01 December 2007

Mosier vs the British: Round Two

An anonymous commentator on this blog post about John Mosier's old book The Myth of the Great War sent me back to the library to check out a copy.

Mr Anonymous basically rehashes the criticisms deployed by what he describes as ‘The "BEF Party Line"…the John Terraine/Gary Sheffield school’. The key points he makes are

(a) The book is riddled with serious errors.

(b) ‘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.’

(c) ‘Mosier exaggerates the US battlefield role in 1918.’

The problem with all the reviews I've so far read about Mosier’s work (which are not that many, to be honest), is basically summarized in the statement, which could be the theme of this blog, that ‘history, especially the history of war, is politics by another means.’ Perhaps in no war is this more the case than in the First World War, which even at the time saw a protracted argument at high cost that set ‘Easterners’ against ‘Westerners’ in both Allied and Central Powers’ camps. The continuing rage against the British high command has its origins in 1915, and it may not be far wrong to say that the great monuments scattered around the Commonwealth and in Belgium to the war dead are an attempt to offer some kind of palliative to this anger.

Furthermore, Mosier is an American, and there remains a profound undercurrent of Anglophobia in the United States for which the trope of Bungling Butchers of the Western Front is meat and drink. Mosier, like any good barrister, ignores the inconvenient facts and exaggerates the convenient ones to make his case. But while the BEF/Haig Lobby turns purple with outrage at the many mistakes in Mosier’s polemical account, they continue to avoid engaging the essential points of his book. In other words, they are being good barristers for their own clients.

Mosier’s essential points are:

(a) The German Army started the war both doctrinally and materially superior to the Allies.

(b) The German Army had been winning on the Western Front until the American Army intervened.

(c) ‘No British or American account deals adequately with the war between France and Germany on the Western Front.’ - his preface

The question to my mind is whether the merits of his contributions on these points outweigh his mistakes and exaggerations elsewhere. I’ll call this round a draw because for me, as well as Mosier’s bringing into view the considerable extent of American support for the Allies prior to April 1917, point (c) in particular is very important indeed.

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