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The First World War killed around eight million men and bled Europe dry. In this provocative book Niall Ferguson asks: was the sacrifice worth it? Was it all really an inevitable cataclysm and were the Germans a genuine threat? Was the war, as is often asserted, greeted with popular enthusiasm? Why did men keep on fighting when conditions were so wretched? Was there in fact a death wish abroad, driving soldiers to their own destruction? The war, he argues, was a disaster – but not for the reasons we think. Far worse than a tragedy, it was the greatest error of modern history.
‘The most challenging and provocative analysis of the First World War to date’ Ian Kershaw
‘Must take a permanent place at the top of the War’s historiography. It is one of the very few books whose own scale matches that of the events it describes’ Alan Clark, Daily Telegraph
‘Possibly the most important book to appear in years both on the origins of the First World War … Ferguson can confidently claim to have inherited A. J. P. Taylor’s mantle’ Paul Kennedy, New York Review of Books
‘At one massive stroke, Niall Ferguson has transformed the intellectual landscape’ Economist
‘The Pity of War’, despite its personal, gentle and engaging introduction which sees 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 – all explained in the introduction. He is an historian who challenges head on some of the myths surrounding the war then introduces his own, copious original research in relation to economics and finance. There are many thousands of books on the First War, and Ferguson suggests which are best at concerning 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.
The ten questions abbreviated:
1) 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 extent 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 BEF, may have been an outcome. There was want for an independent body or a leader with clout to put a stop to it.
2) 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.
3) 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.
4) 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.
5) 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.
6) 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.
7) 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.
8) 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.
9) 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.
10) 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 German 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.
These ten questions might in turn have been essay assignments or questions set in a written examination, the difference being that Ferguson is able to address them as part of an open-book exam with weeks, rather than minutes to address each. He does so with relish, often taking a stance rather like a student debating at the Oxford Union Debating Society, in this respect the reader will almost certainly be left wanting to find out more for themselves which is readily indulged given the detail of referencing.
‘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, 1999:2)
Invasion stories (Ferguson, 1999:4-5)
Cinemas and newsreels, filmmakers, newspapers (Ferguson, 1999:216, 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, 1999:251)
Writers and academics for the war, a militarised Monopoly (Ferguson, 1999:118)
Misallocation of labour (Ferguson, 1999:270)
Domestic morale (Ferguson, 1999:280), an army of incapable of improvisation,
Beauty in death. (Ferguson, 1999:358-359)
How mustard gas putting paid to the kilt. (Ferguson, 1999:350)
No strategy or structure (Ferguson, 1999:288)
Surrender as the outcome. (Ferguson, 1999:368)
Shilly-shallying of Grey and the cabinet
Emerging nationhood (Ferguson, 1999:144)
The real rivals were Britain, Russia and France (Ferguson, 1999:39)
Cannae and Schlieffen, the aftermath (Ferguson, 1999:95)
Bethman’s bid for neutrality, homosexuality. (Ferguson, 1999:352)
The international bond market and the cost of the arms race which was low. (Ferguson, 1999:130)
The Anglo-French Cordiale April 1904. (Ferguson, 1999:53)
Egypt, Fashoda. (Ferguson, 1999:42)
French loans to Russia from 1886. (Ferguson, 1999:45)
Reichstad’s control of military expenditure. (Ferguson, 1999:113)
Bethman’s bid for neutrality (Ferguson, 1999:175)
The Weimar economy, wrecked itself, not war reparations, (Ferguson, 1999:439)
A pyrrhic victory, losers all. (Ferguson, 1999:397,418)
A soldier’s comforts (Ferguson, 1999:351)
Home Rule in Ireland (Ferguson, 1999:164)
Ambivalence to the war. (Ferguson, 1999:455 on Wyndham Lewis)
Not donkeys but hindered by deference to superiors. (Ferguson, 1999: 303)
The AEF did no ‘win the war’ and relied on outmoded tactics. (Ferguson, 1999:312)
Overwhelming naval superiority. (Ferguson, 1999:71,86)
The desire for war by the public and politicians. A myth or reality? (Ferguson, 1999:174-76)
Freud (Ferguson, 1999:359)
Military technology (Ferguson, 1999:290)
A picnic (Ferguson, 1999:360, 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. Historians, commentators and writers referenced include Alan Clarke, John Terraine, J.M.Bourne, Martin Samuels, Theo Balderston, Martin van Creveld, Corelli Barret, Laffel, Paddy Griffith, Martin Holmes, Liddell Hart, Norman Stone, Gudmanson, Barbara Truchman, 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 learn heavily towards Germany at the expense say of France and Russia and the Balkans.
Ferguson confounds what might be the ground rules of historical study by liking to second guess events, these ‘counter factuals’ imagine what might have occurred ‘if?’ Do these offer insight, or do they confuse, especially where at times Ferguson is emphatic that events would have gone a certain way if x or y had or had not happened. He edited and write for an anthology of such ‘counter factuals’ so clearly believes they are a valid way to gain insight, though it may also show an interest in literature and fiction, rather than just the nots and bolts of the professional historian.
Ferguson is a driven, passionate, even obsessive historian determined to make his point or counter-point 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.
‘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.
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.
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. Like a postgraduate making his case at the Oxford Union, Ferguson that 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 comprise rather than fight on in any other way.
The references is often dense, not a sentence on a page without a footnote or citation.
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 where founded on fear of their weakness, not belief in their strength; the Allies were not as gung-ho 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.
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.
Ferguson touches on, cites and lists a comprehensive range of historians, authors, dramatists, economists, poets and artists making ‘The Pity of War’ a desirable stepping off point, even learning design for a taught masters degree.
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 our 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.
Ferguson is dismissive of media events such as ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’, ‘Birdsong’ and ‘Gallipoli’, and goes light on the War poets and memoirs from veterans. Though he shows a magpie dilettantism with mentions of invasion stories, art history and Penny dreadfuls.
‘The Pity of War’ by Niall Ferguson should be on any reading list the claims to be from the authorities on the First World War, alongside:
Barbara W. Tuchman ‘The Guns of August’
AJ P Taylor ‘The First World War’
Christopher Clark ‘The Sleepwalkers’
Trevor Wilson ‘The Myriad Faces of War’
Hew Strachan ‘First World War’
Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker ‘Understanding the Great War’
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, 1999:76), his interpretation of the stats on fatalities, wounded and prisoners (Ferguson, 1999:300-303), the argument that the Entente were better at killing, maiming and taking prisoners (Ferguson, 1999:337),
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, 1999:368). Filmmaking 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 (1999:397) 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.
Conclusion – 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.
Niall Ferguson is one of Britain’s most renowned historians. He is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing.
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