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Douglas Haig and the First World War (2008) J P Harriss
Nearly 600 pages that follow a chronology that is familiar. Insights on Haig are limited – perhaps reading Haig’s diary and a biography at the same time would help. This is written by a military historian with judgement of Haig’s command key. We get little insight into the man – if there is much a a personal life to probe. His diary appears to reveal little. What does come over is how often Haig was to blame for actions that were unlikely to succeed in doing much other than expending a good deal of munitions and men – time and time again he planned an offensive that would lead to a break-through, require cavalry support and put tens of thousands of men against barbed wire, machine guns and shrapnel. His greatest skill was to climb and keep climbing the ladder of promotion and to tread carefully around events which might have led to his being passed over for promotion … or his resignation asked for, or accepted.
My first read. A second read possibly to follow unless I can be pointed to a biography.
Notes as iPhone/iPad pictures with annotations (Studio) and a mindmap (SimpleMinds)
Britain had been preparing for war with Germany as is clear from manoeuvres, in this instance with both France and Russia, in 1912 (Harris, 2008:51). Perhaps the re-organisation of the Army to have the Expeditionary Force, however small, was part of an anxiety and vulnerability – had Britain not also contemplated conscription?
As the nature of artillery changed – longer range, great accuracy and a diversity of shells types from high explosives to shrapnel it is staggering that proper thought wasn’t given to how destroyed the land was over which the armies would have to travel.
Typo alert! Actually there are a couple more but I so no value
Where tactics have failed to deliver why did Haig persist? How could more of the same possibly get better results next time? What part of his mindset made him stick to this? Does he lack imagination? He appears emotionally dry or aloof – his relationship with his wife and family hardly suggests a person with a close emotional attachment.
Haig’s greatest skill and purpose was to climb to the top of the Army ladder – what he did or could do when he rose to the top was another matter. This isn’t what makes a great leader – he is like a career civil servant. But what would a hot headed, womanizing, gambler of a man done with this power? If Haig made mistakes they need to be considered and compared with other leaders on the Western and Eastern Fronts. Had Britain a leader like Foch, Neville, Falkenhayn or Holweg … or the Russian aristocrats would we have fared better or differently? And if we’d had Robertson rather than Haig?
History written by a military historian is different to history or biography – the audience here is expected to learn and potentially apply at staff level the lessons from past battles. Haig’s diary is revealing because in this supposedly private moments he is reveals so little: statements of the weather, not what this could mean, statement of events without reflection on what he did well or badly. Self-control in both his public and private life.
To understand Haig then we need to know who the alternatives might have been and whether in reality they could or would have behaved differently: Robertson, Du Can and Rawlinson are different men.
My impression is of a deluded fantasist with no one able or willing to stand up to him … not even Lloyd George. Haig, with Royal patronage and few competing for his role, could and would do as he pleased. He resented having to play second fiddle to the French. In the early stages of the war he ignored orders or requests with potentially dire consequences yet he got away with it.
Haig’s tactics: more munitions, human dynamism and officers of the ‘thruster’ type – people who would risk all regardless. Is there anything we can learn from Haig’s achievements as a polo player from this? What does it require to win at polo?
Haig pressed on with tactics that would leave many thousands dead for little gain and he wasn’t able or willing to question what he could or should do differently.
How clear did failure have to be to get Haig to change his tactics?
Failure of this kind should surely have seen Haig replaced? To what extend did his ‘moral fibre’, his otherwise untarnished character, make it less easy to remove him?
Overexcited, overoptomistic, blind to failure, forever looking beyond the horizon, convinced cavalry had a role, yet able to try gas and tanks … anxious for his peers and superiors to shower him in praise and his subordinates to be fawning …
Self-righteous and self-assured – did his religious beliefs permit his unstinting view of the world? He had the image of someone who deserved authority and respected it. He was fit, sober and in a stable marriage. He worked hard and played the game well. Born into a different age could he have survived? He lacks the flair of Montgomery or Churchill. Described as taciturn, to what degree might or could his asthma have been a controlling influence?
He looked the part and was fastidious about his health – what else could as asthmatic do in the early 20th century? Did he know what the triggers were, or had he learnt from experience to avoid certain foods and situations – not least smoking? Was he prone to chest infections?
Whilst those around him realised all talk of a ‘break-through’ was unrealistic, this is what Haig constantly planned for and expected. Or was it simply wishful thinking?
Step by step is what occurred … as a result from efforts to breakthrough? A case of shoot for the stars and hitting the moon? That in Haig’s eyes step by step would have equated to inconsequential nibbling?
Obsessive, selective, fixated, God-guided, controlling, cavalry-orientated, driven obdurate, blind … consistent, controlled, tempered, magisterial … aloof and with tunnel-vision.
Able to comprehend, but unable to bend? Unable to think of any alternative. The world around him changed, but Haig stayed resolutely in the 19th century.
Chance the way the leaders played off against each other? Men like so many bullets or sandbags, simply a resource to count then stack in the knowledge that there would be great losses but that these could be shored up?
He didn’t like to have his feather’s ruffled. He wanted the game played in his way with him in charge.
A hypocrite who would fail to come to the aid of others … yet others to come to the aid of him. Too good or important to warrant risking his men, or putting his men under another’s control and willing only at the last minute to seek help when things looked desperate and he had no choice.
- Haig was no hero (machineguncorps.com)
- Museums watch: The poppy and Reading (getreading.co.uk)
- ‘Your Country Needs You’ (thesocialistway.blogspot.com)
- Alex Massie: War that changed a nation (scotsman.com)
- The First World War Pt.5 (detectingblackpool.wordpress.com)
- Canada and the First World War (anoctoberhorse.wordpress.
It was fashionable to demonise the British leaders of the First World War in the 1960s and it was Alan Clarke who coined the sentence, ‘Lions lead by Donkeys. The media contunies to mock them still in the 1980s with the likes of ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ then along came revisionist and social historians to say that they were a product of their time and did the best of a bad job. Ghandi came from this era – he didn’t need to send hundreds of thousands to war and likely maiming and death.
Haig wad a product of the times: unable to get in otherwise he chose Brasenose College, Oxford that didn’t require academic credentials – Haig had none. Because Haig went to Oxford he didn’t require to take any exams to get into Sandhurst. There’s a pattern forming here. And he didn’t complete all his exams at Sandhurst, but as he played polo and knew the King he got through.
Soldiers on the ground reaaly did think that their leaders were clueless idiots. I don’t need to take my grandfather’s word for it, though you can hear the genuine anger in his voice when he talks about it, not least concerning the conditions around Ypres in the second half of 1917 and the suffering of his friends, many of whom died a horrible death.
Much had changed in a hundred years – let’s hope it continues to move in a direction that respects life, inclusivity and both moral and ethical guidelines that see that people are rewarded on merit, not by birth or deviousness.
My rapidly growing reading list is largelly thanks to Niall Ferguson who in ‘The Pity of War’ who cites everybody under the sun.
‘[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,
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,
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,
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
- Martin Samuels
- Theo Balderston
- Martin van Creveld
- Correlli Barret
- Paddy Griffith
- Martin Holmes
- Lidell Hart
- Norman Stone
- 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.
Fig.1 SimpleMind Mindmap based on Niall Ferguson’s ‘The Pity of War’
I’ve now read ‘The Pity of War’ twice in a row. As I’ve gone through it I’ve highlighted passages and added notes
and tabs in Kindle. I also grabbed a few highlighted passages and put them into the iPad App ‘Studio’ to annotate and took slides from a
presentation on how to prepare a book review by Dr Pete Gray of the University of Birmingham and annotated these too.
On the second reading I created the SimpleMinds mindmap above.
This ought to be my starting point for a solid 1,000 word book review.
Further reading in the from of Books and papers of interest have been picked up along the way too.
Those to find in a university library, those acquired secondhand through Amazon or uploaded as eBooks in Kindle and papers I can find as a postgraduate student online, either through the Open University or the University of Birmingham (I am a postgraduate student at both). There are various ways I can offer the above, though the best is to download the FREE version of SimpleMinds and read it that way.
Offered with a view to sharing the views of others.
I can export it into a word file and develop the categories I already have as separate themes:
Insightful (in yellow) has some 52 notes, most referenced by Kindle Link (KL).
Do I buy the print version or go to the library and cross-reference?
Descriptors: meticulous, original, weighty, highly referenced, all sides, high brow, thoroughly researched, well read … often
intricate, taking us to detail researched by others? NOT, as he says in the introduction, a textbook or a narrative of the war.
No Trivia – nor the chronology if the war, nor countless aggregated memories of veterans, though there is a bit of poetry and some
mention of movies and TV films from ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ to ‘Birdsong’, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘Blackadder goes forth’ and
‘Ghost Road’ Bias – I wonder about this in relation to where Niall Ferguson – that he relishes a dig on the landed gentry and public
school system, their types, behaviours and hobbies, from leadership to country sports.
Debunking myths: the desire for war, the Germans to blame, the Russians to blame, militarism, German economic efficiency, not donkeys, the AEF didn’t win the war and blundered in making the mistakes of 1914, naval supremacy and ambivalence to war.
The Press – censorship, Buchanan, DORA. Finance – givernments
A dilletante, too thorough, comprehensive: penny dreadfuls, invasion stories, art history and drama, from Karl Kraus to Oh What a Lovely War.
Errors or mistaken emphasis: Fashoda, conjecture that Grey et al. exaggerated the threat of Germany despite intelligence, attempting to interpret stats on fatalities, wounded and prisoners, the Entente were better at killing, maiming and taking prisoners, Tommy gets angry with a Jerry prisoner, All
Quiet on the Western Front is not biography though Ferguson quotes from it as if it is. Remarque wasn’t a front line soldier. The Oxford Union as any kind of representative body for comment. That Belgium neutrality would have been breached by GB. That skilled workers lost to the war impacted our economy when women very effectively stepped in. That the EU in its current form might have emerged has GB stayed out of it. That waving Tommies are from a photo archive when they are grabs from the Battle of Somme footage.
Kinds of historian: cultural, military, diplomatic, economic.
Why was recruitment successful? Recruitment campaign, female pressure, peer and employer pressure, impulse, economic motives, and more?
Other historians and commentators:
Alan Clarke, Lidell Hart, John Terraine, Correlli Barret, Michael Howard, Norman Stone, Lafell, Bidwell, Graham, Travers, Holmes, Martin van Creveld, Dominic Graham, JMBourne, Michael Geyer, Martin Samuels, Gudmannskn, Paddy Griffith, Theo Balderston, Knaus and Hew Strachan.
With distinct sections on:
Finance and JMKeynes Writers
With a bit on poets, and rather less on films and art.
What did he leave out then?
- The Home Front
- Technological developments, especially in the air
Fig.2. A brief response to the ten questions Ferguson poses at the start of the book and attempts to answer by the end – I’m not wholly convinced.
As I read all that has been said and is being said on the outbreak of war in 1914 I become more confused, not less. It is messy to say the least. A few pages on from drawing the above conclusion Niall Ferguson goes on to blame the smokescreen of indecission put up by the British Foreign Minister Grey. The mistake is to think there is a simple answer.
You start by thinking of gambler’s around a Euopean table, then start to wonder if Germany has the most to lose, to gain and to risk.
As a boy my grandfather would tell me stories of his time on the Western Front during the First World War and how it transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and trained as a fighter pilot. It was a pleasure therefore to introduce him to the audience of BBC South Today at the start of a year long commemoration of the 1914-1918 war.
My own interest is shifting from amateu historian and research sleuth in relation to my grandfather’s rather unusual story – he startef out in the Durham Light Infantry, was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps … and at one stage was asked if he’d like to join the Tank Corps. Then right at the end of 1917 having survived the Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele, his papers came through and he spent 1918 training to be a pilot, starting in Hastings where he got military training, morse code and topography.
To support my interest I am taking a Masters degree in First World War studies at the university of Birmingham.
As the grandson of a veteran of the First World War I took my grandfather’s stories to be accurate to the letter – though how I visualised his antics as I grew up bore very little to the reality, but rather a boy’s perceptions from his surroundings, TV and books in the 1960s and 1970s.
As I study for an MA in British First World War studies the chance exists not only to entrench my research into his journey through the Machine Gun Corps and the fledgling RAF but to consider the accuracy of any veterran’s account – as the years pass their stories can be coloured by what they read and hear so that they may say what people expect to hear.
The opportunity may also exist to do some original research, even to be in touch with the relatives of those featured in his story.
Is it possible, for example, to put names to the faces in a set of photographs of the RAF cadets who were barracked at the Queen’s Hotel, Hastings in May and June 1918?
And where he marked the spot where he buried his mates Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld is it feasible to look for them or leave a permanent stone?