on 30 August 2014
This is a long review. Please click “read more” and read through to the end. Amazon is, at the time of writing, wanting to know if a book is a“verified purchase”: I shall make reference to pages in my 2003 edition paperback as proof I have actually read the book.
Just how many books on WW1 does a country actually need ? In order to answer this question, I shall first ask a few more. When you want to know about biology, do you go to a painter and decorator ? No, of course not. When you want to know about cookery, do you use a Haynes car repair manual ? No, of course not. When you want a good read, do you pick up a telephone directory (far too many people, absolutely no plot !) ? No, of course not.
So, why is it that when people want to find out about military history, it seems that any jobbing historian will do ? Or, more to the point, why is it that military history books written by military historians, and especially ex-soldiers / lecturers at Sandhurst, are deemed by some (too many ?) to be irredeemably biassed, subjective and defensive ? As one has acknowledged in the previous paragraph, when one wants to know about a subject, one goes to the specialists. Except, it seems, when it comes to WW1.
The history of how WW1 has been represented and perceived is admirably covered in Dan Todman’s “The Great War”. What comes out from this is how much the British general public’s impressions of WW1 are formed by anything other than reputable, fact filled history books from specialist military historians. The very place one would have expected people to go.
The view of WW1 as avoidable, ineptly run, industrial slaughter, rain, mud, and ultimately pointless because it was followed soon after by WW2, is formally know as the “myth” of WW1. “Myth” here means ‘powerful story’, it does not mean ‘fairy tale’. It is informally known as the ‘Blackadder’ view of history after the BBC comedy series “Blackadder goes Forth”.
The problem with WW1 is that the mythology is in danger of killing off historical truth. The second problem is that those who prefer historical truth to the myth are treated as if they are mentally defective, if that’s not putting it too strongly, written off as ‘revisionists’ who are trying to re-write history.
But it wasn’t those who start their history with facts / found objects / evidence, then go through analysis, and then to evaluation, to finally presentation, who re-wrote history to come up with the myth. The current view can be reasonably accurately placed as beginning with Alan Clark’s book “The Donkeys”, going through Joan Littlewood’s “Oh, what a Lovely War !” and the late David Attenborough’s film of same, to the BBC’s 1964 documentary “The Great War”, to A J P Taylor’s 1965 “The First World War: An Illustrated History”, to Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory”, to Alan Bleasdale’s “The Monocled Mutineer”, and finally “Blackadder”.
The problem here is that they’re all biassed. Alan Clark lied in his book. This is not an opinion: he admitted he did so when pressed by ‘proper’ historians to provide evidence for his source(s). He admitted making stuff up to write a deliberately provocative book to kick-start his career. Please do your own research to find this out as true for yourself. Similarly, Joan Littlewood was very dictatorial ion the way she wanted to use WW1 to express her own political prejudices and personal fears about nuclear devastation by deliberately portraying military people as stupid. The historical advisor, Raymond Fletcher, was later outed as a Communist spy ! Obviously this play / film is an unbiased source ! To begin your research, start with Nigel Hawthorne’s autobigraphy “Straight Face”. During the making of “The Great War” Liddell Hart refused to have anyhting to do with a balanced documentary, and Terraine (who wanted a balanced documentary) left ! And so on through all of the above ...
Surely it is these people, stitching together any old out-of-context fact with lots of opinion, not questioning their biasses but actually starting with their prejudices and imposing them upon the data, creating deliberately politically and historically biassed works, who are the true revisionists, not those historians with integrity who start with what actually happened and allow the data to lead them to their conclusions. The “put the emphasis back on the historical facts”-ists, if you will.
It seems very strange to me that the Great British public would rather read, watch, listen to extremely biassed sources that tell them what they already know / want to hear, based upon sentimental emotionalism, pre-existing, private, political prejudices, than actually behave like sensible, mature, grown-up human beings with genuinely receptive, eager to learn minds, able and willing to have their pre- and mis-conceptions not only challenged but actively seeking to correct those pre- and mis-conceptions.
One only has to read the vitriol from other reviewers of this book to know that the myth is a sacred cow that will not be sacrificed, even in the name of getting things right and historical truth.
Mr Corrigan’s sins appear to be a) that he has the temerity to start with original sources, those tedious and highly ignorable things called historical facts rather than a pre-existing emotional opinion that WW1 was a muddy, bloody waste of time, b) to have a military background, rather than being any old jobbing author cashing in on the bandwagon (okay, very mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean), and c) to be a military historian rather than ditto the bandwagon.
The differences between the myth and what actually happened would fill a book, in fact, this very book I am reviewing ! For example, the food was 4,100 calories per soldier per day, because an army marches on it stomach (p97); Haig wanted new tactics (p291); you were more likely to die in the Battle for Normandy in 1944 than on the Somme in 1916 (p298); how and why the British artillery was of the wrong type (p108); and so on.
This book does not set up straw men to know down, but tackles all of the aspects of the mythology of WW1 so glibly repeated, but very rarely questioned or checked, from the accusations of mass ill-treatment of the shell-shocked, to how the tactics radically changed (there wasn’t a pre-emptive airborne ground-attack strike, there weren’t Mk VIII tanks supported by Whippet light tanks, the troops weren’t lined up behind the Mk VIII’s), and so on. (As an aside, this aircraft, tanks, troops tactics was nicked by Erwin Rommel and became ‘blitzkrieg’, and a modified form was used very successfully on D-day, troops advancing behind specialised tanks nick-named ‘Hobart’s Funnies’. So, if the BEF was so inept, how come we won, and how come we came up with such a good tactic ?)
This is not an easy read for the closed- or narrow-minded who wish to cling to their comfort blanket ideologies, believing that 2+2=5, the sky is tartan, and today is Scringe the thirty-fourth of Wibble, for yes, the mythology really is that divorced from reality. It is, however, a very necessary read for anyone who wants to do their history properly, starting with facts as mediated through, and explained by, a suitably qualified expert.
You were, after all dear review reader, willing and able at the beginning of this review to accept that if one wants to now the truth, an appropriately qualified expert was the correct and proper place to go. It is not good that a) so many people have written so many ill-informed, scabrous reviews of this book, and b) it is not in the best-seller lists. It is very worrying that the Great British public can not be weaned off the “myth” and re-focussed on historical truths, however uncomfortable they may be.
Please buy and read this book with a grown-up attitude, able and willing to admit to yourself that what you think you know is actually very, very wrong. Please allow yourself to be positively changed for the better, to be better informed, more discerning, and more able to tell historical truth from anachronsitically applied inventions from the ‘revisionists’ such as Liddell Hart, Littlewood, Ben Elton, Bleasdale, and etc.