NOTE: This story has been edited for accuracy. (August 4, 2023)
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914–1918, by G.J. Meyer, is not a good popular history book. As histories of the Great War go, it has some truly bad takes, and anybody reading it is likely to come away with a very distorted view of the people and battlefields involved. It repeats a number of now-debunked myths about the war, and falls clearly into the “lions led by donkeys” narrative, even though it was published in 2006 — long after that too was debunked.
This is somewhat tragic, as there is no indication that G.J. Meyer set out to write bad history. Indeed, there is every indication that he wanted to write a good popular history of the war that would be accessible to as many readers as possible. His bibliography is extensive, and many of the sources in it are credible to this day, written by professional scholars. And, he has some very good historical takes too — he’s one of the few popular history authors who recognizes the interconnected nature of the various fronts of the war, that none of the campaigns happened in a vacuum, and that events on one front often had repercussions on the others.
This is not an article taking down the bad history in this book. Instead, I want to look at how a book like this comes to be in the first place, and why you can all too easily get bad history even when the author is doing their research and trying to get everything right. And, there are a number of factors that can cause this.
Imagine for a moment that you are a historian writing a book, or a history student writing a paper. You read a quote that supports your argument, and you want to use it. Unfortunately, you can’t find the original source. Perhaps you just don’t have it in your library, or perhaps it’s translated from a foreign language that you can’t read. However, what you do have is a book quoting it. So, you use the quote, and cite it as being quoted in the book you referencing.
You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who hasn’t done this — I certainly have. And, so long as the book you are citing is directly quoting a primary source and got the quote correct, you’re on solid ground. But, sometimes it doesn’t get it right, and this leads to a sort of historical “broken telephone,” propagating errors.
Take, for example, one of the most famous quotes about the French Army in 1914, a missive that would lead to countless deaths on the battlefield when the war started: “The French Army, returning unto its traditions, no longer knows any law other than the offensive.”
If you try to track down the source of this quote, as I had to do for my work-in-progress on the Cult of the Offensive (currently moving at the rate of continental drift), one encounters a bizarre phenomenon: nobody seems to be able to agree on who said or wrote it. Barbara Tuchman placed the quote as the first paragraph of the French October 1913 field regulations (The Guns of August, p. 33), where it does not appear. Michael Howard placed it somewhere in the field regulations, but did not state where, and credited it to Grandmaison “Men Against Fire: The Doctrine of the Offensive in 1914.” Published in Paret, Peter, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, p. 520) — for this, he cites the first volume of Joffre’s Memoirs, but the quote does not appear there either (p. 26–29). Max Hastings joined Howard in placing it somewhere in the October 1913 field regulations, but credited it to Joffre (Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, p. 33). Joseph Arnold credited it to Grandmaison, but placed it in one of his lectures (“French Tactical Doctrine 1870–1914.” Military Affairs, Apr., 1978, Vol. 42, №2 (Apr., 1978), p. 64) — he cites it as being quoted in Hoffman Nickerson’s 1940 book The Armed Horde (p. 224), but Nickerson is quoting J.F.C. Fuller’s 1932 book The Dragon’s Teeth, in which the quote does not appear (p. 256–257). Stephen Van Evera credited it to Joffre in 1912 (“The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War.” International Security, Summer, 1984, Vol. 9, №1 (Summer, 1984), p. 60). And, Robert Doughty credited it to the commission that wrote the October 1913 regulations (Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War, p. 26).
The quote is real, but once one starts trying to track it down in the English-language sources, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that it isn’t. It actually appears in the appendix to the October 1913 field regulations, in a discussion on how the regulations should be interpreted, and with a context that is somewhat different from its usual suicidally aggressive interpretation:
The lessons of the past have borne fruit: the French army, having returned to its traditions, no longer admits any other law in the conduct of operations than the offensive.
But the application of this law requires, as a preliminary, the gathering of forces:
One must first gather and act offensively as soon as the forces are gathered.(Ministère de la Guerre, French Military Doctrine 1913: The Decrees of October 28 and December 2, p. 66 — NOTE: I am both the translator and publisher of this edition)
This is a common hazard, and it’s not going away any time soon. There is an implicit trust that if an author published a book based on their research, they got it right, and this allows errors and misquotes to remain in the literature for a very long time.
There is an understandable assumption that if somebody experiences an event, such as the Western Front of the Great War, then their experience will be comparable to others. That, for example, if one infantryman experienced hardship and unending suffering in the trenches, then their experience is universally applicable to all infantrymen on the Western Front. But, this isn’t always the case.
To be fair, very often this principle holds water. The experience of the French infantrymen going into the fires of Verdun is very similar from one account to another (see, for example, Alistair Horne’s book The Price of Glory, which uses a number of first-hand accounts to tell its narrative). But, this is still a logical fallacy — the experience of a Great War infantryman varied greatly depending on the sector and army — and it does lead to errors.
Consider the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Meyer’s chapter on the subject repeats the traditional narrative of the British going over the top right after the five day bombardment stopped, finding that the German barbed wire had not been cut, and the Germans mowing them down with machine gun fire, leaving them unable to reach their objectives. And, in places in the British line, this did happen, resulting in the wiping out of units like the Newfoundlanders. But this was not a universal experience on the first day of the Somme, nor was it even the most common. The tactics were left up to the unit commanders, who were assumed to best know their troops and how to use them. Tactics and experiences therefore varied wildly. The Gordon Highlanders, for example, attempted the first British use of the creeping barrage, and took and held their objective. One of the most common tactics was for the British to go over the top before zero hour, creep up to the edge of the preparatory barrage, and then rush the German trenches as soon as it lifted. Many of the attacking units took their initial objectives. Several others didn’t even make it to their own front lines. The big flaw in the British plan, in fact, proved to be an inability to provide counter-battery fire — a curtain of German artillery fire fell across no-man’s land, cutting off the British units and enabling the Germans to attrition many of them out in place (for more on this, see The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front, by Peter Hart, The Somme, by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, and Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme, also published under the title Three Armies at the Somme, by William Philpott).
This creates a very different understanding of what happened that day and why. But this is not the only logical fallacy that one tends to see, particularly in histories of the First World War. Another is that just because a condition is true at one point in time, it is also true at other points in time.
To take the Western Front as an example, this often takes the form of assuming that because the Germans managed to achieve a breakthrough in March 1918, the tactics they used must therefore have been able to work in earlier years, and that the commanders on the Western Front should have realized this. Meyer falls into this trap himself — he treats the 1915 battle of Neuve Chapelle as being a case of the British learning a “false” lesson about artillery fire, as though there was a single solution to the problem of the trench deadlock that would open up a breakthrough to whichever side figured it out first (and thus the Germans were rewarded for doing so in 1918).
But, the reality of the situation was that the Western Front of March 1918 was a very different place than it was in 1914, 1915, 1916, or 1917. Britain, France, and Germany had been engaged in a constant arms race of technology and tactics, with the end result that the armies that finished the war would have been near-unrecognizable to those that started it. The conditions that permitted the Germans to break through the Allied lines in 1918 — and allowed the Allies to prevent the front from returning to a trench deadlock once the Germans were stopped — did not exist in prior years. This, in turn, leads to a lot of condemnation for commanders like Haig, Joffre, and Falkenhayn for failing to do the impossible. This doesn’t mean that mistakes were not made — the Great War was filled with costly mistakes by commanders on all sides — but it does mean that narrative of “lions led by donkeys” that Meyer and many other popular historians have followed doesn’t actually survive scrutiny when one looks at the real conditions on the Western Front (for more on this, see The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War, by Peter Hart, The Western Front, by Nick Lloyd, and Attrition: Fighting the First World War, by William Philpott).
Lack of Specialist Knowledge
Everybody has knowledge gaps — things they just don’t know — and popular and professional historians are no different. The fact of the matter is that there are subjects which are very relevant to the history of events like the First World War that many historians don’t know about because it doesn’t fall within their field of specific research.
A good example of this is the French army, which has received relatively little coverage in English-language scholarship of the war. And, a perfect example of this leading to bad history has to do with the famous red trousers that the French army marched into battle wearing. This is often depicted as evidence of the French army being disconnected from reality as a result of the “Cult of the Offensive.” It cannot be denied that the French army marched into battle in August 1914 wearing a uniform that was, to put it mildly, ill-advised. And, because most people writing on the war are not French army specialists, the fact that the French uniform with the red trousers was used is not examined beyond the fact that the French were wearing it, which is highly suggestive of the French army misunderstanding the nature of modern warfare.
However, there is far more to the story. Reformers in the French army had, in fact, been trying to replace the traditional uniform with its red trousers since 1899. At least one uniform candidate had made it as far as testing in the annual maneoevres. But, this had turned into the French army’s own personal Verdun, as they came across pitched resistance from the French government bureaucracy (and some of their own officers, who saw the uniform as less work clothes and more a symbol of tradition and pride) that scuttled each attempted replacement. It was also a battle they had won. On July 9, 1914, the French government passed a law replacing the traditional uniforms with one of ‘horizon blue’ (see Flesh and Steel During the Great War: The Transformation of the French Army and the Invention of Modern Warfare, by Michel Goya, p. 49–50). So, had the war started six months later, the French army would not have been marching into battle with the famous red trousers.
Another place this factor appears is in the evaluation of primary sources, which is a serious issue when it comes to the period prior to the Great War (my main current field of research). Between 1899–1914 there were two main discussions regarding tactics — there was the professional military journals, where officers in the middle of the discussion threw around ideas about how to deal with the tactical problems of their day, and books and public newspapers, where those who had been marginalized from the discussion took their case to the public. Differentiating between the two could be very difficult, particularly as both officers current in the discussion and those left behind would both produce books on military tactics and strategy. William Balck’s 1908 series of textbooks titled Tactics, translated and published in two volumes in English in 1910, was taken very seriously. Friedrich von Bernhardi’s On War of Today, in which he attempted to claim the mantle of the next Clausewitz, was taken considerably less seriously (for more see After Clausewitz: German Military Thinkers Before the Great War, by Antulio J. Echevarria II).
So long as an author writing about the war and war planning knows about the military journals and where to find the active discussion on tactics, they will likely be able to present a relatively accurate depiction of contemporary military thought. But, many writers don’t know where the actual discussion was taking place, leaving them with the public declarations of those who had been left behind. This creates a very distorted vision of military thought that has affected even professional historians like the Marquess of Anglesey, who wrote and published a multi-volume biography of the British cavalry (for more, see my MA thesis Crossing the Fire-Swept Zone: The British Cavalry’s Transformation into a “Swiss Army Knife” on the Western Front of World War I).
People make mistakes. This is just part of the human condition. Perhaps they misread or mis-remembered something. Perhaps they made an error while they were writing their draft. Meyer has one of these mistakes in his book — he writes that the French strategic and tactical doctrine was published in May 1913, when in reality they were published in October and December, respectively. It is unlikely that this is anything other than a simple mistake that wasn’t caught during editing.
The problem arises when these errors aren’t caught. As I wrote above, there is an assumption that if somebody publishes a history book, the information in the book is accurate. This means that if something in a history book is taken as a simple fact (such as the weather conditions at Passchendaele) and happens to be wrong, this error is repeated through every new book that references it.
Errors can arise for any number of reasons. Sometimes, it’s a simple accidental word substitution — as mentioned above, Michael Howard used Joffre’s Memoirs as his source for the famous quote about the French army, but the quote does not appear there…it does, however, appear on page lii of The Memoirs of Marshal Foch. Both are French commanders who produced memoirs of the war, so it is understandable that they could be confused for one another while putting together a citation.
In some cases, the error arises as a result of missing information. I remember taking a class with military intelligence historian John Ferris during my Master of Arts degree where he talked about the Battle of the Atlantic making no sense before the declassification of the Ultra signals intelligence program in the 1970s. This is a massive problem in the case of First World War studies, as most of the records of the German Army were destroyed by strategic bombing during the Second World War. This has left historians of the Great War sometimes dealing with little outside of the German official history and personal memoirs to reconstruct the German side of a battle (see Sir Hew Strachan’s introduction to Germany’s Western Front 1915: Translations from the German Official History of the Great War, edited by Mark Osborne Humphries and John Maker). In an extreme case, as happened with the Battle of Passchendaele, new recovered information can actually change a perceived stalemate into a victory. When Nick Lloyd wrote his book Passchendaele: The Lost Victory of World War I, he discovered that the German side of the battle had been so traumatic that it broke the fighting ability of many units, and this in turn probably forced the Germans into an offensive in 1918 with whatever they could scrape together to avoid losing the war, making the battle a major contributor to the war ending in 1918 instead of 1919.
This also goes the other way, however. The British official history of the opening months of the war was compiled in 1920–1921, before the German official history had started its own publication. As a result, the British contribution leading up to the Battle of the Marne became a national myth without the benefit of the German side of the campaign. Recent scholarship has started to question this myth, and the British contribution no longer appears to have involved the British Expeditionary Force punching so far above its weight (see Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914, by Peter Hart).
All of these sources of historical misconceptions thus far fall under the category of honest mistakes. The errors are not deliberate, and there is no intention to deceive. At worst, a popular (or professional) historian making or propagating these errors is guilty of little more than sloppy work. But, sometimes there is malice involved. Sometimes, the historical record has been deliberately distorted. When this happens, as did happen with the English-language scholarship of the Great War for decades, this can be called a “poisoned well.”
We see this clearly in Meyers in his portrayal of the British army. He states on page 214 that the British army remained “stubbornly in the past,” that “nobody in uniform cared about theories,” and that the army was “an especially attractive career for the less intelligent sons of the best families.” This is nothing less than slanderous, and easily disproven.
The officers of the British army cared a great deal about theory, and the professional journals they produced (The Royal United Services Institution Journal, the United Service Magazine, and the Cavalry Journal, to name just three) were filled with discussions about theory and translations of articles from foreign journals. The General Staff of the War Office cared enough about British officers being well informed that by 1909 they had started issuing a quarterly bulletin of publications of military note for officers ((1909) Recent Publications of Military Interest, Royal United Services Institution. Journal, 53:372, 273–288, DOI: 10.1080/03071840909418967). And both Sir Douglas Haig, who led the British Army in the Western Front from 1916 onwards, and Sir Ian Hamilton, who led the campaign at Gallipoli, were both published and respected authors before the war.
The claim is, on its face, ridiculous. An imperial power with an army this uninterested in the art of war wouldn’t be an imperial power for very long. It does not survive basic critical thinking. And yet, it is present and repeated as fact by Meyer, as well as in a number of other popular history books.
Ridiculous claims treated as received wisdom are clear evidence of a poisoned well. The source of this poison comes primarily from a single man named Basil Liddell Hart. Liddell Hart was a British army veteran who had fought at the Battle of the Somme, and been partially disabled by poison gas. After the war, he became a very influential historian while having a gradual falling out with the War Office over their lack of acceptance of his theory that tanks had rendered infantry obsolete. This led him to see the British army leadership as traditionalists stuck in the past, which he then imposed into his 1930 history of the war, The Real War 1914–1918 (for a more full examination of Liddell Hart and his falling out with the War Office, see my excised chapter “The Captain who Teaches Generals”).
The Real War is anything but good history. It is framed as an expose of how the war was managed, but filled with factual errors and character assassination, and even includes a claim that the generals were using 18th century tactics (this is not a typographical error) on a 20th century battlefield. Liddell Hart does, however, appear to have been sincere in his writing of it — there is every indication that it represents how he honestly remembered the war. What pushes his actions into destructive malice was what happened afterwards: he used his influence to control the narrative of the war, to the point of attempting to block the publication of any book that disagreed with his version. It should be noted that to depict Liddell Hart as a vindictive and petty villain would be to caricature him as badly as he caricatured others — for all of his controlling and academic glory-seeking tendencies, as well as his inability to ever admit that he was wrong, he was also very generous of his time and resources to scholars, and cultivated relationships with many of the makers of military history during his lifetime, to the point that every weekend he tended to entertain distinguished visitors from generals to actors (for a look at Liddell Hart from somebody who knew him, see Luvaas, Jay. “Liddell Hart and the Mearsheimer Critique: A “Pupil’s” Retrospective.” Parameters (Carlisle, Pa.) 1990, 20 (1)). This made his control of the narrative of the Great War all the more effective, and by the time he died in 1970, one could say anything negative about the British army in the Great War, no matter how outlandish, and have it taken at face value. Unpoisoning the well would take decades (for an examination of this, see my article “Goodbye to the “Donkeys” — How the First World War British Army has been Rehabilitated since 1970”).
This creates a massive problem for anybody trying to write a history of the Great War, and not one that is easily solved. To make matters worse, most of the books written with the benefit of access to veterans of the Great War were written during the height of Liddell Hart’s influence, creating a situation where vital information is often found in books misrepresenting the history. The Great War is not the only field of study in which the well of scholarship has been poisoned — it’s just one of the more dramatic examples.
As I wrote at the beginning, this is not meant to be a takedown of G.J. Meyer’s A World Undone. Like many popular historians, Meyer tried to write a good and accessible book. Many of the things that tripped him up could have also caught anybody else, including professional historians. Writing history is hard, and even the best historians can accidentally write bad history.
Robert B. Marks is an author, editor, publisher, and researcher. He has translated and published Grandmaison’s Training of the Infantry for Offensive Combat, the French Decrees of October and December 1913, Moltke the Younger’s Memories, Letters, and Documents, and the first volume of Joffre’s Memoirs.