Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Pity of War

I have been using BBC's iPlayer this morning to watch Niall Ferguson's recent programme about World War I. His main premise was that the Great War was a great – and avoidable – mistake.

The programme began with Professor Ferguson outlining the situation in 1914 ... and presenting the argument that Germany was far from being alone in creating the circumstances that led to the war breaking out. One interesting proposition that he made was that British intervention led to what would otherwise had been a European war becoming a world war. He contended that if Britain had not committed the BEF to the war in 1914, the Germans would probably have beaten the French by 1916, and then turned on - and defeated - the Russians.

He then examined:
  • The industrialisation of warfare
  • How soldiers could keep fighting in the circumstances they had to cope with. (This seemed to result from hating and despising the enemy, fighting a static war where supplies were easy to get forward to the frontline, and regular rotation out of the frontline for rest and recuperation ... and sex.)
  • The economics of the war in terms of the percentage of the male population of each of the participants that was killed, and the cost to each nation of killing an enemy soldier (e.g. he stated that it cost Britain almost three times as much to kill a German solder as it cost the Germans to kill a British soldier).
Having covered these topics Professor Ferguson looked at the consequences of the war upon the participants. He placed particular emphasis on the impact that the war had had on the pre-war trend of continued social, political, and economic development, arguing that the war had almost brought such change to a complete halt.

After watching him present his case, I felt that he had been quite persuasive ... BUT that he had over-generalised certain aspects of the case and ignored some of the more inconvenient

He then engaged in discussions with a number of eminent historians and experts – including Gary Sheffield, Sir Hugh Strachan, David Reynolds, David Stevenson, Heather Jones, and John Jungclaussen – before throwing the discussions open to the audience.

Was I convinced by Professor Ferguson's proposition that the Great War – and its consequences – was avoidable?

No ... and mainly because his was a broad brush approach that ignored or downplayed some facts that I consider to be much more important than he did. That said, I think that this was a useful and challenging programme – and a valuable contribution to the current historical discussion about the Great War – and I am very pleased to have made the time to watch it.


  1. It's a pity it was Niall Ferguson!

    I'm not a fan of friend Ferguson, but I was open minded when the programme began and quietly hoped I might be converted. However, it was a luke warm performance at best and his summing up put the lid on it for me - everybody's out of step except for our Niall. Good technique though: casually slip the odd counter factual in and assume nobody will notice. I think we'd probably have been better with a half hour rundown on the topic and an hour's debate with just the experts and the audience/students.

  2. Gary Amos,

    I had a reasonable idea what to expect from Professor Ferguson ... and things were pretty well as I imagined they would be.

    Personally I would have liked a bit more expert and audience involvement and a bit less of the professor ... but at least it was indicative that the debate about the First World War has moved on a bit since the time when 'war by timetable' and 'Lions led by Donkeys' were apparently accepted as being the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

    All the best,


  3. In my limited understanding of the situation all that would have happened is that Germany would have become the dominant European power and then attacked Britain. So no world war, but war later. I of course could be wrong, we may have had an Anglo-German Accord and world peace. Who knows? Not me.

  4. Ashley,

    I would tend to agree with you contention, but Professor Ferguson would not.

    He did suggest that what might have happened was the creation of a German-dominated European Customs Union (it was one of their stated war aims) ... but he made no suggestion as to how that would have gone down with the British and the Americans.

    As the creation of a German-wide customs union was a precursor to the creation of the German Empire, it probably would have been seen as the first step towards the creation of a Greater Germany ... and we all know what that led to.

    All the best,


  5. I thought the Niall Ferguson was being deliberately controversial to make the programme. I was not convinced by his argument about Britain's involvement making it a World War. Britain's initial deployment of the BEF was useful but I doubt the French really needed it to defeat or at least hold back the French. But the war was big anyway and Britain's involvement did not really influence that.

    I liked the other part of the war where he measured the costs of the war, the casualties, the weapons and the motivation to keep fighting and why the German Army collapsed.

    Good stuff - though perhaps I say that as it could have been all about the futility of the war etc.

    Now can we have similar TV programmes about other history? How about one of the English Civil War? What about one on the Spanish Civil War? One on the Chartists? Something about the Conquistadors?

  6. I wouldn't mind seeing this programme myself. I'm bound to say, though, that the somewhat dated views of WW1 (timetable and the lions and donkeys thing) were actually pretty much on the money. Having said that, I also accept that both notions really are simply aspects of the war.

    I have always understood that Great Britain went into this war with the avowed purpose of maintaining a Continental balance of power. There was a real fear that a German/Austrian victory would indeed produce a single dominant power in Europe that would have presented a serious rival to Britain's place in global commerce.

    Maybe. The problem with that view as I see it was that Great Britain had long since pretty much abandoned seriously competing in the global markets outside the Empire. It was intra-Imperial trade that was the major source of Britain's wealth.

    A Continental economic bloc might well have marginalised British extra-Imperial world commerce even more than it already was. The US would have been more than happy to look to sources alternative to the UK,and considerable pressure would have been applied by the US and the EEB (European Economic Bloc) for access to British Imperial markets.

    A few issues do come to mind, though. Why should Britain have supposed that France would be defeated without its help? Why did they think Russia's impact would be insufficient? Perhaps they had the example of the mid-18th Century wars to go on, which found the French and Russian militaries seriously wanting.

    But if the French did win, what would that have portended for European balance of power? Prussia had defeated France pretty handily in 1870-1, so why did Britain not intercede then? Perhaps they figured that a unified Prussia would become a foil for Austria and France both. creating a situation in which a disequilibrium would be the more worrisome within Europe, and left Britain with less need to involve itself. If that is so, it obviously didn't work out.

    Prof Ferguson's thesis, that WW1 was avoidable, is hardly new, and it's a view I've long held. Violence is the refuge of the incompetent, and world leadership was as incompetent in 1914 as it is now in 2014.

    Incidentally, if you've never seen it, check out the satirical movie 'Oh what a lovely war'. ...

  7. Nick Luft,

    I guess that Professor Ferguson might just have been pushing the more controversial aspects of his arguments because of the relatively limited time he had in the programme to do it … although the more cynical might suggest that he was trying to breath some life into the sales of his book THE PITY OF WAR.

    Like you I doubt that the involvement of the BEF had much impact upon the initial battles of the war (and one could argue that the involvement was the result of the machinations of Sir Henry Wilson and his ‘promises’ to the French High Command that the British would come to their aid if war broke out), although news of their actions against the advancing Germans did seem to galvanise the British into joining up in large numbers. Kitchener took what I think was a realistic view about how long it would take to commit a fully-fledged British Army to the war … at least two years (i.e. 1916!).

    I would like to see a breakdown of the figures that Professor Ferguson quoted so blithely. For example, how much of the ‘cost’ to Britain was a result of having to build up the armaments industry to supply the war? (At the time most of it was concentrated in places like Woolwich and Enfield and was not capable of supporting British involvement in a major European War.) How much of the ‘cost’ was down to supplying other allies, like Russia and Italy?

    The ‘Why did the soldiers keep fighting?’ section was interesting, and had it been developed it might have blown out of the water some of the myths about trench warfare on the Western Front (i.e. that solders, once sent into the trenches, stayed there for years … which is what at least one school textbook I had to use many years ago actually said). Perhaps that would be worth a separate programme of its own?

    As to your ideas about other TV programmes dealing with historical topics … well they would all get my vote!

    All the best,


  8. Archduke Piccolo,

    The TV programme is available online via the BBC website. It is worth watching.

    I think that it was A J P Taylor who really pushed the ‘war by timetable’ theory, and although it is relevant, the war was not as inevitable as that implies. As to the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ (or as some people now view it, the General Melchett – from Blackadder – take on World War I), that is becoming more and more discredited. There were probably no ‘great’ generals on the Western Front … but there were some that were quite good, quite a lot that were average, and a few who were poor. I think that many people forget that once a battle had started, the Generals had little or no control over what happened. They relied on very poor communications to gain information and to issue orders, which is something that the Internet/mobile phone generation find very difficult to comprehend.

    In 1914 Britain was very much ‘empire orientated’ and saw its army as an imperial police force/border protector and the Royal Navy as defender of its imperial supply lanes. The prospect of civil war in Ireland and problems on the North West Frontier were much more important than what was happening in the Balkans. The rivalry with Germany was a naval rivalry because the existence of a large German fleet upset the naval balance of power and posed a threat to the empire. Other than a few people – like General Wilson – there was no general consensus that Britain should involve herself in European affairs.

    If the Germans had beaten the French and Russians – and to my mind it is likely that they would have done eventually – they might have set up their own version of the ‘Continental System’ … but how economically weak would they have been by then? Perhaps it would have taken them a long time to feel strong enough to consider setting up a Greater Germany or to challenge the British and/or USA … and the defeated French and Russians would probably not have sat idly by whilst they did. By then the internal problems/break-up of the British Empire might have led to Britain to look more towards Europe.

    Who knows? Counter-factual history is fun (and very much a staple of wargaming!) but it is not history; it is just informed speculation.

    All the best,


    PS. I know OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR very well indeed. I have advised on one amateur production of the stage version and have watched the film version many, many times. Both are very entertaining.

  9. Another 'What if' is if Britain had not entered the war maybe its empire would have lasted longer as it would not have spent its resource
    es on the war.

  10. James O'Connell,

    True ... although internal divisions and national aspirations that would bring about the end of empire were beginning to loom.

    Possibly Ireland would have got Home Rule or even Dominion status by political means rather than violence if Britain had not joined in the war. India was also slowly simmering away, and one wonders what the world would have been like if she had been granted Dominion status in the late 1930s.

    All the best,