John Terraine : The Smoke and the Fire: Myths and Anti–Myths of War 1861–1945

(London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980)

A reappraisal by Gary Sheffield

[This article first appeared in the April 2021 edition of Stand To! No. 122 pp 51-52. Members received Stand To! four times a year, and Bulletin three times a year either digitally or in print.]

Of all John Terraine’s many books, The Smoke and the Fire is my favourite. It is not John’s most important or influential book – that is probably Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier (1963), nor is it an instantly accessible ‘good read’, like Mons: The Retreat to Victory (1960). The Smoke and the Fire is episodic, rather bitty and covers a very wide canvas. Within its pages we find the author riding some of his favourite hobby horses, and, frankly, some of his arguments are more convincing than others. So, then, why do I admire it? 

This is partly due to the circumstances in which I first read it. This was in the early 1980s, when I was a postgraduate student at the University of Leeds, writing a thesis on the British Army in the First World War. (I bought my copy, second–hand, on 4 November 1982). I was very receptive to new ideas, particularly about the Western Front, having already begun to question the received wisdom of the time. This was in great part because as an undergraduate at Leeds I was fortunate to take Dr Hugh Cecil’s special subject on Britain in the First World War, and this exposed me to various debates. Thus, I was already some way down the path that Terraine had marked out by the time I read The Smoke and the Fire. But the primary reason why I was impressed by the book, and why I have gone back to it regularly for four decades, is that it made me think. It is fizzing with iconoclastic ideas, trenchantly expressed. Even when I disagreed with Terraine’s views, they had enough validity to force me to think through my objections. They could not be simply dismissed out of hand. 

The title of the book, as we are informed on the title page, refers to ‘No smoke without fire’ (Old Saying), and presumably alludes to the subtitle: ‘Myths and Anti–Myths of War 1861–1945’. Put another way, myths usually contain a grain of truth. In this book, more than any other, John Terraine tackled the myths that encrusted the First World War (an ‘anti–myth’ was his description of the reality of the situation, as he saw it). This was far from the first time that he had attempted to slay these dragons. Indeed, some parts of the book had been previously published in The Times, History Today and the RUSI (Royal United Service Institute) Journal. This accounts for its episodic nature. I have always found this attractive rather than the opposite. It is the sort of book that can be picked up and chapters read almost at random without necessarily having to be read from cover to cover. The rich fare that Terraine provides sometimes deserves time for digestion.

We should not be fooled by the dates on the book jacket: although Terraine ranged back to the beginning of the American Civil War and forward to the end of the Second World War, the book is all about placing the 1914–18 conflict in its correct historical perspective. This wide historical sweep is one of the reasons why this book is important. One of the primary criticisms of what Terraine dismissively referred to as the ‘instant historians’ of the Great War who emerged in the 1960s – the likes of Alan Clark – was their failure to understand the context in which the generals, soldiers and armies of the First World War operated. Too often they did not look back to what had come before, or forward to what would come after; or if they did, they misunderstood the place of the First World War in the development of warfare. As we shall see, John Terraine did not fall into that trap.

Terraine’s overarching theme is that the First World War can only be understood as one of the three ‘great wars of the First Industrial Revolution’. It is worth quoting what he had to say about these conflicts: 

They throw light upon each other, they make each other comprehensible. Their technological bases are similar, their social and political backgrounds have important resemblances, their military problems and solutions also have strong resemblances, the consequences are profound. I would go so far as to say that to write sensibly about any of them, it is necessary to have the other two in mind.

The high commanders, both military and civilian, of all three wars: 

operated in the period of mass armies, and were accordingly subject to the same compelling logistical disciplines… Naturally, the introduction of the mass element profoundly affected generalship; the mass imposed its own strategic restraints; it also tended… towards administrative overweight and anonymity at the top.

The Great War, the middle conflict of the three, witnessed ‘the full force of these maladies’, while by 1944–45, to a limited extent, they had been ameliorated. (1)

To discern the links between the American Civil War and the two world wars was astute, but it was not an original insight. In The Smoke and the Fire Terraine quoted J F C Fuller on the subject, but argued that Fuller drew the wrong conclusions. Much recent research, including my own, has sought to place the First World War in comparative context; either comparing it with other wars or juxtaposing various belligerents in the same war. In this sense, Terraine was ahead of the game, although this book and indeed his wider output was fairly Anglocentric. This insight enabled him to draw parallels between the attritional nature of Ulysses S Grant’s strategy in 1864–65 and Haig’s strategy on the Western Front. Terraine, in a later book on the Second World War, The Right of the Line, placed the Anglo–American bombing of Germany in this context as well.

How well does this interpretation stand up some 40 years later? One of the themes of historical writing about the American Civil War over the last few decades has been the dissimilarity between this conflict and what came after. Some historians are inclined to see the conduct of the war as being quasi–Napoleonic rather than ‘modern’, especially in its early years. One important article argues that the Civil War was not a total war. (2) By this, the author meant it was not a direct ancestor of the Second World War, as Civil War armies tended to destroy property rather than kill civilians. Nevertheless, in terms of total war, the conflicts of 1861–65, 1914–18 and 1939–45 bore a distinct family likeness: John Terraine was right about that. (3) Likewise, although there were many differences between Grant’s, Haig’s and Montgomery’s conduct of operations, they shared a ruthless attritional mentality and understood how to use mass armies composed of not always well–trained civilians–in–uniform, many of whom were volunteers. So, while some of Terraine’s views need to be modified in the light of modern research, not all do. In fairness, he did not claim that there was a linear progression from 1861 to 1945 via 1914–18 in every aspect of warfare. Overall, Terraine’s breadth of historical vision was impressive.

Most of the book is concerned with discussion of individual myths. In many cases, Terraine scored some direct hits. He demonstrated that the machine gun was not ‘the most lethal weapon’ of the First World War (artillery fire was statistically far more dangerous). In the process he attacked Paul Fussell, whose acclaimed literary history The Great War and Modern Memory was a particular bête noire of Terraine’s, as it is of a number of other military historians. In a striking phrase, Terraine stated that the notion ‘of the machine–gun as a supreme killer is literary, not historical’. (4) In some chapters, Terraine took the opportunity to restate some of his favourite themes: that British generals were not ‘donkeys’; that the First World War was not ‘futile’; and that pace Basil Liddell Hart, there was no shortcut to victory via the ‘Indirect Approach’. As in his earlier works, Terraine made a powerful case for each of these propositions. One can pick holes in individual aspects of these arguments but in 2021 they remain fundamentally convincing. Some of his other assaults on myths have not fared so well with passage of time. His attempted debunking of the idea that soldiers wearing 60lbs of kit on the Somme was a major problem led him into debate with other historians, who pointed out the weaknesses in both Terraine’s argument and his use of sources. (5)

One of the most important sections in The Smoke and the Fire is entitled ‘The True Texture of the Somme’. Terraine argued that in response to British advances on the Somme in 1916 there were a large number of German counterattacks (Terraine counted at least 330). German defensive doctrine not only inflated casualties, but materially contributed to the attrition that ‘wore down the splendid German Army’ and turned the Somme into a success for the Allies. Terraine did not hesitate to call the Somme a ‘victory’. In truth Terraine’s point was not original. It can be traced back to the British official history of the 1930s, as he acknowledged, and ultimately to Haig’s Final Despatch, published in 1919. But in the context of 1980, it was significant that a widely–read historian should make this case in accessible prose. Terraine was concerned to rebalance the popular view that the Somme was all about hopeless, doomed British attacks by pointing out that Germans actively contributed to the attrition. More than that, he made the case that the Somme was a precursor to the victories of 1918. By grinding down the German Army and reducing it to a ‘militia’, which was the effective status of the British Army of 1916, it put the two armies, for the first time, on more– or–less even terms. ‘The first dim harbingers of the still far–distant victories of 1918’, Terraine argued, ‘may be discerned in the crude texture imparted to the Battle of the Somme by the German Army in 1916’. (6)

Terraine’s argument has influenced my own thinking on the significance of the Somme. In my publications I have described the battle as a ‘strategic success’ for the Allies, as I think the term ‘victory’ is simply inappropriate for a long–drawn out and incomplete process of attrition. I would modify details of Terraine’s argument in various ways, but in essence he called the Somme correctly. It was a penetrating insight, which went very much against the grain of thinking when it was published, but now has moved into the scholarly mainstream.

Re–reading The Smoke and the Fire 40 plus years after it was published is a rewarding experience. When he wrote it, John Terraine was in his late 50s and at the height of his powers as a historian. By that stage he had developed a direct and trenchant – and very clear – writing style, rather different from the restrained version that we find in Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier. It is a very personal book, which reads as the work of a man who had suffered slings and arrows over the years and had decided to give myths – and some of his opponents – both barrels. There is a sense in The Smoke and the Fire that Terraine was clearing up unfinished business. He published only one more full–length, original work on the First World War. This was White Heat: The New Warfare 1914–18 (1982), which, to reminisce, I read in preparation for taking my finals. In this book Terraine picks up one of the major themes in his previous book, that is, technology. White Heat reads as a sort of sequel to The Smoke and the Fire. It seems that these two books got his major arguments about the Western Front out of Terraine’s system, although he was to return to it in minor pieces, including articles for Stand To!, for the rest of his working life. 

Yet the publication of White Heat did not mark the end of John Terraine’s career as an important historian. Quite the opposite: some of his best work was still to be written, although he switched his attention to different subjects. In 1985 he published The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War 1939– 1945, and four years later, Business in Great Waters: The U–Boat Wars, 1916–1945. Both were big, ambitious books, were well received by air power and naval historians, and they retain their value to this day. Thus, The Smoke and the Fire can be seen as the first part of Terraine’s farewell to the Western Front, at least in the sense of writing major books on the topic. It is a compelling read and is certainly on my list of the top 10 books on the First World War. Erudite and provocative, after 40 years The Smoke and the Fire still has the ability to make one think. That is the secret of its enduring appeal. 

Gary Sheffield 


1. Terraine, Smoke and the Fire, pp.14–15. My references are to the Book Club Associates edition published in 1981.

2. Mark E. Neely Jr, ‘Was the Civil War a Total War?’, in Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, (eds.), On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861–1871 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002 [1997]), pp.29–51. 

3. See Gary Sheffield, ‘The Second World War in Global History', in Paul R. Bartrop (ed.), The Routledge History of the Second World War (Abingdon: Routledge, forthcoming). 

4. Terraine, Smoke and the Fire, p.32. 

5. I discuss this in more detail in an article on John Terraine as a military historian which will appear in a future Stand To!

6. Terraine, Smoke and the Fire, pp.123, 125.

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