The victors always write the history, and never more so than the history of the First World War. The legacy of the history has perhaps been almost as traumatic as the legacy of the war itself with so much written to be little more than self-serving justification.
The ‘revisionist’ movement of historians perhaps began with the early writings of John Terraine and the late Paddy Griffiths, both of them more interested in looking at the primary sources than in repeating the ‘perceived wisdom’ that had preceded their own writings. And so it is with perhaps some of the most recent material that is now being published.
The most recent to hit my bookshelves is “The German Army at Ypres 1914” by Jack Sheldon (Pen and Sword 2010, ISBN 978 1 84884 1130). Sheldon’s most recent offering is perhaps the history that should have been written so many years ago, using many primary German sources for what may well be the first time. So much German archive material was lost in the allied bombing of 1944/45, but Sheldon has delved into the untouched Bavarian archives, and a great deal more, to piece together a work that is not only analytical and critical, but also, by using a great deal of letter and diary material, offers a deeply personal and moving insight into the trials and agonies of the German soldier in those months of 1914.
Sheldon can hardly be tarred with the brush of German apologist, offering as he does a critical and at times justifiably scathing analysis of the performance of the German High Command, documenting failings at many levels. The one thing he is never critical of however is the willingness of young German men to go forward, to do their duty as they saw it. In this they have everything in common with the young men of every nation, and in seeing them in this light they are less demonized and more humanized than they have perhaps been presented in any preceding history.
Much of the revisionist writing over recent decades has focused on debunking many of the myths that have been perpetuated in those first five decades after the war. Sheldon admirably continues this tradition, and one of the more delightful pieces comes with his debunking of the ‘Myth of Langemark’ which held that German soldiers marched forward singing ‘Deutchsland Deutchsland” to the accompaniment of regimental bands. In a footnote to the peuniultimate chapter ‘Endgame at Langemark’ Sheldon wryly notes:
“So we are invited to believe that on a battlefield, under heavy fire and when they are desperately needed at the front, a band of men stopped for some time to listen to a folksong, some dance music and military marches before joining in for a jolly old sing song round a miraculously surviving piano in the mud of a blasted village. Hmm.” (Page 313)
I grinned as I read this. I am something of a revisionist of the history of the First World War myself, but I hasten to add never an apologist. As with his earlier book ‘The German Army on the Somme 1914-1916’, Sheldon has made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the events of the battles and the men involved, and of the deep human tragedy that is warfare in general.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in the First World war.