Daily Archives: 2 August, 2011

Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan

This sure is a book that divides opinions among historians. Hence, I like it. I believe that Corrigan is quite right to take on the ‘mythbuster’ mantle. There are a trememdous amount of fallacies in history, and many surround the Great War. Not helped, it has to be said by cultural influences such as Blackadder, or ‘Oh what a lovely war!’.

Corrigan’s quote about the myth that Tommy marched up to the front in 1914 singing Tipperary, smoking a pipe, sat in a trench for four years, and went over the top and saw all his mates killed is one of my favourite passages in any history book. The original BEF in 1914, the old contemptibles, were a tiny force of 4 then 5 Divisions. The British Army expanded slowly, with Kitcheners volunteers largely entering the fray in 1916 on the Somme. Also, very few units spent very long in the front-line. My research suggests that a five day stretch in the front line would have been a long stint. Often, Battalions might spend up to a month away from the front training and resting. By no means did ever Tommy spend all of the war sat in a wet, muddy hole.

The conduct of the war also comes in for examination. Corrigan feels, perhaps with some value, that Haig could not really have done much better than he did. And, actually, I am rather inclined to agree. It goes against the perceived wisdom of an aloof cavalryman unconcerned with losses, but I have yet to hear, read or see of anyone suggesting HOW the ‘Donkeys’ could have fought the war differently. How the war was fought was a product of its time, with the mass armies of the nineteenth century, massive technological and industrial change but leaders and institutions that had not yet fully grasped these changes.

Corrigan’s argument on casualties is more difficult to support, I feel. Supported by statistical analysis, including percentages, Corrigan argues that the losses in the Great War were not as frightful as is generally thought. True, Britain did not lose as many men as France or Germany, but we need to remember that the vast majority of those killed were conscripts, whereas Germany and France had large standing armies. My research has shown that TWICE as many people from Portsmouth died between 1914 and 1921 as did between 1939 and 1945. Having researched thousands of casualties in Twentieth Century conflicts, I am cautious to add that losses are not just about numbers, but the social impact.

But whether we agree or disagree with certain points is, I think, besides the point. When a historiography is riddled with assumptions and becomes as stale as that of the Great War, anything that gives it a good kick up in the air cannot be a bad thing. Even if they’re not strong arguments, it makes us go back and re-evaluate our thinking again.

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