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The Smoke and the Fire: Myths and Anti-myths of War, 1861-1945 Paperback – 14 Sep 1993

4.4 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Pen & Sword Books Ltd; New edition edition (14 Sept. 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0850523303
  • ISBN-13: 978-0850523300
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.7 x 2.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 901,257 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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Format: Paperback
John Terraine (1921 - 2003) was a screenwriter and producer for TV, best known for 'The Great War', which I remember watching on BBC in 1963-4. He was also a prolific author. This book is one of many which discusses the myths which grew up around the First World War in the late 1920s, were lent respectability by Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and the War Poets, and were encapsulated in the film 'Oh! What a Lovely War' in 1963.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
John Terraine distills some of the arguments he has made elsewhere in his wider histories into a concise piece of revisionism, forcefully asking the reader to look back at the things that 'everyone knows are true' about casualty levels, generalship, the relevant performance of different armies in the late C19 and early C20, especially between the British Army in WW1 and that in WW2 and subjects them to severe critical scrutiny. Some important figures in the 'myth-making' come in for particular criticism, notably Lloyd George, Liddell-Hart and Winston Churchill (and he admires Fuller the historian rather more than the earlier Fuller the strategist). Although some space is given to the consideration of other countries, the focus is very much on the UK and its myths and to a lesser extent, the USA.

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.
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Format: Paperback
This book should be on the syllabus for any student of the past (and future) practice of war.
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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Format: Paperback
Those who think they already posess an in-depth knowledge of the wars in the period concerned will find parts of Terraine's book a little shocking. But it is in any case essential for those who seek the truth. Mainly focussing on the first world war, it is well backed with evidence and argued persuasively. This book plays an important part in challenging some of the myths that have inevitably arisen from war books over the years. It ocassionally seems monotonous but is well worth sticking with!
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