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One’s first impression of the First World War should be the right one

Fig. 1. All Quiet on the Western Front

A student’s first impression of the First World War should be the right one.

Life was largely spent out of the trenches rather than in: on field marches, labouring, resting, training … or filling the time out of boredom. I only recently came across ‘Tartans’ – detailed charts showing week by week where a battalion were … for many it was months out of the line then a week or two in and out of the line.

Blackadder cannot and does not get close to ‘living’ in a trench: the constant threat of death, atrocious conditions, friends being injured and dying horrible deaths. Soldiers learnt and knew the sound of every kind of shell going over to fill the time. And whilst communications with High Command could not be direct there is a largely excellent rapport between infantry and officers.

Nor were the only ‘posh’ public school idiots. Many staffers applied for and get commissions in the trenches – begged for it. Yes, the five minutes of the last episode are moving, better though to show ‘For King and Country’, or ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ …. even ‘Johnny Got his Gun’ or the extraordinary Metallica video and rock song to that film. I hope ‘Testament of Youth’ does the job.

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.

 

Flickr for learning and the First World War

Dear Great War Archive Flickr Group,

How would any of you answer this?

I am a lecturer in the Department of Information Studies, University College London, and specialise in the digitization of cultural and heritage material.

I’m currently carrying out a small study regarding non-institutional digitization: that is, digital resources such as online museums or Flickr groups created by amateurs, enthusiasts and specialists. The study aims to look at the range of material created by amateur enthusiasts, the motivation for doing so, and the level of interaction these resources have with their intended audience.

The pool of those being ‘interviewed’ given that is it only on Flickr and is self-selecting means that it can never be selective. So this is a piece of qualitative research? There are no objective criteria to be met? Is Flickr paying for this research? Who knows.

I’m really interested in the way that people are using Flickr as a platform to share images of their collections. I wondered whether you could spare the time to answer a few questions about your activities?

Any responses I get from this brief survey – I’m looking to survey fifty or so Flickr users creating high quality resources that are not part of any established memory institution – would be kept anonymous, although you would be credited in acknowledgements, should the results be written up. I aim to present the results at an academic conference such as Digital Humanities, or Museums and the Web, but depending on the quality of the results I may also write up the results for an academic journal.

So we .. I have done all the work for you?

I’ve attached a few brief questions below, and it should take about 10 minutes for you to respond. Please let me know if you have any questions about this. I’m really impressed by the Flickr group you contribute to, and I’d really like to include it in the survey!

It might take 10 mins. But I’ve given it 60.

I’d appreciate your response by the 1st of June 2009, responses can be sent to my email (m.terras@ucl.ac.uk) or via my user account on flickr (enthusiast_digitization).

Best wishes,

Dr Melissa Terras
Senior Lecturer in Electronic Communication
Department of Information Studies
University College London
www.ucl.ac.uk/infostudies/melissa-terras/
m.terras@ucl.ac.uk

Questions for Flickr Users:

Part A. Motivation

1. Can you tell us a little about your collection. Presumably, this existed prior to contributing your items to the Flickr group? Has your collection grown alongside your activity with Flickr?
2. What motivated you to contribute to your chosen Flickr group?
3. Is your Flickr group entirely your own, or are you part of a team or wider community? Did you set up the group yourself, or join an existing one?

Part B. Creation and Maintenance

4. Can you describe how long it took to create the images you uploaded to Flickr? What tools and techniques did you use, ie for scanning, or photography of objects?
5. How much time do you spend contributing items to Flickr?
6. Were you aware of any standards (for example for photography, or cataloguing, or copyright clearance) that are used in creating digital resources?

Part C. Interaction with User Community

7. Do you know who looks at the images you contribute to Flickr? Do you have an established audience?
8. Are you aware of any usage statistics, such as the number of “hits” you get per day?
9. Do you engage with other members of the Flickr community creating and uploading similar images?
10. How often are you contacted by people interested in your resource?
11. Are you aware of your resource ever having been used in research – for example to provide dates or historical detail for historians?

Part D. Interaction with Memory Institutions

12. Have you every been contacted by an established museum, library or archive regarding the images you contribute to Flickr? If so, could you tell us a little about this interaction?

Part E. Any Further Comments?

13. Is there anything else you would like to add regarding the creation, maintenance, or use of the material you contribute to Flickr?
Posted at 6:09PM, 19 May 2009 BST ( permalink )

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mymindbursts says:

From the age of 5 or 6 after Sunday Dinner my grandfather sitting with us children might start a story,’ Did I tell you about the time that …’ and so would begin some account of his experiences in the First World War: machine guns, prisoners, bombs & bullets … and aeroplanes. He was 67 perhaps …. and lived another 30 years. Between us, a brother & two sisters, I became the most interested in his accounts. My mother wrote them off, couldn’t stand it … clearly he had this ever present desire to relive, or recount his experiences. Age 13 I started keeping a diary and in time would have jotted down some of my grandfather’s stories. I had a life to lead, exams, and ultimately a university degree at Oxford. The First World War wasn’t history so I had to stick with the Tudors & Stuarts! I accepted this. A decade on I a, living in France and as part of a film crew on behalf of the French Ministry of Culture we are travelling to all the ‘tough’ urban district of towns … most of which happen to be along the old Western Front. The joke is that I am always interested in and photography war memorials. Abbeville, Verdun, Mountaban all made the First World War feel real. So I would share my experiences in France with my grandfather. INcreasingly frail when I was in town (my parents had long divorced) … and then my granny had died … he craved company. Technology first in the from of VHS let me indulge my grandfather further … he had books on planes, the trenches & all the rest … but he hadn’t see ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ in 50 years. Working in Television Production I understood the value of getting his story down and chose to do this on a Sony Digital audio kit … transcribing these notes I went back to ask further questions. Yes, I should have got him on Broadcast Video … but he looked so old and frail and I had never planned to broadcast him. Anyway … as I grew up, as my comprehension of his world , let alone my own, become clearer how I had seen his war changed. I wrote a piece called ‘That’s Nothing Compared to Passchendeale’ in 1990 ? while sitting with him watching the First Gulf War. A lad from the Durham Light Infantry was interviewed in the desert which prompted this remark … he had signed up with the Durham Light Infantry in 1915. He also had something to say about the Tornadoes as he had transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. And I got in touch with Lyn MacDonald and he went on a trip to Passchendeale … and his medals came out (he has the Military Medal) and he shook hands with the King of Belgium … and photographs he had and those of his kid brother Billy who had joined the RFC age 16 and died in a crash in 1919 … and after his death … and with so much coming on line I found I could add even more detail to his recorded memoir by checking details of those who had served and died … and then researching their own family background. Slowly it all came painfully to life, the family members lost, the closeness of the community … the very different attitude to the ‘working class’ then … they were cannon fodder. My gradual loathing for Haig who cheated his way into Oxford and Sandhurst and weazeled his way into the affections of the Royal Family & as a result of this, not his ability ended up responsible for the death of millions …

Is the First World War more deeply a part of the British psyche than that of Canadians, Anz’s … those from South Africa?

At an MCG event in London I was invited to be the standard bearer in front of he Boy David. These people gave their lives, or their leg, or their face for others at home making a mint … or not.

Accounts of young lads being killed today astounds me … not just how young they sound, but how dumb. The army is putting the ignorant in danger … again 🙁

Surely the sharpest minds should be the ones in the Front Line in a modern war? I’d love to know the average IQ of those being sacrificed.

Flickr is a service/software that sits on the shoulders of many others. I’ve been online since 1998 and blogging regularly since 1999. Flickr is easy, that is all. Though I WILL NOT pay anything for the privilege of loading images to this advertising infested homepage.

Perhaps I should be taking a closer look at the legalease that could very well have been written by a fellow Oxford alumni who specialises in Intellectual Property Law. Are we being hood winked?

My joy in Flickr is in part contributing, and sharing and letting the world know that what I do exists or existed … however, Flickr is fast becoming some kind of landfil for crap pics …

I’m careless about uploading more than one click of the same image and more than one enhanced image …

Having already put on line the 25000 memoir of my late grandfather I had fun putting in some pics of my own but am having even more fund linking his story to images others have collected … and pasting verbatim memories of his into the comment slot of pics of others.

It is very much about keeping his memory alive. Is this a human thing? Camp fire stories of warriors and their fights? For me it is an intellectual journey too … I simply cannot find a way to get over to others what these men, these boys, went through. So I have read everything … and ought to be taking an MA or reading for a doctoral thesis on some aspect of the Great War.

My greatest latest acquisition a full set of magazines published on the Great War in the 1930s in which each edition opens with an editorial from H.G.Wells.

Flickr? So far it works …. I have all my images on a disc and will share them with whatever site I like, on my own and with others. Things will move on.

I will find I am linking all of this into family trees & war grave info and census returns.

And perhaps a couple of bodies will be dug up, given a military burial and their names lifted from those of the missing.

Perhaps human kind will get the message – one hideous death through a bullet, a bomb or gas is enough.

We should be seeing more pictures of the horribly injured from WWI & WWII … and the current conflicts in the Middle-East. Death we do well, maimed young men we cry over.

Getting the images online is a pelarva: photo or scan, the manipulate to make black & white, sharpen, then upload for the web so you don’t blow the permitted bandwidth in one go.

Standard are irrelevant as the pictures I post I expect to be only of a quality to observe online, not download for print publication or posters. Copyright isn’t an issue yet as my sharing these images is part of singing this song. I would take issue with anyone claiming copyright to a picture they didn’t own. I have wallets and packets of photographs that I have been given … that have been handed down.

Stats matter becuase they satisfy my ego … they are of interest. In particular it is the linking of my grandfather’s verbatim words to images supplied by others that is ringing true.

A picture might be worth a thousand words … but a thousand words goes a long way to make an image a narrative, to put it into context and give it meaning and relevance.

Age 87 I took my grandfather to the Imperial War Museum where he was re-introduced to the Vicker’s Machine Gun. He had not been behind one in nearly 70 years. He crouched behind this gun in the armoury in his mack and flat cap as if he was 20 years old, his thumbs went to the locks, checked the sights, and fiddled about and then he placed the two enormous pads of his thumbs onto the triggers.

He was ready to kill, or guard, or save his skin and that of his mates … he was back in a recently captured Jerry pill box with those he had known for months in his unit clutching their guts and breathing their last. I wish I had filmed that!

I have in mind an installation that uses Flickr images of the Great War that might start to enthrall, intrigue and perhaps terrify visitors. A walk through maze with life size images, and smells and dummy limbs and rats, and lice … and mud up to the throat and bullets whizzing bombs going off while solders do diarrhea into their trousers and commit on the duckboards ..

I guess I am there from an historical research perspective ‘read in a subject until you can hear the people speak.’ I can smell them, touch them, speak to them … I an empathise with them.

My grandfather survived, his efforts set his daughter on a middle-class platform and I was born into a family of aspiring professionals & entrepreneurs. Indeed my grandfather had been the son of the chauffeur of some big family who owned breweries & the like … and lived to see his grandchildren living that lifestyle with domestic staff, a cook and groundsman, a chauffeur even, the Rolls on the gravel courtyard of the castle …

All of this, yet right to the moment of his death, he feared this moment, the potential loneliness leading up to it and certainly his growing incapacity.

With a few sips from a can of Newcastle Brown Ale Jack Wilson passed away in December 2nd 1992 age 96 years and 3 months. His parting words were no different to those his mates had used on the Western Front.

Okay, he didn’t call for his mother. He realised that was a non starter.

‘Bugger’ was his final word. Or as he put it ‘You Bugs.’

We are still yet to scatter his ashes …

Over the North Sea where he was training as a fighter pilot in 1919 I think.

Or a grain glued to every picture I have of him from this period.

Have I said enough?

My blog is 1.6 million words thick. Courtesy of Flickr I intended to illustrate it. I am starting with the 24+ entries and 25000 words of my late grandfather’s memoir. At some stage I will go out and film it. I have in mind an open cast mine in Canada as the spot to recreate Passchendeale.

The Imperial War Museum has the transcript of interviews I conducted. I have the digital cassettes that I have copied and should digitize.

On the 90th anniversary Grantham did a thing on the Machine Gun Corps and used chunks of Jack’s memoir and pictures I had supplied.

it will never be enough. Not until I own the rights to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and make another movie of it to the standard of ‘Saving Private Ryan.’

Much, much more at www.jonathan.diaryland.com

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