The pity of war

by Niall Ferguson

Hardcover, 1998




London : Penguin Press, 1998. First ed,


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Brasidas
This is a book for those who already know the course of the war through previous reading and who wish to expand upon that knowledge by closer study of its underpinnings, social, cultural, political and financial. Do not pick this book up if you what you want are depictions of artillery battles and hand-to-hand combat. No question that that sort of strict military history can be very engaging, but that's not what Dr Ferguson is up to. Actual fighting is only described to the extent that it illuminates the political, cultural, and social history, especially on the various home fronts of the Entente and Central Powers. Dr Ferguson seeks to overturn some long-held beliefs about the war. He does this primarily through a masterful wielding of statistics. For example, the myth of war enthusiasm. He is able to show that this was something very short-lived, which occurred mostly at the beginning of the war. He is able to argue, too, that there were real alternatives for Britain if she had stayed out of the war. The Entente was after all a gentleman's agreement. There was no formal treaty committing British forces to the defense of France. Would Britain have been held in contempt by the international community for taking such a position, probably, but it was a real option whose upside was never given proper consideration in Britain. Among other things Ferguson believes that without Britain in the war the result would have been a limited general European conflict. Once Britain entered, however, with her unparalleled foreign possessions (colonies) it became a global imperialist war. Perhaps my favorite parts of the book are the statistics Ferguson is able to marshal to show how much more efficient Germany was on the battlefield. Germany killed something like 5 Entente soldiers for every 4 Central Power soldiers killed by the Entente Powers. And Germany did this on the cheap. It's budgetary constraints are discussed in comparison to those of the Entente Powers. There's no question that Germany was able not only to kill more Entente soldiers over the long term, they were able to do it far more cheaply than their enemies. Other topics covered include: (1) the myth of an ingrained militarism in Germany; Ferguson believes there was not one. (2) an examination of why men fought, this in a chapter titled "The Death Instinct" in which the author invokes Freud, Jung and others; and the prickly problem of taking prisoners. I found it fascinating throughout. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member GeraldLange
Excellent. I have found few books with as much information as this makes available, and none with more.
LibraryThing member bke
An interesting take on WWI, and counter to the usualy historical line. He makes a case that it would have been beter if Britain had stood aside, leading to a much shorter and elss desctuctive war and a probably German victory. The result being a Europe much like we have today, but without the intervening Hitler and Stalin dictatorships. This book is massive, pack with a lot of statistics in the middle, making for slow going at times.

It would be best to read the final chapter 'Conclusion: Alternatives to Armageddon' so you understand where the author is leading as you read the rest of the book.
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LibraryThing member TimCTaylor
Challenging and provocative. A little heavy-going but steadily blasts away at some well-established but lazy Great War myths.
LibraryThing member jontseng
A wide-grasping synthesis of secondary sources, rather than original research. Individual chapters are neatly packaged (and very digestible) but Ferguson's approach of answering a series of "essay questions" means the book lacks structure and overall thrust. Nonetheless notably strong in analysing the economic aspects of the conflict.… (more)


Local notes

Signed by author. Dust jacket covered.
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