Customer Review

26 of 26 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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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 Nov 2011 21:25:29 GMT
Manzikert says:
Not having read this book, your review confirms many of my suspicions. If it took the allies a long time to deploy and use the tank effectively it was largely because the weapon was so new and technically unreliable it took at least two years (1916-18) before it could be deployed in sufficient numbers without them breaking down en masse. The irony is, it was the Germans that were supposed to be the ingenious, far-sighted military technocrats, while the British generals were the bungling, incompetent donkeys. Yet by war's end it was they who had developed an advanced, highly flexible combined-arms doctrine [blitzkrieg tactics were impossible in view of the speeds of WWI tanks 4-10kmh max.] against which the Germans had no answer, while Ludendorff, the 'genius of world war one' spent the last year of the war sacrificing his remaining reserves in futile and costly infantry assaults la Somme and and Verdun. As for the idea that Imperial Germany would have created a united Europe '80 years early' it would would be more realistic to say it would have created Grossdeutschland 20 years before Hitler. As a recent book War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I about Germany's war in the east in World War One, demonstrates that there was very little to choose between the conduct of the Imperial and Nazi German armies in the two world wars. Indeed, as the book shows, the German experience in Russia and the Baltic in WWI provided the intellectual and other inspiration for the Nazis' megalomaniac dreams of creating an empire in the east and only Imperial Germany's defeat in in the West in 1918 prevented this nightmare being realised in world war one.
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