given today's book prices, these 514 pages constitute the book bargain of the year.