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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25 Comments

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25 responses to “Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan

  1. johncerickson

    Hmm … I never took any of Blackadder’s commentary as anything but negative about the Great War. Then again, we itinerant smart-alecks tend to see things in the same light! ;)
    In all seriousness, I have to admit I didn’t realise battalions rotated quite that quickly. I did know that units didn’t spend long stretches in the same place – I think the soldiers’ disgruntlement was closer to US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan today, that they are going back AGAIN, not that they are still there.
    As to leadership, the most important point I’d argue is the use of artillery. Experience showed days-long barrages didn’t wipe out opposition, and DID create nearly impassable terrain for the attackers, as early as the start of 1916, yet the leaders stuck with that doctrine. Perhaps easier would be to say that technological and tactical changes outran commanders’ willingness to accept them. Then again, the military in ALL countries has always been slow to accept change, so perhaps that is Haig’s best defence.
    Either way, it sounds like an interesting read. Now if Mr. Daly would just quit tempting me with outstanding books I can’t afford! :p

  2. I think this sounds like a good, refreshing, look at the First World War; in my GCSE we used British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One by John Laffin. I hated this book, as it seemed to be quite subjective without good evidence. I much prefered the works of Richard Holmes, who did well to explode a number of myths abou the First World War, and presented a balanced, well-supported look at the performance of British troops in WW1.

    • johncerickson

      Perhaps this will being a change in thought on the west side of the Pond. I’ve noticed a recurring theme in Canadian WW1 histories along the lines of the “never have such lions been led by such lambs” concept. I’m not suggesting the downgrade of ANY performance of Canadian troops, but rather an easing of the blame against their British high-level leadership.
      A similar shift in theme is starting to grow here in the States. I’ve recently noticed a gradual shift from “Americans, with tremendous bravery and elan, charging the German lines” to “American leadership, having not experienced the grinding slaughter, sent their troops in without sufficient covering fire and artillery”.
      Maybe the pending centenary of the Great War will bring more insight and less generalisation.

      • x

        The other strand to Canuk WW1 history is Vimy Ridge and all that “birth of a nation” stuff.

      • johncerickson

        Well, you can’t ding the Canucks TOO much for wanting an origination mythos. That’s a bad habit they picked up from us. I remember going through grade school with the theme of General Washington having taken a single boatload of soldiers across the Potomac, storming Bunker Hill, and kicking the entire Army and Royal Navy out of America. The teachers hated me, because I kept rather unkindly pointing out that there were no white “Americans” shooting at Redcoats, just some uppity Brits shooting at their own soldiers. Don’t know where it comes from, but my Anglophile streak started early and goes deep…… :D

        • x

          I remember Richard Holmes telling the story of how one search by the Redcoats of a village in one of 13 colonies was met at one homestead with a righteously indignant “An Englishman’s home is his castle.”

        • johncerickson

          Even our History Channel and Military Channel talk about “the Americans vs. the British”. Hate to tell you, but unless you wore buckskin and had dark skin, you were BRITISH – weren’t no “Americans” yet, least ways not until after 4-July-1776.
          Off-topic – the US lost a Chinook in eastern Afghanistan. 22 SEALs, 7 crew, a translator, and the one none of these dirty buggers will mention – a military dog. Sorry, I’m a huge advocate of military canines and other beasties. People keep telling me I need to blog – that might be my topic, hailing animals throughout history. I’ve met a far larger percentage of nice animals than nice people. Present company excluded, of course.

      • James Daly

        There’s a similar thread in Australian military history. Check the review I did about 18 months ago of the book Gallipoli by Les Carlyon – its so subjective its unreal. The screaming assumption is that the incompetent, bungling poms massacred the brave ANZACS. Whilst I do not disagree that in SOME respects that MIGHT be true, I cannot agree with any history that comes with an overbearing assumption such as that.

    • x

      Don’t expect balance in history “teaching” at uni’. If anything it is more cock-eyed, biased, and “engineered.”

      • James Daly

        I would agree that it is certainly engineered, normally in the favour of the particular lecturer teaching the unit. The lecturer who gave us our introductory talk on the Great War told us that the most momentous effect of 1914-1918 was that women began smoking and riding motorbikes. She was a feminist historian. That’s the example I use all the time of academic historians sitting in their own silos all the time.

        • x

          I won’t mention the historian who showed a slide of Lord and Lady Mountbatten in India pictured with his viceregal domestic staff (two little white specks in a sea of brown faces) yet failed to mention that Indians of similar rank had similar if not larger staffs. You can imagine how the middle class right on kids in the class interpreted the message sent by that picture.

          I won’t mention her name because she had given me more than a couple of good firsts……. :)

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