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Language and the “war machine”

2 Aug

A very interesting post today at Oxford’s WWI Centenary Blog from Christopher Phillips on the subject of how industrial/commercial language is employed in the rhetoric surrounding the work conducted by the British general staff.  The red tabs organized an unending series of logistical miracles throughout the course of the war, and Phillips’ engagement with a popular 1917 pamphlet on this subject insists upon some realities well worth remembering:

The First World War on the Western Front was an industrial conflict. The armies that fought it required men, munitions and materials on a scale hitherto unimagined. Without food, men cannot fight. Without ammunition, guns cannot fire. As an illustrative example, in the first two weeks of September 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, the British fired 4,283,550 rounds of ammunition. All of which had to be produced, transported and delivered to the right place at the right time. Popular images of the war, transfixed by the horrors of trench warfare, have succeeded in almost completely eradicating this vast organizational challenge from the historiography. Marcosson’s contemporary account, however, does not diminish the importance of this challenge, but instead marvels at the scale of the operation required simply to feed the voracious appetite of the Western Front.

Do read the whole thing, as it’s not obstructively long.  Everyone writing at this venue is turning out amazingly interesting work, and this latest piece is no exception.



31 Jul

A quick note to say that a revised version of the Lettow-Vorbeck piece from a couple of days ago is now available to read at Oxford’s WWI Centenary Blog.

Oxford’s WWI Centenary Blog

27 Jul

I’m happy to announce that I’ve been given a position writing for Oxford University’s WWI Centenary Blog!  My first post, rather tragically, is not about the war itself, but rather about something that sprang up in its aftermath — still, the war had a considerable impact on the periodical culture of the time, and what you’ll read here is very much an outgrowth of that.  Unfortunately, if you’ve been reading this blog already, you’ll already have seen me talk about this subject.  No matter!  The next post will be wholly original, and actually about the war into the bargain.  It may also be somewhat controversial.

I’ll be sure to announce any new posts here once they go up.  This will be a great deal of fun, I think.

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.

Enter the Lists

17 May

George Simmers at Great War Fiction has found a very interesting list of books.  The list dates from 1918, and includes 130 books that the compiler believed would be of enduring value in understanding the war.  For those interested (as I am) in approaching the war through the lens of the works actually produced at the time, this is a remarkably useful resource.  Go check it out!

I can only claim to have read twenty of the books on the list, so this is going to present me with some wonderful leads.  I’m particularly delighted to see in the Cartoonists section that the matchless W. Heath Robinson apparently produced a volume of war cartoons.  There’s nothing I’d rather see this afternoon.


19 Apr

George Simmers, at the excellent Great War Fiction blog, is not happy with the latest BBC drama to touch upon the war.

…must the writer labour so hard to make sure we realise that war is a terrible thing? The only characters in favour of fighting the War are the  mindless brutes and bullies. All the nice characters are against the War. Joe, who went off optimistic in the first episode, has come back ravaged by what he has seen. Nobody shows any sense of why Britain is at war; it’s all futility and pointless suffering, so that grim rural life gets even grimmer.

Well worth reading, and lots more in the comments that follow.  It should go without saying that spoilers may lurk therein.

On Peter Hart’s ‘The Great War’

3 Apr

Paul Reed has a review of Peter Hart’s latest work, The Great War (2013) — looks like another great success:

The historiography of the Great War has changed dramatically in recent times. Serious students have long since abandoned the Lions Led By Donkeys approach to the war and academics like the late Paddy Griffith and Professor Gary Sheffield have championed the formal approach to our understanding of how the conflict was really fought. But in many respects this new thinking has hardly left the lecture room. Working as a battlefield guide with thousands of members of the public one does not have to be a mind reader to know where the majority of those who start the tour stand when it comes to the command and conduct of battles like the Somme: slaughter, butchers, tin-pot generals are all common phrases. After a few days of looking at the ground, hearing the problems of command with little control, seeing how the conflict was ever evolving and how much training went into the later battles, most returned changed, and not a little challenged on many levels. That is what the First World War has long needed in print – the whole war in a broad brush stroke but with no attempt to dilute. And perhaps Peter Hart’s book is it.

[Emphasis mine]

Check it out — this seems to be the sort of volume one is always glad to see come forth, and I hope to get a copy of it soon myself.