Duncan Hallas

Running a temperature

(February 1994)

Book review, Socialist Review, No.172, February 1994, pp30-1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Sharp End: the fighting man in World War Two
John Ellis
Pimlico £12

John Ellis’s earlier book, The Social History of the Machine Gun, has a sharp focus, showing the contradictions between technological change and the conservatism of the military establishment of the great powers. This resulted in the wholesale and useless slaughter (from a strictly military/imperialist viewpoint) of Verdun, the Somme and the Bussilov offensive – all in 1916.

That book is interesting and useful because it roots this conservatism in social causes. Trotsky once wrote, ‘An army is part of society and suffers from all its diseases; usually at a higher temperature.’ The military establishments of 1914-18 recruited themselves from the most backward looking and reactionary elements of the ruling class. Hence their obsession with (militarily useless) cavalry.

But Ellis’s present work has a much more dubious thesis. Starting from the indisputable proposition that the overall casualties of the British army and, to a lesser extent the American one, were much lower in proportion to the total mobilised, it concludes that ‘the sharp end’ suffered casualties as great or greater than those of 1914-18. However the total casualties were much lower than those of the previous mass slaughter.

His explanation, which is valid so far as it goes, is that the mechanised armies of Britain and the US required enormous ‘tails’ of transport, supply, maintenance and repair – soldiers rarely, if ever, actually saw their opponents. He fails to note that before 1943-44 they were rarely engaged in major operations.

Ellis quotes an American survey of 1945 showing that a substantial majority of US soldiers never fired a shot in anger, and no doubt a British survey would have produced a similar result.

It is a very Anglo-American view. If Ellis had chosen to examine German, Russian, Chinese and Japanese casualty figures his thesis would have been unsustainable. At the battle of Kursk in 1943 (commonly labelled ‘the greatest tank battle in history’) the casualties on both sides approximated to the norm of 1914-18. And this was a highly ‘mechanised’ encounter.

Moreover, Ellis ignores the civilian casualties – British (substantial), German (enormous), Russian (catastrophic), Chinese (worse than that) and Japanese (remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

In short, it won’t do. Most important, this book is very weak on the social and political side. He quotes various generals (all British or American) without reflecting that, at least since the 18th century, casualties (his essential subject) have been very low at this level in every army.

Not that our author entirely ignores the class basis of military operations. Anyone who has ever been in an army knows very well the gulf between officers and what are called ‘other ranks’. It is even recognised in so called ‘international law’ – the Geneva Convention. Officer prisoners of war are segregated from their corresponding lower orders and cannot be made to work for their keep. Other ranks can be and usually have been – often under lousy conditions.

Again officers eat, socialise and sleep separately from the common herd. This reviewer has no up to date information about pay scales, but during the Second World War and for at least two years after the private soldier (overwhelmingly conscript) received three shillings a day (15p). The bottom ranks of the officer corps received 21 shillings a day.

So how do you get to the privileged position of officer? John Ellis is comparatively candid about this: Education seems to have been the prime determinant of whether a man was deemed suitable officer material, though this has obvious class implications in both Britain and the USA in that it was only the better off who had been able to afford to attend grammar or public schools, colleges or universities. A Commons reply after the war revealed that three samples of 5,000 OCTU (officer cadet training units) consisted of 25 percent public school boys with almost all the others from grant aided grammar schools.

There is some interesting material in the book, not least the data on disease, which caused far more casualties in the British and US armies than enemy action. But as an account of the life of the common soldier in the Second World War, it cannot be recommended.


Last updated on 27.12.2003