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 – detailed 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 – thougtfully – that 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.
- The Somme by Gary Sheffield (dalyhistory.wordpress.com)
- Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF’s actions from Mons to the Marne by Jerry Murland (dalyhistory.wordpress.com)
- Thoughts on the Birdsong BBC TV Series (theedexperience.wordpress.com)