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Good But Treat With Caution
on 24 March 2010
AJP Taylor was always one of my favourite historians - far more readable than most - and this book is no exception. As the title implies, it is heavier on illustrations than text, but none the worse for that.
Contrary to what some have said, it is not primarily a diatribe against the generals. Taylor may not especially like them (how many do, aside from the late John Terraine?), but his verdict on Haig, in particular, is fair and even generous, especially for the time of writing
"He was a master of railway timetables, deploying divisions as skilfully as any general of his time. His strategical judgements were sound within the framework of the Western front, though he lacked the technical means for carrying them to success until almost the end of the war. - - - Haig had to do what he did, and, though he did not succeed, no one better was found to take his place."
Not a bad epitaph, especially compared to some others Haig has received.
Taylor is tougher on the politicians, who were, after all, in ultimate charge. He records how Joffre had sensibly decided to evacuate Verdun, only to be overruled by Briand. There are many verbal gems, notably his description of the Zimmermann note as "a bright idea such as only a Foreign Office could conceive".
On some points, his prejudices have been toned down, so that emaciated "victims of Allied intervention in Russia" in the first edition became "Victims of civil war in Russia" in the next and finally just "War and famine in Russia" in the paperback. But some still shine through. In particular, Lloyd George is an exception to his low opinion of the political leadership. He hardly has a bad word to say about the man, even swallowing whole his claim (almost certainly false) to have singlehandedly forced the Admiralty to introduce convoys. Taylor also states that American lenders to the Allies would have lost their money had Germany won the war. In fact this was only true of loans made after US entry into the war. The earlier ones were all secured on property in North America, beyond the reach even of a victorious Germany.
All in all, it's a good read but don't rely on it entirely. There are quite a few other histories of WW1 available, so get another to go with this one. But not instead of it. This book would be a great shame to miss.