The Pity of War

The Pity of War

The Pity of War

The Pity of War

Synopsis

In The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson makes a simple and provocative argument: that the human atrocity known as the Great War was entirely England's fault. Britain, according to Ferguson, entered into war based on naïve assumptions of German aims—and England's entry into the war transformed a Continental conflict into a world war, which they then badly mishandled, necessitating American involvement. The war was not inevitable, Ferguson argues, but rather 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, inhuman,is memorialized in part by the poetry of men like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but also by cold statistics. More British soldiers were killed in the first day of the Battle of the Somme than Americans in the Vietnam War; indeed, the total British fatalities in that single battle—some 420,000—exceeds the entire American fatalities for both World Wars. And yet, as Ferguson writes, while the war itself was a disastrous folly, the great majority of men who fought it did so with enthusiasm. Ferguson vividly brings back to life this terrifying period, not through dry citation of chronological chapter and verse but through a series of brilliant chapters focusing on key ways in which we now view the First World War.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 nor more stimulating guide than Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War.

Excerpt

John Gilmour Ferguson had just turned sixteen when the First World War broke out. The recruiting sergeant believed him—or chose to—when he lied about his age, but before the formalities of enlistment could be completed his mother arrived and dragged him home. If the boy from Fife feared at that moment that he might miss the action, however, his anxiety was unjustified. By the time he was allowed to join up the following year, any idea that the war would be a short one had been dispelled. After the usual months of training, he was sent to the trenches as a private (serial number S/22933) in the 2nd Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, part of the 26th Brigade in the 9th Division of the British Expeditionary Force. He was one of 557,618 Scots who enlisted in the British army during the First World War. Of these, more than a quarter—26.4 per cent—lost their lives. Only the Serbian and Turkish armies sustained such severe casualties.

My grandfather was one of the lucky 73.6 per cent. He was shot through the shoulder by a sniper whose bullet would certainly have killed him if it had struck a few inches lower. He survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage. His most vivid recollection of the war—or at least the one he related to his son—was of a German attack. As the enemy troops ran towards his trench, he and his comrades fixed bayonets and prepared for the order to go 'over the top'. At the last moment, however, the command was given to the Cameronians further down the line. So heavy were the casualties in the ensuing engagement that he felt sure he would have died if the order had been given to the Seaforths.

Not many records survive of John Ferguson's war. Like the overwhelming majority of the millions of men who fought in the First World War, he published neither poems nor memoirs. Nor have his letters home survived. His service file remains inaccessible and the regimental records offer only the barest informa-

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