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What is it about nice people that attract total idiots?Nice people are martyrs. Idiots are evangelists.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

World War I- not just for dummies

You know I'm a very amateur historian.  So when I saw a headline on the BBC that went:

Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked

of course I was intrigued.  And when I read the subtitle:

Much of what we think we know about the 1914-18 conflict is wrong, writes historian Dan Snow.

I say, bring it on, sir; I'm not your standard "aw, history is boring, just a buncha dead people" lieabout.  And while he makes some points, some of them shouldn't have to be made.  Let's look at his "ten myths":

1. It was the bloodiest war in history to that point. (Myth?  Yes.)

Let's put things in perspective:  Europe had already had a Hundred Years War and a Thirty Years War.  The French Revolution was a series of wars lasting nearly 30 years itself.  Napoleon took a Grand Army of 800,000 into Russia and less that a tenth of those who crossed the Russian frontier lived to make it back to Poland.  What are the odds of a five-year war coming close to any of them?  And that's only looking at Western Europe.  What made it seem so bad by comparison were battles like Verdun, Chemin des Dames, and Passchendaele where months were spent and tens of thousands died- and the front barely moved.  I wonder if Snow looked at casualties by yards of ground gained if if wouldn't rank a bit higher.

2. Most soldiers died. (Myth? Yes.)

Yeah, I'm sure that everyone thought this was the war in which the last man standing won.  That's why it was possible for the same sides to go back at it twenty years later.

3. Men lived in the trenches for years on end. (Myth?  Yes.)

So no one ever heard of troop rotations?  How many of front line soldiers would have lived had they been ON the front line for even a year?  If they really have Britishers thinking this way, it's a wonder THEY didn't elect Barack Obama.  I think Snow, perhaps, is showing a bit of that Oxford disdain for his fellow countryman.

4. The upper class got off lightly. (Myth?  Yes.)

Unfortunately, the British had a chance on this one, had they learned the lessons of the Boer War.  British Military was led by social rank, not military ability.  Lot's of eager young uppercrusts with commands their daddy's peerage bought them died charging out of trenches and into machine-gun fire.  Thus it had been for over a century; and WWI taught no lesson quickly, for all its efforts.

5. 'Lions led by donkeys'. (Myth?  Nope.)

This line, descriptive of brave soldiers sent to their deaths by unwise commanders, was first discussed by Snow on the basis of who said it first.  After establishing the well-known fact that historian Alan Clark likely made up the story that it came from a discussion between Ludendorff and Hoffman, he went on to dispute it.  But the facts are, Sir John French had little idea of what he was doing and little patience for any that tried to advise him.  The facts are, the most brilliant commander of the early part of the war, General Gallieni, was kept from the front by Foch because they were of different political persuasions.  The fact is, one of the best of Foch's front line commanders, Franchet d'Esprey, was shunned so badly, he got stuck being the liason with Sir John.  Commander after commander expected to gain different results with the same tactics.  The only major commander to try something different was Ludendorff, and he waited until he didn't have the resources to make it work.

6. Gallipoli was fought by Australians and New Zealanders. (Myth? yes and no.)

He makes the point that there were far more Brits there than Anzacs.  But the Anzacs were far better fighters, and they made the sacrifices when the tough yards were needed.  If I were an Aussie or a Kiwi, I'd be more than a bit put off.

7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure. (Myth?  Yes.)

He makes a valid point that the technology of war advanced rapidly during the war.  Tanks, aerial war, mustard gas were all developed as the war wore on.  But TACTICS?  The battle on the Marne was the same as the battle at Ypres- a few hours of artillery, a fruitless charge to the death, back into the trenches.  This myth cannot be debunked.  Because it's not a myth.

8. No-one won. (Myth?  Depends on who you ask.)

Sure the allies won.  Look how well Russia came out of it.  Look how indebted the Europeans came to American banks.  Look how much of their courage remained by 1938 in Munich.  Is a Pyrrhic victory still a victory?

9. The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh. (Myth? Please.)

I laughed out loud at his analysis here.  His thought was basically:  the Germans didn't lose near as much land as they would in 1945, only a small part of the nation was occupied, and most of the reparations were never paid anyway.  What he doesn't note includes: the loss of face that Germany took agreeing to an armistice (peace without victory) and winding up signing a surrender;  that small part that was occupied was the single richest coal area in western Europe, and the French milked it to the hilt; and the reparations that WERE paid created such hyperinflation that you needed to own a factory to afford a half-loaf of bread.  While Wilson wanted a peace to end war, the French and British wanted revenge... and got it.

10. Everyone hated it.  (Myth?  Depends on who you ask.)

Snow notes, "Many soldiers enjoyed WW1. If they were lucky they would avoid a big offensive, and much of the time, conditions might be better than at home. "   Perhaps Snow should have walked around the asylums were the mangled soldiers "healed".  Or, as the song went, "looked for the old platoon, hanging on the old barbed wire."  No, not everybody hated it.  Just the ones that actually lived through it.

I really don't know what grieves me more:  that we have an accredited historian that actually believes that people believe these myths (or in some cases, his hypotheses); or that in this world of today, he might be right, and people might see things this way.


  1. So comforting to know that there are knowledgeable and unbiased historians out there. I was worried there weren't any. *rolls eyes*

    1. Good to know that knowledgeable and unbiased people span all professions, not just the political ones *also rolling eyes*

  2. I've always been fascinated by World War II (Part I). To me, it was the most useless war (which sounds redundant) because a bunch of hubris and macho chest-thumping which led to the death of millions. I also don't buy into the fact that Germany should get the lion's share of the blame (although they did). I see the point of those who do give Germany the blame, but I think Austria-Hungary or even Russia carries their share, as well. Wilson, for his part, was a snooty do-gooder who thought he was better than anyone, too. Very good post.

    1. Conrad Hotzendorf is one of the biggest offenders in my eyes. Trying to play power politics from a nation of glass. But he couldn't have done it without a bunch of "smart men" who had no idea how weak their nations were.

  3. I am almost embarrassed to say that my memory of my knowledge of WW1 is pathetic and limited. I will say though, that my Great grandfather was AT the signing of the treaty of Versailles. We have photos and his journals. It's completely biased, as it's his personal account, but that's just fine for me. :)

  4. Wow... can't help drooling at that one... WWI and Versailles has always been my biggest fascination.

  5. Yes. Secret service for 4 presidents had left him with quite an amazing history, as well as some quirky stories as well. Some day, maybe, we will get it all organized rather than thrown into the box it is now. *sigh* someday...

  6. Chris:
    I ALWAYS "consider the source" when it comes to written history.
    Over time, some writers can provide the facts in better detail and order, providing very limited (or no) spin a LOT more than other "posers".
    I confess to not being near as knowledgable about "the war to end all wars" as I should be.

    My G'pop served in the AEF as an artilleryman (French 75mm cannon) and was gassed as well as becoming deaf in later years (cannons ARE loud!)...but he did come back whole, and I used to have a photo of him in uniform (circa 1917)...can't find the dang thing now.

    One thing I find incerasingly distrubing, is that those who HAVE written excellent accounts of various parts of history (including in my time) won't be around forever, and WHO will take their place, and WHAT will they consider worthy of writing about when it comes to history as WE have seen it, and HOW will it be spun to make people believe something other than what REALLY happened?

    THAT is a scary premise.

    But you have done an exemplary job of taking to task this writer...well done, sir.
    Very good post.

    Stay safe and warm up there.

  7. When someone sets himself up as an Authority on a subject, so much so that a TV show films him as such... people are likely to believe it. So, I would be most aggrieved by that. He has now got a whole bunch of people who watched that fiasco believing everything he said.