on 17 September 2014
Gary Sheffield is one of the more widely known of the so-called Revisionist historians, who seek to give an informed view of the Great War through an understanding of primary sources of evidence from the period, rather than the fallacious views which found their way into the popular perception of the War in the early-1960’s and which largely persist to this day. Forgotten Victory is one of the cornerstones of that school of thought. However, unlike so many works by academic historians this is no dry and dusty academic volume, written for an audience of a few dozens, at most, of his peers. It is a book for the interested amateur and the layman as well.
In a set of thematic chapters Sheffield first lays bare the skeleton of the public myth and then sets about methodically dismantling it, piece by piece, by showing the fault-lines that lie beneath it. One of the keys to its success was demonstrating sourcing to an academic standard and putting its evidence-base beyond reproach, whilst being written in a language accessible to many. When originally published it sold well and was generally well-reviewed and received. But, as will always be the case when someone contradicts deeply-held ideas, it caused some controversy from people unwilling to have lifelong concepts of a ‘futile’ war challenged so directly.
It was not an entirely original work, as the author acknowledges, being a synthesis of the best material available from the then-current thinking of others, all of which he acknowledges, with the addition of a measure of his own original research. It covers national and international politics, the nature of coalition warfare, the changing face of the conflict and the realisation of new tactics and weaponry with which to fight it, allied to new operational concepts and logistical capabilities to sustain the fighting. It leads on to the development of the British Army over the four years of the war and the series of major battles that it fought, culminating in late-1918 with the ‘Hundred Days’, or ‘Advance to Victory’ which is still the greatest series of battles fought by the British Army, leading to the 'forgotten victory' of the title. To a large degree the book has withstood the test of time, although Sheffield has included an additional final chapter in this new version in which he looks back at the original, notes that he might now have done it slightly differently and acknowledges the significant new works which have recently been published in the field. It bears comparison with Dan Todman's later 'Great War: Myth and Memory' and Gordon Corrigan's rather more acerbic 'Mud, Blood and Poppycock' in not pulling its punches when addressing its themes and in demonstrating just why the prevailing public understanding is deeply flawed.
In 2001 when Forgotten Victory was first published it did not revolutionise the public conception of the War, nor has that happened 13 years later. It was certainly, however, a key formative part of a wave of new research and new thinking which is gradually having the effect of producing a more balanced and informed view of the War. As an example: new books castigating Sir Douglas Haig as a 'Butcher', as written by Gerald de Groot and Dennis Winter for example, are almost unthinkable now, with the recent books by Walter Reid, Gary Mead, J.P. Harris and Sheffield himself taking a far more nuanced, subtle and accurate view. Senior academics are writing books for a mass-market which still manage to meet rigourous standards, one thinks of William Philpott's 'Bloody Victory', of T. G. Otte's recent excellent 'July Crisis', and of the works of Dennis Showalter, Richard DiNardo and Timothy Dowling examining Operations on the Eastern Front, so often overlooked in the West. None of these depended directly on the publication of Forgotten Victory, but the approach they take to informing a general readership, whilst maintaining high standards of accuracy is all of one piece.
Having been out of print for a while 'Forgotten Victory' is now available again. For anyone seeking an accurate understanding of the kind of war fought by Britain and the British Army, to understand the major battles that it fought and why the war transpired the way that it did, this book cannot be praised highly enough. It should be staple reading for anyone who aspires to comprehend that awful conflict, for even a victorious war is a dreadful thing. Well and worthily recommended.
Firstly, a word about what this book isn't - it is not intended to be narrative, year by year account of WW1. Many such books already exist, I found Huw Strachan's very good.
What this book does offer is a reappraisal of WW1, comparing the realities of the Great War with the tired stereotypes and myths that are served up regularly (and unquestioningly) in WW1 films, books and documentaries. Dr Sheffied does not flinch from asking the hard questions, and some readers will be shocked, or possibly angered, by some of his findings. But you don't have to agree with every word of it to find this an outstanding contribution to war history.
Apart from being an outstanding historian, the author is also an excellent writer who retains the reader's attention with stylist prose and wit. Unlike some other "revisionist" authors, he also writes with great compassion for those caught up in the war and resists the trap of rubbishing anyone who has written anything contrary to his thesis, except in cases where it is truly deserved (Alan Clark's dreadful "The Donkeys" being a case in point.)
In short, I wholly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in the Great War.
on 4 October 2002
The First World War had such vast and tragic implications that as Samuel Hynes has said, its reality has been almost impossible for subsequent generations to grasp and has been replaced by myth. First this was a myth of hallowed victory, achieved by a noble army of martyrs, as evoked in the sombre verses of Sir John Arkwright's 'O Valiant Hearts.' Then, after a few years' interval, this was supplanted by an ever more popular myth, still dominant today, of fatuous leadership, semi-mutinous troops, and repetitive, futile, suicidal attacks. This myth drew its emotional force from works like the haunting poetry of Wilfred Owen.
Gary Sheffield's book tells how battles were fought, how decisions were made and how the nature of the war, so apparently unchanging, gradually altered. It gets away from myths and confronts reality, including all that was dreadful and badly managed; but in doing so it also demonstrates that the British High Command could and did learn by its mistakes and develop new tactics, and that the British troops , despite the fearful battering they took, preserved their unit morale. By the summer of 1918, the British Expeditionary Force had become a highly-trained, professional organisation of immense strength - no 'Joe Soap's Army'. The victories it gained during the 'hundred days', when it pushed back the still redoubtable German army, rank as the greatest by a British force in their country's history.
There is still a popular tendency today, outside historical circles, to mistrust revisionism of this kind as 'pro-war' and to prefer, as being supposedly more humane, depictions of the conflict based on the 'futile war' myth, such as Alan Bleasdale's 'Monocled Mutineer' and Joan Littlewood's 'O What a Lovely War'. On his part, for all his refusal to accept their over-simplifications, and his credentials as a military expert, Gary Sheffield is not one to deny credit where it is due: provided it is taken with a massive pinch of historical salt, classic entertainment of the Bleasdale-Littlewood variety can be enjoyed for the first-rate drama that it is, both satirical and tragic. For me, Gary Sheffield's book, which is, incidentally, a very good read, supplies that pinch of hard reality, and should also be required at all schools and universities where the First World War - an enduringly popular topic - is studied.
on 7 October 2003
So often thought of in the ideal of poets such as Owen and Sassoon, Gary Sheffield argues that this was hardly the typical view of the British soldier in the Great War. The old line of the British Army being an archaic institution of incompetant officers and disillusioned soldiers is refuted as a myth of post-war pacifist literature. In reality, the BEF experienced the greatest learning curve of all the armies in the war, and profited most from the hotbed of technological innovations and ideas (the tank, air reconaissance and the "creeping barrage"). The evetual reality of this great learning curve was the most impressive and coherant victory in the histoy of the British Army.
As well as the course of the war, Sheffield also seeks to re-examine the causes, with much emphasis placed on the post-Bismarck attitude of Wilhelmine Germany.
Whilst the author does not seek to deny the mistakes that were made, and the tragedies the befell the frontline soldiers, he argues that the "lions led by donkeys" mentality is one that has obscured our perceptions of the Great War even to this day.
The subject of possibly the most controversy, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, is also reappraised in a single chapter depicting the relationship between Haig and the men under his command, which by 1918, could be described as very coherant. Sheffield does not attempt to lionise Haig, but his excellent revision allows for a far more objective look into a very complex character.
An essential read for all who express an interest in the British Army, and the Great War.
on 26 December 2002
Not another book about the First World War. After all, we all know everything about that conflict. Brave working class lads shivered and suffered in muddy trenches, sacrificed in futile "over the top" attacks urged on by toffish officers, themselves under orders from a callous and bungling general staff safely esconsced in villas far from the front line, the whole directed by uncaring politicians (whether imperialistic British or strutting Prussian aristocrats) lustful for power and glory. In short, a total and utter waste of which nothing good can be said.
Well...not nearly correct according to this ambitious but stunningly sucessful revisionist account of the First World War, written by one of the able group of younger military and political historians who are beginning to look through the fog obscuring the realities of the First World War. Gary Sheffield argues that our perception of the First World War is distorted; firstly - by an (entirely understandable) emotional reaction to the massive casualty figures involving so many young men, secondly - by the subsequent portrayal in the arts and literature by the war poets, O What A Lovely War, Blackadder and many others. Sheffield argues that, for all their literary merit, the war poets (mostly officers, all very atypical soldiers) are about as relevant to what really happened as Shakespeare's plays are to English history.
Looking beyond these popular perceptions, Gary Sheffield demolishes the myths of 80 years, with devastating logic and well chosen illustrative examples. German militarism had been rising since the reunification of Germany, by the 1900s it had reached a dangerous pitch and in the hands of the frankly unbalanced Kaiser and his military clique posed a severe danger, not only to Britain and France but the stability of the world. If Britain had not gone to war in 1914 (and under treaty we were obliged to defend our allies France and Belgium), it would have happened later, perhaps when we were less prepared. The German attack on France and Belgium was a purely aggressive bid for European domination and had to be resisted. The German Army's behavior in Belgium was as atrocious (but on a smaller scale) as that in the Second World War.
Britain started war in 1914 as ill-prepared for the fury of modern industrialised warfare as all the other involved armies were, but by 1917/8 had climbed a steep learning curve, involving new technology (especially tanks and aircraft), new strategies, new training, better use of men and materials. Far from being hide-bound stuffed uniforms, British officers and generals took on the new complexities and challenges of war and gained stunning victories in the last year of the war, as complete and well accomplished as the British Army has ever achieved before or since. For example, nearly a year to the day after the tragedy of the first day of the Somme, a new approach (with exploding mines, night attack and an artillery "creeping barrage") enabled the New Zealanders to take Messines Ridge successfully with minimal casualties.
Even Field Marshal Douglas Haig is rehabilitated as a capable and determined warrior, far from the butcher and bungler he has been portrayed as (although in an aside Sheffield does admit to Haig's somewhat unusual personality, and remarks that "he might not be an ideal dinner guest").
In a postscript, Sheffield debunks the belief that the harsh conditions set down at Versailles "caused" the rise of Nazism and the Second World War.
While nowhere glorifying the war nor excusing the frequent incompetance and poor generalship, and fully acknowledging the massive tragedy of the First World War, Gary Sheffield makes a compelling case that the conflict was far from futile. The First World War needs to be rescued from simplistic perceptions fed by the media, and needs to regain its rightful place in history as a victory that Britain and its allies can be proud of.
This is the best book I have read on the First World War for years - Sheffield writes well and clearly and this is essential reading for anyone with any interest in the First World War.
on 29 August 2014
Gary Sheffield is my favourite author on the Great War and this is an excellent book that goes a long way to dispelling many of the myths that have sadly become standard amongst many, about a War that was ultimately won by the British and Empire Armies on the Western Front.
Prof Sheffield argues vigorously that this war was ultimately won by the British and Empire Armies on the Western Front in a series of battles that are arguably the biggest victories in the history of the British Army. He argues that this great victory is overshadowed by popular belief in the wholesale slaughter in the trenches and arrogant,aloof Generals and shows such as Blackadder which promote such views.
Whilst uncomfortable to many, Prof Sheffield argues that the British Army was on a steep learning curve from the small, regular colonial army it was in 1914 to the mass citizen army that it eventually became and carefully explains the evolution In tactics, equipment and training through the first battles in 1914, to the Somme, the cataclysmic battles of 1917 and to the eventual culmination of three years of hard warfare and the Battle of Amiens which started off the 100 days offensives and the British Army's ultimate victory in the West.
Please read this book in the Centenary of the War which touched every family in this country. It really is essential reading and may make you think again about the most misunderstood conflict in British History.
on 2 December 2001
This is an excellent book as we would expect from the Professor of the history of land warfare at the Joint Services Staff College. It strips away the handwringing myths of the 'Oh What a Lovely War' and 'Blackadder' schools of popular history and looks dispassionately at "Britain's Forgotten Victory". We forget that the " four armies " of 1914 -18, the Regulars, the TA, the Kitchener Volunteers and the Conscripts finally came together after four years of a new kind of warfare [for which no army in the world was prepared in 1914] and drove the Germans back for a hundred days without stopping. This book is long overdue and a powerful corrective to the "socially aware" kind of liberal history that has been allowed to dominate the agenda for far too long. An important addition to any serious bookshelf.
on 9 October 2014
Really outstanding history book - clear, concise and accurate account of World War I which is a must-read for anyone. Sheffield's extensive knowledge and insight shine through. It's simple enough for the layman while covering a complex topic. Highly recommend this for anyone looking to brush up/expand their WWI knowledge. I borrowed this on Kindle Unlimited but would happily buy it for future reference.
on 10 June 2015
This is a good book that I would recommend but, to get the negatives out of the way, the e-copy that I bought is full of generally minor but irritating typos and errors - missing words, inserted words, sometimes whole phrases apparently missing. This is not entirely the author's fault, everyone is allowed to make mistakes and it is the publisher's job to have it proof-read, which they clearly haven't. In case anyone thinks I am being pedantic there is one sentence (perhaps more) which because of one missing word says precisely the opposite of what the author apparently intended to say. This is just sloppy and unworthy of the subject.
However, this fairly brief work is generally well written and more persuasive than other revisionist histories of the First World War that I have read; it is clearly argued and backed up with sound research. There are places where I wished the author had gone a little further. For instance, he is dismissive of the early 1918 raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend but he does not explore why they weren't more successful and he doesn't ask what might have happened if they had succeeded - would that have encouraged more attempts and might success have bred more success? This lack of probing reflects the emphasis of the book on the Western Front at the expense of other theatres; the author is explicit about this and it is perfectly reasonable, but the book's title could have been more carefully worded.
In his closing 'Afterthoughts in 1914' the author reflects that there may be a case for a new edition of the book. I think there is but if (when) it happens the publishers really must have it proof-read properly - please.
on 25 February 2012
This is a series of essays on controversies surrounding the First World War. It is well written and balanced and gives plenty of food for thought.
I thought the essays on the origins of the War and the aftermath show great historical perspective. It is shown that Britain did not have much alternative but to go in. Sheffield is also good on the American perspective and appreciates Wilson's contribution. The author is also good at demolishing some myths that have developed from the war being viewed through literary eyes.
It is more difficult to justify the British generals but with some reservations he finds that they got there in the end. The Somme with some reservations was in the end a victory for British troops albeit at a price.
The big point that is made well is that the BEF faced the full might of the German army in March 1918and though they buckled they did not break. They then counterattacked and defeated the German army. This could not be done if the army had been badly led. The courage of the ordinary soldier would not have been enough. Compare the fate of the Russian army in the same war.
The books helps demonstrate how these successes came about. One conclusion is that you cannot have war without casualty
The book is not a chronicle of events, one needs say Keegan's book for that.