Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

The whole story

Sir: Correlli Barnett is absolutely right to write that discussion of the Great War of 1914 to 1918, or, to be accurate, to October 1922, has never really begun in Britain (`Oh what a whingeing war!', 18 January). Even if the borders of discussion are allowed to be those set by the BBC in its undoubtedly inadequate new series, a version that begins with the absurd statement that `the Great War was born with the mobilisation of Britain' is obviously going to be largely fiction. But is the public, is Mr Barnett, prepared to have the whole story told? Even if we stick to the Western Front, we shall have to explain the origin of the Schlieffen Plan of 1905, the partial success of which left 'a great swathe of northern France' in German occupation. The Schlieffen Plan was worked out to reply - it was not secret - to the growing war propaganda by France over German possession of AlsaceLorraine, and the war began in the first days of August 1914 in the West with the French attack on what was then the German frontier. The enemy answered by putting the Schlieffen Plan into action and crossing the Belgian frontier. The British then declared war. By the end of 1914 the entire front from Mulhouse-Basle to the French Channel coast was locked fast. In all history, since the Romans began records, this had never happened. Why did it happen in 1914? Because the Russian part of the Triple Entente suffered strategic defeats; first in its attack on Prussia (the promised steam-roller) and again in the following February in the battle of Masuria. A third strategic Russian defeat to its naval and land forces in the Black Sea area finished the great collapse of Russia. That disaster issued first in the Anglo-French combined forces, defeat at the Dardanelles and Gallipoli and then in the Russian revolutions.

Nor did Allied victory liquidate the prewar menace of German power, as Mr Barnett claims to believe, although I know he knows better. On the contrary, the Allied victory by naval blockade led directly to the horrible aberration of Nazism and the second world war.

By all means let us have the whole history of this century out. But I doubt if the editor of The Spectator really wants that.

Sarah Gainham Schlosspark, Four, Petronell, Austria

Sir: Correlli Barnett's review of `the latest BBC series on 1914-18' is deplorable on two counts. (It needs to be pointed out that, on three occasions in his review, he exempts one of the authors of this letter from his strictures. This might be cause for self-congratulation on some occasions, but not on this.)

First, Barnett's review contains a tirade against the television series for trotting out demode views. He then goes out of his way to embrace some very outworn judgments: for example, that Haig's Passchendaele campaign was in good measure occasioned by mutinies in the French army; and (heaven help us!) that `the central strategic debate' of the Great War was the controversy `between Westerners and Easterners'. Do opinions get more old-hat than these?

Secondly, and quite deplorably, Barnett indulges in a sneering reference to the `apparent anchor man' of the television series, whom he dismisses (as if totally unacquainted with recent Great War historiography) as 'a Dr Jay Winter of Pembroke College, Cambridge'. He even mocks Dr Winter's American origins, a form of mindless parochialism which some of us had imagined had at last departed the English academic scene.

We wish to point out that Dr Winter is the author, among a great range of noteworthy contributions, of deeply researched and profoundly rewarding studies of the first world war, most notably The Great War and the British People, for which any scholar still working in this area has cause to be grateful. We are not aware that, as far as the Great War is concerned, Correlli Barnett has aspired to produce a work of this depth or quality.

Trevor Wilson Robin Prior Australian Defence Force Academy University of Adelaide, Department of History, Adelaide, South Australia

Salt of the earth

Sir: Your `Media studies' correspondent (1 February) writes some kind things about me in order to say very unkind things about my editor, and friend, Max Hastings. …

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