Home » 1913 » The Pity of War (1998) by Niall Ferguson – towards a comprehensive book review

The Pity of War (1998) by Niall Ferguson – towards a comprehensive book review


A review by J F Vernon of ‘The Pity of War’ (1998) Niall Ferguson

‘[The Pity of War’, despite its personal, gentle and engaging introduction seeing the war through  the experiences of a long dead grandfather, is not a deliberately popular narrative of the First World War – it neither covers the chronology of events, nor the detail of particular battles as so many other books do. Although written, in some hurry, to come out in time for  the 80th Anniversary of the November 1918 Armistice, ‘The Pity of War’ hardly cashes in, as it is a serious, in-depth, closely referenced and at times a specialist read.

Fig.1. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+

‘The Pity of War’ is thoroughly research, meticulous, and often original, it is weighty and shows that he is very well read. It is referenced every full-stop of the way. He may show a bias to having studied in German in Germany.

The audience for ‘The Pity of War’, you imagine, is the graduate historians, or economic historian or the well-read Western Front buff. ‘The Pity of War’ flips with intricate relish some of the myths that have arisen in relation to the First World War while the toughest and most specialist read at the core of the book is a study of the financial health of the combatant nations. Needless to say, there is an overwhelming wealth of insightful detail, all of it meticulously referenced.

Fig.2. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+ Reading an eBook on the Kindle platform ‘KL’ refers to ‘Kindle Location’

Some of the content covered:

  • Cinemas and newsreels, filmmakers, newspapers,

  • Workers wages, productivity and strikes, the choking off of imported fertilisers and the damage this did to the ability of Germany to feed itself, the shambles of procurement,

  • Writers and academics for the war, a militarised Monopoly,

  • British espionage,

  • Domestic morale, an army of incapable of improvisation, beauty in death and how mustard gas putting paid to the kilt.

  • The two Ks ‘Maynard Keynes and Karl Kraus’

  • Surrender as the outcome

  • Shilly-shallying of Grey and the cabinet

Fig.3. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+ The yellow lines related to the myriad of ‘insightful’ points picked up while reading the book.

  • It’s all like a big picnic, announced one Officer bored with his life at home,

  • Blockading Germany,

  • The real rivals were Britain, Russia and France,

  • Military travel plans,

  • Cannae and Schlieffen, the aftermath,

  • Bethman’s bid for neutrality, homosexuality,

  • The international bond market and the cost of the arms race which was low,

Fig.4. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+

  • The Anglo-French Cordiale April 1904,

  • Egypt,

  • French loans to Russia from 1886,

  • Reichstad’s control of military expenditure, the Weimar economy, wrecked itself, not war reparations, a Pyrrhic victory, losers all, a soldier’s comforts,

Fig.5. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+ Here are some of the myths that Ferguson aimed to rebut or debunk.

  • Ambivalence to the war,

  • not donkeys but hindered by deference to superiors,

  • The AEF did no ‘win the war’ and relied on outmoded tactics,

  • overwhelming naval superiority,

  • the desire for war by the public and politicians

The greatest value of ‘The Pity of War’ may be as a reference guiding those with particular niche interests in the poets, art of films of the war, on the Keynesian economics and finance of the Germany, of bankers, as well as politicians and generals, on the literature since the war and the rebutting and debunking of many of the myths and misconceptions that have developed over the many decades as new generations have interpreted the war to suit their own sensibilities.

Fig.6. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+ In orange some of the many historians, authors and commentators who are cited. 

Historians, commentators and writers referenced include:

  • Alan Clarke
  • John Terraine
  • J.M.Bourne
  • Martin Samuels
  • Theo Balderston
  • Martin van Creveld
  • Correlli Barret
  • Laffel
  • Paddy Griffith
  • Martin Holmes
  • Lidell Hart
  • Norman Stone
  • Gudmanson
  • Travers
  • Graham
  • Michael Howard
  • Karl Kraus
  • Hew Strachan
  • Michael Geyer

Ferguson has a formidable reputation as an historian, academically he is attached to two of the leading universities in the world: Oxford and Harvard while as a presenter and commentator he has a presence on television. He gained his MA and D.Phil in History from the University of Oxford, spending several years studying and researching at the University of Hamburg, where his interest in the personalities and mechanics and international finance in the early part of the 19th century developed, in this respect his focus naturally tends towards Germany at the expense say of France and Russia and the Balkans. Ferguson confounds what might be the ground rules of historical study by liking to second guess events, these ‘counter factuals’ imagine what might have occurred ‘if?’ Do these offer insight, or do they confuse, especially where at times Ferguson is emphatic that events would have gone a certain way if x or y had or had not happened. He edited and write for an anthology of such ‘counter factuals’ so clearly believes they are a valid way to gain insight, though it may also show an interest in literature and fiction, rather than just the nots and bolts of the professional historian.

Ferguson is a driven, passionate, even obsessive historian determined to make his point or counter-point with a relentless catalogue of evidence. His modus operandi in this text is to get at his ‘truth’ of the First World War by addressing common questions and myths. He undoes several and turns others on their head, often in a convincing way, though sometimes doubts remain, though further pursuit of the references should help the reader come to their own conclusions. The crudest structure of the book is to take ten difficult questions and query their validity – you then wonder if this has been akin to setting ten tough graduate assignments, and that answering them in his own professorial voice.

He is a mighty white, British middle-class intellect, who acknowledges the humble background of his council-house dwelling grandfather – the First World War veteran, shares with us his own grammar school education, then brushes up against the Oxford Union types of his alma mater and reveals a tone regarding officers in the war that is critical of what public schools produced at the time and is anti the British gentry of the period too.

‘The Pity of War’ receives glowing reviews in the Press and professors from leading universities have reviewed it, enjoying the challenge of meeting him square on, applauding some of his insights, but offering criticism of other conclusions.

There is no doubt ‘The Pity of War’ adds substantially to a broader and deeper understanding of the First World War, though it should be seen as a book that complements, rather than replaces texts that provide the chronology, conflict and causes in a more systematic, and less judgmental manner.

Ferguson’s authority can become a barrier, certainly there are parts of his thesis where it is a struggle to take on board the evidence that requires some understanding of international finance and economics. Where there are few, if any, similarly informed authorities it is difficult to know how to challenge some of his views – was Germany really more efficient at killing people? Is it creditable to put a price on a combatant’s head? Money, Ferguson argues, tells a different story to that offered by historians in the past. Easier to comprehend and therefore to engage with are his portraits of men with ambitions and efforts to blame.

The title ‘The Pity of War’ says little about the book’s contents.

The words are not those of the author, but rather taken from one of the war poets. The ‘war poets’ are one aspect of the misconceptions that have developed around the First World War, hijacking how people felt about the war at the time with a post-war negative and sentimentalized view.

Ferguson picks out ten questions to scrutinise, myths to unwind, misconceptions to set straight, as well as original views of his own. Like a postgraduate making his case at the Oxford Union, Ferguson that strips out the facts and attacks each in turn often in meticulous detail, all referenced and from a single perspective. Ferguson doesn’t sit on the fence, he has an opinion and makes it forcefully. For example, when he states that, ‘without the war of attrition on the Western Front, Britain’s manpower, its economy and its vastly superior financial resources could not have been brought to bear on Germany sufficiently to ensure victory’ (KL 10193) is stated as an absolute with a counterfactual offered as the alternative – Britain would have had to comprise rather than fight on in any other way.


Fig.7. Grab from an annotated page from the eBook version of ‘The Pity of War’ (used the App ‘Studio’)

The references is often dense, not a sentence on a page without a footnote or citation.

Ferguson puts the loosest of chronologies at the core of the ten questions he addresses and makes no apologies for avoiding where other authors have already been, indeed he offers a reading list for those wanting a chronology of events or the minutiae of the fields of conflict themselves. The arguments he makes are not always convincing – he appears at time to be contrary for the sake of it. There is little doubt that the book is a personal journey that though multifaceted is not comprehensive; as well as a lack of narrative or of conflict there is little said on women, on the Home Front, on the technology, not equally fascinating facets of the war from underage soldiering and the execution for cowardice of deserters. There are nonetheless some fascinating insights: Germany’s actions where founded on fear of their weakness, not belief in their strength; the Allies were not as gung-ho for war as the Press in particular suggested at times, it was surrender, rather than economic failings or the appearance of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF)  that lead to Germany’s defeat, a nation that clearly relished viciousness more so than the allies whose leaders were want to take repeated all or nothing gambles.

Fig.8. Grab from ‘The Pity of War’. The citation may be correct, but the author cited did not take these photographs. They are either still from the ‘Battle of the Somme’ or copies of photographs taken by the photographer who accompanied the ‘cameraman’.

Had as much care been taken with the images as the words then Ferguson would not have fallen into the trap of giving credit to Tropical Film Company Battle of the Somme film footage grabbed as stills by other authors in the past and offered as their own photographs.

Ferguson touches on, cites and lists a comprehensive range of historians, authors, dramatists, economists, poets and artists making ‘The Pity of War’ a desirable stepping off point, even learning design for a taught masters degree.

Fig.9. Grab from mindmap featuring possible errors in ‘The Pity of War’

He doesn’t always convince and there are errors that escape his eagle eyes (or those of his researchers). It is conjecture to say that Grey et al. exaggerated the threat of Germany despite intelligence. He suggests that a Tommy gets angry with a Jerry prisoner in the Battle of the Somme film without seeing that the man is injured and a prisoner inadvertently bumps into him, and regarding footage from this film shot he continues the calumny of authors who claim stills taken from the film footage or photographs taken by a photographer who travelled with one of the cinematographers, as Hart does, are part of their own photographic collection. Ferguson treats the movie ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ as biography, when its author Remarque saw little of the front line and it is conjecture to suggest that the EU would have resulted had Great Britain been late or stayed our of the war.  The argument that the central powers were somehow better at killing, maiming and taking prisoners ignores that they were largely on the defensive in conflicts which favoured defense. And that the loss of skilled workers to troops hugely impacted on the economy and our ability to wage war when hundreds of thousands of perfectly able women proved how good they were.

Fig.10. Grab from mindmap featuring possible bias in relation to the public-school educated landed gentry of the First World War era. 

Ferguson reveals some bias when he talks about Grey, Churchill and their ilk, from their public-school educated and landed gentry backgrounds. He has a dig at a public school type suited to Empire because of their qualities of leadership and loyalty when in truth young men in these establishments are a heterogeneous lot. And with Grey he has a go a cod psychology by trying to relate Grey the fly fisherman to Grey the foreign minister, in one particular incident thinking that Grey describing the challenge of landing a heavy salmon on lightweight tackle is at all like dealing with Germany on the brink of war. In such instances Ferguson is pushing it too far, it would make amusing TV or a witty point in a live debate at the Oxford Union, but it lacks conviction on the page.

Fig.11. Grab from mindmap suggesting that Ferguson is something of a dilettante, though he gives little time to the media ‘trivia’ that has emerged regarding the First World War on TV and in films. 

Ferguson is dismissive of media events such as as ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’, ‘Birdsong’ and ‘Gallipoli’, and goes light on the War poets and memoirs from veterans.  Though he shows a magpie dilettantism with mentions of invasion stories, art history and Penny dreadfuls.

Fig.12. Grab from mindmap that lists some of the authoritative historians Ferguson refers to.

‘The Pity of War’ by Niall Ferguson should be on any reading list the calims to be from the authorities on the First World War, alongside:

  • Barabara W. Tuchman ‘The Guns of August’

  • AJ P Taylor ‘The First World War’

  • Christopher Clark ‘The Sleepwalkers’

  • Trevor Wilson ‘The Myriad Faces of War’

  • Hew Strachan ‘First World War’

  • Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker ‘Understanding the Great War’

 

There are errors in ‘The Pity of War’. Here a picture taken by Ernest Brooks is misattributed. This happens surprisingly often – either stills from film footage are claimed as the authors or photographs taken by other people.  Does Richard Harte Butler claim to have been the photographer?

The correct attribution is to Ernest Brooks, and in this instance to a book on the shooting of the “Battle of the Somme’ film in 1916.

 

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