Brian Bond. Britain's Two World Wars against Germany: Myth, Memory and the Distortions of Hindsight. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 199 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-00471-9; $27.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-107-65913-1.
Reviewed by Keith Dickson (National Defense University)
Published on H-War (June, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Brian Bond is an exasperated historian. A scholar dedicated to the objective study of history is finally fed up. He is out to destroy the myth of the First World War as an unmitigated tragedy that left Great Britain with nothing to show for its 1,114,805 dead in four years of futile waste. In addition, he is out to prove that the image of the triumphant victory of the Second World War of 1939-45 was also a myth, and in fact, was a far more tragic war with a far more devastating outcome for Britain than the Great War of 1914-18. This is quite an undertaking, but Bond takes to the task with verve and insight.
What has set Bond on this daunting path is the image of the Great War as presented in popular culture. Certainly every professional historian can sympathize. Who among us has not, at one time or another, cringed or groused at the misconceptions and outright falsehoods presented as facts for a gullible public? For Bond, apparently, the last straw was the popular television program Blackadder Goes Forth (1989). It presents "all the ingredients of the Western Front myth: dreadful trench conditions and asinine planning by callous, stupid upper-class commanders and his weak and servile staff who are safely ensconced in their headquarters far from the front line" (p. 21). In striking down these misperceptions, Bond shows that the memory of the First World War suffered in comparison to the constructed memory of the Second World War. Unlike the First World War, there was no sense of tragedy and loss in the aftermath of the Second World War. The greatest architect of this memory was none other than Winston Churchill, who not only shaped the public mind during the war with his immortal and defiant words but also cemented Britain's role in the war as a liberator in his monumental history written soon after the war. As the story goes, Britain's casualties were low; the war was not a senseless battle of attrition like in the trenches of Flanders. Most important, Britain stood alone, faced the Blitz, and eventually triumphed over Nazism, fascism, and Japanese militarism to make a better world.
Bond throws all of these sentiments into a cocked hat in a series of chapters comparing the Great War and the Second World War, by addressing strategy, leadership, combat and attrition, learning and adaptation, and outcomes. He presents a short historiography in each chapter to trace the origins of these diverging notions. What he finds and argues rather forcefully in each deftly written chapter is that in the Second World War, Britain's strategy was far less cogent, relying completely on the Soviet Union to destroy German land forces, while also relying entirely on the United States for its war material and sustainment. The generals were second rate, many of whom were relieved of command and transferred from combat units. The British army fought sideshow campaigns until 1944, when in Italy, in Normandy, and northern Europe, British infantry and armored forces fought desperate battles of attrition in miserable conditions no better than many of the battles of 1916 and 1917. The bombing campaign over Germany killed over fifty-five thousand men, a casualty rate similar to that of the western front. Finally, Bond demolishes the idea that the war's outcome was far more in favor of British interests than in 1918. After VE-day in 1945, the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe, leaving Poland (the country Britain went to war for in 1939) to the mercy of Joseph Stalin. The empire was fatally damaged, and Britain itself was impoverished, no longer one of the world's great powers.
In comparison, Bond finds that British wartime strategy in the First World War was sound, its commanders were far more conscientious than given credit, and they engineered a remarkable victory in 1918 by adapting new technologies and tactical innovations to the battlefield. The British waged an effective war at sea, crippling the German food supply and hastening its internal collapse. Britain's postwar triumphs at Versailles expanded the empire, solidified its economic dominance, and put the nation at the apex of power. Where, Bond cries, is the futility? Where is the tragedy?
Taking this entirely objective approach, Bond's conclusions from his comparisons are persuasive, but the reader sometimes is still left with a sense that there is more to the story. In his effort to reduce the cachet of the Second World War, Bond at times appears to overstate the positives of the First World War. For example, he downplays life in the trenches and states that the accounts of the Somme and Passchendaele misrepresent the nature of combat on the western front. This may be true, but no one who looks at photos of the trenches in Flanders can forget the images.
In the Great War, something significant happened, something so different, so elemental, and indefinable that the experiences (and sacrifices) of millions of young men of all classes in Britain, in the Dominions, in Europe, and in America during that war changed the world forever. As a result, the ghosts of that war still haunt the collective memory. Bond has done his best to give the reader a refreshing perspective. But even as he does so, the reader perceives him struggling to ignore those ghosts.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Keith Dickson. Review of Bond, Brian, Britain's Two World Wars against Germany: Myth, Memory and the Distortions of Hindsight.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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