Tag Archives: first world war

The Long Long LONG Trail: First World War on the TV (part 1)

With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War looming, we have already seen a steady increase in the amount of programs related to the First World War on television. Here’s my assessment of what we have seen so far.

Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Britain’s Great War’ was a welcome surprise. I must admit, I find Paxman rather unlikeable on Newsnight, which, as it turns out, does him a great dis-service as a presenter. I really enjoyed ‘Britain’s Great War’, and I felt that it covered many aspects of the First World War that have been previously ignored. We all know about the Somme and Gallipoli, for example, yet how many people knew that Britain was bombed during the First World War? Or about conscription, or rationing?

Max Hastings’ ‘The Necessary War‘ was a disappointment. Aside from the fact that I find Hastings style incredibly grating, I felt that ‘the Necessary War’ was essentially produced for a ‘Daily Mail’ market, as per much of Hastings work, and was full of great power, imperialist nostalgia of a significantly conservative bent. It is certainly useful to question previously held assumptions – of which the ‘futile war’ argument has become something of an orthodoxy. Presenting the First World War as unavoidable is slightly ridiculous – is any war ever completely unavoidable? If not then we might as well all just kill each other now and get it over and done with!

I have long been a big fan of Niall Ferguson’s book ‘The Pity of War‘, but the TV adaptation was rather disappointing. I enjoyed the open format, and it was very refreshing to watch a topical issue being debated in the studio by the audience and academic alike. However I felt that Ferguson’s segments did not really reflect the content of the book on which the program was based, and some of the elements were completely off on a tangent. I felt that it slightly missed the point overall, but the intention was noble and the format more interesting.

So far ‘37 Days‘ has, in my book, been by far the most impressive. A three part docu-drama following the events of July and August 1914 as the unfold, in Sarajevo, Vienna, Berlin and London. As a series it fills a gap in popular understanding. It is not enough to cite’ the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’ as the cause of the First World War – so much happened in between that and the first shots being fired, as this program shows. And I had not realised just how dramatic events were, how interlinked events were, and the complex personalities involved. I am not normally a fan of the ‘great man’ school of history, but this was illuminating, insightful and entertaining in its own right.

We can expect a significant amount of First World War-centric television over the next few months. As much as I welcome the interest, I do hope that we won’t experience overkill by the time 4 August arrives – in the rush to produce topical and relevant documentaries, we can only hope that there is a marked improvement in the scope and quality!

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Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes – book talks

ImageI’m going to be giving some talks based on my new book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’, courtest of Portsmouth Library Service:

Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes

  • Saturday 8 February – 1.30pm, Carnegie Library (Fratton)
  • Saturday 8 March – 1.30pm, Southsea Library
Over 6,000 men from Portsmouth are believed to have been killed during WW1. Not only were thousands of Portsmouth soldiers killed on the Western Front, but Portsmouth-based ships were sunk throughout the war, causing massive loss of life. Thanks to a
wealth of sources available, it is possible to tell their stories in more detail than ever before.

Researching your World War One Ancestors

  • Saturday 29 March – 11am, Central Library

A special talk for the ‘Lost Hour’ event, this talk will show you how you can research your ancestors who took part in the First World War, using examples of men from Portsmouth who fought and died, and shwoing you the sources available to help with your research.

All talks are fully illustrated, and copies of my book will be available for purchase. Hope to see you there, come and say hi!

For more information about how to find the venues, and about other events taking place at Portsmouth Libraries over the next few months, click here.

Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes is also available to purchase on Amazon and other online booksellers, Waterstones Commercial Road, Blackwells at the Student Union, the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson and the City Museum.

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Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes available for pre-order

I haven’t even written it yet, and it’s not due for publication for another eleven months, but my next book ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’ has been listed on Amazon and is now available for pre-order:

Pre-order ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’ on Amazon

Here’s the blurb:

“Over 5,000 men from Portsmouth are believed to have been killed during the First World War – the greatest loss of life that the city has ever known. Not only were thousands of Portsmouth soldiers killed on the Western Front, but Portsmouth based ships were sunk throughout the war, causing massive loss of life. Thanks to a wealth of sources available and painstaking use of database software, it is possible to tell their stories in more detail than ever before. James Daly builds an extremely detailed picture of Portsmouth’s World War One dead, down to where they were born, and where they lived. Not only will their stories tell us about how the war was fought and won, and their sacrifices; but they will also provide a clearer picture than ever before of how Portsmouth and its people suffered”

I’ve also got some other interesting World War One related projects at an early stage of developmentat the moment. Of course with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War not far off now, there’s going to be a lot of attention on all things Great War over the next few years.

 

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Encouragement for the ‘non-establishment’ historian

One of the first military history books I read, as a young lad, was Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook. For no other reason than that it was the biggest book about Arnhem in the library, and it simply screamed ‘Arnhem’ from ten paces away. If only one day I could write a book like that. Years later, it is still a staple on my bookshelf, and I’ve reccomended it to most of my family (my late grandfather being an Arnhem veteran).

Years later, I’ve got a book of my own on the shelf at the same library, not very far from where Middlebrook’s Arnhem sat (and still does). Now that I’m researching the First World War I’ve gone to Middlebrook’s first book – the First Day on the Somme. For those of you who aren’t aware, Martin Middlebrook was an established poultry farmer when he went to the Somme battlefields in the late 1960’s. Motivated by what he saw, he resolved to write a book about 1 July 1916, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Remember, he was a poultry farmer with no literary background.

After writing ten chapters, he sent it to his prospective publisher. The publisher in turn sent it to an un-named military historian for feedback. They received back 13 pages of critique, some of which I quote below:

‘mugged-up knowledge by an outsider’

‘familiar and elementary stuff’

‘all the old bromides’

‘his account of the army’s organisation and the trench system… rather like a child’s guide’

‘flat and wooden in the narrative’

Over 40 years later, Martin Middlebrook has written almost twenty books on military history, many of them bestsellers, about Arnhem, the RAF in the Second World War, and the Falklands. Isn’t is a good job that he and his publisher didn’t listen to the advice of a so-called military history expert?

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News – Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes book

I’m very pleased to announce that I have just signed a contract with my publishers, The History Press, for my next book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’.

At present we are aiming for publication in late 2013, in time for the Great War Centenary in 2014. Obviously I am writing it as we speak and I do not want to give too much away, but it’s going to be like my previous book, but longer; and with the wealth of sources available for the First World War I have been able to go into a lot more depth. It will include some individual stories, stories of battles and units, a look at Portsmouth in 1914 and how the fallen of the Great War were remembered in the town. As with my previous book, most of these stories have never been told before.

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War Surgery 1914-18 edited by Thomas Scotland and Steven Hays

How many military historians – people for whom writing about death and injury is part of their vocation – actually have anything more than a rudimentary understanding of battlefield medicine? Nope, me neither. And for somebody who has been specialising in war casualties, that is something I really should remedy.

Therefore I was intrigued to receive this book looking at war surgery in the First World War. It is actually edited by a pair of medical professionals who also have an interest in military history, which for me is crucial. Medicine is such a specialist field, that to be honest I think only medical professionals can really do it justice. But this isn’t just a scientific, geeky look at things that the layman would never understand. It is structured very sensibly, beginning with a basic introduction to the First World War and the Western Front, and also to the history of battlefield medicine.

A very interesting chapter looks at the manner in which wounded soldiers came into contact with medical help – namely, the evacuation chain. Wounded soldiers were treated immediately by their Regimental Medical Officer, aided by a team of stretcher bearers. Men were then taken to a Field Ambulance, usually by ambulance wagons and cars. Lightly wounded might be sent to an advanced dressing station to be patched up and sent back. More seriously wounded would be passed on to a Casualty Clearing Station by motor convoy. From there the wounded would be despatched to a stationary base hospital, usually in French coastal towns such as Rouen, Etaples, Le Havre of Boulogne. Men who did not respond to treatment might be shipped back to England for further care. With much of the war being fought in a stationary, almost siege-like manner, evacuation trains could be implemented, even incorporating river transport.

Obviously, many wounded were in shock, and in need of stabilising and resucitation. And with thousands of men requiring treatment almost on a daily basis, it was an ideal proving ground for medical officers to establish best practice. Anaesthetic had been discovered and pioneered in the later years of the nineteenth century, and with many men requiring operations, anaesthesia was also a key consideration in the treatment of many.

Something I had not really though of is the varying pathology of warfare. Men wounded on the Western Front – in cold, wet and muddy conditions – were very vulnerable to infections, and the heavily fertile Flanders mud was an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. And with a large proportion of open wounds, the early onset of infection was a serious problem. By contrast, men serving in warmer climes were at threat of other illnesses, notably Dysentery in Gallipoli and Malaria in Mesopotamia. As in previous centuries, a large proportion of deaths were to illness rather than wounds received in action.

As with Anaesthesia, X-rays had been pioneered relatively shortly before 1914. Gradually X-ray facilities were established at base hospitals, and a few locations further forward in the medical chain. X-ray machines were relatively large, unwieldy and expensive, and being so far back behind the lines it took time for men to reach them. Another consideration was the quality of imaging, and the ability of medical officers to interpret them and consider an appropriate course of treatment.

With many men suffering broken bones – in particular due to gunshot wounds – orthopaedic surgery was important. a large proportion of broken bones were suffered in the form of fractured femurs. As a major bone, a frature of the femur could be catastrophic, and poorly healed might cripple a man for life. The newly-invented Thomas splint helped medical officers on the front line to immobilise a man quickly, and radically improve their chances of recovery. A great example of how war prompted a remarkable medical innovation.

Throughout military history abdominal wounds had often been regarded as particularly troublesome, as to a lesser extent had penetrative chest wounds. Any wounds in these areas might threaten vital organs, and hence chances of recovery were often very low. Performing delicate operations on vital organs were particularly trying, and not something that could be performed easily in makeshift facilities. Also, the risk of infection was ever-present.

Something I had not ever thought of was the development of plastic surgery during the First World War. As with any way, men suffered horrific scars. I had always thought that plastic surgery was first developed during the Second World War with burnt aircrew, but some of the images of Great War Soldiers having their faces gradually rebuilt with flaps and the like are staggering. The Great War was possibly the first war in which cosmetic injuries were taken seriously.

Something else that really impressed me is the manner in which the medical services expanded to take on what was an unbelievable burden. The Royal Army Medical Corps was tiny in 1914, as was the British Army as a whole. With each Regimental-level unit needing an MO, and countless other medical units needing staffing, where did all these extra doctors come from? It was a considerable balancing act to make sure that there were adequate doctors at the front, but that there were also adequate doctors at home in Britain too.

I’ve got the utmost respect for doctors who serve on the front line. They deal with some of the most traumatic injuries, in trying circumstances and with scant resources. When faced with overwhelming casualties they have to take on an unbelievably tragic method of triage – which casualties have the best chance of success with the resources available? Those deemed unlikely to survive are left to their fate.

This is a brilliant book. Considering that the editors and contributors are medical professionals, it reads incredibly well as a history book – much more readable than many a military history text! I recommend it wholeheartedly to any historian of the Great War who wishes to develop a broader understanding of battlefield medicine. It has certainly helped me to broaden mine, and I must confess, I now think that researching casualties of war without looking at surgery in war is simply inadequate.

War Surgery 1914-18 is published by Helion

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Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield

Cover of "Forgotten Victory: The First Wo...

Cover via Amazon

Going against a commonly-held perception is perhaps the greatest challenge that faces any historian. Some things in history are just so taken for granted that they are held as unassailable truths. As one of the fell0w-students on my degree course stated once, memorably, ‘Henry VIII was just a fat bloke who ate chicken’. Run against such a ‘historical truth’, and you runk the risk of being desricbed as a revisionist as best, and at worst a charlatan. In this book Gary Sheffield treads a very careful and well-reasoned path. Our understanding of the First World War is choc full of myths and misconceptions. Sheffield sequentially and convincingly deals with many of the inaccuracies that have become ingrained in national consciousness. National Consciousness, as Sheffield enlightens us, does tend to pull historical events out of their context.

Perhaps the biggest myth that Sheffield deals with is that of the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘. Haig et al are filed neatly under ‘butcher’, and they sacrificed the lives of millions of brave men. Sheffield argues – convincingly, in my mind – that not only could Haig and his generals have not done much different, but also that progressively from 1916 onwards the BEF – and its generals – learnt rather quickly how to fight a modern war, and didn’t do too bad in the circumstances. On the Somme in 1916 the BEF relieved the pressure from the French at Verdun, and almost caused the German Army to crack. It almost did the same once again in 1917 at Ypres. It has become all too easy for any of us, in hindsight, to judge that the First World War was a a barbaric waste of life for no good reason. In fact, the BEF, by its actions, did result in the defeat of the German Army in the field, which ended the war. Haig was not a complete technophobe, as has been alleged. He understood air power, and embraced innovations such as the Tank – giving them his full support.

Trench Warfare, and the demands that it placed upon the British Army, was a complete abboration in British military history. Never before had Britain fielded a vast citizen army on the continent; for a small, elite, imperial police force, this resulted in a waterfall of change in a matter of weeks and months, let alone years. Once Kitcheners Armies took to the field and the BEF gained some valuable lessons, the British Army began to acquit itself quite well. Plumer, in particular, comes in for much praise. Perhaps the most important innovation of the Great War was the importance of the set-piece attack Рdetailed planning of an all arms battle, with all arms communicating as far as possible. Interesting, is it not,  that Montgomery served on Plumers staff? Crucually, Sheffield does not doubt that the BEF suffered horrific casualties, but he does argue Рthougtfully Рthat a high butchers bill does not necessarily mean that those thousands of lives were lost in vain.

World War One did, in some respects, end unsatisfactorily for all sides. The German Army had been defeated – or, in many ways, had defeated itself. Yet the German nation and people did not suffer the full consequences of defeat, and hence the myth of the stab in the back took hold. The US under Wilson imposed ideals of liberal democracy on the rest of the world, then promptly retreated to isolationism once more. The vast loss of life led to policies of appeasement, particularly for Britain and France. And hence, perhaps, perceptions of the Great War have been shaped by its consequent events that took place years afterwards. The Allies won the war, but did not win the peace.

In terms of British military history, Gary Sheffield is perhaps the most prominent voice in the field today. Forgotten Victory has considerably aided my broader understanding of the First World War, from the international rivalries and complex web of alliances that made it happen, to the hopelessly compromised peace settlement after, which all but condemmed Europe to war less than a generation later. But sadly, calm, collected histories do not tend to change popular consciousness. Which is a pity, as I cannot help but feel that Sheffield treads a very well reasoned path here.

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