Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield
The Myth of the Great War by John Mosier

Disquiet on the Western Front

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.

Sheffield's "technological 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 have won.

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 this.

Mosier's 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.

from, 29 June 2001