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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
The Pity of War
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on 9 May 2007
The Pity of War seems like a good idea,an attempt to re-evaluate the First World War and challenge some of the pre-conceived ideas and assumptions we have about the conflict. However, it is let down by a problematic structure, which doesn't make it very readable, and the fact that the author's arguments do not seem fully developed, but, nevertheless, all seem to point towards an already determined conclusion.
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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 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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Fascinating character, our Niall - never one to respect conventional pieties. Not another corpse-count and tour de trenches but a sober yet dazzling consideration of how we blundered down that fateful path. His grasp of the sources is more than impressive. In a telling vignette he tells us he was inspired to learn German after seeing Karl Kraus's seminal if rarely-performed The Last Days of Mankind at Edinburgh in 1983. We should all be lucky enough to have attended the Edinburgh Festival aged 19!
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on 15 March 2017
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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 12 February 2013
My first book of Niall Ferguson, who is claimed by some to have inherited Taylor's mantle and would in fact be a good book to read after The Struggle for Mastery of Europe. In the Pity of War, Ferguson attempts to re-assess several we'll established paradigm's and tried to investigate to what extend there is sufficient evidence for this claims. As such the book is separated into several chapters that all together try to answer 10 of these questions. Some, I think highly controversial and most have (what do you expect from someone who openly supported Mitt Romney) stirred a lot of controversy. Especially the first 100 pages which tries to give a new perspective on the Role of GB in WW1, and comes to the conclusion that Germany was not the aggressor but Britain was so by taking the blame, Germany was perhaps `Self-Flagellating' herself. Another one was about the overall idea that men were proud, happy and willing to go to war to fight for their country. Time after time Ferguson, comes with a ton of references, documents, and interestingly books, that nearly almost prove exactly the opposite. Considering the fact that in the beginning of the book he takes a clear stance against Fischer, one could argue that even if history is written by the loser, they still have it wrong, and if it is written by the winner, it can sometimes take a long time before they eventually got it right. A very good book to read along other books on WW1, which can keep you sharp and remind you that no matter how persuasive what is been presented does not always mean it is also true. As such we can actually wonder the same about this book too. History is indeed a never ending and never finishing process.
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on 25 February 2014
Niall Ferguson relishes an opportunity to revisit and revise accepted historical thought, and this book is no different. You might not agree with everything that he writes, but there is no doubt that his work is thought-provoking and makes the reader question what they think that they know. Ferguson's Pity of War looks at ten questions and myths about the First World War that he thinks are suspect. Broadly, they look at the causes of the war (was it inevitable? was it Germany's fault?) and the reasons why the Allies won (how far were economic and military factors at play?).

Ferguson's most controversial ideas are at the start and end - he begins by saying that the war was caused partly by the British leadership fudging their foreign policy, misleading the Germans who wanted a limited continental war. At the end of the book, he suggests that history would have been far better had Britain stayed out of the war, allowing Germany to win and create a proto-EU several decades before it actually happened. I'm certainly not convinced by this part of Ferguson's thesis, but I don't see that as a reason to mark down the book. I enjoyed reading and considering Ferguson's argument.

A great read on the First World War, although you would be advised to read it alongside other First World War historians - try Max Hastings or John Keegan as a contrast.
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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 25 November 2007
I read the book with the hope to find out why and how could this madness have happened, but did not. It seems that Ferguson sets out with the aim to refute truisms about the WW I. His main propositions are:
- the war could have been avoided
- there was lack of militarism among masses
- media played a big part in whipping up patriotism and war hysteria, and keeping war going
- Britain could have stayed out of war being better off without fighting it
- there was economic and human (in numbers) superiority of the Entente Powers over the Central Powers but still Germany could have won the war
- Germany was much more effective in killing enemies than the Entente
- Germany only lost the war when the German soldiers lost will to fight and surrendered

Most of those propositions are sympathetic even if not always backed with evidence and logical arguments. Lot of paper could have been saved simply by stating that the Entente Powers combined GDP was 60% greater and they had 4,5 times as many people as the Central Powers... Overall it was too many words but about 10% of the book was really interesting: the last "What if" chapter and the argument that German victory in the continental war might have created a version of European Union many decades ahead of schedule.
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