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Another view of the Great War
on 25 November 2007
Nearly a century after it started, the First World War continues to provoke major debates among historians. One major and rather popular contention has been that it was a futile war, fought by incompetent generals, who were happy to cover their shortcomings and sheer lack of imagination by feeding more and more men into the hellish mincing machine of the Western Front. In the classic description of the British Army by German General Hoffmann, the British Army were "lions led by donkeys". This was typified by "The Donkeys" of Alan Clark.
However, a cursory reading of WW1 histories reveals that, while there was indeed incompetence and lack of imagination in plenty (on both sides), things were never this simple. A long time ago, John Terraine pointed out that WW1 was unique in that, for the only time in history (a) armies were so big that a commander could not see the whole battlefield, and (b) there was no way of effective communication with the army. Thus, once an attack was set in motion, there was no way to control it, or even to stop it if it went wrong. More recently, Niall Ferguson has pointed out that, contrary to popular myth, many soldiers had a "good" war, and even enjoyed the experience.
Both sides were operating in completely unknown territory; they had envisioned a war of movement, with the outflanking movements beloved of generals since before Alexander (just look at the Schlieffen Plan), and both were taken by surprise when they found themselves stuck in a version of siege warfare in which outflanking was impossible, apart from attacking somewhere else entirely (e.g. Gallipoli). So, when your enemy digs in and goes completely on the defensive and his flank can't be turned, your options are limited. The British Army in particular, a tiny regular force (Bismarck famously said that, if it ever invaded Germany, he'd have the Berlin Police arrest it), had to adapt to a situation that it could never have imagined and for which it was not at all prepared. And it had to expand enormously to do it.
Gordon Corrigan's point of view can be summarised in the following sentences from his closing chapter:
"In this book I have tried to show that the Great War of 1914 to 1918 was a just war, which Britain was right to join...The New Army's first encounter with all-out war on the Somme was inevitably shocking. The Army learned, and improved continuously as time went on... Haig and the general may not have been the best team that the British Army has ever produced, but they were pretty good and did their best with what they had in a war whose like had never been contemplated."
This provocatively-titled book thus seeks to present the case for the defence of the war (so to speak), that it was necessary to fight it and that, given the circumstances, the British High Command made as good a fist of it as could be expected. Much of this ground has been covered before, but Mr. Corrigan brings it all together in a rather well and clearly presented summary. Moreover, he says that Hoffmann's "lions led by donkeys" was never uttered by Hoffmann at all, but invented by a British journalist!
So, how does he do? In my estimation, quite well. Of course, Corrigan, a former soldier, sees the war through soldier's eyes and one wonders whether he perhaps feels the need to stick up for the soldiers (he is scathing about the interfering politicians, especially Lloyd George). So, one can't help wondering whether there are things that he doesn't mention. For example, initially he attacks the myths very aggressively. However, when it comes to the Somme, the first day of which was described by someone as "the greatest British military disaster since the Battle of Hastings", the tone changes and is more careful, almost as if he feels the need to build his case very carefully. And at this point, one wonders whether he is telling everything. Although he dismisses the 60lb packs allegedly carried at the Somme as a myth, he is silent as to the "slow walk", in orderly ranks, across the battlefield, in a manner that would have been fine at Waterloo, where there didn't happen to be machine guns.
One myth that it is good to see despatched is the contribution of the USA. Popularly dismissed as too little, too late to have any real effect, Corrigan shows that the doughboys made an enormous contribution to victory. The Allies may have won the war without the entry of the USA, but it would have taken a lot longer and cost even more lives. The Americans had to learn some hard lessons very quickly, but they benefitted from the experience of the Allies and very quickly became a highly effective fighting force and an essential part of the hammer blows which made even Ludendorff (mistakenly rendered as "von Ludendorff") realise that the game was up. The US contribution to the Great War is largely forgotten, even in the USA (at the time of writing, I believe that there is only one old doughboy left), and it's good to see it remembered.
So, all in all, apart from minor shortcomings, this short volume adds an interesting perspective to a war that is now just on the fringes of living memory, and, whether you agree with it or not (and I confess to reservations, which may just be my ignorance talking) is well worth reading.