56 of 60 people found the following review helpful
Not for the beginner
, 2 Sept. 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: The Pity of War (Paperback)
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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