Dummies guide questions 'Blackadder bias'

Published: 7 May 2014 at 10:49

Not all First World War generals were heartless incompetents – Anglia Ruskin historian

To commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Dr Seán Lang, Senior Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University, has teamed up with publishers Wiley and Imperial War Museums (IWM) to produce First World War for Dummies.

In an easy-to-read style, First World War for Dummies takes the reader through the conflict from its origins, through the famous battles on land, on sea and – for the first time – in the air.

It considers the war in Africa, the Pacific and in the Middle East; looks at the war’s impact on civilian life and on the role of women; and continues the story right through to the dramatic events that brought the war to its close.

One hundred years later and argument still rages about the First World War: Was it justified? Were the generals incompetent?  Who is right: Captain Edmund Blackadder or the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP?

Both in the book and in the supplementary online material, Dr Lang looks at the arguments about who was to blame for the war, he considers the case for and against the generals, and asks the crucial question: Did the First World War lead to the Second World War?

Dr Lang said:

“Blackadder Goes Forth portrays the generals of the First World War to be heartless incompetents sipping sherry while sending men over the top to their deaths. Some certainly fitted the General Melchett stereotype, but overall this view is far too simplistic."
“The generals on the Western Front were caught in a situation no military leaders had ever faced, and with new military technology that was developing at a bewildering rate.  People often criticise the generals of the First World War for launching futile attacks for minimal gain, but they were on a very steep learning curve.
“Yes, there were ghastly mistakes, such as the attack on the Somme in 1916 and the disastrous attack at Passchendaele the following year.  But the British Generals also had some big successes, especially the campaign in 1918 at the very end of the war, which was one of the most successful campaigns the British army has ever fought.
“The debate on the generals of the First World War tends to focus heavily on the British generals, even though other countries certainly produced some spectacularly unsuccessful leaders, such as the Italian General Cadorna, the French General Nivelle, much of the Russian high command and, at least at the very end of the war, Germany’s General Ludendorff.  It’s important not to forget these non-British examples of military ineptitude.”

Dr Lang also explains why the five peace treaties of 1919, including the Treaty of Versailles signed by Germany and the Allied powers, went so disastrously wrong.  He said:

“The Treaty of Versailles with Germany was so harsh on the defeated side that it led many Germans to welcome Hitler into power in 1933 after he declared that he’d tear the treaty up.
“Austrians resented the fact that the Treaty of St Germain reduced their country to a small rump and forbade them to join up with Germany: it’s no surprise that they welcomed Hitler to Vienna when he took the country over in 1938.
“Hungarians were outraged by the loss of their lands imposed by the Treaty of Trianon, and they still are; Bulgarians feel much the same about the Treaty of Neuilly.  The Turks, too, felt they had a raw deal in the Treaty of Sèvres, but they challenged it and got a better deal at Lausanne a few years later.
“The peace settlement was supposed to have made the First World War a war to end all wars; instead it set the fuse for an even bigger world war just 20 years later.”

First World War for Dummies is produced in association with Imperial War Museums and is lavishly illustrated with photographs from the IWM’s extensive online collections.  The book is on sale as a paperback and e-book, priced at £15.99.