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16-04-2019, 16:00   #1
ChrisJ84
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WW1 - Revisionist Interpretation

I read Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield recently, and he is quite persuasive. His basic thesis is that while horrible and catastrophic, WW1 was necessary in the face of an aggressive and expansionist Imperial Germany, and that the horrific losses of the Western Front were part of a largely unavoidable military learning curve. At the very least, he wants to counter the simplistic notion that WW1 was nothing but a tragic waste, lions led by donkeys etc., that owes more to post war literature than the bare facts.

What do you think? Has anyone else read the book?
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16-04-2019, 21:24   #2
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I read Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield recently, and he is quite persuasive. His basic thesis is that while horrible and catastrophic, WW1 was necessary in the face of an aggressive and expansionist Imperial Germany, and that the horrific losses of the Western Front were part of a largely unavoidable military learning curve. At the very least, he wants to counter the simplistic notion that WW1 was nothing but a tragic waste, lions led by donkeys etc., that owes more to post war literature than the bare facts.

What do you think? Has anyone else read the book?
I haven't read it, but I am curious about this part, for whom was it necessary?
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16-04-2019, 21:53   #3
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I haven't read it, but I am curious about this part, for whom was it necessary?

If I recall correctly, Sheffield was arguing that a German victory would have led to much of Europe being under the German thumb. However bad the Treaty of Versailles was, the German plans in the event of success were much more heavy-handed.

A good book, and it does much to challenge the current view of the War, though I suspect the 'Blackadder' school of thought - which Sheffield bemoans - will continue on.
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17-04-2019, 08:51   #4
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I haven't read it, but I am curious about this part, for whom was it necessary?
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If I recall correctly, Sheffield was arguing that a German victory would have led to much of Europe being under the German thumb. However bad the Treaty of Versailles was, the German plans in the event of success were much more heavy-handed.
@Ascendant nicely summarises Dr. Sheffield's argument - that it was necessary to confront an aggressive and expansionist Germany. One of his more provocative points is to draw out the parallels between the foreign policy and war aims of Imperial Germany and Nazi Germany.

He makes an interesting related point that German historians, in their understandable desire to portray Nazi Germany as a unique aberration, have tended to play down those parallels. Combined with a tendency in Britain and America to move away from seeing Germany as to blame for starting the war, this has led to the idea that Europe somehow stumbled into a war that needn't have happened and that wasn't fought over substantive issues - "Oh, it was just a row between cousins."
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17-04-2019, 08:57   #5
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A good book, and it does much to challenge the current view of the War, though I suspect the 'Blackadder' school of thought - which Sheffield bemoans - will continue on.
The first chapter was worth the price of the book, where Sheffield talks about the war in British and American memory. It's fascinating to see how the popular perception of historical events changes over time as the wider culture changes, even where this is contradicted by a more objective assessment of the facts. Makes you wonder where our blind spots are
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17-04-2019, 18:29   #6
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@Ascendant nicely summarises Dr. Sheffield's argument - that it was necessary to confront an aggressive and expansionist Germany. One of his more provocative points is to draw out the parallels between the foreign policy and war aims of Imperial Germany and Nazi Germany.

He makes an interesting related point that German historians, in their understandable desire to portray Nazi Germany as a unique aberration, have tended to play down those parallels. Combined with a tendency in Britain and America to move away from seeing Germany as to blame for starting the war, this has led to the idea that Europe somehow stumbled into a war that needn't have happened and that wasn't fought over substantive issues - "Oh, it was just a row between cousins."
At the cost of 40 million dead and wounded though? Now I have no doubt that Imperial Germany would have been very heavy handed (their colonial actions in SWA show that), but, this was also a time of French, Belgian, British, Italian, American, you name it, imperial and colonial brutality across the world.
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17-04-2019, 22:49   #7
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At the cost of 40 million dead and wounded though? Now I have no doubt that Imperial Germany would have been very heavy handed (their colonial actions in SWA show that), but, this was also a time of French, Belgian, British, Italian, American, you name it, imperial and colonial brutality across the world.
All the more reason for the rest of Europe to avoid it coming to their own homes as best they could. You only had to look at Belgium - or the warships Germany was building right opposite the English Channel - to know how a Kaiser-dominated continent would not have been a happy place.

Another argument in the book is that the British military, despite starting off small, became the Number One opponent of the German one - at least before the US joined in - especially as the French were bled white and Russia gradually, and then rapidly, collapsed.

And that the likes of General Haig, while not exactly the second coming of Wellington, were not the inept butchers modern memory makes them out to be.
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18-04-2019, 16:48   #8
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To some extent, they followed the usual tactic, of starting off using the tactics of the last major war, ( I suppose all sides did),
As the war progressed the tactics on both sides became a lot more sophisticated, even as the front stayed static...
The logistics of the front were staggering...
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18-04-2019, 17:13   #9
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At the cost of 40 million dead and wounded though? Now I have no doubt that Imperial Germany would have been very heavy handed (their colonial actions in SWA show that), but, this was also a time of French, Belgian, British, Italian, American, you name it, imperial and colonial brutality across the world.
There is no doubt that the first world war was tragic and led to loss of life on a horrific scale. The question is whether it was a futile and meaningless waste, or was fought over substantive issues. Without veering off topic, I would draw a parallel with the second world war which left even more dead and wounded, but which no-one would dream of calling a futile waste. Indeed, Sheffield see's the whole period of 1914 to 1991 as one discrete period which involved a clash of ideologies - liberal capitalist democracies and autocratic dictatorships.

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All the more reason for the rest of Europe to avoid it coming to their own homes as best they could. You only had to look at Belgium - or the warships Germany was building right opposite the English Channel - to know how a Kaiser-dominated continent would not have been a happy place.
Spot on. Much of Britain and Frances conduct in their overseas empire was appalling and inexcusable, but if we narrow the scope to Europe then I think it's impossible to make a case that imperial Germany was comparable to liberal democracies like Britain and France

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Another argument in the book is that the British military, despite starting off small, became the Number One opponent of the German one - at least before the US joined in - especially as the French were bled white and Russia gradually, and then rapidly, collapsed.
I think Sheffield is absolutely correct when he points out that British foreign policy in WW1 was the same as it had been for hundreds of years - to maintain the balance of power in Europe and avoid the emergence of a single dominant power. The difference in 1914 was that Britain couldn't avoid committing a large continental army, something which had always been avoided in the past. If the war had dragged into 1919 then there is no doubt that the US would have gradually taken on more responsibility as Britain was exhausted by that point.

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And that the likes of General Haig, while not exactly the second coming of Wellington, were not the inept butchers modern memory makes them out to be.
Also agree with this. While I'm a bit uncomfortable with calling the like of Loos or the Somme a learning curve, we need to remember the wider context - the war took place at a time of revolution in military technology, and was on a scale unimagined in British military history.
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18-04-2019, 17:16   #10
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To some extent, they followed the usual tactic, of starting off using the tactics of the last major war, ( I suppose all sides did),
As the war progressed the tactics on both sides became a lot more sophisticated, even as the front stayed static...
The logistics of the front were staggering...
Yeah exactly, Sheffield talks a lot about the emergence of a "weapons system", where everything (infantry, artillery, planes, tanks etc.) were used in a coordinated way, like they have been since. And that just wasn't possible in 1914.
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18-04-2019, 22:42   #11
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If the war had dragged into 1919 then there is no doubt that the US would have gradually taken on more responsibility as Britain was exhausted by that point.

Sheffield makes the point - among many - that the US military was initially scornful of its allies and their overly cautious approach to battle. The Americans proceeded to make exactly the same sort of bold, aggressive tactics that the British and French had learnt not to use, and suffered accordingly.

Much has been made of Haig and co.'s conservative, stick-in-the-mud (literally) approach and the use of trench tactics, where thousands died over scraps of land, but Sheffield - if I remember correctly - points out the 1914 and 1918 years, which saw much more mobility (1918 on the part of the Germans), also saw far higher causalities in proportion. Haig did know what he was doing (at least one could argue).
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08-05-2019, 12:14   #12
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Sheffield makes the point - among many - that the US military was initially scornful of its allies and their overly cautious approach to battle. The Americans proceeded to make exactly the same sort of bold, aggressive tactics that the British and French had learnt not to use, and suffered accordingly.

Much has been made of Haig and co.'s conservative, stick-in-the-mud (literally) approach and the use of trench tactics, where thousands died over scraps of land, but Sheffield - if I remember correctly - points out the 1914 and 1918 years, which saw much more mobility (1918 on the part of the Germans), also saw far higher causalities in proportion. Haig did know what he was doing (at least one could argue).
Yes agreed, I think Sheffield's writing on that is both balanced and plausible. He did a great job of acknowledging the undoubted horror of trench warfare, while also pointing out that Haig and others were neither uncaring monsters nor (completely) incompetent.

On a slightly related note, a historian who is broadly in the same camp as Gary Sheffield and John Terraine is Richard Holmes. I just finished his "Riding the Retreat," where he outlines the BEF's retreat from Mons to the Marne in 1914 while simultaneously riding the route of the retreat with some friends. The mix of history and travelogue is really enjoyable, so it's definitely worth checking out.
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08-05-2019, 21:25   #13
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On a slightly related note, a historian who is broadly in the same camp as Gary Sheffield and John Terraine is Richard Holmes. I just finished his "Riding the Retreat," where he outlines the BEF's retreat from Mons to the Marne in 1914 while simultaneously riding the route of the retreat with some friends. The mix of history and travelogue is really enjoyable, so it's definitely worth checking out.

Sounds like I got something else to add to my 'to read' list. Can't seem to ever get it down, no matter how pages I turn...
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08-05-2019, 21:27   #14
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On a slightly related note, a historian who is broadly in the same camp as Gary Sheffield and John Terraine is Richard Holmes. I just finished his "Riding the Retreat," where he outlines the BEF's retreat from Mons to the Marne in 1914 while simultaneously riding the route of the retreat with some friends. The mix of history and travelogue is really enjoyable, so it's definitely worth checking out.

No sight of any angels...?


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08-05-2019, 22:10   #15
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Sounds like I got something else to add to my 'to read' list. Can't seem to ever get it down, no matter how pages I turn...
20 year book rule...if you plan to read it in the next 20 years then it's ok to buy it!
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