‘The Pity of War’ (1998) Niall Ferguson

The title ‘The Pity of War’ says little about the book’s contents.

The words are not those of the author, but rather taken from one of the war poets. The ‘war poets’ are one aspect of the misconceptions that have developed around the First World War, hijacking how people felt about the war at the time with a post-war negative and sentimentalised view.

Ferguson picks out ten questions to scrutinise, myths to unwind, misconceptions to set straight, as well as original views of his own. Ferguson strips out the facts and attacks each in turn often in meticulous detail, all referenced and from a single perspective. Ferguson doesn’t sit on the fence, he has an opinion and makes it forcefully. For example, when he states that, ‘without the war of attrition on the Western Front, Britain’s manpower, its economy and its vastly superior financial resources could not have been brought to bear on Germany sufficiently to ensure victory’ (p457) is stated as an absolute with a counter-factual offered as the alternative - Britain would have had to compromise rather than fight on in any other way.

Was war inevitable?

Ferguson offers a myriad of factors: people, nationhood, economic growth, the Press and railways, burgeoning democracies, the weakness of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empires and the extend of the British Empire. From the contents of a vast melting pot of facts and opinion he tries to argue that war, or early engagement of the British Expeditionary Force, may have been an outcome. There was want for an independent body or a leader with clout to put a stop to it.

Germany’s gamble?

This question is taken as fact, however I would disagree that Germany was taking a gamble. If we stick with the metaphor than they kept a book and tried to cover every eventuality. Hubris, ambition, restlessness and opportunity, timing and threats or fear of encirclement all had a role to play, and the desire to break a perceived impasse by the leadership.

Britain’s intervention?

Here Ferguson makes the case for fear of German domination of central Europe both economically and militarily. Impossibility of remaining neutral. The shifting views in the Cabinet.

As popular as history has made it out to be?

Ferguson is disingenuous here, or being provocative deliberately for the sake of taking the opposite view. The manner in which it was greeted reflected the heterogeneous nature of society: for, against, for nation, for relief, on impulse … Any argument can be made depending on the person, population or nation you pick and when in the narrative of the war you consider the trending opinion.

Did propaganda keep the war going?

Yes, though a defeatist Press would have lost the war, and where people wanted it the opinions of Punch, amongst others, was not positive. Voices of dissent got through, though not to the masses. In the trenches the Daily Mail was roundly ridiculed for its grossly false claims of victory where calamitous defeat had been the outcome.

Why didn’t the wealth of Britain and her allies crush Germany earlier?

Challenging Ferguson would be difficult without a similar background in the finances and economies of the combating nations. Rather than thinking Britain was wealthy he should consider how such wealth was committed or could be accessed. A Liberal government had wanted to cut public spending, not increase it. This wealth was committed in numerous ways to the Empire. Not a militaristic society it could not politically under a Liberal government be exploited.

How come the German army could defeat Serbia, Rumania and Russia - but not Britain and France?

It lacked the size to ever realise the Schlieffen plan, hadn’t expected Austria-Hungary to be so inept nor the allies resolved nor able to sustain terrible losses. Britain got better at war. Germany, on the attack, was largely as stuck in stalemate in trench warfare as everyone else. The Western Front was very different to these other fronts with excellent supply lines via railway networks and across the Channel.

Why did men keep fighting?

Getting on with the job, no alternative, inertia, refreshed with new recruits, obedience in the culture, unemployment, prison or death, censorship. And who read the poets anyway? This openly expressed view came later in the 1930s as the likes of Siegfried Sassoon were popularised.

Why did men stop fighting?

In the case of France and Russia, as a result of mutiny as blunders on a grand scale were repeated and ultimately with the surrender of German soldiers.

Who ‘won’ the war, as in who ended up paying it?

The suggestion that somehow Germany won the war is deliberately provocative. It depends of course very much on how you define ‘win’. Serbia eventually won its war by achieving its aims of a slavic nation. The Allies won because Germany lost. On a financial basis the USA won. Germany didn’t and couldn’t pay reparations so didn’t suffer as great a financial loss as the allies had wanted.

Ferguson puts the loosest of chronologies at the core of the ten questions he addresses and makes no apologies for avoiding where other authors have already been, indeed he offers a reading list for those wanting a chronology of events or the minutiae of the fields of conflict themselves. The arguments he makes are not always convincing - he appears at time to be contrary for the sake of it. There is little doubt that the book is a personal journey that though multifaceted is not comprehensive; as well as a lack of narrative or of conflict there is little said on women, on the home front, on the technology, not equally fascinating facets of the war from underage soldiering and the execution for cowardice of deserters. There are nonetheless some fascinating insights: Germany’s actions were founded on fear of their weakness, not belief in their strength; the Allies were not as gungho for war as the Press in particular suggested at times, it was surrender, rather than economic failings or the appearance of the American Expeditionary Force that lead to Germany’s defeat, a nation that clearly relished viciousness more so than the allies whose leaders were want to take repeated all or nothing gambles.

‘The Pity of War’, despite its personal, gentle and engaging introduction seeing the war through the experiences of a long dead grandfather and the author’s own school and university journey is not a popular narrative of the First World War nor always an easy read, nor indeed does Ferguson choose to detail the chronology of events, or the detail of particular battles. There are many thousands of books on the First War, and Ferguson suggests which are best at converting the chronology and conflicts, his choice, and one of epic scale, would appear to be that he has read and certainly references, a significant number of these books. In this respect it is a valuable and hefty early read for anyone interested in studying this era, which in turn indicates his audience - the undergraduate, even the post-graduate reader with a deeper than average interest in the subject and reasonable foreknowledge of the essential landscape of events at the beginning of the 20th century. Written to come out in time for the 80th Anniversary of the November 1918 Armistice in 1998 ‘The Pity of War’ does not try to cash in as a popular tome - firstly it is a serious, academic, in-depth, closely referenced and at times a specialist read thick with original research, on the other hand there is a richness of insight and quirky detail that makes it an ideal companion to complement a book that takes the expected path through events. Sections on the role the finance and the economy played stand out as specialist topics that Ferguson addresses in even greater detail in other books. This breadth and depth of coverage makes ‘The Pity of War’ as much a reference book as well-argued narrative history.

If there is imbalance in ‘The Pity of War’ it is the degree to which Ferguson leans on his knowledge of German finance and economics during this period - he undertook postgraduate research for a number of years in Hamburg when writing his doctoral thesis and his not always disguised repugnance for those leaders from the era who were either educated in the British boarding public school system or were landed gentry or both.

From the outset, and acting as brackets to hold in place this considerable work, Ferguson sets out ten questions, some of them myths concerning the First World War, that he then proceeds to address. It feels as if no book, no paper or tangential piece of literature, theatre or cinema has been left out in order to make his point, which overall, is that historians in the past have drawn the wrong conclusions.

Ferguson is dismissive of media events such as the final episode of the TV comedy series ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’, the made for TV movie ‘Birdsong’ and film-event ‘Gallipoli’, and goes light on the War poets and memoirs from veterans. ‘The Pity of War’ is hugely insightful, often on topics and offering detail that is rarely included, some of the content covered includes:

  • Penny dreadfuls and the myths of war.(Ferguson, 1999 p2)
  • Invasion stories (Ferguson, 1999 pp4-5)
  • Cinemas and newsreels, filmmakers, newspapers (Ferguson, 1999: pp216-228)
  • Workers wages, productivity and strikes, the choking off of imported fertilisers and the damage this did to the ability of Germany to feed itself, the shambles of procurement. (Ferguson, 1999 p251)
  • Writers and academics for the war, a militarised Monopoly (Ferguson, 1999 p118)
  • British espionage
  • Misallocation of labour (Ferguson, 1999 p270)
  • Domestic morale (Ferguson, 1999 p280), an army of incapable of improvisation.
  • Beauty in death. (Ferguson, 1999 pp 358-359)
  • How mustard gas putting paid to the kilt. (Ferguson, 1999 p350)
  • No strategy or structure (Ferguson, 1999 p288)
  • Surrender as the outcome. (Ferguson, 1999 p368)
  • Shilly-shallying of Grey and the cabinet.
  • Emerging nationhood (Ferguson, 1999 p144)
  • The real rivals were Britain, Russia and France (Ferguson, 1999 p39)
  • Cannae and Schlieffen, the aftermath (Ferguson, 1999 p95)
  • Bethmann-Hollweg's bid for neutrality, homosexuality. (Ferguson, 1999 p352)
  • The international bond market and the cost of the arms race which was low. (Ferguson, 1999 p130)
  • The Anglo-French Cordiale April 1904. (Ferguson, 1999 p53)
  • Egypt, Fashoda. (Ferguson, 1999 p42)
  • French loans to Russia from 1886. (Ferguson, 1999 p45)
  • Reichstadt’s control of military expenditure. (Ferguson, 199 p113)
  • Bethmann's bid for neutrality (Ferguson, 1999 p175)
  • The Weimar economy, wrecked itself, not war reparations, (Ferguson, 1999 p439)
  • A pyrrhic victory, losers all. (Ferguson, 1999: p397 p 418)
  • A soldier’s comforts (Ferguson, 1999 p351)
  • Home Rule in Ireland (Ferguson, 1999 p164)
  • Ambivalence to the war. (Ferguson, 1999 p 455 on Wyndham Lewis)
  • Not donkeys but hindered by deference to superiors. (Ferguson, 1999 p303)
  • The AEF did no ‘win the war’ and relied on outmoded tactics. (Ferguson, 1999 p312)
  • Overwhelming naval superiority. (Ferguson, 1999: p71 p86)
  • The desire for war by the public and politicians. A myth or reality? (Ferguson, 1999:pp 174-76)
  • Freud (Ferguson, 1999 p359)
  • Military technology (Ferguson, 1999 p290)
  • A picnic (Ferguson, 1999: p360, from Hynes)

Of particular note, and perhaps showing where a simple contrast of approaches exists, are Ferguson’s fascination with the ‘two Ks’ - ‘Maynard Keynes’ and ‘Karl Kraus’, the latter on early 20th century economics, the former an Austrian playwright who we come to learn was as significant in continental Europe as British authors such as H G Wells, Bernard Shaw and Robert Graves.

Referencing is often dense, not a sentence on a page without a footnote or citation.

Historians, commentators and writers referenced include Alan Clarke, John Terraine, J.M.Bourne, Martin Samuels, Theo Balderston, Martin van Creveld, Correlli Barnett, Laffel, Paddy Griffith, Martin Holmes, Liddell Hart, Norman Stone, Gudmundson, Barbara Tuchman, Travers, Graham, Michael Howard, Karl Kraus, Hew Strachan and Michael Geyer.

Ferguson has a formidable reputation as an historian, academically he is attached to two of the leading universities in the world: Oxford and Harvard while as a TV presenter and commentator he has a media presence. He gained his MA and D.Phil in History from the University of Oxford, spending several years studying and researching at the University of Hamburg, where his interest in the personalities and mechanics and international finance in the early part of the 19th century developed, in this respect his focus in ‘The Pity of War’ does at time lean heavily towards Germany at the expense say of France and Russia and the Balkans.

Ferguson is a driven, passionate, even obsessive historian determined to make his point or counterpoint with a relentless catalogue of evidence. His modus operandi in this text is to get at his 'truth' of the First World War by addressing common questions and myths. He undoes several and turns others on their head, often in a convincing way, though sometimes doubts remain, though further pursuit of the references should help the reader come to their own conclusions.

Ferguson’s authority can become a barrier, certainly there are parts of his thesis where it is a struggle to take on board the evidence that requires some understanding of international finance and economics. Where there are few, if any, similarly informed authorities it is difficult to know how to challenge some of his views - was Germany really more efficient at killing people? Is it creditable to put a price on a combatant’s head? Money, Ferguson argues, tells a different story to that offered by historians in the past. Easier to comprehend and therefore to engage with are his portraits of men with ambitions and efforts to blame.

Had as much care been taken with the images as the words then Ferguson would not have fallen into the trap of giving credit to Tropical Film Company Battle of the Somme film footage grabbed as stills by other authors in the past and offered as their own photographs.

He doesn’t always convince and there are errors that escape his eagle eyes (or those of his researchers). It is conjecture to say that Grey et al. exaggerated the threat of Germany despite intelligence. He suggests that a Tommy gets angry with a Jerry prisoner in the Battle of the Somme film without seeing that the man is injured and a prisoner inadvertently bumps into him, and regarding footage from this film shot he continues the calumny of authors who claim stills taken from the film footage or photographs taken by a photographer who travelled with one of the cinematographers, as Hart does, are part of their own photographic collection. Ferguson treats the movie ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ as biography, when its author Remarque saw little of the front line and it is conjecture to suggest that the EU would have resulted had Great Britain been late or stayed out of the war. The argument that the central powers were somehow better at killing, maiming and taking prisoners ignores that they were largely on the defensive in conflicts which favoured defence. And that the loss of skilled workers to troops hugely impacted on the economy and our ability to wage war when hundreds of thousands of perfectly able women proved how good they were.

Ferguson reveals some bias when he talks about Grey, Churchill and their ilk, from their public-school educated and landed gentry backgrounds. He has a dig at a public school type suited to Empire because of their qualities of leadership and loyalty when in truth young men in these establishments are a heterogenous lot. And with Grey he has a go a cod psychology by trying to relate Grey the fly-fisherman to Grey the foreign minister, in one particular incident thinking that Grey describing the challenge of landing a heavy salmon on lightweight tackle is at all like dealing with Germany on the brink of war. In such instances Ferguson is pushing it too far, it would make amusing TV or a witty point in a live debate at the Oxford Union, but it lacks conviction on the page.

Either Ferguson plays Devil's advocate, or he argues a contrary point for the sake of it, but some examples of where he is being one sided include conjecture that Grey et al exaggerated the threat of Germany despite intelligence (Ferguson, 1999 p76), his interpretation of the stats on fatalities, wounded and prisoners (Ferguson, 1999 pp300-303), the argument that the Entente were better at killing, maiming and taking prisoners (Ferguson, 1999 p337).

And there are errors, such as taking an incident out of context from the 'Battle of the Somme' film footage shot by Geoffrey Malins as indicative of anger or hatred towards prisoners in the back of the line (Ferguson, 1999 p368). Film-making is by its very nature, especially in 1916, highly selective and in this instance is where a wounded Tommy steps inadvertently into a line of German prisoners and at most curses as his injury is jostled. Ferguson (1999 p397) implies without criticism or context that the Oxford Union, a debating society popular with certain university undergraduates, could be representative of opinions of the wider population. And unknowingly he erroneously labels photographs from Richard Harte Butler's collection (images 20 and 22) that are in fact pictures either taken as 'screen grabs' from Geoffrey Malins's footage of 'the Battle of the Somme' or a photograph taken by Malins' assistant Ernest Brooks.

‘The Pity of War’ receives glowing reviews in the Press and professors from leading universities have reviewed it, enjoying the challenge of meeting him square on, applauding some of his insights, but offering criticism of other conclusions.

There is no doubt 'The Pity of War' adds substantially to a broader and deeper understanding of the First World War, though it should be seen as a book that complements, rather than replaces texts that provide the chronology, conflict and causes in a more systematic, and less judgmental manner.

The greatest value of ‘The Pity of War’ may be as a reference guiding those with particular niche interests in the poets, art of films of the war, on the Keynesian economics and finance of the Germany, of bankers, as well as politicians and generals, on the literature since the war and the rebutting and debunking of many of the myths and misconceptions that have developed over the many decades as new generations have interpreted the war to suit their own sensibilities.

Review by Jonathan Vernon