On Beckett

21 May

George Simmers at Great War Fiction has a short, mostly-positive review of Ian W. Beckett’s The Making of the First World War, which came out late last year.  “Short” and “mostly-positive” are the words I’d choose to describe the book itself, so this seems only fitting.

The only aspect of it that was slightly off for me was Beckett’s light dismissal of the Learning Curve thesis, which has far better warrants than he suggests.  Simmers picks up on the same thing:

The last essay is an interesting one, since he diverges from what seems to be the prevailing view among British military historians – that Allied generalship won the war by skilful strategy during the last hundred days. Ian Beckett argues instead that the German generals lost the war by the mistakes they made after the March offensive. I’m not entirely convinced – since, after all, they only lost because the Allies were able to take advantage of these errors. Still, it’s a bracing argument, as are those of all the essays.

And Gary Sheffield, one of the Curve’s leading supporters (see his Forgotten Victory and The Somme for more), reached similar conclusions in his review in the BBC History Magazine:

Breaking the surface at various points is Beckett’s deep scepticism about the effectiveness of the British Army’s learning process. Beckett and this reviewer are on different sides of this dynamic and lively debate and there is not the space here to rehearse the arguments in any depth. Suffice it to say that his blunt statement in the book that the German army “adapted more quickly to the changing nature of warfare than the Allies” is, to my mind, not convincing; it lacks nuance and disregards much recent research into the British and French armies. Moreover, his unfavourable comparison of Allied gains on the Somme in 1916 with German gains in March 1918 is effectively meaningless, so different were the circumstances and consequences: while the Somme gave the Allies a solid strategic success, the initial and partial German success of March 1918 – as Beckett shows – only led to disaster.

In any event, the rest of The Making of the First World War is quite good indeed, with first-rate chapters on the flooding of the Yser and the release (and initial reception) of Malins and McDowell’s notorious The Battle of the Somme (1916) — one of the first feature-length “war films” and arguably the first runaway blockbuster.  On this latter, quite interesting subject I shall have more to say tomorrow.


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