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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.