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10 April 2013


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William R. Cumming

One of the most complex events in European history and perhaps the world, WWI awaits release of still classified documents from the warring powers. Also personal narratives and biographies yield many variations of the events and personalities.

The reality of the German people was correctly focused on the fact that they were not completely defeated by the Allies and that the Allies did not win complete victory in any sense of the word.

The best book on the impacts of WWI in the USA I have read is called simply "1919" and forget the author but brilliant insights into the domestic fallout from the war as Edith Gault Wilson ran the country's foreign and domestic level federal policy.

Kyle Pearson

Tuchman's "Stilwell" is an unequivocal masterwork of understatement and inference that resonates down to the present day.

William R. Cumming

Kyle P. Suggest you read in conjunction with STILLWELL a fairly recent edition of a biography of Madame Chaing Kai Shek [sic]!


You are correct regarding Tuchman's scanty treatment of the diplomatic component of WWI's origins - but to be fair to her, I don't think that was the intent of the book. I have always seen it as focused on the military component, with the horrible imperative of the competing mobilization schedules and war plans driving everyone into a war that no one really wanted.

(My favorite Tuchman book has always been the Distant Mirror, which is about the Hundred Years' War...)


Kyle got there before me, but "Stilwell and the American Experience in China" is easily Tuchman's best book for this reader. No argument about "The Guns of August," which is not as good but still a great read.


The reality at the time was that rail systems enabled large scale war and whoever mobilised first had the strategic advantage. Germany's rail system was developed to move troops rapidly from the eastern frontier to the West and vice versa.

The Russians were in process of developing their own equivalent system to move its troops to its western frontiers and my understanding is that the German military regarded a war with Russia as inevitable and preferred going early before Russia's rail system matured.

Unfortunately the French answer to the machine gun was élan.


I agree the late Tuchman’s "The Guns of August" many not be “the best account of the miscalculations that led to the war.” However I think this Pulitzer Prize winning book ranks as one of the best on the subject.

Yes there may be better and more detailed descriptions. However for one historian to put such a complex and daunting world drama and condense it into one month's action is incredible.

And as you indicated, her work was exceptional. Indeed I liked the "Proud Tower" more than the "Guns of August" as it gives a better understanding to the tectonic forces that produced the war. And every politician and diplomat could learn much from her "Stilwell and the American Experience in China."

Critique of her work is OK within latitudes. Quibbling is probably not. But then, I suppose I am biased too.

Kyle Pearson

I have, and also the most recent biography of CKS, by Fenby.

All of my worst impressions about that family of thieves were strongly reinforced.


Walrus wrote, "Unfortunately the French answer to the machine gun was élan."

And "cran". From The Guns of August: "The teaching of the Regulations became epitomized in the favorite word of the French officer corps, le cran, nerve, or, less politely, guts. Like the youth who set out for the mountaintop under the banner marked 'Excelsior!' the French Army marched to war in 1914 under a banner marked "Cran."



asia seems accursed/infested with a great no. of thievin' families...



The French seemed to have constantly learnt the wrong lessons - Napoléonic élan in the 1st. WW; static defenses against the Wehrmacht Blitzkrieg in the next.

Seems they only got their counter-insurgency methods in northern africa right.

Correct me if I'm wrong, Col.


Of all her books, “The Guns of August” still resonates with me. And, if you think the miscalculation and hubris has no place in the overtures to war; let us not forget Lyndon Baines Johnson or George W Bush.

I am just starting the Chapter on the Wilderness Campaign in US Grant’s autobiography. I wish I had read it years ago I had read her books. Grant’s clarity of writing and strategic view makes it clear how the Army of the Potomac defeated the Rebels.

Indeed the drum beats for War with Iran, North Korea and/or Syria are so loud now that the coming economic slowdown is hidden by the corporate media.

War is easy for humans to start and so hard to finally end. Indeed, for America, the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Indian Wars, WWI/WWII and Vietnam are concluded.
The Middle East Wars and the Korean Armistice still linger on.


Agreed, the French army picked up stupid ideas. In 1870, some of its Generals were illiterate according to Sir Michael Howard, because they had been picked from the ranks thanks to the "egalite" principle.

Of course this didn't matter much when shooting African tribesmen, no great skill or intelect was required in North Africa.

Unfortunately the German Army have now shown the French Three times that education, organisation and intelligence are important qualities in a soldier.

I am still looking for a French quote I once found regarding German education in the aftermath of the 1870 debacle - to the effect that France was beaten by the German schoolmaster.

In that context, one has to wonder how American troops, led by the current crop of Pentagon Perfumed Princes, would perform against a suitably trained enemy with equivalent technological means.


'Dreadnought' by Robert Massie is another good book on the origins of WWI- dealing mainly with the Ango-German naval race and rivalry.
WWI was so multi-facted and complex, it is impossible for one book to adequately cover the subject.


Mr. Sale, thank you for pulling back the curtain on a piece of history thus allowing the full light of day to shine on some very important, and timely, facts.


The French lucidly described their military as "Always one war late" (toujours en retard d'une guerre).

The expression refers to WWI, WWII, and also the 1871 defeat against Bismarck and his ruthlessly efficient rail-transported troops. In each case, the French went to war with hopelessly outdated thinking and paid the price for it.

 Larry Kart

Approaching the subject at an angle but probing deeply is Paul W. Schroeder's "Embedded Counterfactuals and World War I as an Unavoidable War":


It certainly seems to me to be the last word on too facile counterfactual reasoning of the sort that Niall Ferguson practices.


Walrus, toto,

Merci beaucoup.


"Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war", saith the 1st. German Chancellor.

My guess is these days, the ones at the top of govt. hierarchies...

William R. Cumming


Grant's autobiography was written while he fought terminal throat cance under a contract arranged by Mark Twain and is considered by some to the finest autobiography by a military leader in the history of the English language.

Professor Edward Jean Smith, formerly of the University of Toronto for over 30 years and now Marshall University, about a decade ago wrote a terrific biography of Grant. He also recently released a new biography of Eisenhower. His biography of Andrew Jackson led me to his writing originally.

 Larry Kart

I particularly like this passage from Paul Schroeder's essay:

"Another point that struck me ... is that a common impression about counterfactuals is unsound, namely, that one can choose a particular spot to insert a counterfactual element into history and then trace the changes it might have made in developments subsequent to that point, without altering or affecting what had gone before. In other words, in counterfactual reasoning the path of history antecedent to the counterfactual stays the same; only the consequent future path is altered. This notion now seems to me untrue even for reasonable, plausible counterfactuals. To make them work, one has to change their antecedents as well as their consequents. Examples: Can one envision a plausible scenario in which Napoleon sometime in his career--say, in 1805--decides to stop his course of conquest and settles down to establish a durable system of French hegemony in Europe? Certainly one can imagine this; many of his associates tried hard to persuade him to do so, and I have argued elsewhere that objectively a durable French hegemony was entirely feasible. The only trouble is that for this counterfactual to work, Napoleon would have had to cease being Napoleon, and if he had been a person capable of thus transforming himself, it is impossible to see how he could never have reached a point in 1805 or another time at which a stable French hegemony in Europe became possible. Napoleon, in other words, comes to us historically in one piece. To change what he was capable of becoming and doing after 1805 is to change what he was and was capable of doing before then. The same point, that counterfactual alterations change the past as well as the future, can easily be illustrated by other examples. Could Nazi Germany have defeated the Soviet Union in 1941, destroying the regime and replacing it with German satellite regimes? Quite possibly, by exploiting the nationalities' and peasants' discontent, posing as liberators, giving the peasants back their land, etc. But in order to do that, Hitler and the Nazis would have had to cease being Hitler and the Nazis, and abandon not only the goals for which they had invaded the Soviet Union, but those for which they had seized power. The whole Nazi past as well as the future is changed."

Babak Makkinejad

I think Schroeder is missing the point of counter-factual history; that it is a form of simulation, an exploration of possibilities - however a low probability of occurrence they might, in fact, have.

This is a game of mind and imagination, like much of speculative & imaginative fiction.

But please read more:

There is a main thrust in historical writing which is to learn, if possible, from past mistakes as well as past triumphs.

The determination of Historical Truth becomes then of paramount importance since the truthful (honest/dispassionate) knowledge of the past is presumed to furnish guidance to future human action.

Since all historical writings are re-constructions after the fact by single finite individuals, it follows that historical writings are always contingent and partial.

Furthermore, since the knowledge of historical personages and their motivations are also in the nature of guesses - some with a higher degree of accuracy than others - it follows that statements as to the character of Bonaparte and his decisions could also be considered partial or contingent.

Therefore, I submit to you that Schroeder's statements cannot be accepted as the final word on the utility of simulations in attaining or approximating historical truth.

Put another way, one could posit a counter-factual scenario in which through accident or disease (say a stroke) Bonaparte would have lost some of his mojo and thus would have become more amenable to his advisors' urging to settle down and consolidate the French Empire in Europe.

Likewise, an Act of God could have caused Hitler to die or become incapacitated late in 1941; causing the almost certain continued existence of the Third Reich to this day.

Babak Makkinejad

Hitler was an infantry man in World War I.

William R. Cumming

I always liked len Deighton's book on the NAZI regime in a victory over GB!

In general however "ifs don't count" very much with professional historians. Speculation okay in late night dorm room sessions of b___S!

 Larry Kart

Schroeder's view of the usefulness of counterfactuals in historical writing/thinking seems fair and quite sophisticated to me, His essay concludes:

'This leads to another conviction deepened by this experiment: the clear necessity of explaining historical developments by causes, and the need for great care, sensitivity, and scrupulousness in deciding what acts as a cause in human affairs, and what suffices as evidence of it. At the same time, it has reminded me again of the difference between the scientific and the ordinary human (and thus historical) notion of cause--the latter being vastly wider, looser, more various, and harder to define and control than the former. Thus while this exercise has not, I believe, made me any more a determinist, it has made me even more an opponent of post-modernism or anything else that reduces history to pure kaleidoscopic contingency and chance--the "chaostory" that Niall Ferguson and others talk about--and more sure than ever of the proposition (is it Aristotle's?) that revolutions (meaning great developments) may have trivial occasions, but have profound causes.

'The last observation is that the effort to justify counterfactual reasoning in history tends to give hindsight a bad rap. Without trying to judge the psychological experiments that allegedly demonstrate a "hindsight bias" that distorts historical interpretation in the direction of determinism, I would say only that if the lesson drawn from these experiments is that hindsight is bad and should not be used or must be guarded against, or that it induces biases only in the direction of determinism at the expense of contingency, then I disagree. Not only is it impossible to do history without using hindsight; historians should use it. Hindsight and evidence are the twin, inseparable and indispensable resources available to us not only for telling the story, but telling why what happened did happen rather than something else. Nor is it true, I think, that hindsight necessarily biases us in the direction of determinism, a belief that things had to turn out as they did and in no other way. Hindsight can work equally well to undermine determinist bias and make us recognize contingency--see both that wholly unexpected things can happen, and that things we thought had happened routinely and by necessity actually could have gone the other way. Everyone expected Hitler's legions quickly to conquer the Soviet Union. Hindsight taught us otherwise, and helps tell us why. Ordinary life and history books alike are full of examples of this.'

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