AoH Book Club: Gary Sheffield on Forgotten Victory

The World War One historian's 2001 book was a revisionist work that has made us think again about the Great War.
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Catherine the Great & Potemkin

Forgotten Victory was an instant commercial and critical success, although it has also gained a legacy and I imagine that readers still contact you about the book now. What do you consider to be the most important myth which Forgotten Victory challenged, when first published?

Yes, Forgotten Victory is probably my most influential book, although not necessarily my best one. I guess that the main point was to stress that the First World War ended in a crushing military victory for Britain and its allies – that fact is something which is often overlooked, particularly by the media. It caused outrage in some circles!

It was very telling that when the UK’s commemorations for the centenary of the Great War were being planned, initially there was to be no commemoration of the great victories of 1918 on the Western Front. Eventually after a lot of lobbying and persuading by historians and organisations such as the Western Front Association, the government came around to the idea. There was a very impressive ceremony at Amiens Cathedral on 8 August 2018, which marked the centenary of the ‘Black Day of the German army’. But this very much went against the grain of the ‘futility and disillusionment’ narrative that characterised so much of the Centenary commemorations. This I suppose shows the limitations of a book like Forgotten Victory in changing the way that the majority of people think about the First World War.

You do much to rehabilitate the British generals in Forgotten Victory, particularly the much-maligned Field Marshal Haig. What do you think the biggest misconception is concerning Haig and the British Army in WW1?

I am a great fan of the Blackadder television series, but some people seem to think it is a documentary rather than a comedy! The image of Haig as a callous incompetent, and the idea that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF – the army on the Western Front) just did the same thing over and over again with disastrous results is darkly funny but a travesty of the truth. There are many things for which Haig can be justly criticised – and in fact after Forgotten Victory I went on to write a full-scale biography of him which is far from a hagiography – but lack of imagination is not one. He presided over an army which is what we would call today ‘a learning organisation’, constantly innovating, incorporating new weaponry and tactics, and undergoing a very profound learning process.

The Wiltshire Regiment, Thiepval, August 1916.

The Blackadder view is a parody of the early stages of trench warfare in 1915-16. In 1917 and especially 1918 the army was almost unrecognisable from those early days. It was an army closer in spirit, material and practice to the Second World War, rather than 19th century conflicts. And Haig’s input was hugely significant, whether it was reorganising the army, appointing and supporting his expert subordinates, or arguing for more resources from the government. He certainly didn’t get everything right, and of course the BEF wasn’t a one man band, but Haig has never really received the credit that he deserves for his role transforming the BEF.

To what extent do you feel the war and the conduct of the war fractured the relationships between the politicians and the members of the armed forces and do you think this made a material difference to the running of the war? And do you feel that Haig’s reputation in particular suffered after the war as result of this political in-fighting?

There are always tensions between military men and politicians in a democracy and Britain in the First World War was no exception. The worst example was the breakdown of the relationship between the prime minister, David Lloyd George, and Douglas Haig. There were faults on both sides, but the fundamental problem was that although Lloyd George was a proponent of total war he was not prepared to accept the consequences, mass casualties. These problems in civil and military relations certainly didn’t make running the war any easier although I am sceptical about the idea that in the end it made that much difference.

Haig died in 1928 as a national hero but within a few years his reputation had collapsed. I think only Neville Chamberlain, whose sky-high reputation at the time of Munich in October 1938 reached its nadir after Dunkirk in 1940, went from hero to zero more swiftly. And a good deal of the damage to Haig’s reputation came from the lambasting he received in Lloyd George’s memoirs published in the 1930: the former PM took his revenge on Haig when the Field Marshal was no longer around to respond.

The numbers of dead and wounded on all sides were vast from the very first battles of the war. Is it wrong for us to question whether the generals could have looked at those early casualty numbers, and thought this was unsustainable, particularly if the war was to continue beyond Christmas 1914?

That’s a very interesting question. Casualties had been increasing for the 70 or so years before 1914 as weapons and ammunition became more sophisticated and lethal. By the eve of the First World War generals had few illusions about what was likely to happen. But even so the sheer scale of death and maiming came as a shock. However, it should also be remembered that, at least in the west, casualties from sickness and disease were lower in 1914-8 than in previous conflicts – and sickness had often been a bigger killer than enemy bullets. Generals were professional officers who had to make the best of what fate delivered them. If the politicians could not come up with a compromise peace, the generals had to carry on planning and fighting battles – and certainly even after the deadlock had set in in late 1914 on the Western Front, the experience of recent campaigns suggested that the stalemate would not last very long.

Field Marshal Haig, by William Orpen

Also, although some armies, notably the Austro-Hungarian, had lost vast numbers of trained soldiers, the small British Army was about to be reinforced by the masses of Kitchener volunteers. The sad truth was that these losses were sustainable for at least another three years, as states and societies mobilised for total war and conscripted men to fight. Of course, this put states under enormous strain – it was a major contributing factor to the outbreak of Russian revolution in 1917. But although the stress of fighting a total war caused political problems for Britain and its dominions, notably Canada and Australia, the willingness of populations to fight and endure until victory was remarkable. In the end Britain and its allies outlasted as well as outfought its enemies.

Along with Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, Forgotten Victory helped change the landscape of perceptions about WW1. Are there any books you have read in the past decade which have challenged your view on a particular aspect of the war? Also, is there any material or argument you would insert now into the book, which you were unable to do when first published?

Actually, I don’t think that The Pity of War did change perceptions about 1914-18 very much. In some ways it is a very sophisticated take on the war, but the sections about the military conduct of the war just really reinforced received wisdom. If I can push the timeframe back a bit, the best single volume history of the Great War is David Stevenson’s 1914-18, which came out in 2004. So many excellent and influential books have appeared since Forgotten Victory came out, it is difficult to single out a few. However, one book which has shaped my thinking is Catriona Pennell’s A Kingdom United. This persuasively argues that the idea of mass enthusiasm for war in Britain in August 1914 was a myth. Similarly, Robin Prior’s Gallipoli: The End of the Myth is the best short book on the Dardanelles in 1915-16, and it demonstrates that far from being a missed opportunity, the campaign was doomed to failure from the very beginning. Only few years ago we had very little in English about the Russian Front, and now there are some very important books: Alexander Watson’s The Fortress, about the siege of Przemyśl, is my favourite.

As it happens, I have mentioned important new material in the ‘Afterwords’ to the 2014 and 2018 editions of Forgotten Victory, but if I ever re-wrote the book completely I would include new material and arguments in every section. So much has come out in the last 20 years, and I have never stopped learning from other scholars.

The Battle of the Somme is understandably significant, in relation to the story of the war and its aftermath. What is your take on the Somme – and have you revised your opinion of the battle over the years?

After Forgotten Victory came out, I wrote a short book on the Somme (2003) and returned to the subject in my 2011 biography of Haig. I haven’t really changed my basic view, that this battle – really a campaign – was a strategic success for the allies (although I would not call it a victory), and in many ways was an inevitable battle. However, my views have become more nuanced, influenced particularly by William Philpott’s work, among others: the French army certainly deserves more credit than I gave it in my 2001 book.

It may be considered a shame, or something more harmful, that a generation of students have had their view of WW1 coloured by Blackadder and the study of the War Poets. But can you tell us a little more about your first introduction to the Great War and which books shaped your understanding of the conflict?

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, when the ‘lions led by donkeys’ interpretation was very much to the fore, my first impressions of the First World War were coloured by the idea that the Second World War was a ‘good war’ but its predecessor had been a bad war. The first book that I can remember reading on 1914-18 was AJP Taylor’s Illustrated History. Taylor was a very talented historian, and this book is still worth reading in many ways, but it gave a very one-sided and misleading version of the military history. It was dedicated to Joan Littlewood of Oh! What a Lovely War fame, which rather makes that point.

My opinions started to change when I as an undergraduate at the University of Leeds I took Dr Hugh Cecil’s Special Subject on Britain and the First World. This exposed me to all sorts of different views on the war, but it was the work of John Terraine that was particularly influential on my thinking. He had actually been attacking the ‘futility’ myth since the late 1950s, so I was late to the party. Today, while I disagree with and have moved on from Terraine’s arguments in some ways, I regard him as the single most important influence on my thinking on Britain and the First World War.

What were you most pleased about, in relation to the reception and success of Forgotten Victory?

First, that anyone paid attention to it! This book undoubtedly gave my career a substantial boost. Second, that although a few blinkered critics dismissed it as being too sympathetic to the generals, or, bizarrely, that I was peddling a right-wing political agenda, most people understood what I was trying to do – show that the whole subject was immensely complex, and to give a more nuanced picture than the ‘lions led by donkeys/it was all futile’ version.

And lastly, can you tell us a little more about your next project?

Willingly! I am writing a big book for Yale University Press entitled Civilian Armies: The Experience of British and Dominion Soldiers in the Two World Wars. This is a comparative history in several senses. I am comparing British soldiers with their counterparts in the Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and South African armies, and Dominion troops with each other, in terms of social background, experience of enlisting and training, of battle, of relations with the allies and so on.

Also, I am comparing the two world wars: so for instance, for amphibious operations, I am looking at Gallipoli in 1915 and D-Day in 1944. I am analysing differences, similarities, and indeed the lessons learned from the Dardanelles and applied to Normandy. In the course of my research, I have worked in archives in all the dominions apart from South Africa (there I got a research assistant to do some work for me) as well of course as archives in the UK and Republic of Ireland. After that I have a plan to write a book on a completely different topic and period, but that is under wraps at the moment.


Gary Sheffield is an acclaimed historian of World War One and is the author of A Short History of the First World War, The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army and The Somme: A New History. Forgotten Victory was published in 2001 and was an instant success, and was described by Niall Ferguson as ‘an iconoclastic tour de force’.