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Ghazala

The Great War was a grim necessity

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Ghazala

An interesting article by Gary Sheffield in my paper last Monday....

 

The Great War was neither futile nor glorious but a grim necessity

 

We must remember that the majority of Britons thought the First World War was worth fighting

 

August 8, 1918 marked the beginning of the end of the First World War. At 4.20am Australian, British, Canadian and French infantry, supported by artillery of awesome power, and by tanks, aircraft and cavalry, attacked German defences near the French city of Amiens. By nightfall the Allies had advanced eight miles. By the standards of trench warfare, with gains measured in yards, this advance was remarkable. Erich Ludendorff, de facto German commander-in-chief, later called August 8, 1918 “the black day of the German army in the history of the war”.

 

Three weeks earlier, a powerful French-led counteroffensive (the Second Battle of the Marne) had halted a major German attack. Having decisively seized the initiative, at Amiens the Allies exercised it to devastating effect. The German army never recovered from the blow it received on August 8. From then until November 11, 1918 Germany was faced with a perfect storm. Relentless Allied attacks on the battlefields of France and Flanders inflicted defeat after defeat on the German army and drove it backwards. In the process German military morale was badly damaged, from Ludendorff’s down to the lowliest infantryman. Away from the Western Front, Germany’s allies surrendered or simply disintegrated. The German home front progressively collapsed in the face of the British naval blockade, which was starving the population, and the ineptitude of German authorities in distributing what food was available. By the second week of November German soldiers were surrendering in droves and revolution had broken out in German cities. Berlin decided to capitulate before things deteriorated any further.

 

The Battle of Amiens was a crucial stepping stone to victory. On the day after the Armistice was signed, a Canadian soldier wrote: “How much has happened since on the morning of August 8th we were awakened out of our doze . . . [by] the big guns . . . How little we thought that in less than four months the victory would be won’.

 

Last Wednesday I was fortunate to attend the centenary commemoration at Amiens Cathedral. The ceremony, attended by Prince William and Theresa May, as well as representatives from Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the US, was impressive and moving, a triumph for all concerned. Very different but in its own way equally impressive was an event in which an international group of students on a battlefield tour run by UCL’s Institute of Education presented their research on the battle. In one crucial respect these events were different from the Somme and Passchendaele commemorations in 2016 and 2017. Those tapped deep into the British national psyche. By contrast, most of the British public had probably never heard of the Battle of Amiens until last week.

 

This ignorance is rooted in the popular view of the First World War as a futile, senseless disaster. Crudely put, Sassoon’s poems and Blackadder have had more influence than any history book. This was reflected in 2012, when David Cameron announced the list of major events to be commemorated. This omitted Amiens, or any of the Allied victories of 1918. A number of military historians and organisations, such as the Western Front Association, lobbied to put this right. To his great credit, the PM’s representative for the First World War commemorations, Andrew Murrison MP, listened to us and changed his mind.

 

To my mind, the greatest weakness of the commemorations has been the failure to portray the war as contemporaries saw it. Coming from a very different society, we struggle to grasp why British men and women of 100 years ago were prepared to endure sacrifice on a such a vast scale. Yet the historical record is clear. In Britain, the vast majority of people thought the war was worth fighting, to defend their homes and the Empire against a dangerous enemy. The country in 1914 was a democracy, albeit an incomplete one, governed on liberal principles. For such a state to wage a total war, involving not just the armed forces but the whole of society, the consent of the masses was essential. By-and-large, in First World War Britain that consent was given.

Today it is easy to say that our ancestors were wrong, that the vast loss of life was simply not worth the issues at stake. This is to use hindsight. Belgian refugees reaching Britain with terrible stories of the behaviour of the Germans in their homeland reinforced determination to fight on. German shelling of English coastal towns, initiation of chemical warfare, Zeppelin raids on London — all these stoked hatred and fear of a ruthless enemy. In 1918, the harsh peace terms imposed by Germany on the Russian Bolshevik regime left little doubt as to the fate of Britain should it be defeated. After Amiens, British soldiers were greeted by French and Belgian civilians as liberators from four years of harsh occupation — a fact largely forgotten by modern Britons.

 

The Amiens ceremony reflected something of these wartime attitudes, perhaps for the first time since the commemorations began in 2014. It testified to the achievement of the Allied armies and nations in 1918. The appalling cost in human life was not downplayed, but unlike earlier events it was not blanketed in an aura of “futility”. Nor was there even a hint of triumphalism. The ceremony struck exactly the right note. Let’s hope that the same will be true of the commemoration of the Armistice on November 11th.

 

Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Wolverhampton

 

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charlie962

Thanks. Strikes the right note as he said did the ceremony. But it wont change the view of 'modern Britons'

 

Charlie.

 

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2ndCMR

There were innumerable "glorious" incidents in the war, if by "glorious" one means examples of great bravery or self-sacrifice, humanity, etc.  One would think that by this point we would have got over the adolescent pretence that there were not, as much as over the equivalent pretence that the war was nothing but.

 

German reunification and Prussian dominance of that state had made the war inevitable, the only question was would Britain and the Empire "sit it out" as was confidently expected in Berlin in 1914 and again in 1939?

 

Obviously she could not do so without coming under the gradual domination of Germany, anymore than she could afford to let Napoleon dominate Europe, before he like Germany later moved on to the rest of the world, including of course the likely invasion of the British Isles.

 

Of course the failure to mobilize the nation in rebuilding and recovering from the human and financial losses of the wars is ultimately a symptom of the national psychology.  The more nationalistic and aggressive national psychologies such as Germany and Japan have continued their drive for dominance via economic means, a threat which is insufficiently apparent to the mass of the population to motivate them, or apparently their sluggardly leaders, in taking effective counter-measures.

 

But plainly, both Germany and Japan are also doomed biologically due to a failure to reproduce in adequate numbers and their "victory" is therefore doubly Pyhrric.  But for the losses of the world wars, European civilization would have gone from strength to strength and the world would look utterly different today.

 

 

 

Edited by 2ndCMR

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phil andrade

Goodness gracious me !

 

That is controversial stuff !

 

I must pour myself another glass of Malbec...

 

Phil

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Kimberley John Lindsay

Dear 2nd CMR,

Hindsight is easy...

Kindest regards,

Kim.

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Terry_Reeves
On 18/08/2018 at 08:44, 2ndCMR said:

 

German reunification and Prussian dominance of that state had made the war inevitable,

 

 

 

 

There was nothing "inevitable" about the war at all as far as Britain was concerned.  Britain had been rather more concerned with France as the Fashoda incident in 1898 showed.   Indeed, up to the time of  the July crisis relations between Germany and Britain had been good , despite some earlier  tensions such as the German challenge to Britain's naval superiority.  Many Britons, particularly from the middling classes, admired German culture and scientific achievements to the point where many sent their sons to Germany to study for masters degrees and doctorates. Indeed,  it is not difficult to find those from the same middling  classes giving their sons German middle names. The Kaiser received an honorary doctorate in civil law from Oxford University in 1909 which was initially hung in the Ashmolian museum before being re-hung in the Examination School. It was removed from display just after the outbreak of war and consigned to a cellar until 1957 when it was re-hung in 1957 in South Examination School.

 

 "Inevitable"   is a word used only in hindsight.

 

TR

 

 

Edited by Terry_Reeves

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Medaler
14 hours ago, Terry_Reeves said:

 

 "Inevitable"   is a word used only in hindsight.

 

Not sure that is quite right. There was a point where it became inevitable otherwise it would not have happened. The "trick" is deciding where that point was in the chain of events that led up to it, and determining that is not at all easy. Traditionally the direct causes have been attributed to the assassination of an Austrian Archduke, but there is a lot of background as to why that became a trigger point. If we are not careful we end up with the "butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon" school of thought.

 

When I was younger (much younger!) it was quite fashionable to use a blanket description of the causes of WW1 (along with many other things) being all about "maintaining the balance of power". It seems to be a phrase that has fallen out of favour, and maybe I'm behind the times, but it still makes sense to me.

 

Inevitable? - I think it probably was, with several European nations either seeking to maintain or extend their spheres of influence. Perhaps the least inevitable bit was who was going to end up in each alliance when push came to shove. Somehow the fate of the Austrian Archduke seemed to polarise things enough for the ducks to line up in a row.

 

But then again, what do I know?

 

Mike

Edited by Medaler

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yperman

I have been asked to give five short (30min) lectures/lessons on the Great War  to an Academy (Comp school in old money) Military History club in the lead up to Armistice Day. I will be including your comments - any more ideas out there?

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PhilB

It should not be imagined that all the men who volunteered did so out of a high sense of duty, abandoning a comfortable lifestyle. Many did so because military life looked a soft option compared to the work they had and, based on Boer War experience, it wouldn`t be too long or too dangerous.

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Terry_Reeves

I agree with Gunga Din  who has laid out some of the weaknesses in the argument. I would also add that there was no universal enthusiasm for the war, even in 1914. On the 2nd of August an estimated 100,000 people held an anti-war demonstration in Trafalgar, many of them socialists, a preponderance of whom were trade unionists but also included pacifists.

 

Just out of interest, Gary Sheffield is a member of this forum, joining a few months ago.

 

TR

 

 

Edited by Terry_Reeves

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sassenach

I'm not sure that a demonstration in London by "an estimated 100,000" socialists, trade unionists and pacifists automatically mirrors the general national mood.

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Moonraker
5 hours ago, Gunga Din said:

... If the 'vast majority of people thought the war was worth fighting' why did the UK have to resort to conscription in early 1916?

Thinking and doing are quite different things. When C W Hughes was leading marches to boots recruitment to the 7th Wiltshire in the first months of the war, he thought: "What a waste of time was all this recruiting and meetings. The meetings were usually attended by women and old men and addressed by more old men who by heroic phrases and tales of the glory of war sought to gain recruits. I think everyone not of military age was anxious that all who could should serve."

 

Moonraker

 

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Terry_Reeves
4 hours ago, sassenach said:

I'm not sure that a demonstration in London by "an estimated 100,000" socialists, trade unionists and pacifists automatically mirrors the general national mood.

It shows that there was not uniform enthusiasm, see my post no 11. Also there was a decline in recruiting in 1915 after the initial rush, hence the introduction of the National Registration Act to try and establish the number of men of military age who had not yet volunteered. The Derby Scheme failed to produce sufficient numbers, hence the introduction of conscription. The nation tolerated it, but that is not quite the same as universal popularity.

 

 

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Medaler
3 hours ago, Terry_Reeves said:

It shows that there was not uniform enthusiasm, see my post no 11. Also there was a decline in recruiting in 1915 after the initial rush, hence the introduction of the National Registration Act to try and establish the number of men of military age who had not yet volunteered. The Derby Scheme failed to produce sufficient numbers, hence the introduction of conscription. The nation tolerated it, but that is not quite the same as universal popularity.

 

 

 

And yet WW2 was a completely invitation only affair, but seems to have been quite popular both at the time and since.

 

Mike

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sassenach

It may be that there was something close to universal enthusiasm at first (I don't accept that a single demonstration in London proves otherwise) but that it waned, understandably, as the war dragged on.

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Moonraker
18 hours ago, Moonraker said:

Thinking and doing are quite different things. ..

 

"A Volunteer", by Helen Parry Eden

 

which reflects my earlier observation.

 

Moonraker

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Medaler
On 02/10/2018 at 07:52, Gunga Din said:

 

This might have something to do with the UK's relatively higher casualty ratios of the Great War v WWII. In addition the relatively higher and longer commitment of Russia against Germany in particular and the relatively earlier involvement of the US in WWII. In addition the more highly mechanised and technologigal nature of WWII meant  a relatively higher proportion of manpower demand for industry. We are not comparing like with like across the two wars. For example the number of UK civilian deaths caused by enemy action such as the Blitz in WWII was far greater and possibly a spur to recruiting. 

 

GD

 

What I was trying to say, though in fairness didn't make a very good job of it, was that conscription would seem to be irrelevant in determining if a war has "popularity" or not. My own thoughts are that the outcome of a war influences its popularity. WW1 ended without pushing Germany to the point of it being an obvious victory - one of the very factors that was used by later Germans to contemplate "round 2". In contrast, there was no room for argument about the crushing defeat that they suffered a generation later. The more decisive the defeat of our enemies the more, as a nation, we take delight in it. I think it likely that immediate postwar views of WW1 in the 30's cloud our perception of the way it was being viewed during the years we were actively engaged in fighting it. Much of the unpopularity of WW1 perhaps stems from our dissapointment that we ended up having to do it all again. WW2 is also perhaps more popular because the enemy would seem to be even more loathsome than they had been the first time around.

 

Whilst I recognise that using WW2 as a yardstick to measure WW1 is dangerous, I do think that is sometimes valid to make comparisons between the two.

 

Mike

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voltaire60
On 01/10/2018 at 21:32, Gunga Din said:

England (Conscription) saw 24.02% of its male population recruited. Australia (no conscription) saw 13.48% which might provide some indication of the relative enthusiasm for the War if given a choice. New Zealand (conscription) 19.35%, Canada (highly controversial and bitterly opposed conscription from Jan 1918. Riots.) 13.48%  and South Africa 11.12% [Source: Statistics page 363].

 

Indian voluntary recruiting  - which exceeded all other colonies and dominions combined - is notably absent from the racially based recruiting stats which defined recruiting of the 'white population' only. 

 

 

1)  When you say "England", do you mean the UK....or UK + Ireland????

 

2) "racially based recruiting stats which defined recruiting of the 'white population' only".  Could you refer me to the "white" statistics for the UK or where the statistical series of non-whites can be found? 

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Medaler
7 hours ago, Gunga Din said:

 

If the "vast majority believed the Great War was worth fighting" , why did the UK Govt need to introduce the Military Services Act? I don't follow the logic. 

 

The 'Revisionist' school has lots of very sound arguments but this is not one of them. 

 

GD

 

The answer to that is fairly straightforward. They already had conscription in Germany, so how were we supposed to meet an army numbered in millions with a force numbered in mere hundreds of thousands? If Germany had not already been playing the conscription game for years, would all of their required manpower have volunteered? - I doubt it.

 

Conscription in Britain was a reluctant concession to a war that fed on blood, flesh and bone - commodities that we were rapidly running out of on a volunteer basis. By 1916 it was a simple choice really, start conscription or pack in and go home - all the while hoping that Germany didn't thrash France and then decide that we would be next. Would German ambition have stopped purely because we had run out of volunteers? - I doubt that too.

 

The key difference I am outlining is that WW2 was (apart from the usual pre-war standing army) a 100% conscription affair for us - and yet the majority of the population were behind it at the time and still would be today. By contrast WW1 largely seems to have lost its popularity at some point in time after it had been fought. Somehow now the fight against Hitler's Germany is seen as a much worthier cause than the earlier struggle against the Kaiser's men. That's the bit that doesn't really make much sense, given that the Germans already had lots of "form" for ignoring the rules of war during 14-18.

 

Mike

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Terry_Reeves

Medaler

 

With respect, I think you are missing the point. The rubric states that "the majority of Britons thought that World War One was worth fighting."  It is clear that in 1915 that the reluctance of men of military age to enlist showed there was doubts.The short war thesis proved to be a fallacy;  married men were reluctant to come forward because of the financial problems arising from enlisting, in particular their families having to wait considerable time to receive their allowances reports of which which were widely published in the press at the time.  Conscription was introduced because  of the failure of the voluntary system, which seems to suggest, for some of those reasons mentioned above, that there wasn't quite the commitment that the rubric suggests. Conscription was in the end is forcible service with penalties both legal and social for refusing. That is not to say everybody rejected the war but it that is not the same as saying the war was uniformly accepted.

 

With regard to Britain's contribution versus that of Germany, let's not forget we were involved in coalition warfare on the main battle front with our main ally being France who had an army twice the size of that of our's. We were not expected to take on the main body of the enemy ourselves.

 

With regard to the comparison with  WW2,  there were  differences.  First, The British public were quietly being prepared for war from about 1937 onwards, indeed I have a government booklet calling for volunteers, not just for the armed forces, but the the special constabulary, and various agencies that would be useful in time of conflict. When conscription was introduced it was done in a graduated manner unlike that of 1914, based on age - youngest first. I would also point out that that a large part of the British army spent much time at home after the evacuation from France in 1940 and were not engaged with the main body of the enemy, that is Germany, until 1944.  The other main difference is that the Britain was seriously in danger, for a short while, of being invaded in 1940, unlike the invasion scare of 1914 - prompted by the pro-conscription lobby,  various right wing newspapers and at least one author 

who had gained some credence with an unsupecting public.

 

TR

.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Terry_Reeves

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Medaler
50 minutes ago, Gunga Din said:

 

My point is that if "the vast majority of the population thought the Great War worth fighting", one would expect enough men would have volunteered without having to resort to the MSA.  

 

 

Well, if it had all been over by Christmas, as many were cheerfully predicting, we wouldn't have needed the MSA. I'm not sure how prevalent that view was in the military (as opposed to the public) at the time, but it was just as well that Kitchener had a grasp of reality. With the French and the Germans seemingly reasonably well matched in numbers at the outset it may well have been thought that we would only be needed to tip the scales. As it was, things turned out a bit different. Once it became apparent that our "volunteer only" approach wasn't going to provide enough manpower to see it through its difficult to see how conscription could be avoided. You can draw a modern industrial parallel with manufacturing companies investing in production facilities overseas to exploit cheap labour. Once one company does it all the rest have to follow suit or be driven out of the market because their products are no longer price competitive. Once one set of nations goes down the conscription route all others have to follow to maintain the balance of power.

 

The above of course is about perceptions of the war at the start. After it had dragged on for 4 years a poll of public opinion may well have given a different answer. Then again, a poll of German public opinion might well also have seen a change of heart. We should also of course not be blind to the fact that "public opinion in favour of the war" is decidedly not the same as "everyone wanted to fight in the war".

 

Your right, trying to gauge what the public thought 100 years ago isn't easy, but I do sometimes think we look at evidence about people being in favour of the war and dismiss it as propaganda.

 

TF recruiting is a bit of a curved ball. Their role was effectively stripped from them with the formation of the Service Btn's. Initially sent to the outposts of Empire so that "proper" fighting troops could be released to do the actual fighting, they started the war as a bit of a side show. In the end however, the ability of their Imperial Service men to plug the gap before the Service Btn's came on stream was vital.

 

Again, you are quite right that 2nd line terrier units hadn't volunteered to take part in the "great adventure" - but the Military Service Act merely leveled them with the civilians who were not volunteering to take part either. It was probably quite right that they should not have had a protected "Home Service" only status when unwilling civilians were going to be forced to go. It boils down to, having committed to take part, were we going to allow a lack of manpower to put us in 2nd place when the results were posted? - tempered with the thought that all the other major players had already had conscript armies for decades, we were merely catching up.

 

Having said all that, using the need for conscription as a barometer to decide if the majority of the population were either in favour or against the war doesn't really hold water (IMHO). Perhaps the only true point at which the question of public opinion matters is restricted to what the public were thinking on 3rd August 1914. When once you have gone down the road of actually declaring war its a bit late for folk to start changing their minds.

 

Mike

 

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Medaler
4 hours ago, Gunga Din said:

 

Indeed. This was predicted years before the War. There were some very heated debates in the Houses of Parliament where some more prescient thinkers mapped out what would happen with some rather alarming accuracy. ..the volunteer system failed because not enough men enlisted (as predicted) and our system of Reserves was inadequate (as it was in the Boer War. The idea that the vast majority thought it was worth fighting didn't translate into men enlisting...the logical conclusion is that the no-where near the vast majority thought it worth fighting.

 

Media jingoism in 1915 did not necessarily reflect the public mood (I think), rather it reflected what the Government wanted the public to think as (from Sep 1914) the print media was effectively a state controlled propaganda machine. 

 

Let's agree to disagree. 

 

GD

 

 

 

It's been very interesting - and thanks for all the input.

 

Warmest regards,

Mike

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voltaire60
23 hours ago, Gunga Din said:

2) Page 740.

 

    Of what?  Argos catalogue?

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voltaire60
On 03/10/2018 at 13:26, Gunga Din said:

If the "vast majority believed the Great War was worth fighting" , why did the UK Govt need to introduce the Military Services Act? I don't follow the logic. 

 

The 'Revisionist' school has lots of very sound arguments but this is not one of them. 

 

1)  Modern wars dictate that one side has inevitably to mirror the actions of the other in order to win. Thus, say, Red Army learned a considerable amount about offensive tactics  and armoured warfare after 1941- from what the Germans had inflicted on them. The "School of Hard Knocks" view of how things are learned. Similarly, some of the grubbier aspects of "total war" were adopted by the Allies after Axis use.

   If one is up against a major armed state that has conscription, then in a prolonged war  conscription must come in. The alternative is capitulation.  Reverse the coin-  there was not much popular opposition to conscription- when all is said and done, COs and the like were a statistical nothingness.

 

2)  Irish recruiting- the subject of an extended debate with a departed- and much-missed Forum member. Yes, Irish recruiting had been declining ever since it's statistical high-point at Waterloo in 1815- it had been declining as a proportion of the total GB recruiting even before the Famine and the spark of more nationalist politics. The chief cause of the decline was the comparative growth of the GB population against that of Ireland-  The Sinn Fein boycott had some effect but, in real terms, it was the fifth wheel on a wagon given the longer term picture of decline.

  ii)  A major factor in the Irish and the Great War was the use of Irish labour (all voluntary, not directed) in British war industries-esp. those of the Clyde Valley and the West Midlands.  I contend that while British political policy was constrained by political considerations vis a vis conscription in what is now the 26 counties of the Republic, that British economic management of Ireland was a success manque  during the war- and that too much has been read into the strongly Nationalist historiography of Ireland's years of evolving to separate statehood. Of course, all states require significant manpower (and woman power) effort to keep the front line troops supplied with the food and materiel of war.  A common statistic of the Great War is that about 3 civilians were needed in industry to keep one soldier at the front fed and equipped.

    And many of these were Irish. The Irish concentrations in metal industries in the mainland UK (mainland from an English point of view-  outlying island if you are in the Republic) did not spring from nowhere. The British economic model was labour substitution-  the prohibition of emigration during the war meant a stock of unused manpower in Ireland-which was "nudged" by economic levers into British war industries- and "No Conscription" in Ireland meant that other Brits. of lower category were conscripted instead, rather than seeing out the war in home industries. 

 

   I must pick you up on the use of the word "revisionist". Any historian who comes along to a topic and writes a different view is,indeed, revising what has already been done. But "revision" is not a synonym for "correct", nor as Eric Hobsbawm and Terry Ranger explored in "The Invention of Tradition"  does it mean that ANY revisionist view must necessarily displace any previous views. We live when doing History involves  2 cycles of being historiographical galley slaves- the first is that, per Hobsbawm/Ranger, History is the myths we live by. And, secondly, that the cycle of Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis means that debate and research will continue.

 

       Now, on to my "revisionist" view that the Great War was won by the success of the Royal Navy blockade in denying Kaiser Bill top quality marijuana  and Latin American cocaine, leading to bad command decisions by Germany. Of course, it is a "revisionist" view...... so it must be true then..........

   

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PhilB

We all know what is intended when the term Revisionist is used in reference to WW1 but you correctly point out that it's really an inappropriate name. What might be a better name for the so called Revisionist view?:unsure:

Edited by PhilB

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