From a bestselling historian, a daringly revisionist history of World War I
The Pity of War makes a simple and provocative argument: the human atrocity known as the Great War was entirely England's fault. According to Niall Ferguson, England entered into war based on naive assumptions of German aims, thereby transforming a Continental conflict into a world war, which it then badly mishandled, necessitating American involvement. The war was not inevitable, Ferguson argues, but rather was the result of the mistaken decisions of individuals who would later claim to have been in the grip of huge impersonal forces.
That the war was wicked, horrific, and inhuman is memorialized in part by the poetry of men like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but also by cold statistics. Indeed, more British soldiers were killed in the first day of the Battle of the Somme than Americans in the Vietnam War. And yet, as Ferguson writes, while the war itself was a disastrous folly, the great majority of men who fought it did so with little reluctance and with some enthusiasm. For anyone wanting to understand why wars are fought, why men are willing to fight them and why the world is as it is today, there is no sharper or more stimulating guide than Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War.
Many readers will disagree with Oxford historian Ferguson's (Paper and Iron) daring revisionist account of the Great War as presented in this superbly illustrated book, but none will be bored by his elegant marshaling of facts to support his case. Ferguson argues that Germany had a justifiable fear of Russian and French militarism and was merely making a preemptive strike in August 1914. He suggests that Britain forced the escalation of what could have been a limited continental war by entering on the side of the Allies and then increased the body count on both sides through sheer ineptitude. An economic historian, Ferguson explains that Germany was efficient at inflicting "maximum slaughter at minimum expense," paying just $5133 to kill each Allied serviceman. The bungling but economically advantaged Allies, on the other hand, paid $16,754 for each German head. For all the book's strengths, however, Ferguson comes up short in his flawed, briefly sketched analyses of the ebb and flow of diplomatic and battlefield events. Grand strategy goes unstudied. Ferguson's war is, in the end, simply an economic problem. Scarcity equals loss, and whoever has the most supplies will prevail. Ultimately, it is hard to feel satisfied with Ferguson's narrow analysis of what is surely a far more complex equation.