06 March 2007

Mosier vs the British, Round One

Yesterday, I wrote a little about John Mosier's controversial The Myth of the Great War. I decided to make a full reconnaissance into the book, and read the chapter on the Battle of the Marne straight through, rather than rely on the sampling of shorter sections I'd done previously.

On the basis of this chapter, I'd have to say the fury with which Britons have greeted Mosier's work is an overreaction. For English-language readers, the role played by the French in the war has always been understated. No matter how much the British suffered, the French had it worse. The lead review on the Amazon page linked above is particularly egregious in wanting to focus, yet again, on Neuve Chappelle and Vimy Ridge, where the British fought, in spite of the considerable coverage this attack has received compared with the French attack in the Vosges.

That said, the end of the Battle of the Marne chapter really seems to verge on German propaganda. The Germans, short of ammunition, with extended supply lines, and not enough troops to secure them, retreat, but Mosier appears to want us to regard this as "an advance to the rear". The chapter itself discusses battles around Verdun where stout French resistance halts the Germans, and it is subsequent to this that German officers decide to withdraw to a more easily defended position. While the Marne campaign may not have been the "miracle of Marne" of Allied belief, I see no reason to excuse the Germans from having experienced a major setback.

However, the cry of rage emanating from the British Corps of Historians seems unwarranted. That Mosier minimizes the role of the BEF, while promoting a lesser-known Franco-German combat far from Paris, is a matter I would have thought worthy of further discussion, not wholesale censure. Round One to Mosier, I think, on points.


Anonymous said...

Mosier is absolutely right that the French contribution in WW1 tends to be underplayed by British historians (some of whom look at March 1918 through the lens of June 1940, accusing Pétain of "cowardice" etc). Some accounts of 1914, and almost all accounts of 1915, spend far too much time on the BEF and not enough on the French. There are some good books on Verdun in English, but the French contribution at the Somme in 1916, or at the Second Marne in 1918, seldom get much of a mention. While there are some good accounts of the war from the German POV available in English (Holger Herwig, Robert Asprey spring to mind - both of them a useful corrective to "Butchers-n-Bunglers" mythology - see below), there is not a lot from the French POV.

He is also probably right that the Germans were to some degree more tactically skilled than the Allies.

He is also right to concentrate on the Western front, which was the decisive theatre of the war, the same as the Eastern Front was in WW2. The Germans didn't keep 2/3 of their armed forces in the West just for the fun of it.

That is about as far as this book's merits go.

Any book has one or two factual inaccuracies, but this book is so littered with them that the writer is clearly well outside his comfort zone. See the showcase review on Amazon for a start. That's even before we get onto nonsense about the Germans "not really being defeated" at the First Marne or Verdun, or the Somme being "an uphill fight from a marsh into an urban area".

Then there is the nonsense about casualty figures, a topic on which Mosier grandly declares he has discovered "the truth" after years of cover-up. Come off it. Scores of better historians than Mosier have pored over these figures for decades (and yes, it is true British intelligence in 1916-17 exaggerated German losses), and there is a broad consensus that losses by 1916-18 (when artillery techniques had improved, and much of battles like the Somme and Passchendaele consisted of German counterattacks) were considerably nearer parity than the one-sided slaughter of 1914 (the French had 500,000 dead in five months in that year), 1915 and the First Day of the Somme. That doesn't stop Mosier from claiming that mass-slaughter of attackers was "exclusively British". Complete tripe.

Which brings me onto the next point. He can't seem to resist passing up any opportunity to denigrate the British, even to the point of dismissing acres of research with which he does not agree in sneering footnotes. This reeks of the glib undergraduate essay, not a serious book.

The "BEF Party Line" is of course the John Terraine/Gary Sheffield school, who have spent years pointing out that there were perfectly good reasons why there was stalemate and a huge casualty bill in the West (eg. the mass of troops crammed into so small an area). Sure, these writers go overboard a bit, and there are legitimate criticisms to be made of the British High Command, especially in 1917. But you have to remember that they were writing to combat what one might call the "Butchers-n-Bunglers" mythology which held sway in British popular culture until very recently indeed, ie. that Haig and his generals were a bunch of blood-crazed imbeciles, who were literally too stupid to win glorious and costless tank victories like the generals of WW2. See the 1989 TV comedy "Blackadder Goes Forth", for a start.

Conversely, Mosier exaggerates the US battlefield role in 1918. The BEF, outnumbered, stormed the Hindenburg Line, engaging around 90 German divisions while the US forces in the Argonne eventually engaged a net total of about 35. See the situation map often reproduced in British accounts (eg. Terraine's "To Win A War"). Mosier sneers at the huge BEF casualties of 1918, and dismisses the fact that they took 50% of the prisoners, but does he mention that they were doing 50% of the fighting? No, of course not.

If you believe that after four years of war the British still displayed unrelieved incompetence while the US forces, seeing serious action for the first time, displayed effortless mastery of staff planning and artillery co-ordination etc then I dare say you'll probably belief anything. Personally I find this far-fetched, and if you look hard enough there are plenty of accounts of poor planning and badly-trained infantry in the Argonne Offensive. Perfectly understandable, but not the way Mosier tells it.

Did the USA "save the Allies from defeat"? Actually that's by no means clearcut (leaving aside the question of sale of munitions in 1915-17, and the morale effect) - even in 1918 the Germans were beaten to a halt before more than a handful of US divisions were in the line. Over the years, may pundits have argued that without US entry the Allies would probably have conceded a draw. Would the Allies have won the war without the USA lending a hand? No, and serious writers don't pretend they would have done.

And, of course, the threat of ever-greater US involvement was another factor driving the Germans to sue for an armistice. But Mosier seems to think Woodrow Wilson dominated the other Allies in 1918 the way FDR did in 1945. Nonsense again - the USA was (arguably - Britain was still a mighty world power in 1918) at most first among equals, but no more than that.

The pettiness of the introduction to the paperback edition is contemptible, sniggering at the reviews he got in the UK ("Shooting the messenger" etc), instead of reflecting that he might have got one or two things wrong.

Of course there are some interesting observations, but also a great deal of nonsense, which simply serves to put misconceptions into the heads of those who don't have the depth of reading in the subject to tell one from the other. See the reviews on Amazon, where readers who clearly don't know enough to make an informed opinion grandly proclaim that "his arguments seems convincing to me" etc.

The sad thing is that for some of Mosier's subsequent books nobody seems to have any qualms in admitting that he doesn't know what he is talking about - see the detailed review of his "Blitzkrieg Myth" by one Mike Licari on the web, which comments that Mosier's research doesn't seem to have got much further than "The Encyclopaedia of German Tanks of WW2". LOL.

Anonymous said...

"lead reviewer wanting to focus on Neuve Chapelle and Vimy Ridge in 1915, where the British fought"

Neuve Chapelle was indeed a BEF engagement, but Vimy Ridge in 1915 was French. The French corps was commanded by the soon-to-be-famous Pétain, who was promoted to Army Command afterwards. Not to be confused with the more famous Anglo-Canadian offensive at Arras/Vimy in 1917.