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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking if a bit suspect in detail
I read this interesting and thought-provoking book when it was first published, and revisited it last weekend when I needed to look up some data. It's spoiled a bit for me by his chapter on tactics and the body count, where a lot of his writing strikes me as suspect in detail.

He lists as "Excuses" for high Allied casualties the fact that the Germans were...
Published on 11 July 2011 by MR. PAUL J. BARTON

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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting evaluation but not his best work
The Pity of War seems like a good idea, re-evaluating the First World War and challenging the pre-conceived ideas. However, it is let down by a problematic structure which doesn't make it very readable and the fact that his arguments do not seem fully developed and all seem to point towards an already decided conclusion.
Published on 9 May 2007 by HBH


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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking if a bit suspect in detail, 11 July 2011
This review is from: The Pity of War (Paperback)
I read this interesting and thought-provoking book when it was first published, and revisited it last weekend when I needed to look up some data. It's spoiled a bit for me by his chapter on tactics and the body count, where a lot of his writing strikes me as suspect in detail.

He lists as "Excuses" for high Allied casualties the fact that the Germans were mostly defending, difficulties in communications as armies had grown too large to control in the absence of radios, and the "learning curve" as the Allies figured out tactics that would work (less obvious at the time than they seem with hindsight) and built the weight of artillery needed. All of these are true and amongst the reasons why the First World War turned out the way it did, as was the sheer fact of three large Armies crammed in near-stalemate conditions onto the narrow Western Front, with no obvious alternative strategy available. So why label these explanations "excuses", or write "here the excuses must stop"? Were the Germans somewhat better, on a tactical and operational level, at waging war than the Allies? Well yes I guess they probably were, but they threw it all away by strategic idiocy, eg. picking a fight with every other major power at once.

He quotes Norman Stone (another academic who can sometimes be too clever for his own good) as saying German manpower was "inexhaustible" because each year the number of fresh eighteen-year old lads exceeded total German dead. This is flatly contradicted by Holger Herwig ("Germany and Austria-Hungary at War") who states that Germany was running out of manpower by the time she called up the Class of 1900, even before desertion became rampant. Presumably Ferguson's error is that he has forgotten that other men were wounded or discharged and so the German Army's annual need for trained soldiers exceeded the numbers of fresh eighteen year olds (To be fair, other armies experienced similar problems - the French Army in particular was about 20% smaller in 1918 than it had been in 1917).

Considering that the British High Command were inundated with cranky ideas for how to win the war, it is rather to their credit that they persisted with the idea of tanks (which in 1916 were almost useless and as late as 1918 had an operational life of a day or two), and by 1918 the British and French were making far better use of the primitive tanks (and aircraft) of the time. It is beyond me why Ferguson should feel the need to include a snarky page about how long it supposedly took them, and how they lacked a "doctrine" for using them. As for the Tim Travers stuff about how the doctrine of the British Army supposedly stood in the way of innovation, there has never struck me as being much truth in any of this. All sorts of innovations were tried - mortars, mines, gas, tanks, Lewis guns, sound-ranging of artillery etc etc. Doubtless many other things were tried which are now forgotten as they didn't work. Ferguson cites Rawlinson not overruling Haig about the decision to try for a complete breakthrough on 1 July 1916 (which meant bombarding deeper into the German defences). Well, it wasn't as obvious at the time (it was thought that previous offensives had failed because the attempted breakthrough was too narrow) and armies don't work that way - Rawlinson put his point forcefully, there was a full exchange of views, and then Haig gave the orders.

I think the best that can be said is that to some extent all this reflects when the book was written (late 1990s) when the "Lions led by Donkeys" mythology was at its very height amidst journalists and the public, even though it had long since been abandoned by serious students of the war, and Ferguson felt the need to strike a balance between John Terraine and John Laffin, whilst making a nod to the then-fashionable theories of Tim Travers in the manner of a smart grad student. Perhaps if he were writing now the tone would be a bit different.

As for the argument that Britain should have stood aside and allowed Germany to dominate the continent, he claims that Germany's aggressive war aims would never have been formulated, as the war would have ended quickly. I'm not so sure. In 1870-1, the swift defeat of Napoleon III was followed by the long siege of Paris (and a couple of failed relief attempts), not to mention the francs tireurs (partisans) who so inflamed the Germans that in 1914 they were quick to shoot civilians to avoid a repetition. Surely the same would have happened in 1914 if the Germans had won the Battle of the Marne - the war would have dragged on for a few more months in the west, possibly a few years in the case of Russia, and Germany would still have imposed a harsh peace on those powers.

So, a thought-provoking read, and I agree with much of what he says (eg. that blockade in itself did not defeat the Germans) but I do wonder whether some of his other conclusions are as suspect in detail as the ones regarding my own area of specialism.
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67 of 70 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Controversial, tough going - but worthwhile, 24 Jan 2006
By 
Teemacs (Switzerland) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Pity of War (Paperback)
The First World War period has always fascinated me, because it changed everything, from the political geography of Europe to women’s fashions and (until recently) British licensing hours. Four empires perished (German, Austrian, Russian, Turkish) and another (British) was mortally wounded. It gave the world the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and an even worse war, and it marked the entrance of the USA on to the world stage. And it impacted the lives of ordinary people the world over; my grandmother’s two brothers (36th (Ulster) Division) and the two brothers of my wife’s grandmother (Australian Infantry Force) lie in France.
Did it have to be this way? Professor Ferguson regards it as essentially history’s biggest traffic accident. It was a war nobody wanted, but not only did it come but it also stayed for four years, in spite of the horrific cost in men and money. This is not a conventional battle-by-battle history; Ferguson takes an entirely different tack – he poses (and seeks to answer) ten questions:
1. Was war inevitable?
2. Why did Germany’s leaders gamble on war in 1914?
3. Why did Britain get involved in a Continental war?
4. Was the war really greeted with popular enthusiasm?
5. Did propaganda and the press keep the war going?
6. Why did the huge economic superiority of the British Empire not inflict defeat on the Central Powers more quickly, and without US assistance?
7. Why did the military superiority of the German army fail to deliver victory over the French and the British on the Western Front?
8. Why did men keep fighting in the appalling conditions?
9. Why did men stop fighting?
10. Who won the peace?
The answers he comes up with are occasionally surprising. Small wonder the book has had mixed reviews in academic historical circles. But of course there can never be “right” and “wrong” answers to such questions, only opinions. But, to this particular layman, Prof. Ferguson makes his cases very well. Many of the conclusions, insights and points of view are fascinating, and Ferguson, as always, writes with wit, clarity and style (this is my problem, I’m a sucker for nice writing).
However, I did find much of the book heavy going – my knowledge of the workings of international finance is close to zero, and the book has big slabs of this as Ferguson discusses the financial world prior to 1914 and then the whole business of how to finance a major war for which you hadn’t prepared. For me, one of the most dismal facts was how much it costs to take another human life in wartime. The Central Powers were far more efficient at killing than were the Allies – it cost the Central Powers $11,345 to kill an Allied soldier, whereas it cost the Allies $36,485 to kill a German soldier (I don’t even want to think about how much it now costs the US military to kill an Iraqi - the waste in both human and financial terms is appalling). Another dismal fact is that, far from the legend that has come down, how many people ENJOYED the war and indeed got a kick out of killing other human beings.
Ferguson also looks at the great “what ifs”. The British entry into the war (and it’s clear that the UK government by no means felt obliged to uphold its treaty obligations to Belgium) made a continental war into a world war. If it hadn’t, the result might have been the European Union 80 years early. And Lenin might have remained writing Bolshevik polemics in the bourgeois Zürich he hated and Hitler might have ended his days selling mediocre water colours in Vienna. It’s an attractive thought, but is it realistic? We’ll never know, which is perhaps just as well.
All in all, a long but interesting and thought-provoking book, and well worth reading.
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49 of 52 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not for the beginner, 2 Sep 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: The Pity of War (Paperback)
This is not a narrative - it is for those who have already read widely about the Great War, and want to have their existing ideas challenged. Nor is it a blood-and-guts book, despite the very personal introduction about the author's grandfather and his war service.
But I feel D.A. O'Neil's review rather mistakes the purpose of the book, and is less than fair to it. It is, indeed, "dry" stuff compared with Barbara Tuchman or Lyn MacDonald, but if your object is to *understand* what happened, and how something else might easily have happened instead, this book is well woth buying and reading in full, though not necessarily at one sitting.
The author is primarily an *economic* historian, and is not setting out to answer questions about what happened and why at a battlefield level. He has a better understanding than many of his kind of the fact that wars are not determined exclusively by social and economic factors, but by who "gets there fustest with the mostest" and how they fight when they get there; but he is more interested in the external factors that influence these things - in particular the "sinews of war", the material resources that enable states to raise, train, equip, feed and pay troops, which are often forgotten.
Ferguson demonstrates at least two very surprising things about the War: that the Allies were much richer in resources than the Central Powers, but failed to make that advantage tell on the battlefield for almost four years; and that the Germans were militarily much more effective, in terms of killing their enemies, but still lost. He does not give a quick or glib answer to these questions, but that is a strength, not a weakness.
He also concentrates on a forgotten class of casualty, namely those captured by the other side, and makes a very good case for saying that the war was ultimately won not by killing the enemy but when they (whether Russians or Germans) were prepared to surrender in really large numbers. There is a fascinating discussion of the mechanics and risks of surrendering.
Read Tuchman, Macdonald, Terraine and Keegan, and (particularly if you really are a beginner) Martin Middlebrook's "The First Day on the Somme". But then read this book too, to make you think harder about what you already knew. The author's ultimate conclusion is that the pity of the War was that it was not just a tragedy, but also an error. This has contemporary relevance, as we try to understand whether the invasion of Iraq was right, wrong or a mistake.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Controversial and interesting., 6 Jun 2013
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This review is from: The Pity of War (Paperback)
This was recommended (with a disclaimer that it was highly controversial) by my tour guide for the French World War One battlefields. The man was quirky himself, to say the least, so I wanted to check this book out. It didn't disappoint. Ferguson, with varying effectiveness in my view, takes apart virtually everything 'everybody knows about WW1'. Some of it is highly beleiveable, some of it is dubious, all of it is interesting. Only disclaimer I would add is don't just read this, or your view of the war will be - well, oddly slanted, to put it one way. Nevertheless, thoroughly recommended.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A provocative revisionist history, 20 Mar 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: The Pity of War (Hardcover)
This is an extremely interesting and thought-provoking book, written by a young and industrious historian who seems to be striving for A.J.P. Taylor-hood. Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War is basically a Euro-skeptical history of Britain's part in the First World War. He argues that there was no reason for Britain to get involved in the war in 1914; that Britain's intervention turned what might have been a brief and victorious war for the Germans into a European catastrophe; that this catastrophe caused the "short twentieth century," from the outbreak of war to the fall of communism; that the short twentieth century was a bloody detour through war and totalitarianism, ending in the result that the Germans were aiming at in 1914, viz. German hegemony in a united Europe; and that by trying to stop Germany Britain only ruined itself and caused the death of millions, directly and indirectly. In a nutshell, since things turned out the same in the end, only worse, it was a pity that Britain intervened in the war.
Obviously, this is a book that could not have been written ten years ago, before the collapse of communism pressed an historical reset button. One of things that makes Ferguson's book so interesting is the way post-communist events seem to have influenced his view of the past. One sees the United States' victory in the Cold War arms race behind his argument that Germany should have spent more on arms before 1914. One also sees the herds of Iraqis surrendering to the Coalition forces in the Gulf War behind his discussion of the importance of surrendering and prisoner-taking. As a result, Ferguson may have written the first twenty-first century history of the twentieth century's most important conflict.
I didn't agree with many of the things Ferguson says in his book, but I did find it consistently engrossing and challenging. It was a refreshing book that made me re-examine just about everything I have ever learned about the First World War, and I recommend it highly.
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23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A different angle on the subject, 4 Oct 2005
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This review is from: The Pity of War (Paperback)
Niall Ferguson's book on WWI is excellent. I have read books on WWI before, but they were often about the 'guts-and-glory' side of the event. This is a must read, although I agree it is not an easy one.

It is great that Ferguson takes another angle at the subject. Even though he is controversial he hits the mark on many of the questions he sets out to answer.

The chilling bit about this book to me is that the Triple Entente (France, Britain, Russia) had far more resources at their disposal but used them rather poorly. Whereas, the German Empire by itself (not counting the rather ineffective Austrians) were in a minority position resources-wise, yet managed to inflict far greater casualties on the Entente than should have been expected. The other chilling lesson I took home from the book is that the German Empire could have won the conflict. The German blunders of 1918, thank God, put an end to any such hopes. It is not a surprise that this notion is not terribly popular in Germany; the 'Dolchstoss-Legend' is a more convenient concept to believe in.

Not having ever been involved in war or even close to it, I found the chapter on casualties and the 'issue of surrender' a most fascinating read. I have never read it in such detail in any other book on WWI.

If you expected the usual 'guts-and-glory' book then this is the wrong book for you. Being an economic historian allows Ferguson to innocently tell the WWI story from a different angle. He perhaps takes a clinical view of the factors leading up to WWI and the issues arising during its execution. But this is as it should be.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Provocative contrary history of WW1, 25 Feb 2014
Niall Ferguson relishes an opportunity to revisit and revise accepted historical thought, and this book is no different. You might not agree with everything that he writes, but there is no doubt that his work is thought-provoking and makes the reader question what they think that they know. Ferguson's Pity of War looks at ten questions and myths about the First World War that he thinks are suspect. Broadly, they look at the causes of the war (was it inevitable? was it Germany's fault?) and the reasons why the Allies won (how far were economic and military factors at play?).

Ferguson's most controversial ideas are at the start and end - he begins by saying that the war was caused partly by the British leadership fudging their foreign policy, misleading the Germans who wanted a limited continental war. At the end of the book, he suggests that history would have been far better had Britain stayed out of the war, allowing Germany to win and create a proto-EU several decades before it actually happened. I'm certainly not convinced by this part of Ferguson's thesis, but I don't see that as a reason to mark down the book. I enjoyed reading and considering Ferguson's argument.

A great read on the First World War, although you would be advised to read it alongside other First World War historians - try Max Hastings or John Keegan as a contrast.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book, 3 April 2013
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This review is from: The Pity of War (Paperback)
Good book added to collection, will be enjoyed fully when needed, very useful and a great addition, will be added to my teaching library!
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking, 24 Sep 2006
By 
Mr. A. Burkhardt (Blackburn, Lancashire United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Pity of War (Paperback)
It isn't necessary to agree with all of Niall Ferguson's conclusions to admire this book. In it he challenges more or less every accepted point of view about World War 1 - that Germany was intrinsically 'militarist', that Britain was morally and materially obligated to enter the war in 1914, that a cynical cabal of bankers, media tycoons and politicians agitated for, and then benefited from, the war itself. Ferguson subjects all of these supposed 'truths' to rigorous analysis. His conclusions are not always convincing, and long chapters on economic history can become confusing, but this [extremely well-written] book will nevertheless make you reassess the First World War. You might even end up agreeing with him.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Possibly the one essential WW1 book, 27 July 2014
By 
Simon Barrett "Il penseroso" (london, england) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Pity of War (Kindle Edition)
Fascinating character, our Niall - never one to respect conventional pieties. Not another corpse-count and tour de trenches but a sober yet dazzling consideration of how we blundered down that fateful path. His grasp of the sources is more than impressive. In a telling vignette he tells us he was inspired to learn German after seeing Karl Kraus's seminal if rarely-performed The Last Days of Mankind at Edinburgh in 1983. We should all be lucky enough to have attended the Edinburgh Festival aged 19!
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The Pity of War
The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson (Paperback - 26 Mar 2009)
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