The Pity of War Paperback – 26 Mar 2009
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If someone less distinguished than Niall Ferguson--a fellow and tutor in Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford--had written The Pity of Waryou could be forgiven for thinking that he was a man in search of a few cheap headlines by contradicting almost every accepted orthodoxy about World War I.
Ferguson argues that Britain was as much to blame for the start of the war as was German militarism, and that had Britain sacrificed Belgium to Germany, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution would never have happened, Germany would have created a united European state, and Britain could have remained a superpower. He also contends that there was little enthusiasm for the war in Britain in 1914, but equally he claims that it was not prolonged by clever manipulation of the media. Instead, he purports that the reason men fought was because they enjoyed it. He also maintains that it wasn't the severity of the conditions imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919 that led inexorably to World War II; rather it was the comparative leniency and the failure to collect reparations in full.
The Pity of War has no pretensions to offering the grand narrative of World War I. Instead it reads like a polemical tract; as such it is immensely readable, well-researched, and controversial. You may not end up agreeing with all of Ferguson's arguments, but that should not deter you from reading it. All of us need our deeply-held views challenged from time to time; if only to remind us why we've got them. --John Crace --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The most challenging and provocative analysis of the First World War to date (Ian Kershaw)
Must take a permanent place at the top of the War's historiography. It is one of the very few books whose own scale matches that of the events it describes (Alan Clark Daily Telegraph)
Brilliant and stimulating ... radical, readable and convincing (The Times)
Possibly the most important book to appear in years both on the origins of the First World War ... Ferguson can confidently claim to have inherited A. J. P. Taylor's mantle (Paul Kennedy New York Review of Books)
At one massive stroke, Niall Ferguson has transformed the intellectual landscape (Economist)
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Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A fascinating ,well argued and thought provoking view of the Great War. Perversely perhaps I enjoyed the 'what if' section towards the end - the basis of a good discussionPublished 2 days ago by S. Ford
Great Writing, with interesting conclusions not reached elsewhere.Published 1 month ago by WetherillMarine
My dear Father fought in WW1 in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; 3 of his brothers were killed whilst Father was wounded. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Catherine Cameron Buchanan
I love Niall Ferguson's books - he's a great writer - but this one is a bit dry. He just keeps listing sources that support his point. Read morePublished 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
I like Ferguson's books and this keeps up his high standard. This is a much- needed examination of the war from angles that are often neglected and I found most of his points to be... Read morePublished 14 months ago by hardtruth
Extremely informative and a well written book. The enormous amounts of facts that Niall Ferguson throws at us are understandable because of his very approachable style.. Read morePublished 18 months ago by V FARRANTS