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Review of “Catholic General”

Catholic General: the private wartime correspondence of Mahor-General Sir Cecil Edward Pereira, 1914-19
Edited by Edward Pereira, Spencer Jones and Michael LoCicero
Forward by Professor John Bourne
Published by Helion & Company in 2020
Paperback ISBN 978 1 912866 14 4
429 pages plus appendix, bibliography and index
Reviewed by Chris Baker
With thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.

I rather enjoyed this book. It is based on edited highlights of a collection of more than 2,300 letters written by Cecil Pereira to his wife Helen during the Great War, along with many that she wrote in return and occasional correspondence from others. Obviously they were not written with publication in mind and are candid in their expressions of their moods and feelings, family matters, the progress of the war and much more besides. The selection and editing of the correspeondence, a process begun by the couple in post-war years, is nicely carried out by their grandson Edward and Spencer Jones and Michal LoCicero (who will be familiar to many visitors to the Long, Long Trail from their associations with Wolverhampton University and Helion & Company respectively).

I raised an eyebrow at the title when the book first arrived, but found that while Pereira’s deep faith runs as a theme throughout the correspondence it by no means overwhelms it. I learned something from his liking for the work of Clare Ferchaud, a French visionary and mystic, for I had never heard of this before and to discover that a British divisional commander took with him a gift Union flag emblazoned with the sacred heart and quite often referred to it in his letters was, to me, a surprise.

Pereira was already well into his 40s when the Great War began; a career soldier comissioned into the Coldstream Guards in 1890 who had seen service in Africa and in the Second Boer War. He served in France and Flanders with barely a break until after the Armistice, when he was not given the honour of remaining in command of a division in the Army of Occupation in Germany. Initially in command of his regiment’s 2nd Battalion, he moved on to lead 85th and 1st Guards Brigades before being given command of the 2nd Division in December 1916.

The letters paint a picture of a fair and balanced man who could be exacting his approach to training, insistence on cleanliness and a unit’s “internal economy” and who appears to have taken seriously the well-being of his men. He seems to have been well-liked by superiors, peers and those junior to him, although the ordinary soldier’s view does not, of course, tend to come in the form of letters written to his CO. Pereira falls foul of his corps commander (Haldane) towards the end of the war, apparently for a certain lack of drive and “thrust” as the final offensive pushed forward. Pereira remained optimistic throughout – sometimes, to me, puzzlingly so – partly at least from his faith that God was with him. He kept himself physicaly fit and suffered no serious illness, seems to have been very rarely stressed, and rarely expressed any serious complaint. It is of course hard to know the extent to which he was shielding his wife and family from realities. For the purposes of this review I shall not going into his wife’s return correspondence but suffice to say it is equalling rich and insightful.

I noted a number of minor typographical errors throughout the book.

Not everyone’s bedtime reading perhaps, but for anyone interested in the role of commanders at differing levels of the army’s hierarchy and for any devotees of the units and formations concerned, definitely worth your while.

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