Smoke and the Fire: Myths and Anti-myths of War, 1861-1945 Hardcover – 1 Oct 1980
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240pp plus 16pp b&w plates. Arranged thematically with myths, anti-myths and asides, the author tackles topics such as casualty numbers, politicians and war, machine guns, cavalry officers, artillery war, British generals and more, looking at the popular idea, the facts and their analysis.
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The main myths were: that a whole generation of men had been lost; that the Generals could have avoided this bloodshed if they had tried an indirect approach, rather than hammering away on the Western Front; that the machine-gun was responsible for more deaths than any other weapon; that tanks could have won the war with far fewer casualties; that the British troops were `lions led by donkeys'; and, perhaps most widespread of all, that the War was in any event `futile'.
Terraine demolishes these in turn, often by reference to hard statistics. He shows that the mortality, while devastating, was not catastrophic; that the only way to defeat the German Army was to deploy an army of similar size against it, which the British were unable to do before 1916; that shellfire was more lethal than the machine gun; that the tanks available were primitive beasts, few in number, very slow and extremely vulnerable; that the British generals were as good as any and better than most; and that a War which defeated Germany and liberated Belgium and North-Eastern France could hardly be said to be pointless - especially when one compares the outcome in the West with the kind of peace which the Germans dictated in the East, where they were victorious.
I find these arguments entirely convincing; and the work of Gary Sheffield has to my mind amply confirmed Terraine's conclusions; but one cannot help wondering whether both historians have set himself a thankless and ultimately impossible task. The facts are not so powerful as poetry or spectacle; and 'Oh! What a Lovely War' was a very popular film, because it told people what they wanted to hear. The myths remain very powerful and, ultimately, it is of no great comfort to the grieving widow to be told that it could all have been a lot worse.
Terraine is an admirable writer, easy to understand with excellent use of supporting quotations and statistics. The occassional bit of anger or irony breaks through to emphasize certain of his thoughts or conclusions and underline his passion for the subject, if not his academic detachment. He is never obscure or convoluted. The combniation of the convincing arguments and the clear writing make this an easy book to recommend to anyone interested in the military and/or strategic history of the period.
This isn't a place to start - it is a place to go to after reading a general history of the conflict or after reading something like Winston Churchill's The World Crisis 1911-1918 (Penguin Classics) or Alan Clark's The Donkeys: A History of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915. Reading it alongside Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War (Allen Lane History)is also rewarding as both authors use a statistical approach to arrive at very different conclusions.
Interestingly, he spans not just the wars of the 20th century but also those in the previous period which set the scene for all modern "industrial wars". So he is able to show how the US civil war foreshadowed much that was to happen a few decades later.
I have always been intrigued by the way that the reporting of wars colours the way those conflicts are viewed by future students. What was once half-seen or even imagined in the smoke of battle, becomes publically accepted and regurgitated in our folklore. As he so cogently reveals, this is not only obscures the truth but prevents that truth from being seen and acted upon in future wars.
Reading it made me reappraise my views of these wars and want to read more of his books. I read the Thin Blue Line a decade ago and was similarly made to think - and feel not a little sorrow for those brave people.
What would be nice to see is his view of the last "great wars" of the 20th century - Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East. I suspect it would be only to say history and its myths constantly repeat themselves.
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