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Thought-provoking if a bit suspect in detail
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.