on 27 March 2015
In the Introduction, Prof Travers says he wants to draw distinction between external factors, eg Govt interference, low quality of shells, etc, and internal factors, eg what we would now call ‘groupthink’, training methods, etc. He announces his major themes, pxix-pxx: 1) intellectual history and the then contemporary zeitgeist, 2) the persistence of pre-war attitudes and a resistance to change, 3) the army structure which was too deferential and stifled innovation, 4) internal politicking, an army at war with itself if you will, 5) the ideology of order, and that if disorder appeared, order should be emphasised / imposed. All in all, a radically different take.
Given the size of the bibliography, there is no doubting that Prof Tim Travers has done a massive amount of work with original documentation: this is one if the first books to use Haig’s own personal correspondence, pxxi. This is organised into four parts: 1) part 1 looks at Edwardian Britain and its mindset; part 2 looks at Haig’s own personal development within this mindset; part 3 looks at how the Somme was planned; part 4 looks at bias within the “Official History” with regard to how Passchendaele was written up.
Chapter 1, “The System at Work” comes to the conclusion, based upon existing internal reports at the time, references, etc, that the system did not work. People were too likely to have been promoted on who they knew rather than what they could do. The system was changing, but not fast enough in Prof Travers’ opinion, and WW1 prevented further change. Prof Travers makes the interesting point that specific individuals have been vilified for an army structure that actually simply reflected British Edwardian society as a whole. Not all command staff were incompetent and useless. On a personal note, I venture that the need for replacements actually allowed capable staff to come forwards more quickly than might have been the case in a less deadly war.
Chapter 2, “The Cult of the Offensive and the Psychological Battlefield”, proposes that the cult of ‘advance, advance, advance at all costs’ (my wording), was deeply flawed and deeply embedded in the senior staff to the exclusion of other tactics. Personally, I wonder how else one does win a war except through taking the fight to the enemy ? I can’t think of one war that has been won by sitting still and being shot at. Prof Travers concludes there were two mindsets: optimistic and people-orientated, pessimistic and weapon-centred. This is the most debatable chapter.
Chapter 3, “Morale, Fire-power and Technology”, has all three subjects muddled-up together, and so it is difficult to find a definite set on conclusions. Despite the ‘Blackadder’ view of stupidity, the historical record (surely where any historian should start ?), shows an army willing and able to embrace new technology and tactics. Prof Travers notes five stages: 1) introduction of new technology, with resistance, 2) acceptance growing at middle and lower levels, 3) problems in quickly understanding how to best use the new technology, 4) a small group who do get how to use it having to fight against the system to be heard, 5) significant high-up individuals are converted and make the necessary change. To the nay-sayers who think the senior staff were all ‘donkeys’ I say: think back to 1916, you’ve never seen a tank before, can you absolutely guarantee you would know how to use immediately to its best effect ? I, personally, note too many WW1 Critics are very well illuminated by hindsight. P75 significantly tell us Aylmer Haldane conceived of a proto-Blitzkrieg in October 1916.
Chapter 4, “Douglas Haig, the Staff College, and the Continuity of Ideas”, tells us that in Prof Travers’ opinion Haig was someone who didn’t question was he was told, but was very good at getting on with the task in hand. As someone once described me, “a plodding 2:1 not an innovative First” (thanks !).
Chapter 5, “The Personality of Douglas Haig and the Role of GHQ”. Haig was very self-disciplined and very self-controlled, p102, which reinforces Chapter 4's conclusions. He was also very concerned with time, order, and regular routine. The idea that he was living it up on rich food is dispensed with on p103, he was actually rather ill and had to eat a special diet. Prof Travers’ view is that Haig stamped his personality all over GHQ. My personal opinion here: the more I read about Haig, taciturn, blunt, to the point (introvert, surely), hates waffle, likes routine, order, structure, etc, the more I see someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, which I have.
Chapter 6, “Preparing the Somme”, takes us through the deeply complicated politics and negotiations leading to the battle. This is a deeply important part of British history that is completely missing from the trite, simplistic, mythological “lots of people died, therefore Haig was an idiot” version of events, and deserves to be known more widely. I meet too many armchair experts who are vociferous in their condemnation but are incapable of coming up with a viable alternative. Prof Travers notes many things, for example the optimistic use of gas shells with no proper planning, the complete failure understand counter-battery fire, and in Prof Travers’ view a power vacuum at lower level that instead of allowing context-dependent initiative actually brought about confusion.
Chapter 7, “Action at the Somme” takes us through the remaining 140 days, again often ignored in WW1 the ‘Blackadder’ mythology, showing how the above repeated meaning exploitation was not available, the battle became attritional in the face of no new ideas, and this is also rooted in the pre-war ethos.
Chapter 8, “The Official History, The Somme, and the Planning of Passchendaele”, shows the differences between reality and record, and says Edmonds, the Official History writer, was influenced by the participants to make them look better, especially as regards Passchendaele.
I would like to disagree slightly here. The Official History is the definitive source of at least one piece of utter bunk. It states definitively that on 1st July 1916 the soldiers were carrying backpacks weighing 70lbs (true) and that these were too heavy to carry (not true). 70lbs has been the standard backpack since at least Wellington’s time. If you don’t believe me, go find a serving British Army solder and ask them about ‘Bergens’. I did.
Chapter 9, “The German Offensive of March 1918, the Official History and the Problem of Command” covers a lot in 23 pages. Edmonds is criticised in his editing of the truth in the Official History, Prof Travers believes the German attack was known about, British defences were known to be inadequate and important papers are missing, p222-224. What comes out in this chapter is how much politicking and buck-passing was going on at the top level of the BEF.
Epilogue, “1918 and the Franco-German-British armies in comparison”, sums up the preceding arguments, glosses over the 100 days, before comparing the British and French armies’ responses and finding them broadly similar. The German army was, in Prog Travers’ opinion, superior because it allowed for lower level officers to disagree with their superiors so good ideas could come forwards and capable people promoted, the Germans were willing and able to ditch the zeitgeist and create a new mentality for a new style of war, this mentality being mechanisation leading to function not preservation of hierarchy.
Fine. Doesn’t explain why at the end they were retreating in disarray, the morale of the troops was appallingly low, there was no support for the war at home, and they were therefore losing, does it ?
Far be it from me, a lowly member of the public with only a 2:1 in History to disagree with a Professor, but I noticed some problems with this book :-
1) Despite Prof Travers claims to be centrist, pxix, I felt his pre-existing non-appreciation still somehow shows through. There is much on the Somme and Passchendaele, but nothing on all the individual victories, the lands returned to the Belgians and the French, nor the 100 days. There is no sense we won.
2) Prof Travers is throughout very critical, negative, and also declares a bias towards internal factors and stresses particular themes, pxix: well, it’s not a middle position then, is it ?
3) He never clears up the point that “casualty” does not equal “dead”. “Casualty” simply means “not at current roll call” and will include minor cuts and bruising, training related injuries, coughs, colds, etc, as well as missing (later turns up), captured, and undergoing field punishment. I am appalled how many British people do not know this.
4) Prof Travers keeps bringing up the “cult of the offensive”: but as mentioned above, how else do you win ? As with most criticisms of WW1, no viable alternative is put forward.
This book is not revisionist: it does not re-write history like Joan Littlewood’ “Oh ! What a Lovely War”, or “Blackadder”, or Alan Bleasdale’s “The Monocled Muntineer”, all of which sacrifice provable historical fact for their authors’ political biases. It is critical, but in a well-informed, starting from first-order evidence fashion. Readers of all persuasions will benefit from the detail and the scholarship, even if they don’t agree with every conclusion.
I wonder why the British are determined to teach WW1 via a biassed and skewed selection of poetry, rather than like any other period of history from fact-based books, such as this ? This is how we work out what happened, and why, let us built a corporate myth based upon fact, like we can with WW2.