wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Brian Bond

The Unquiet Western Front

In book after book (and in numerous articles) Terraine reiterated his main points. The First World War was not unique and sui generis, as Paul Fussell and others have asserted or assumed: it should be viewed rather in the wider context of industrial mass warfare, including the American Civil War and the Second World War. But material conditions in the First World War ruled out brilliant generalship or any quick route to victory for two main reasons: commanders were deprived of the direct voice control of their predecessors and of the wireless communications of their successors; and poor tactical means of mobility entailed that the defensive would hold an advantage over the offensive. Next, he pointed out that from mid-1916 until the end of the war Britain, uniquely in its history, bore the main burden of the war on the crucial front and against a very powerful enemy. Attrition warfare and heavy casualties were unavoidable: British generals were no worse, indeed perhaps better, than those of the other belligerents. Finally, the war had to be won on land, above all on the Western Front, and was won by the Allies, with Haig and his armies playing the leading role.

Terraine had his limitations and blind spots, and it would not be surprising if at times he was driven into dogmatic or more extreme positions in fending off his critics. As Taylor’s review of Haig indicated, in championing the generals (or 'Brasshats') he is markedly unsympathetic to the 'Frockcoats,' notably Lloyd George. As regards sources, he tended to stick with the official histories, biographies and other published works which were available in the 1920s, and did not much avail himself of the archival collections which were opened from the end of the decade. Perhaps most seriously, there is a pronounced note of determinism in his approach which is most obviously evident in the subtitle of his book on Passchendaele: 'A Study in Inevitability.' As one thoughtful critic has pointed out, by stressing the great extent to which external factors (weaponry, transport, communications) constricted innovation in tactics and strategy, Terraine makes it very difficult for himself to allow for innovations and improvements. Furthermore, his thesis, 'despite its deep understanding of modern industrial warfare, leads the reader away from a perfectly natural British desire to criticise the conduct of the war that cost so many lives, to the rather Panglossian conclusion that the Great War was, in fact the best of all possible wars.'

Be that as it may, thanks to Terraine and other historians we can now understand, if we wish to, that commanders had very limited room to manoeuvre—in every sense. Moreover, despite all the errors and shortcomings, it is possible to reach the conclusion that Britain’s war effort, on both the home and military 'fronts,' was very impressive indeed.

These views are still controversial and had certainly not gained wide acceptance by the end of the 1960s; indeed, they remained unpopular if not incomprehensible. As Alex Danchev suggested in concluding his scintillating analysis of 'bunking' and debunking in the 1960s, the overall effect of the upsurge of renewed interest in the Great War was to revive and perpetuate the impression made on the public by the anti-war memoirs of the late 1920s and early 1930s.