Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield
The Myth of the Great War by John Mosier
Disquiet on the Western
By Frank McLynn
If we were to follow Engels and believe
that truth emerges from the dialectical clash of opposites, we would
surely have the truth about the First World War after studying these
books. To read about the events of 1914-18 in these two accounts is to
enter two entirely different factual and mental worlds; only the names
of the actors are the same.
For Gary Sheffield, the great unsung
heroes of the Great War are the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and
their leader General Douglas Haig; for John Mosier, the heroes are the
American Expeditionary Force (AEF) and their leader General John
"Blackjack" Pershing. For Sheffield, Pershing is a near-moron
while Haig is a farsighted leader; for Mosier, Pershing was the most
brilliant general in the war while Haig was a stupid butcher. But the
argument between Sheffield and Mosier extends way beyond personalities.
They interpret strategy, tactics, politics and even psychology in
different ways, and use entirely incompatible statistics.
The core of Sheffield's book is that
Haig is a much-maligned figure and that the war of attrition waged by
the BEF eventually wore the Germans dow. In his account, the Americans
are all but irrelevant. The bloody battles of the Somme and
Passchendacle in 1916-17 made victory in 1918 possible.
As for the trench warfare of 1914-18, he
argues that a technological hiatus meant that it was impossible for
either side to score a decisive victory until the very end. Cavalry won
wars in the 19th century and tanks in the Second World War, but the
former were obsolete and the latter in their infancy in the Great War.
First, Sheffield engages in a major
throat-clearing exercise. According to him, virtually every commentary
on the war, whether Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That, Joan
Littlewood's Oh! What a Lovely War or the memoirs of Lloyd George
and Churchill, is profoundly erroneous. Liddell Hart, A J P Taylor and a
host of others join the ranks of the wrong-headed. When an author tells
us, as Sheffield does, that he alone knows the truth, we should beware.
But, as they say in the movies, it gets better.
hiatus" argument will not stand up. Cavalry did not win the
American Civil War, as it would have to have done on his argument. In
any case, Mosier explicitly refutes the technology thesis by
demonstrating the poor quality of the British Army: "gunners were
firing the wrong shells and infantry were trained in the wrong
tactics". Even if we were to accept Sheffield's thesis, we would
still have to accept that British generals were incompetent for, if they
knew technology would result in the impasse of trench warfare, they
should not have advised the government to fight a major land war in
France. If they did not know, they are guilty as conventionally charged.
There were many contingent reasons –
dithering political in-fighting, bureaucratic bungling, Anglo-French
disharmony – that worked against a breakthrough on the Western Front,
but these were not necessary consequences of technology. That Sheffield
habitually confuses contingency and necessity is clear, for the logical
conclusion of his technology argument is that the Allies could never
Since Sheffield want to rescue Haig from
the justifiable charge that he was an incompetent butcher, and to argue
for Haig as the architect of victory in 1918, he ties himself in knots
trying to demonstrate that the alleged technological determinism somehow
ceased to operate in 1918. But Sheffield is not strong on logic: among
his eccentricities are refusal to accept that the word
"disillusionment" has any meaning.
He cannot explain why there is not a
single literary production in Britain or the US extolling the Great War
as a "good thing". He does not seem to realise that you cannot
call the War Poets "unrepresentative" unless another group is
representative – but no such group can be discerned. At other times he
reveals himself as a simple-minded, right-wing ideologist. He seems to
see ideologies engaged in battles which one side wins by sheer
intellectual superiority. So Western liberalism "defeats"
Marxist-Leninism in the Cold War, much as if the superpowers had been
engaged in an extended Socratic dialogue.
Sheffield's blindness about Haig leads
him to this howling non sequitur: "If he and other generals
deserve the blame for the disasters of the earlier years of the war,
they also deserve the credit for the victory of 1918." But, as John
Mosier conclusively demonstrates, it was the arrival of the Americans in
1918, with the promise of two million more troops to come, that finally
broke the German spirit.
It is absurd to say that the Americans
did not affect the outcome because they did not fight such bloody
slugging actions as the Somme or Passchendaele. The classic aim of the
military leader is to destroy the enemy while sustaining minimal
casualties. This the Americans achieved. Whether they did it
"objectively", by fighting battles, or
"subjectively", by destroying the enemy's morale, is
irrelevant. Sheffield falls into the Haig-like fallacy of thinking that
victory must imply large-scale bloodshed.
Maybe Mosier overrates Pershing and the
American battlefield contribution – it is pushing it to claim that the
AEF victory at Bellcau Wood in June 1918 was the turning-point of the
war – but this is no more implausible than Sheffield's opposite
conviction that the decisive battle was the BEF victory at Amiens in the
same month. Mosier scores heavily over Sheffield in his more
sophisticated and convincing use of statistics for battle casualties.
Sheffield claims that the war of attrition at the Somme was "worth
it", on the basis that both sides suffered loses of about 260,000.
But Mosier shows that the real statistics for 1916 provide figures of
418,000 Allied war dead and only 143,000 Germans.
Throughout Sheffield's narrative there
is a tendentious use of statistics which is as infuriating as his faulty
logic. Mosier writes amusingly about the way British propaganda tried to
"spin" the Somme casualties into roughly equal losses. One
then turns to Sheffield's book and finds a textbook example of this.
Most of all, one is struck by the
difference in tone between the two books. Mosier is scholarly in the
true sense, but Sheffield is combative, coat-trailing and, above all,
cocksure. For example, he does not seem to realise that his ex
cathedra pronouncements about Hitler have been convincingly refuted
in John Lukacs's recent book. He attributes disingenuous motives to
everyone form A J P Taylor to Alan Clark. He indulges in the old
academic dodge of stating a contentious proposition, then hedging it
about with so many qualifications, caveats and provisos that it becomes
meaningless. The treatment of Kitchener's strategy is a good example of
detached research finds space for a sense of anger about the futile
slaughter in the trenches; Sheffield writes of casualty lists in the
manner of General Turgidson in Dr Strangelove. If I may insert a
personal note, I think it is an insult to the memory of those who died
on the Western Front that the butcher who sent them there should have
his reputation laundered in this way. One takes consolation from the
fact that Sheffield's defence of Haig is utterly unconvincing, as is the
rest of his book.
29 June 2001