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  #1  
Old 20 January 2014, 02:30 PM
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Default Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked

With the commemoration of World War I looming large at present, and with a lot of debate about how it should be remembered, here is a timely reminder of some myths about World War I, although a few are stretching things a bit.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25776836

Quote:
Much of what we think we know about the 1914-18 conflict is wrong, writes historian Dan Snow. No war in history attracts more controversy and myth than World War One."]Much of what we think we know about the 1914-18 conflict is wrong, writes historian Dan Snow. No war in history attracts more controversy and myth than World War One.
A lot of this is taken from Richard Holmes' book 'Tommy', but nevertheless an interesting list.
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  #2  
Old 20 January 2014, 03:32 PM
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2. Most soldiers died

In the UK around six million men were mobilised, and of those just over 700,000 were killed. That's around 11.5%.

In fact, as a British soldier you were more likely to die during the Crimean War (1853-56) than in WW1.
That's a bit disingenuous. It treats someone who enlisted in August 1914 and saw frontline service the same as someone who enlisted in November 1918 as a clerk and never even had a chance to make it across the channel or overseas before the war ended. I don't think many people argue that everyone who was ever called up was sent out to die right away, but I'd be curious to know how good the odds were for someone in service at the start of the war to survive until the end. In the Crimea, owing to distance and the greater difficulties in transporting large bodies of men over those distances at the time, I'd be surprised if there were many replacements at all. Conversely, in WWI, soldiers on the Western front could practically walk from most countries, perhaps with a relatively short boat ride along the way.

It's similarly difficult to put a proper perspective on more recent wars because, unlike WWII and earlier, the US (yeah, I know, the OP is talking about the UK) has typically rotated its personnel out after a year. So you might have a million or more veterans of a war, but only a couple hundred thousand or fewer actively involved at any one time. If you water it down even more by counting people who never even served in the war-zone in the total number then you dilute the human toll, as witnessed by those who served in the warzone while they were serving in the warzone, even more.
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Old 20 January 2014, 08:11 PM
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Indeed ASL. The 11% death rate is far lower than many expect - when I ask people their estimates for dead range from 60% to 90%. For every soldier/sailor/airman in the front line there were three or four behind whose main danger - to quote a talk at an English Heritage event - was a paper cut.

The British Army did rotate their staff and soldiers were rarely in the front line for more than a week before being pulled back - sometimes for months. An excellent read is For Love and ourage by Lt. Colonel E. W. Hermon. He wrote home almost every days and his letters from 1914 to 1917 (when he was killed by a sheer fluke) show, very wittily, the long periods of lack of action. At one point he even accepts a desk job for a few months to see some action! On another occasion he runs a training school for shooting and throwing grenades (even though he was in the cavalry).

As the same bloke who gave me the paper cut quote said, 'For 80% of the time you were bored stiff, for 19% of the time you were frozen stiff and for 1% of the time you were scared stiff'. Not surprisingly he is often used by television companies when documentaries are being made about WWI or WWII.

As for the Crimean - yes a greater percentage of men did die, even though the fighting was less intense. However many of these were from illness, cold and from infection from not very serious wounds. Even after a certain lady made various reforms hospitals in the Crimean War were deadly.
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Old 20 January 2014, 08:37 PM
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9. The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh

This one is a bit hard to take fully as a myth. The "War Guilt" Clause of the treaty was politically a harsh clause forcing Germany to accept responsibility for starting the war, when it was clear that they had not.

Secondly, even as it was being signed, there were many in the public eye, including the British representative John Maynard Keynes, that declared the treaty to be too harsh against Germany. Granted, harsh is a relative and subjective term, but it can be forgivable if this myth persists as it was being discussed at that time as such.

4. The upper class got off lightly

I remember when I was living in the UK, there was a minor "controversy" about this. There was a display at the Imperial War Museum and in the display was the casualty figures by rank. And, it turns out that for every 1000 privates that were killed/wounded during the war, there was 1 colonel killed/wounded. This "proved" that the officers sent the men out to die. (this was particularly set off by the photo that accompanied the display where a colonel with his full coat on was seen walking through the mud. That coat must have weighed about 30 kilos as he waddled around. But there were no photos of privates at this particular display.)

The response was quite elegant. For every 1 colonel in the army, there were 5000 privates. So, the colonels were dying/wounded at a rate 5 times higher than the privates. It then went on to state that no one rank level was sacrificed at a considerably higher rate than any other.
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Old 20 January 2014, 09:14 PM
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The "War Guilt" Clause of the treaty was politically a harsh clause forcing Germany to accept responsibility for starting the war, when it was clear that they had not.
Really? If they didn't, who did?
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Old 20 January 2014, 09:22 PM
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Gavrilo Princip?
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Old 20 January 2014, 09:50 PM
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Really? If they didn't, who did?
Austro-Hungarian's invasion of Serbia? Germany invaded Belgium and Luxembourg after that but if the Germans had delayed a couple weeks they probably would have been attacked by the Russians first. Regardless, I think the war had started before the first German troops went into action.
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Old 20 January 2014, 10:23 PM
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Really? If they didn't, who did?
It's been a while since I've read The Guns of August, but from my recollection, and the contemporary accounts, the Germans only attacked in sympathy with the Austro-Hungarians who had already mobilised and pushed southwards.
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Old 20 January 2014, 09:47 PM
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Originally Posted by UEL View Post
9. The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh

This one is a bit hard to take fully as a myth. The "War Guilt" Clause of the treaty was politically a harsh clause forcing Germany to accept responsibility for starting the war, when it was clear that they had not.

Secondly, even as it was being signed, there were many in the public eye, including the British representative John Maynard Keynes, that declared the treaty to be too harsh against Germany. Granted, harsh is a relative and subjective term, but it can be forgivable if this myth persists as it was being discussed at that time as such.

4. The upper class got off lightly

...

The response was quite elegant. For every 1 colonel in the army, there were 5000 privates. So, the colonels were dying/wounded at a rate 5 times higher than the privates. It then went on to state that no one rank level was sacrificed at a considerably higher rate than any other.
I have had a quick look through Richard Holmes' book Tommy and I cannot find the exact figures. However he says that about 300 generals of all ranks (i.e. including Lieutenant Generals, etc) were killed and about 50 full generals. This was a similar percentage killed compared to privates. He states that a far higher proportion of these generals were killed by direct fire - i.e. bullets rather than shells. The figures were something like 35% of privates were killed by direct fire (about 40% were killed indirectly by shells). For generals killed about 65% of them were killed by direct fire - i.e. they were in the front line.

This can partly be explained by them wearing their 'bling' at the start of the war making them a target for snipers. So many generals were being killed at the start of the war that there was a fear of there not enough competent people to replace them. This was why they wore plainer uniforms when at the front line and also why they were mainly stationed some way behind the front lines.
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Old 21 January 2014, 09:05 AM
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Indeed ASL. The 11% death rate is far lower than many expect - when I ask people their estimates for dead range from 60% to 90%.
Really? I was thinking that the myth he was debunking in that one was a bit of a straw man because nobody would really think that more than half of all combatants were killed overall. That doesn't apply even to the most deadly battles.

This is a much more balanced list than the book I sometimes complain about (not Tommy) which also claims to be debunking myths but comes across as a Gove-style apologia. I didn't know some of these.

I still have trouble with the last one - that many people enjoyed the war - though. That was one of my main issues with the other book too; he made it sound like a holiday camp in which the only people who didn't enjoy it were a bunch of oversensitive poets who shouldn't have come to the war in the first place if they felt like that. (Never mind that they had little choice). I find that a dangerous attitude. The list above is less extreme, but it still comes across to me as, "What do you mean? We had a great time during the 29 days of the month when we weren't watching our friends blown to pieces and dying in agony!"
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Old 21 January 2014, 10:31 AM
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Really? I was thinking that the myth he was debunking in that one was a bit of a straw man because nobody would really think that more than half of all combatants were killed overall. That doesn't apply even to the most deadly battles.
I first learnt the 11% figure at an English heritage event with a talk given by the man who I quoted from later. We were queuing to enter the recreated trench system at the event and he took a straw poll amongst us (and there were about 1,000 or more there) about the figures. Most figures were from 60% to 80% (and a lot of these people were at the event because they were interested in the period). He did mislead people slightly when someone suggested 30%. He looked at him quizzically and said, 'Really?' I thought it was about 20%, but was too afraid to say.

Quote:
I still have trouble with the last one - that many people enjoyed the war - though.
I agree, for the reasons that you gave. It depends what you mean by 'many'. Is 10,000 out of 6,000,000 'many'? In some ways it was a good war (for the reasons Dan Snow gives). However, listening to a lot of the veterans from the war if asked most would say that they would rather not have fought in it. In the book 'For Love and Courage' I mentioned earlier the officer has a good war (until killed!) and really enjoys the sports he played (especially the equestrian ones), the food, the camaraderie and so on. His main regret is not seeing his family very often (he only had two or three leaves in the three years he fought) and one of his main concerns is the poor spelling of his oldest daughter! (The other, by the way, is one of his relatives who refuses to join up. He is worried about the disgrace it would bring on the family.)
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