Review of “The Myth of the Great War” by John Mosier

In The Myth of the Great War, John Mosier seeks to dispel several views held by historians about WWI. He shows that the Germans were invariably more successful on the battlefield than either the British or the French, even though Germany lost the war. He concludes that were it not for the influx of money, explosives, and men from the United States, the Allies could never have won. He contends “the myth” that the British and French essentially won the war came about because the allied professional soldiers did not tell their respective publics, or even their political superiors, what was really happening.

Mosier avers that the striking success of the Germans in the early part of WWII should be attributed not only to the achievements of the German Army of 1914, but to an equal extent, the foolhardiness of Germany’s adversaries.

WWI was unusual in that it was the first war in which the majority of combat deaths were caused by artillery, not by small arms fire. The Germans suffered far fewer combat deaths than did the British because of superior tactics and training. They seldom if ever launched the kind of massed suicidal attacks that were standard British tactics, but rather, fought more on the defensive. They also used mortars and heavy artillery to a greater extent than did the Allies.

France’s army on the eve of WWI was weak because of lack of central command, underfunding, poor doctrine, and lousy tactics. French doctrine posited that battles would be won by bayonets! At war’s end, casualties caused by edged weapons were less than one quarter of one percent of total casualties. Increasing numbers of soldiers with machine guns could mow down any infantry wielding bayonets.

French WWI Bayonet Charge

French WWI Bayonet Charge

The Germans knew they would be greatly outnumbered, but they had a big advantage in firepower. They had much heavier artillery pieces and could fire them at a much higher trajectory. In the first month of the war, the Germans swept through Belgium without any real infantry engagements—their artillery reduced the Belgian forts to rubble, and the forts simply surrendered. The army marched into northern France, then turned southeast in an effort to surround two French armies and pinch off Verdun from Paris. But the Germans found themselves overextended, and so drew back to a defensible position north of Paris. The so-called Battle of the Marne was hardly a battle at all: the Germans had simply abandoned the position near the Marne to take an entrenched position along a more northerly ridge.

In the first half of 1915, a German engineer-general, Bruno von Mudra, developed tactics for seizing terrain at relatively low cost. It started with an intense, but short, bombardment, followed by small groups of men attacking with flamethrowers, pistols, and grenades. The French, by contrast, attempted large scale assaults, involving hundreds of thousands of men over a large segment of the front. The French typically gained a few hundred yards at the cost of tens of thousands of men. The Germans typically gained a few hundred yards at the cost of dozens of men. French Chief of Staff Joseph Joffre thought the French could overwhelm the Germans by sheer numbers. He was mistaken because the Germans had greater firepower and did not need superior numbers.

French Chief of Staff Joseph Joffre

On July 1, 1916, the British and French launched the Battle of the Somme, a massacre in which they sustained about 700,000 casualties (compared to 250,000 for the Germans) and gained about 200 square kilometers. The British tactics were especially suicidal, using waves of infantry walking slowly in formation, carrying over 40 pounds of provisions per man.

The year ended with the British launching another semi-suicidal attack at Cambrai. The initial result was the gain of a few kilometers of ground and the announcement to the home government of a great victory. However, the Germans, as usual, held back their troops until the British had exhausted their charge, then counter-attacked successfully, driving the British back to their original start line.

In 1917, the Germans switched to the offensive, hoping to knock the British and the French out of the war before the Americans could arrive with a whole new army. Mosier sees the years 1917-18 as a great race between Germany and the U.S.A.

The Germans launched a great offensive in March 1918 and almost destroyed the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders. They were stopped by French reserves, however. The Germans then attacked farther east and south, but there ran into the Americans, who fought exceptionally well and defeated them at Belleau Wood. For the first time, the Germans did not dominate the battlefield. Shortly thereafter, the Americans took back territory the French had been unable to take for the last four years of fighting.

American Expeditionary Forces Commander-in-Chief John J. Pershing

The German general staff realized that the American army would probably prevail. Their government contacted President Wilson directly, and said it would be willing to stop the war based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The German army was still intact and on French and Belgian soil. Mosier argues that the Allies wanted to continue with the war, but they knew the Americans held all the cards. He writes, “The Allies caved in. … Suddenly, the Great War was over. Peace had broken out.”

Evaluation: Mosier, an English professor, is an amateur historian who relies on secondary sources for his analyses. He tends to focus on the operational level of war, and his observations on the course of individual battles are generally sound. But he lacks an understanding of the political milieu in which the war was fought. Nor is he willing to broaden his conceptual lenses to admit evidence that contravenes his uninformed theories. It is true the British were reluctant to give up the old tactics of war that worked so well in the past but proved woefully inappropriate in modern settings with advances in weaponry. Nevertheless, Mosier’s theory about the sudden collapse of the German army in the face of the American threat is simply inaccurate. This ignores the effects of the British blockade, to name just one significant factor, which led to the sinking of German ships carrying nitrates for explosives and fertilizer for farmers, the starvation of German citizens (a fifth of all the calories consumed in Germany before the war had come from abroad), and diminution of support for the war by the German public. Other factors were in play as well; Mosier’s alternative interpretation of history is just too simplistic to hold up in the complex light of reality.

Maps and pictures are included in the book. Recommended for details of battles, but not for the theoretical scaffolding in which Mosier places them.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Harper, 2001

Advertisements

April 21, 1938 – FDR Speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution

On this day in history, President Franklin Roosevelt returned to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) for a speech for the fifth time.

He told them:

I thought of preaching on a text, but I shall not. I shall only give you the text and I shall not preach on it. . . .

The text is this: Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

You can read the full text of his remarks here.

Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938

Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938

April 19, 1951 – General Douglas MacArthur’s Farewell Address to Congress

Douglas MacArthur (1880 – 1964) was an American five-star general and field marshal of the Philippine Army, for which he received the Medal of Honor. He was Chief of Staff of the United States Army during the 1930s and played a prominent role in the Pacific theater during World War II. He was one of only five men ever to rise to the rank of General of the Army in the US Army.

MacArthur in Manila, Philippines c. 1945, smoking his signature corncob pipe

MacArthur in Manila, Philippines c. 1945, smoking his signature corncob pipe

It was MacArthur who, aboard the USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay, officially accepted Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945. He then oversaw the occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1951. He led the United Nations Command in the Korean War until he was removed from command by President Harry S. Truman on April 11, 1951.

In a 1973 article in “Time Magazine,” Truman was quoted as saying in the early 1960s:

I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”

MacArthur’s firing led to a storm of public controversy; polls showed that the majority of the public disapproved of the decision to relieve MacArthur. Beginning on May 3, 1951, a Joint Senate Committee—chaired by Democrat Richard Russell, Jr.—investigated MacArthur’s removal. It concluded that “the removal of General MacArthur was within the constitutional powers of the President but the circumstances were a shock to national pride.”

MacArthur in 1951

MacArthur in 1951

On this day in history, MacArthur made his last official appearance in a farewell address to the U.S. Congress, defending his side of his disagreement with Truman over the conduct of the Korean War. During his speech, he was interrupted by fifty ovations. In his speech regularly ranked as one of the top 100 American Speeches of the Twentieth Century, MacArthur concluded with:

I am closing my 52 years of military service. When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all of my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that ‘old soldiers never die; they just fade away.’

And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.

Good Bye.”

You can read the full text of his farewell address here.

April 14, 1947 – Landmark District Court Case of Westminster School Dist. of Orange County v. Mendez re Segregation

Historically, Hispanic children were segregated from Anglo children in many public school districts in the southwestern states. The legal struggle in the courts to rectify that segregation took several interesting turns as it (1) influenced, and (2) was influenced by, the litigation efforts by blacks to end racial segregation in the public schools.

A landmark case in the struggle for equality was Westminster School Dist. of Orange County et al. v. Mendez et al. (161 F.2d 774, 9th Circuit), decided April 14, 1947. This book for children tells that story from the point of view of young Sylvia Mendez.

Sylvia Mendez was born in 1936 to a Mexican immigrant father and a Puerto Rican immigrant mother. When Sylvia was eight, her aunt took her, her siblings, and her nephews and tried to enroll the children in the “whites-only” school because it was superior to the ill-equipped wooden shack for Hispanic students. Sylvia’s aunt was told by school officials that her children, who had light skin, would be permitted to enroll, but that Sylvia and her brothers, who had darker skin and a Hispanic surname, could not enroll.

Sylvia’s father, aided by civil rights attorney David Marcus, began a community movement to file a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles against four Orange County school districts — Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and El Modena (now eastern Orange) — on behalf of about 5,000 Hispanic-American school children.

Sylvia Mendez as a child

The trial court found that segregation of Hispanic children violated the 14th Amendment. Tonatiuh reviews why the judge found in favor of the plaintiffs, which I greatly admire: I think it is an excellent practice to treat children with the respect of explaining adult subjects to them, especially in ways they will be able to understand.

Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, the defendant school districts appealed, arguing that the plaintiffs had not stated a federal cause of action; since they were not authorized by California law to segregate the students, they were not acting within their authorized powers “as the state,” and hence were not covered by the 14th amendment. [The author does not go into this much technical detail in his book.] In any event, The Ninth Circuit disagreed, and again ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Thereafter, then California Governor Earl Warren signed a law stating that all children in California were allowed to go to school together, regardless of race, ethnicity, or language.

trial

[Later, when Earl Warren was serving as Chief Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, he heard the case Brown v. Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney, used the arguments developed for Mendez v. Westminster to argue the Brown case. ]

At this point, the story in the book ends, with Sylvia’s mother advising Sylvia that when she returned to the school that initially rejected her, she should hold her head high:

Looking around, she saw that other children were smiling at her. By the end of the day, she had made a friend. And by the end of the school year, she had made many friends of different backgrounds. She knew that her family had fought for that.”

In the Author’s Note that follows the story, Tonatiuh does mention, again to his great credit, that while the Mendez case applied to de jure segregation, it did not apply to de facto segregation, which has actually increased, because of rigidly segregated residential subdivisions, in a development with similar consequences for African-American students. Today, Latino and black students are more likely than ever to be attending segregated schools, largely a function of the composition of the areas in which they live, which in turn is strongly affected by poverty. See research reported by The Civil Rights Project and researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (now located at UCLA where you can find updates to the Harvard research), noting that:

Latinos, who are fast becoming the largest minority group in the country, attend the most severely segregated schools. Latino segregation has been increasing ever since data was first collected in the 1960s….”

Similarly,Tonatiuh cites a 2013 study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA reporting that “43 percent of Latino students and 38 percent of black students attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white.”

As the author writes:

The Mendez family went to court almost seventy years ago, but their fight is relevant today. As the education specialists in the trial argued, the segregation of children creates feelings of superiority in one group and inferiority in another. We need to be able to interact and mingle so that prejudices break down, so that we can learn from one another, and so that everyone has a fair shot at success.”

Not to mention that schools in poorer districts have a marked dearth of resources and good teachers. The Harvard Civil Rights Project study linked to above finds that “Poverty is linked to lower educational achievement, and racially segregated schools for all groups except whites are almost always schools with high concentrations of poverty.”

That study cites the hostile political environment (and that was in 1999!) observing:

Forty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education declared “separate but equal” as “inherently unequal,” segregation continues to produce unequal educational opportunities, particularly for low-income minority students. . . . In a time when the country is rapidly growing and becoming more diverse, it is important that the nation’s schools reflect this diversity. The immense gains of the civil rights movement cannot be taken for granted. As difficult as progress was to achieve, without a strong national policy supportive of desegregation, it is just as easily rolled back.”

More recent updates on the increasing segregation of schools can be found here, with the LA Times observing “Some 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, a series of key Supreme Court decisions have dramatically reduced the number of implementation methods available to communities engaged in school desegregation.” U.S. News points to “A New Culprit in School Segregation? Private Schools.” There is also the problem as Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times Magazine writer and recipient of a prestigious “genius grant,” recently stated: “Schools are segregated because white people want them that way. … We won’t fix this problem until we really wrestle with that fact.”

Tonatiuh ends by stating his hope that children learn about the background of civil rights and that “this book will help children . . . realize that their voices are valuable and that they too can make meaningful contributions to this country.”

RGB_SylviaMendez_INT_32large

Evaluation: This book gives children an intelligent and well-constructed look at the fight for equal rights, while also showing that the battle rights is not just relevant for African-Americans. With the increase in (overt) nativism abetted by the American president himself, the message in this book is all the more important. In addition, the mesmerizing illustrations will teach something about folk art and its ability to convey the truth of a story in spite of its lack of realism. Recommended for all ages.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Abrams, 2014

April 13, 1743 – Jefferson’s Birthdate & Review of Jefferson’s Pillow by Roger Wilkins

I loved this book. Wilkins, former Afro-American historian at Virginia’s George Mason University, looks back at the achievements of four Virginian founding fathers – George Mason, George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson – in light of their inability to divest themselves of slaves or even push for the abolition of slavery, all the while touting the virtues of liberty.

777281

Rather than adhering to a dry academic approach, Wilkins welcomes you into his own world to share with you his private thoughts and his personal history as well as his insightful analyses. His descriptions of the complexities of the Founders are masterful.

George Mason, he observes, “ruled as a sovereign over an estate that depended, in virtually all respects, upon the perpetual subordination of the people whose freedom, labor, hope, and natural rights he was stealing.” Slaves were even required to kneel when they spoke to him. Yet Mason was a staunch abolitionist.

Washington, who decreed that his slaves should be freed after the death of both him and his wife, “was a disciplined member of the landed gentry. The aristocrat could be haughty and distant and overly fond of pomp. He could also be worshipful of wealth and jealous of his property – including his human property.”

Madison is famous of course for favoring any compromise that would keep the South tied to the North.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Of Jefferson, Wilkins notes: “[he] was a rather dreamy and self-indulgent rural aristocrat…” His slaves “gave him the leisure to study, to reflect, and to write.” …And also, to bear additional children, who, borne by slave Sally Hemings, were among the only slaves Jefferson freed upon his death. At the time Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he owned more than one hundred slaves. Many of Jefferson’s best ideas were rephrasings of Mason’s writing, but Wilkins finds no fault with this: “He didn’t have to be original; it was the elegance of his prose, fueled by his passion, that moved human spirits and made him immortal.” Wilkins writes, “He was a dizzying mixture of searing brilliance and infuriating self-indulgence, of idealism and base racism, of soaring patriotism and myopic self-involvement. He was America writ small.”

The founding generation was obsessed with the possibility of retaliatory violence from the slaves, and for good reason. Wilkins describes the conditions of eighteenth century slaves, including his own relatives, and takes us with him on his journey to reconcile his sorrow and anger with his pride and patriotism. He charges that the myths tying American virtue to American whiteness have wrought profound psychological damage on African-Americans, which Wilkins believes must be rectified.

Wilkins also explores the addiction of privilege, and how it could have easily afflicted the Founders. They themselves were all too aware of human weaknesses, but these do not gainsay the amazing accomplishments of these men.

Evaluation: If you are seeking a better understanding of how our Founding Fathers could be so favored and so flawed, and what our country owes to the contributions of the slaves who helped build it, this book will not disappoint. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Beacon Press, 2001

April 10, 1956 – Birmingham, Alabama Racists Attack Nat King Cole on Stage

Nat King Cole

On this day in history, popular African-American singer Nat King Cole was attacked and beaten by a mob of racists while performing on stage in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham was very segregated, so Cole had two shows scheduled – an early show for whites, and a later show for blacks. According to an eye-witness, during the first show, four white men ran to the stage and started attacking Cole. Police rushed in and grabbed them. Cole was slightly injured in the fracas and considerably shaken up; he was taken to the hospital so could not perform for the second show. The witness reported:

Later, we learned from newspaper accounts that the four racists who launched the attack were local Klan members who cooked up this plan. They did some jail time for assault and battery or some such minor charge. The Birmingham police apparently had been tipped off that there might be trouble at the concert and were stationed backstage.”

Later in the year, on November 5, 1956, Cole launched a weekly television show on NBC television, making him the first African-American to host his or her own show on a major national network. From 1956-57, Cole hosted some of the most revered names in jazz and pop on his NBC series: Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mercer, Mel Tormé and Peggy Lee, among others. Many television stations in the South, however, refused to carry the show.

April 6, 1862 – Battle of Shiloh Begins

The Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was a major battle in the Western Theater of the American Civil War, fought on April 6 and 7, 1862 in southwestern Tennessee.

shilohanim

The Confederates under General Sidney Johnston had massed 42,000 men at Corinth, Mississippi. Meanwhile, Union Commander Henry Halleck sent Ulysses S. Grant to Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River, twenty miles north of Corinth, and ordered Don Buell to join him there with additional troops. Combined, they would have 75,000 men. As James McPherson writes in Battle Cry of Freedom, Grant should have been prepared but he was not: “Once again, he focused his mind so intently on plans for attacking the rebels that he could spare no thoughts for what the rebels might be planning to do to him.” Thus, Grant’s men did not prepare any defensive lines. Their picket posts and patrols were inadequate. William Sherman was also overconfident, saying “[Confederate General] Beauregard is not such a fool as to leave his base of operations and attack us in ours.”

51iejxjfy0l

Against all odds, the Confederates achieved a surprise, and early on the morning of April 6, thousands of screaming rebels burst out of the woods near Grant’s encampment at Shiloh Church. It appeared at first as though the rebels would win, but Grant was finally reinforced with Buell, and with fresh troops and more men, the Yankees beat the rebels back.

The number of killed and wounded at Shiloh was nearly double the casualties of previous battles combined. Before Shiloh, both Grant and Sherman thought the Civil War would be over quickly. After Shiloh, Grant “gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”

In the book Confederates In the Attic by Tony Horwitz, the author tours around various Civil War battlefields, and picks up some fascinating information from the park historians he meets about what really happened on the fields of battle.

067975833x01lzzzzzzzgif

At Shiloh in particular, what he finds out is extremely interesting. He spoke with Paul Hawke, a park historian trained in physical anthropology. Hawke observed that “[t]raditional historians tend to ignore the best primary source out there – the ground. If you read it right, you realize a lot of the written history is simply wrong.”

For example, most history books describe Shiloh during the battle as a thicket of impenetrable spring woods. But Allen studied old weather charts and farm records and discovered that spring came to Shiloh very late in 1862, and most of the trees were still bare. He suggests that the confusion at the battle was probably more due to smoke, dust, and poor maps than to dense trees.

Furthermore, after the two-day fight, Grant ordered the dead of both armies buried in mass graves right where they fell. What Allen discovered to his surprise was that no burial trenches had been found near the “Hornet’s Nest,” where a group of Union defenders supposedly held the line against repeated onslaughts and turned the battle. He then did time and motion studies of units that claimed to have fought in and around the Nest and concluded that many of them couldn’t possibly have been where they claimed they were. Also, the casualty rates for these units were comparatively light.

Hornet's Nest

Hornet's Nest

What does all this mean? Allen believes there are several reasons for the stories about the Hornet’s Nest. One is that the men there could not see the rest of the battlefield. They may have felt like they fought the battle all on their own. A second is that many of them became prisoners of war, and had months to talk over the battle and firm up, to their minds, what happened. They also formed a veteran’s group after the war called the Hornet’s Nest Brigade led by their commanding officer who had become an influential politician. “He was eager to foster the impression that the Hornet’s Nest and his role there were crucial to the battle,” Allen said. ‘He played it up big, particularly later in life.’”

So gradually, reports Horwitz, the myth grew, until the Hornet’s Nest became the battle’s turning point. Allen said to Horwitz, “Grant once said that Shiloh was the most misunderstood battle of the Civil War. It’s taken me awhile to grasp how true that was.”

There are many more interesting vignettes and insights into battles in this delightful book. It’s not by any means a complete history of the Civil War, but rather a series of “dispatches” as Horwitz follows Civil War reenactors around the country. Highly recommended!