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on 11 July 2011
I read this interesting and thought-provoking book when it was first published, and revisited it last weekend when I needed to look up some data. It's spoiled a bit for me by his chapter on tactics and the body count, where a lot of his writing strikes me as suspect in detail.

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. Presumably Ferguson's error is that he has forgotten that other men were wounded or discharged and so the German Army's annual need for trained soldiers exceeded the numbers of fresh eighteen year olds (To be fair, other armies experienced similar problems - the French Army in particular was about 20% smaller in 1918 than it had been in 1917).

Considering that the British High Command were inundated with cranky ideas for how to win the war, it is rather to their credit that they persisted with the idea of tanks (which in 1916 were almost useless and as late as 1918 had an operational life of a day or two), and by 1918 the British and French were making far better use of the primitive tanks (and aircraft) of the time. It is beyond me why Ferguson should feel the need to include a snarky page about how long it supposedly took them, and how they lacked a "doctrine" for using them. As for the Tim Travers stuff about how the doctrine of the British Army supposedly stood in the way of innovation, there has never struck me as being much truth in any of this. All sorts of innovations were tried - mortars, mines, gas, tanks, Lewis guns, sound-ranging of artillery etc etc. Doubtless many other things were tried which are now forgotten as they didn't work. Ferguson cites Rawlinson not overruling Haig about the decision to try for a complete breakthrough on 1 July 1916 (which meant bombarding deeper into the German defences). Well, it wasn't as obvious at the time (it was thought that previous offensives had failed because the attempted breakthrough was too narrow) and armies don't work that way - Rawlinson put his point forcefully, there was a full exchange of views, and then Haig gave the orders.

I think the best that can be said is that to some extent all this reflects when the book was written (late 1990s) when the "Lions led by Donkeys" mythology was at its very height amidst journalists and the public, even though it had long since been abandoned by serious students of the war, and Ferguson felt the need to strike a balance between John Terraine and John Laffin, whilst making a nod to the then-fashionable theories of Tim Travers in the manner of a smart grad student. Perhaps if he were writing now the tone would be a bit different.

As for the argument that Britain should have stood aside and allowed Germany to dominate the continent, he claims that Germany's aggressive war aims would never have been formulated, as the war would have ended quickly. I'm not so sure. In 1870-1, the swift defeat of Napoleon III was followed by the long siege of Paris (and a couple of failed relief attempts), not to mention the francs tireurs (partisans) who so inflamed the Germans that in 1914 they were quick to shoot civilians to avoid a repetition. Surely the same would have happened in 1914 if the Germans had won the Battle of the Marne - the war would have dragged on for a few more months in the west, possibly a few years in the case of Russia, and Germany would still have imposed a harsh peace on those powers.

So, a thought-provoking read, and I agree with much of what he says (eg. that blockade in itself did not defeat the Germans) but I do wonder whether some of his other conclusions are as suspect in detail as the ones regarding my own area of specialism.
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on 24 January 2006
The First World War period has always fascinated me, because it changed everything, from the political geography of Europe to women’s fashions and (until recently) British licensing hours. Four empires perished (German, Austrian, Russian, Turkish) and another (British) was mortally wounded. It gave the world the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and an even worse war, and it marked the entrance of the USA on to the world stage. And it impacted the lives of ordinary people the world over; my grandmother’s two brothers (36th (Ulster) Division) and the two brothers of my wife’s grandmother (Australian Infantry Force) lie in France.
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. Small wonder the book has had mixed reviews in academic historical circles. But of course there can never be “right” and “wrong” answers to such questions, only opinions. But, to this particular layman, Prof. Ferguson makes his cases very well. Many of the conclusions, insights and points of view are fascinating, and Ferguson, as always, writes with wit, clarity and style (this is my problem, I’m a sucker for nice writing).
However, I did find much of the book heavy going – my knowledge of the workings of international finance is close to zero, and the book has big slabs of this as Ferguson discusses the financial world prior to 1914 and then the whole business of how to finance a major war for which you hadn’t prepared. For me, one of the most dismal facts was how much it costs to take another human life in wartime. The Central Powers were far more efficient at killing than were the Allies – it cost the Central Powers $11,345 to kill an Allied soldier, whereas it cost the Allies $36,485 to kill a German soldier (I don’t even want to think about how much it now costs the US military to kill an Iraqi - the waste in both human and financial terms is appalling). Another dismal fact is that, far from the legend that has come down, how many people ENJOYED the war and indeed got a kick out of killing other human beings.
Ferguson also looks at the great “what ifs”. The British entry into the war (and it’s clear that the UK government by no means felt obliged to uphold its treaty obligations to Belgium) made a continental war into a world war. If it hadn’t, the result might have been the European Union 80 years early. And Lenin might have remained writing Bolshevik polemics in the bourgeois Zürich he hated and Hitler might have ended his days selling mediocre water colours in Vienna. It’s an attractive thought, but is it realistic? We’ll never know, which is perhaps just as well.
All in all, a long but interesting and thought-provoking book, and well worth reading.
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on 2 September 2003
This is not a narrative - it is for those who have already read widely about the Great War, and want to have their existing ideas challenged. Nor is it a blood-and-guts book, despite the very personal introduction about the author's grandfather and his war service.
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.
He also concentrates on a forgotten class of casualty, namely those captured by the other side, and makes a very good case for saying that the war was ultimately won not by killing the enemy but when they (whether Russians or Germans) were prepared to surrender in really large numbers. There is a fascinating discussion of the mechanics and risks of surrendering.
Read Tuchman, Macdonald, Terraine and Keegan, and (particularly if you really are a beginner) Martin Middlebrook's "The First Day on the Somme". But then read this book too, to make you think harder about what you already knew. The author's ultimate conclusion is that the pity of the War was that it was not just a tragedy, but also an error. This has contemporary relevance, as we try to understand whether the invasion of Iraq was right, wrong or a mistake.
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on 6 June 2013
This was recommended (with a disclaimer that it was highly controversial) by my tour guide for the French World War One battlefields. The man was quirky himself, to say the least, so I wanted to check this book out. It didn't disappoint. Ferguson, with varying effectiveness in my view, takes apart virtually everything 'everybody knows about WW1'. Some of it is highly beleiveable, some of it is dubious, all of it is interesting. Only disclaimer I would add is don't just read this, or your view of the war will be - well, oddly slanted, to put it one way. Nevertheless, thoroughly recommended.
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on 4 October 2005
Niall Ferguson's book on WWI is excellent. I have read books on WWI before, but they were often about the 'guts-and-glory' side of the event. This is a must read, although I agree it is not an easy one.

It is great that Ferguson takes another angle at the subject. Even though he is controversial he hits the mark on many of the questions he sets out to answer.

The chilling bit about this book to me is that the Triple Entente (France, Britain, Russia) had far more resources at their disposal but used them rather poorly. Whereas, the German Empire by itself (not counting the rather ineffective Austrians) were in a minority position resources-wise, yet managed to inflict far greater casualties on the Entente than should have been expected. The other chilling lesson I took home from the book is that the German Empire could have won the conflict. The German blunders of 1918, thank God, put an end to any such hopes. It is not a surprise that this notion is not terribly popular in Germany; the 'Dolchstoss-Legend' is a more convenient concept to believe in.

Not having ever been involved in war or even close to it, I found the chapter on casualties and the 'issue of surrender' a most fascinating read. I have never read it in such detail in any other book on WWI.

If you expected the usual 'guts-and-glory' book then this is the wrong book for you. Being an economic historian allows Ferguson to innocently tell the WWI story from a different angle. He perhaps takes a clinical view of the factors leading up to WWI and the issues arising during its execution. But this is as it should be.
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on 11 November 2013
‘The Pity of War’, despite its personal, gentle and engaging introduction which sees the War through the experiences of a long dead grandfather and the author’s own school and university journey, is not a popular narrative of the First World War nor always an easy read, nor indeed does Ferguson choose to detail the chronology of events, or the detail of particular battles - all explained in the introduction. He is an historian who challenges head on some of the myths surrounding the war then introduces his own, copious original research in relation to economics and finance. There are many thousands of books on the First War, and Ferguson suggests which are best at concerning the chronology and conflicts, his choice, and one of epic scale, would appear to be that he has read and certainly references, a significant number of these books. In this respect it is a valuable and hefty early read for anyone interested in studying this era, which in turn indicates his audience - the undergraduate, even the post-graduate reader with a deeper than average interest in the subject and reasonable foreknowledge of the essential landscape of events at the beginning of the 20th century. Written to come out in time for the 80th Anniversary of the November 1918 Armistice in 1998 ‘The Pity of War’ does not try to cash in as a popular tome - firstly it is a serious, academic, in-depth, closely referenced and at times a specialist read thick with original research, on the other hand there is a richness of insight and quirky detail that makes it an ideal companion to complement a book that takes the expected path through events. Sections on the role the finance and the economy played stand out as specialist topics that Ferguson addresses in even greater detail in other books. This breadth and depth of coverage makes ‘The Pity of War’ as much a reference book as well-argued narrative history.

If there is imbalance in ‘The Pity of War’ it is the degree to which Ferguson leans on his knowledge of German finance and economics during this period - he undertook postgraduate research for a number of years in Hamburg when writing his doctoral thesis and his not always disguised repugnance for those leaders from the era who were either educated in the British boarding public school system or were landed gentry or both.

From the outset, and acting as brackets to hold in place this considerable work, Ferguson sets out ten questions, some of them myths concerning the First World War, that he then proceeds to address. It feels as if no book, no paper or tangential piece of literature, theatre or cinema has been left out in order to make his point, which overall, is that historians in the past have drawn the wrong conclusions.

The ten questions abbreviated:

1) Was war inevitable?

Ferguson offers a myriad of factors: people, nationhood, economic growth, the Press and railways, burgeoning democracies, the weakness of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empires and the extend of the British Empire. From the contents of a vast melting pot of facts and opinion he tries to argue that war, or early engagement of the BEF, may have been an outcome. There was want for an independent body or a leader with clout to put a stop to it.

2) Germany’s gamble?

This question is taken as fact, however I would disagree that Germany was taking a gamble. If we stick with the metaphor than they kept a book and tried to cover every eventuality. Hubris, ambition, restlessness and opportunity, timing and threats or fear of encirclement all had a role to play, and the desire to break a perceived impasse by the leadership.

3) Britain’s intervention?

Here Ferguson makes the case for fear of German domination of central Europe both economically and militarily. Impossibility of remaining neutral. The shifting views in the Cabinet.

4) As popular as history has made it out to be?

Ferguson is disingenuous here, or being provocative deliberately for the sake of taking the opposite view. The manner in which it was greeted reflected the heterogeneous nature of society: for, against, for nation, for relief, on impulse … Any argument can be made depending on the person, population or nation you pick and when in the narrative of the war you consider the trending opinion.

5) Did propaganda keep the war going?

Yes, though a defeatist Press would have lost the war, and where people wanted it the opinions of Punch, amongst others, was not positive. Voices of dissent got through, though not to the masses. In the trenches the Daily Mail was roundly ridiculed for its grossly false claims of victory where calamitous defeat had been the outcome.

6) Why didn’t the wealth of Britain and her allies crush Germany earlier?

Challenging Ferguson would be difficult without a similar background in the finances and economies of the combating nations. Rather than thinking Britain was wealthy he should consider how such wealth was committed or could be accessed. A Liberal government had wanted to cut public spending, not increase it. This wealth was committed in numerous ways to the Empire. Not a militaristic society it could not politically under a Liberal government be exploited.

7) How come the German army could defeat Serbia, Rumania and Russia - but not Britain and France?

It lacked the size to ever realise the Schlieffen plan, hadn’t expected Austria-Hungary to be so inept nor the allies resolved nor able to sustain terrible losses. Britain got better at war. Germany, on the attack, was largely as stuck in stalemate in trench-warfare as everyone else. The Western Front was very different to these other fronts with excellent supply lines via railway networks and across the Channel.

8) Why did men keep fighting?

Getting on with the job, no alternative, inertia, refreshed with new recruits, obedience in the culture, unemployment, prison or death, censorship. And who read the poets anyway? This openly expressed view came later in the 1930s as the likes of Siegfired Sassoon were popularised.

9) Why did men stop fighting?

In the case of France and Russia, as a result of mutiny as blunders on a grand scale were repeated and ultimately with the surrender of German soldiers.

10) Who ‘won’ the war, as in who ended up paying it?

The suggestion that somehow Germany won the war is deliberately provocative. It depends of course very much on how you define ‘win’. Serbia eventually won its war by achieving its aims of a slavic nation. The Allies won because German lost. On a financial basis the USA won. Germany didn’t and couldn’t pay reparations so didn’t suffer as great a financial loss as the allies had wanted.

These ten questions might in turn have been essay assignments or questions set in a written examination, the difference being that Ferguson is able to address them as part of an open-book exam with weeks, rather than minutes to address each. He does so with relish, often taking a stance rather like a student debating at the Oxford Union Debating Society, in this respect the reader will almost certainly be left wanting to find out more for themselves which is readily indulged given the detail of referencing.

‘The Pity of War’ is hugely insightful, often on topics and offering detail that is rarey included, some of the content covered includes:

Penny dreadfuls and the myths of war.(Ferguson, 1999:2)
Invasion stories (Ferguson, 1999:4-5)
Cinemas and newsreels, filmmakers, newspapers (Ferguson, 1999:216, 228)
Workers wages, productivity and strikes, the choking off of imported fertilisers and the damage this did to the ability of Germany to feed itself, the shambles of procurement. (Ferguson, 1999:251)
Writers and academics for the war, a militarised Monopoly (Ferguson, 1999:118)
British espionage,
Misallocation of labour (Ferguson, 1999:270)
Domestic morale (Ferguson, 1999:280), an army of incapable of improvisation,
Beauty in death. (Ferguson, 1999:358-359)
How mustard gas putting paid to the kilt. (Ferguson, 1999:350)
No strategy or structure (Ferguson, 1999:288)
Surrender as the outcome. (Ferguson, 1999:368)
Shilly-shallying of Grey and the cabinet
Emerging nationhood (Ferguson, 1999:144)
The real rivals were Britain, Russia and France (Ferguson, 1999:39)
Cannae and Schlieffen, the aftermath (Ferguson, 1999:95)
Bethman’s bid for neutrality, homosexuality. (Ferguson, 1999:352)
The international bond market and the cost of the arms race which was low. (Ferguson, 1999:130)
The Anglo-French Cordiale April 1904. (Ferguson, 1999:53)
Egypt, Fashoda. (Ferguson, 1999:42)
French loans to Russia from 1886. (Ferguson, 1999:45)
Reichstad’s control of military expenditure. (Ferguson, 1999:113)
Bethman's bid for neutrality (Ferguson, 1999:175)
The Weimar economy, wrecked itself, not war reparations, (Ferguson, 1999:439)
A pyrrhic victory, losers all. (Ferguson, 1999:397,418)
A soldier’s comforts (Ferguson, 1999:351)
Home Rule in Ireland (Ferguson, 1999:164)
Ambivalence to the war. (Ferguson, 1999:455 on Wyndham Lewis)
Not donkeys but hindered by deference to superiors. (Ferguson, 1999: 303)
The AEF did no ‘win the war’ and relied on outmoded tactics. (Ferguson, 1999:312)
Overwhelming naval superiority. (Ferguson, 1999:71,86)
The desire for war by the public and politicians. A myth or reality? (Ferguson, 1999:174-76)
Freud (Ferguson, 1999:359)
Military technology (Ferguson, 1999:290)
A picnic (Ferguson, 1999:360, from Hynes)

Of particular note, and perhaps showing where a simple contrast of approaches exists, are Ferguson’s fascintation with the ‘two Ks’ - ‘Maynard Keynes’ and ‘Karl Kraus’, the latter on early 20th century economics, the former an Austrian playwright who we come to learn was as significant in continental Europe as British authors such as H G Wells, Bernard Shaw and Robert Graves.

Historians, commentators and writers referenced include Alan Clarke, John Terraine, J.M.Bourne, Martin Samuels, Theo Balderston, Martin van Creveld, Correlli Barret, Laffel, Paddy Griffith, Martin Holmes, Lidell Hart, Norman Stone, Gudmanson, Barbara Truchman, Travers, Graham, Michael Howard, Karl Kraus, Hew Strachan and Michael Geyer.

Ferguson has a formidable reputation as an historian, academically he is attached to two of the leading universities in the world: Oxford and Harvard while as a TV presenter and commentator he has a media presence. He gained his MA and D.Phil in History from the University of Oxford, spending several years studying and researching at the University of Hamburg, where his interest in the personalities and mechanics and international finance in the early part of the 19th century developed, in this respect his focus in ‘The Pity of War’ does at time learn heavily towards Germany at the expense say of France and Russia and the Balkans.

Ferguson confounds what might be the ground rules of historical study by liking to second guess events, these ‘counter factuals’ imagine what might have occurred ‘if?’ Do these offer insight, or do they confuse, especially where at times Ferguson is emphatic that events would have gone a certain way if x or y had or had not happened. He edited and write for an anthology of such 'counter factuals' so clearly believes they are a valid way to gain insight, though it may also show an interest in literature and fiction, rather than just the nots and bolts of the professional historian.

Ferguson is a driven, passionate, even obsessive historian determined to make his point or counter-point with a relentless catalogue of evidence. His modus operandi in this text is to get at his 'truth' of the First World War by addressing common questions and myths. He undose several and turns others on their head, often in a convincing way, though sometimes doubts remain, though further pursuit of the references should help the reader come to their own conclusions.

‘The Pity of War’ receives glowing reviews in the Press and professors from leading universities have reviewed it, enjoying the challenge of meeting him square on, applauding some of his insights, but offering criticism of other conclusions.

There is no doubt 'The Pity of War' adds substantially to a broader and deeper understanding of the First World War, though it should be seen as a book that complements, rather than replaces texts that provide the chronology, conflict and causes in a more systematic, and less judgmental manner.

Ferguson’s authority can become a barrier, certainly there are parts of his thesis where it is a struggle to take on board the evidence that requires some understanding of international finance and economics. Where there are few, if any, similarly informed authorities it is difficult to know how to challenge some of his views - was Germany really more efficient at killing people? Is it creditable to put a price on a combatant’s head? Money, Ferguson argues, tells a different story to that offered by historians in the past. Easier to comprehend and therefore to engage with are his portraits of men with ambitions and efforts to blame.

The title ‘The Pity of War’ says little about the book’s contents.

The words are not those of the author, but rather taken from one of the war poets. The ‘war poets’ are one aspect of the misconceptions that have developed around the First World War, hijacking how people felt about the war at the time with a post-war negative and sentimentalised view.

Ferguson picks out ten questions to scrutinise, myths to unwind, misconceptions to set straight, as well as original views of his own. Like a postgraduate making his case at the Oxford Union, Ferguson that strips out the facts and attacks each in turn often in meticulous detail, all referenced and from a single perspective. Ferguson doesn’t sit on the fence, he has an opinion and makes it forcefully. For example, when he states that, ‘without the war of attrition on the Western Front, Britain’s manpower, its economy and its vastly superior financial resources could not have been brought to bear on Germany sufficiently to ensure victory’ (p457) is stated as an absolute with a counter-factual offered as the alternative - Britain would have had to comprise rather than fight on in any other way.

The references is often dense, not a sentence on a page without a footnote or citation.

Ferguson puts the loosest of chronologies at the core of the ten questions he addresses and makes no apologies for avoiding where other authors have already been, indeed he offers a reading list for those wanting a chronology of events or the minutiae of the fields of conflict themselves. The arguments he makes are not always convincing - he appears at time to be contrary for the sake of it. There is little doubt that the book is a personal journey that though multifaceted is not comprehensive; as well as a lack of narrative or of conflict there is little said on women, on the home-front, on the technology, not equally fascinating facets of the war from underage soldiering and the execution for cowardice of deserters. There are nonetheless some fascinating insights: Germany’s actions where founded on fear of their weakness, not belief in their strength; the Allies were not as gung-ho for war as the Press in particular suggested at times, it was surrender, rather than economic failings or the appearance of the American Expeditionary Force that lead to Germany’s defeat, a nation that clearly relished viciousness more so than the allies whose leaders were want to take repeated all or nothing gambles.

Had as much care been taken with the images as the words then Ferguson would not have fallen into the trap of giving credit to Tropical Film Company Battle of the Somme film-footage grabbed as stills by other authors in the past and offered as their own photographs.

Ferguson touches on, cites and lists a comprehensive range of historians, authors, dramatists, economists, poets and artists making ‘The Pity of War’ a desirable stepping off point, even learning design for a taught masters degree.

He doesn’t always convince and there are errors that escape his eagle eyes (or those of his researchers). It is conjecture to say that Grey et al. exaggerated the threat of Germany despite intelligence. He suggests that a Tommy gets angry with a Jerry prisoner in the Battle of the Somme film without seeing that the man is injured and a prisoner inadvertently bumps into him, and regarding footage from this film shot he continues the calumny of authors who claim stills taken from the film footage or photographs taken by a photographer who travelled with one of the cinematographers, as Hart does, are part of their own photographic collection. Ferguson treats the movie ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ as biography, when its author Remarque saw little of the front line and it is conjecture to suggest that the EU would have resulted had Great Britain been late or stayed our of the war. The argument that the central powers were somehow better at killing, maiming and taking prisoners ignores that they were largely on the defensive in conflicts which favoured defence. And that the loss of skilled workers to troops hugely impacted on the economy and our ability to wage war when hundreds of thousands of perfectly able women proved how good they were.

Ferguson reveals some bias when he talks about Grey, Churchill and their ilk, from their public-school educated and landed gentry backgrounds. He has a dig at a public school type suited to Empire because of their qualities of leadership and loyalty when in truth young men in these establishments are a heterogenous lot. And with Grey he has a go a cod psychology by trying to relate Grey the fly-fisherman to Grey the foreign minister, in one particular incident thinking that Grey describing the challenge of landing a heavy salmon on lightweight tackle is at all like dealing with Germany on the brink of war. In such instances Ferguson is pushing it too far, it would make amusing TV or a witty point in a live debate at the Oxford Union, but it lacks conviction on the page.

Ferguson is dismissive of media events such as as 'Blackadder Goes Forth', 'Birdsong' and 'Gallipoli', and goes light on the War poets and memoirs from veterans. Though he shows a magpie dilettantism with mentions of invasion stories, art history and Penny dreadfuls.

‘The Pity of War’ by Niall Ferguson should be on any reading list the claims to be from the authorities on the First World War, alongside:

Barbara W. Tuchman ‘The Guns of August’
AJ P Taylor ‘The First World War’
Christopher Clark ‘The Sleepwalkers’
Trevor Wilson ‘The Myriad Faces of War’
Hew Strachan ‘First World War’
Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker ‘Understanding the Great War’
Garry Sheffield
Martin Gilbert

Either Ferguson plays Devil's advocate, or he argues a contrary point for the sake of it, but some examples of where he is being one sided include conjecture that Grey et al exaggerated the threat of Germany despite intelligence (Ferguson, 1999:76), his interpretation of the stats on fatalities, wounded and prisoners (Ferguson, 1999:300-303), the argument that the Entente were better at killing, maiming and taking prisoners (Ferguson, 1999:337),

And there are errors, such as taking an incident out of context from the 'Battle of the Somme' film footage shot by Geoffrey Malins as indicative of anger or hatred towards prisoners in the back of the line (Ferguson, 1999:368). Film-making is by its very nature, especially in 1916, highly selective and in this instance is where a wounded Tommy steps inadvertently into a line of German prisoners and at most curses as his injury is jostled. Ferguson (1999:397) implies without criticism or context that the Oxford Union, a debating society popular with certain university undergraduates, could be representative of opinions of the wider population. And unknowingly he erroneously labels photographs from Richard Harte Butler's collection (images 20 and 22) that are in fact pictures either taken as 'screen grabs' from Geoffrey Malins's footage of 'the Battle of the Somme' or a photograph taken by Malins' assistant Ernest Brooks.


The greatest value of ‘The Pity of War’ may be as a reference guiding those with particular niche interests in the poets, art of films of the war, on the Keynesian economics and finance of the Germany, of bankers, as well as politicians and generals, on the literature since the war and the rebutting and debunking of many of the myths and misconceptions that have developed over the many decades as new generations have interpreted the war to suit their own sensibilities.
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on 20 March 1999
This is an extremely interesting and thought-provoking book, written by a young and industrious historian who seems to be striving for A.J.P. Taylor-hood. Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War is basically a Euro-skeptical history of Britain's part in the First World War. He argues that there was no reason for Britain to get involved in the war in 1914; that Britain's intervention turned what might have been a brief and victorious war for the Germans into a European catastrophe; that this catastrophe caused the "short twentieth century," from the outbreak of war to the fall of communism; that the short twentieth century was a bloody detour through war and totalitarianism, ending in the result that the Germans were aiming at in 1914, viz. German hegemony in a united Europe; and that by trying to stop Germany Britain only ruined itself and caused the death of millions, directly and indirectly. In a nutshell, since things turned out the same in the end, only worse, it was a pity that Britain intervened in the war.
Obviously, this is a book that could not have been written ten years ago, before the collapse of communism pressed an historical reset button. One of things that makes Ferguson's book so interesting is the way post-communist events seem to have influenced his view of the past. One sees the United States' victory in the Cold War arms race behind his argument that Germany should have spent more on arms before 1914. One also sees the herds of Iraqis surrendering to the Coalition forces in the Gulf War behind his discussion of the importance of surrendering and prisoner-taking. As a result, Ferguson may have written the first twenty-first century history of the twentieth century's most important conflict.
I didn't agree with many of the things Ferguson says in his book, but I did find it consistently engrossing and challenging. It was a refreshing book that made me re-examine just about everything I have ever learned about the First World War, and I recommend it highly.
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on 24 September 2006
It isn't necessary to agree with all of Niall Ferguson's conclusions to admire this book. In it he challenges more or less every accepted point of view about World War 1 - that Germany was intrinsically 'militarist', that Britain was morally and materially obligated to enter the war in 1914, that a cynical cabal of bankers, media tycoons and politicians agitated for, and then benefited from, the war itself. Ferguson subjects all of these supposed 'truths' to rigorous analysis. His conclusions are not always convincing, and long chapters on economic history can become confusing, but this [extremely well-written] book will nevertheless make you reassess the First World War. You might even end up agreeing with him.
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on 19 June 2015
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 convincing. There are passages that are heavy going and focussed on economic detail that seems more for the specialist reader, but this is well- worth a read for its insights into a conflict that looms large in the public imagination.
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on 24 February 2013
The good points in this book are the photos, the lists and the maps. The bad points all fall within the overly subjective narrative style of Ferguson himself.
I've seen him on television documentaries and he makes the odd insightful conclusion and he is the darling of Channel 4 and the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 but he seems to write for that certain demographic and doesn't seem to want to balance his arguments with any opposing viewpoint (rather the job of an objestive history).
In "Pity of War" he seems a throwback to the opinions of A.J.P. Taylor (whom he greatly admires) and seems to shoehorn statistics and facts to fit his overarching thesis: The Germans had the best troops, tactics and generals. Most of these opinions stem from the histories published in the 60s-80s when Ferguson would have been forming his viewpoints and many of which are now discredited.
Unlike Peter Hart, for instance, Ferguson seems to forget that the allies actually won the war and would prefer to dwell on statistical comparisons of casualties and war materials to prove otherwise.
Provocative - yes, thought provoking - yes. Reliable and unbiased - ???
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