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on 30 December 2011
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.

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.
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on 1 May 2011
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. 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.
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on 12 October 2000
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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on 23 January 2003
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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on 27 April 2010
This is perhaps the most enlightening book I have read on war, and the World Wars in particular. It is exceptionally clear and concise giving one an understanding and perspective that is quite exhilarating. It is not a history of war; it is an analysis. Terraine provides an overview from which to see huge events in perspective. Truly excellent: a book that, once you've read it, will make you realise how little you comprehended beforehand.
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on 24 September 2009
Terraine is telling the truth about the 1st World War and exposing the myths that have grown up about it in recent years. Thoroughly enjoyable. My brother who reads everything on WW1 found the content so good that we have bought him a copy for Xmas. Definately a must have to put the record straight.
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on 8 March 2014
A book that has to be required reading this centenary year. Documentation first class. Arguments about soldiers and politicians well presented, even if you don't agree with him
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on 11 February 2013
Well scripted description of what the situation was really like in the first world war,would highly recommend to anyone who is interested in knowing the truth
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on 25 September 2014
Beginning with a rather threadbare, dictionary-based distinction between ‘legend’ (harmless) and ‘myth’ (pernicious), this book is very readable and raises a number of interesting points, but is marred by Terraine’s curious rational blindness. He appears genuinely unable to conceive of any explanation that does not redound to the credit of the British army and its commanders. For example, he shows that it was the Germans’ policy of reflexive counter-attack that caused them to lose so heavily on the Somme (pp. 121-22)—but the damage inflicted on the German army by that battle is somehow still attributable to the British! As usual, Terraine never faces the obvious reason for public disenchantment with the war: the absence of sufficient cause. A series of photographs, sarcastically captioned ‘Futility’, tastelessly juxtapose emancipated slaves of 1864 and concentration camp survivors in 1945 with a 1919 Polish military parade, as if the 1914-18 conflict were fought for reasons and achieved results comparable to the ending of slavery in the United States of America or the overthrow of the genocidal Nazi regime.
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