But what about the next major conflict? Could that same phrase be applied to the British Army’s leadership during the Second World War? Well, I suspect the sentiment of the phrase, if not the phrase itself, was expressed by a very large number of Tommies who returned from that War. And I’m pretty sure my Uncle George felt that way. After all, it was as a result of a squabble between some donkeys – sorry, generals – leading the Eighth Army that he and many others of the 5th Battalion of The Buffs were taken prisoner by the Germans near the Adriatic port of Termoli.
That was in October 1943. What followed for twenty-seven year-old Corporal George Thompson were eighteen brutal months of captivity, during which time he did express his contempt for his leaders. I know that for sure because George kept a diary throughout the whole of his incarceration. And he carried that small, dog-eared notebook with him when he emerged from the notorious Stalag IVB after its liberation by the Red Army in April 1945.
Now, George was a mild-mannered, cheerful young man, a typical bluff Yorkshireman, who complained little and bore his discomforts stoically. All the horrors that befell him and others around him were noted in his diary in a matter-of-fact style, the real terror of their situation so very much understated. In his first diary entry on the day after his capture, for example, he simply wrote: “Yesterday was a very bad day for myself and the boys.”
So when George wrote little more than a month later “Senior ranks of British Army lower than snakes”, you know that he wasn’t just annoyed by the behaviour of the British officers interned in the same camp; he was utterly incensed. (It was George who underlined that word Senior, by the way, the only word he underlined among hundreds of diary entries.)
If you read the book, you’ll learn a lot more about Uncle George’s courage. You’ll recognise a true lion. And you’ll perhaps agree with me that it was a pity he was forced to spend the worst eighteen months of his life in touching distance of the arrogant, cheating, well-fed donkeys who were meant to protect him.