Book Review: Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War: 1914-1918 by Jake Voller

The Pity of War, 1914 - 1918Jake Voller

“So-you-were David’s father. And he was your only son. And the new-cut peas are rotting. And the work is left undone. Because of an old man weeping. Just an old man in pain. For David, his son. That will not come again.”

The Winter of the World: Poems of the First World War,
p.187.

May 16th 1916, the Western Front: amidst the screams, whizzing bullets and artillery fire, Lieutenant Ewart Mackintosh carried Private David Sutherland through 100 yards of German trenches and across no man’s land. Alas, all in vain; Private Sutherland died in his arms. For his gallantry Lieutenant Mackintosh was awarded the Military Cross. This book review examines Niall Ferguson’s critically acclaimed, revisionist text The Pity of War: 1914-1918. Attempting to ‘rescue’ and ‘revitalise’ World War One (WW1) historiography Ferguson addresses 10 key questions. Consequentially, there is no overarching thesis rather 10 smaller sub-thesis to which specific chapters are addressed. For instance, Chapter 5 is dedicated to ‘Did propaganda, and especially the press, keep the war going, as Karl Kraus believed? His aim? To make WW1 history ‘accessible to that elusive person: the general reader’. Ferguson’s unofficial aim is undoubtedly to provoke debate; where he undoubtedly succeeds yet Ferguson’s arguments are occasionally weak, unsubstantiated and seemingly controversial for their own sake. Overall, The Pity of War achieves its aims, it is historically valuable and is thoroughly engaging.

Niall Ferguson specialises in imperial, economic and international history. A highly prolific writer his publications include: Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World and The Worlds Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild’s. Many of his writings are best-sellers, often turned into television-documentaries; such as American Colossus and China: Triumph and Turmoil. Published in 1998 it appears to be a ‘product of its time’, written during the rise of the, German dominated, European Union. Intended for the general reader, aforementioned above, it combines elements of popular and academic history. Coupled with Ferguson’s journalistic style The Pity of War is stylistically very strong – blending analysis and description in equal measure.

This book’s physicality is conventional, indeed unremarkable. Measuring 2.9 x 12.8 x 19.8 cm it is a fairly large, dense, book. More appropriate for libraries and, perhaps, coffee tables than for the pocket reader. However, it is doubtful this would greatly influence its dissemination. As a paperback it is cheaper to produce which undoubtedly aids its dissemination. It is structured logically; with chapters, an index and bibliography/notes. The Pity of War is thematically structured within a broadly chronological framework. This not only aids readability but allows the reader to navigate effectively and efficiently. The clear, uncomplicated font size coupled with a good text size further enhances readability. Additionally, Ferguson fully utilises tables, illustrations and photographs, which not only reinforce his arguments but also are pleasant visual stimuli. However, Ferguson’s selection is excessively death-orientated and the images could have been placed, being spread throughout, and chosen more strategically. In Chapter 7, ‘The August Days: The Myth of War Enthusiasm’ his argument that war enthusiasm existed, for example, could have been reinforced by images depicting ‘jingoistic’ crowds.

The Pity of War is published in the UK, U.S. and Germany. It is available in major Western languages such as English, German and Spanish; and most retailers. It is available in paperback (£9.09), an eBook (£6.02) and as an audiobook (£18.90). Accordingly, it is easily and relatively cheaply available. Indeed, you could (as I did) ‘start reading The Pity of War on your kindle in under a minute’. Additionally, as an audiobook it is accessible to busy individuals and disadvantaged groups e.g. the blind. However, its incarnation as an eBook potentially revolutionises its dissemination and impact; it can be supported in over 34 different languages.

Judging, from the numerous popular and academic articles it appears to have disseminated internationally and had a tremendous impact. Reviews are published in almost every major newspaper, from The Times to the Washington Post. Academically, on JSTOR alone there are over 15 reviews. In 2014 its dissemination and impact, particularly internationally, should be significantly benefited by a 90-minute, one-off, The Pity of War programme being aired on the BBC to mark the WW1 centenary. According to WorldCat, the world’s largest library catalogue, The Pity of War is held in 1,784 libraries for all editions. Meanwhile Copac, composed of approximately 90 major UK and Irish libraries, shows copies held in 46 libraries. Finally, ‘Google Trends’ provides an interesting picture regarding it dissemination and possible popularity beyond mere sales data.

The Pity of War’s major strengths lie in two aspects: its approach and its source material. Ferguson adopts an inter-disciplinary approach allowing him to combine social, economic, diplomatic and military history. Creating a holistic approach to WW1 history dramatically improving usefulness. Additionally, Ferguson examines multiple countries throughout. For instance, his discussion of morale, instances of desertion and mutinies encompasses Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austro-Hungary and Russia. Whilst the sources are predominantly well known indeed his extensive, 124 page, bibliography/notes is mostly secondary historiographical works- most of the photographs are reproduced here for the first time. The Pity of War is literally jam-packed of information, making it invaluable, particularly to students. Ferguson’s stylistic strengths extend to his use of sources; utilising them in an effective manner to not only reinforce his arguments but to create a rollercoaster of intrigue, horror and woe. For instance, Ferguson’s argument that soldiers fought because they liked fighting is epitomised in his quotation from Guy Chapman, ‘[war] is a mistress… once you have lain in her arms you can admit no other’ he later admitted to missing the ‘sense, fleeting, beyond price, of living in every nerve and cell of one’s body and with every ghostly impulse of one’s mind’.

The economic sections are vital and, the data alone makes this text invaluable. He uses this data ingeniously, for example in his illustration of the relative war economy efficiencies of the Central Powers and the Allies he demonstrates that it cost the Central Powers ‘just $11,345 to kill an enemy soldier’ whilst it took the allies ‘$36,485, more than three times as much’. Additionally, his examination of morale is well thought-out and imaginative; highlighting the influence on morale of the belief that the ‘bells of hell would not ring for them’ and that fact that soldiers in the most danger’s morale rarely broke because ‘for morale to crack, men needed time to weigh their chances… in combat there was no opportunity to do so’. Ferguson’s arguments are often convincing, even when they seem distasteful; for example, his arguments that men fought because they liked killing and the pervasiveness of prisoner killings. He provides a wealth of evidence, thoughtful analysis and logical argumentative progression, which leaves the reader valued preconceived notions crushed.

Nevertheless, Ferguson’s is liable to overgeneralisations. For instance, his argument that mass-surrender ‘signalled victory on all Fronts’ is highly unlikely and ignores the military performance of the Allied armies and the influence of America. Additionally, his argument that the naval blockade was ineffective is erroneous, although his statement that ‘the principle German victims… were among social groups which were not crucial to the war effort’ merits further investigation. J.M. Roberts demonstrates that ‘German High Command concluded that Germany would lose the war because of the British blockade’; thus making a fatal error- unrestricted U-boat warfare. Ferguson’s work is occasionally let down by bigoted and insensitive comments which detract from his meticulous research, originality and flair. He remarks, for example, that John Maynard Keynes, an influential economist, is responsible for the over-exaggeration of the importance of foreign lending. Then proceeds to state that ‘the war made Keynes deeply unhappy. Even his sex life went into decline, perhaps because the boys he liked to pick up in London all joined up’.

Clearly, The Pity of War: 1914-1918 is a highly influential, original, text. It clearly accomplishes its aims. Whilst, it suffers occasionally argumentatively it is well written and certain sections are exceptional. Whatever your opinion about Niall Ferguson he provokes debate and raises questions which alone makes this book worthy of recognition. Its excellent bibliography and interweaving of historiography make it an excellent platform for further investigation. David Stevenson’s The First World War would be useful in order to increase your general understanding. Whilst people bewail the invasive influence of eBooks and loss of ‘physicality’, technology provides exciting possibilities, added functionality and security. The ability to search, customise text size, hyperlink create exiting possibilities. In the future, videos, web links and book sections could be integrated making the book a truly encompassing tool. Niall Ferguson weaves in counter-factual history, if unconvincingly- hard to believe that the European Union would take its current form if the Germans had won-which is not only a bit of light-hearted ‘What If?’ for the reader but also forces them to weigh up the significance of certain events, helping them gain a more comprehensive understanding. To end: a counter-factual. Imagine what this book could have been if Ferguson had spent more than 5 months on it?

Book Review: Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War: 1914-1918 for HST5609, Book History from Gutenberg to Google by Jake Voller

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