Myth of the Great War: A New Military History of World War I

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Overview

Based on previously unused French and German sources, this challenging and controversial new analysis of the war on the Western front from 1914 to 1918 reveals how and why the Germans won the major battles with one-half to one-third fewer casualties than the Allies, and how American troops in 1918 saved the Allies from defeat and a negotiated peace with the Germans.

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The Myth of the Great War: A New Military History Of World War 1

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Overview

Based on previously unused French and German sources, this challenging and controversial new analysis of the war on the Western front from 1914 to 1918 reveals how and why the Germans won the major battles with one-half to one-third fewer casualties than the Allies, and how American troops in 1918 saved the Allies from defeat and a negotiated peace with the Germans.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
For generations, historians have agreed that the French and the British won World War I pretty much on their own. Yes, the United States entered the war, but it did so reluctantly, abandoning its neutrality and joining the Allies a full 30 months into the conflict. John Mosier has done some eye-opening research and is out to demolish some long-standing myths. According to him, the Germans had won every major battle decisively during the first four years of the war, and it was U.S. intervention that turned the tide.
H.W. Brands
Students of military history love to argue, and John Mosier gives them much to argue about. From armaments and tactics to strategy and politics, he challenges conventional wisdom and forces a rethinking of the war that inaugurated the modern era.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In reading and analyzing the great body of tactical and operational literature published by French soldiers and academicians in the interwar period, Loyola English professor and film critic Mosier, who is fluent in French, brings to light a perspective generally neglected by historians who prefer to tell the war's story from a German or British view. For most of WWI, Mosier reminds us, it was the French who held most of the front and did most of the dying. In contrast to the German army's systematic success at technical and tactical innovation, Mosier finds that French and British generals "solved" battlefield problems by throwing shells and bodies at them, then concealing the gruesome results from their governments and their people. Allied victory, he argues, depended on an American Expeditionary Force whose commander, Gen. John J. Pershing, saw through the pretensions of his counterparts in command, and insisted on fighting the war in his own way. While Mosier's argument is eloquently presented, scholars of the period will find it consistently spoiled by overstatement; the German army of WWI as described by most historians is nothing like the tempered and perfected instrument described in these pages, and Mosier's notion of Verdun as a German victory was not likely to be found in the ranks or the headquarters of the divisions who fought there. Still, this is the best narrative account in English of the Franco-German combat in central and in southern France from the aftermath of the Marne in 1914 to the end of Verdun in 1916. Buffs and scholars will take note, but the detailed maps, charts and technical focus will put off generalists. (May 3) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Forbes Magazine
An ever-present danger for politicians and business executives is believing their own spin. This is also true for commanders and politicians during wartime. This intriguing book, written by a literature professor turned military historian, tells how the British and French convinced themselves during WWI they were doing just fine on the battlefields. They thought the Germans were suffering even more catastrophic losses then they were; thus Berlin was always on the verge of collapse. Allied battlefields losses, in fact were two to three times those of Germany. The Allies constantly loss strategic pieces of real estate and fritted away elite forces trying to gain useless, oft-untakable objectives. Contrary to their self-image of being superbly able to mold citizens into first-rate soldiers, the British were astonishingly slower than the Germans in trench warfare. (29 Oct 2001)
—Steve Forbes
Library Journal
Mosier (English, Loyola Univ.) offers a scathing indictment of the Allied military mindset that caused so many senseless deaths on the Western Front during the Great War. For example, Mosier argues that it took the slaughter of thousands of infantrymen before the British and French commands tried to use artillery as an effective offensive weapon. Even then, Allied artillery bombardments never matched their opponents' effective use of heavy-caliber howitzers. Mosier points out that from the very beginning the German General Staff attempted to minimize losses by making firepower central to its offensive tactics. Consequently, German casualties were half those of the Allies. Blind adherence to antiquated military doctrines is not a new criticism of Allied generalship, but Mosier's original scholarship does offer a fresh perspective on an old theme. Recommended for public and academic libraries with strong military history collections. Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
This is a paperbound reprint of a 2001 book, about which Book News wrote: Coming from outside the field of history (he's a professor of English at Loyola U. in New Orleans), Mosier upends many widely held views of WWI, including the importance of the allies, the lack of military success of the Germans, and the negligible role of the Americans. He emphasizes as well the tendency of historians to misrepresent statistics and facts concerning casualties. Mosier stresses the central importance of the Battle of the Wo<:e>vre and the battle between France and Germany on the Western Front, making this an unusual history, one which will provoke controversy among historians and anyone interested in WWI. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A compelling and novel reassessment of WWI military history. It is said that truth is the first casualty of war, and Mosier makes it clear that this aphorism is a tragic understatement when applied to WWI. Historians have repeatedly attempted explicate the primary mystery of the conflict—namely, why the Allied commanders saw fit to transform the fields of Belgium and France into human abattoirs with their repeated and quixotic attacks against entrenched German positions. In the battle of the Somme, for example, the British suffered 60,000 dead and wounded in the course of two hours—in exchange for a few meters of strategically worthless ground. The author's answer to this mystery is simple, but abundantly supported: The French and British commands operated under the delusion that German casualties far outstripped their own, and that the next big offensive would knock Germany out of the war. In fact, German losses, although horrendous in their own right, never approached the militarily unsupportable levels endured by the French and the British. Mosier analyzes the major battles of the Western Front from the Marne to Belleau Wood and persuasively argues that the superiority of the Germans' heavy guns, combined with a greater tactical sophistication on the part of their commanders, kept their casualties lower than the Allies and brought them battlefield successes that eluded the French and British. The standard perception of WWI as a stalemate that ended because the Germans became exhausted first is thus overturned; Mosier firmly believes that slowly but surely Germany was winning the war and that the Allies were saved only by America's entry on the Allied side. This lastclaim is likely to be the most controversial, as many historians still tend to downplay the American contribution, but historians who disagree will be compelled at the very least to come to terms with his argument. A necessary addition to any serious collection of military or WWI history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060084332
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/28/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: First Perennial Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 231,739
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

John Mosier is the author of The Myth of the Great War. He is full professor of English at Loyola University in New Orleans, where, as chair of the English Department and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, he taught primarily European literature and film. His background as a military historian dates from his role in developing an interdisciplinary curriculum for the study of the two world wars, a program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. From 1989 to 1992 he edited the New Orleans Review. He lives in Jefferson, Louisiana.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

France and the Failures of National Defense, 1870-1914

An examination of the army before 1914 reveals that it was ruled
more by confusion than by logic, afflicted by institutional malfunctioning rather
than from the neat application of a coherent but
wrongheaded system of thought inspired by professional principles
and right-wing sentiments.... In the final analysis, the radical
Republic got the army it deserved....


Douglas Porch


The issues that determined how the Great War would be fought stemmed from the French war with Germany in 1870, the postwar responses to the defeat by the new French government, and the responses of the German Army to meet France's constantly shifting war plans. France's confused and volatile national defense policies forced the German military to adopt a set of weapons, a military doctrine, and a plan of action that determined how it would fight a future war.

On 19 July 1870, France declared war on Prussia, which immediately caused the German states allied with Prussia to declare war on France. Although France had forced the war on Prussia (something Bismarck had skillfully encouraged), and was thus the aggressor, the country had no coherent plan of action. Engels, writing in a London newspaper, pointed out that it hardly made any sense to declare war without then launching an invasion, but this is exactly what had happened .2

Three weeks after the French declaration of war, the French were still organizing at their frontier. The initial battles of early August were all fought right on the border, andmostly inside France: Wissembourg (the fourth), Wörth (the sixth), and Spicheren (the sixth). The French Army of the Northeast, defeated in all three engagements, retired in the direction of Châlons, a city located on the Marne River to the southeast of Reims. On the fifteenth, the French Army of the Center, based around Metz, was defeated at Vionville, and then, on the eighteenth, at Gravelotte, both small towns to the west of Metz.

The surviving French regrouped in Metz, waiting to be relieved. When the Germans defeated the relief forces on the thirtieth (at Beaumont), MacMahon left Bazaine to hold out in Metz, and withdrew to Sedan. There, in September 1870, he was wounded at the start of what both sides hoped would be the decisive battle of the war. Unlike Metz, Sedan is a city located in a bowl. Troops penned up there were helpless. The next day the emperor, Napoleon 111, was forced to surrender, along with most of what was left of France's army.

Broadly put, after 1870, France had three aims: to develop the capability to mount an effective defense of the frontier, to strengthen France militarily through alliances, and to develop a loyal and effective military. The initial effort was impressive. The first military planners of the Third Republic, of whom the military engineer Raymond-Adolphe Séré de Riviéres was the most important, sought to build a coherent policy of national defense for the new post-1870 frontier. Séré de Riviéres, who from 1872 to 1880 was France's minister of war, laid down the basic plans that would determine France's defense policy- a belt of fortifications that would protect the country from an invasion and allow France time to bring its armies onto the field. Over the next thirty years, starting with an appropriation of the then staggering sum of eighty-eight million francs in 1874, France poured an unprecedented amount of its resources into this project.' By 1914 there were over one hundred independent forts on the northeastern frontier alone, and the Belgians, under the direction of another brilliant engineering officer, Brialmont, had mounted a parallel effort that they felt would ensure their neutrality in the event of a future conflict: the three most strategically important Belgian cities (Namur, Liége, and Antwerp) were encircled by no less than forty forts.

The main forts were supplemented by dozens of small reinforced structures, called fortins or ouvrages, and carefully sited so as to dominate the terrain. The French encircled key cities that lay at critical transportation junctures with fortifications. From north to southeast, the cities of Lille, Maubeuge, Reims, Verdun, Toul, Épinal, and Belfort were, like the three Belgian cities, turned into what the French termed Places fortifiées, or fortified positions. A town like Verdun was the unfortified administrative center of a two-hundred-square-kilometer area protected by some twenty major forts and about twice that many smaller ouvrages.

The most important path into France lay along the Meuse River, which began in the Vosges Mountains down by Switzerland and ran up through France and Belgium into Holland. Major rail and road links ran alongside, and the river itself, with its connecting canals, was an important transportation artery. In Belgium, the fortified areas surrounding Liége and Namur sat astride the Meuse, as did Verdun. But from Verdun on down the river there were no fewer than twelve isolated forts on the heights of the Meuse, guarding the major crossings.

In addition, there were fortified towns and single forts stretching along the Belgian frontier from Lille to the new German frontier, and along that frontier down to Switzerland. The scheme of fortifications gave the Germans difficult choices. From the easternmost fort of Reims (Pompelle) to the westernmost fort of Verdun (Bois Bourrus) was only about forty kilometers, most of which was taken up by the Argonne Forest, a rough and dense tract of the sort European armies had traditionally avoided.

Below Verdun, there was another stretch between the river forts along the Meuse and the Moselle. But the French considered this area, the plain of the Woëvre, a swamp as unsuitable for maneuver as the Argonne. And from Épinal on down to Belfort, the forts formed a dense barrier. An invader (which could only be Germany) would either have to...

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Interviews & Essays

Author Essay
I do not expect to make friends with this book. Myth fundamentally challenges the accounts of two generations of distinguished historians -- among the best in the field -- arguing that their histories of the Great War are based on flawed premises, incomplete information, and dubious logic.

Slowly and painfully, over a dozen years of research, and through extensive field research, close examination of terrain, the casualty figures, and hundreds of neglected French and German accounts, mostly by veterans of the fighting, I have concluded that much of what we know about the First World War is simply and completely flat-out wrong. This book questions almost every received idea about this war, from the execution of the von Schlieffen plan to the combat at the Marne and Verdun to the great offensives at the end of the war. The conclusions are inescapable: The Allies were consistently beaten by the Germans and lied about the results.

A controversial book is often dismissed with the observation that what's new isn't true and what's true isn't new. In The Myth of the Great War, I've tried to retell the story of the First World War in a way that both conveys an often startlingly contrarian argument and engages the reader on a narrative level.

Previous histories of World War I give us only 15 percent of the story, focusing on the actions of the British Army on 70 miles of a 475-mile front. Myth is the first account in English of the fighting on the other 400 miles of the front. It relates major battles and bloody engagements never mentioned in any other history of the war. It also makes a rather bold statement: Without American aid and American soldiers, the Allies -- who lost virtually every battle -- would not have won the war.

My research has turned up surprising facts that run against the grain of the received history of the war: More than two Allied soldiers were killed for every German one; the Germans were much more successful in combat than the Allies; the Germans had better weapons, better training, and better tactics. I was dumbfounded by that, but the evidence from some of France's most distinguished officers is undeniable.

But, for me, the most fascinating discoveries were those showing how the Allies ignored the truth and believed their own propaganda, suppressing overwhelming evidence to the contrary and smearing their own experts as defeatists. As the death toll mounted, the need to believe in manufactured victories, to believe they were slaughtering their opponents, grew. I think readers will be surprised to find how much of what has been presented as historical truth is actually recycled Allied propaganda. I certainly was.

We need to reconsider our understanding of the Great War. Instead of seeing it as an exercise in futility, we need to see it as a fundamentally modern struggle that defined the century in ways that have not yet been adequately explored. The modern age began with a horrifyingly modern war. (John Mosier)

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 31, 2009

    The myth of the Great War is created in this book.

    Mosier does not rely on facts or historical research in telling his story. His very large number of mistakes and omissions point to the truth of the matter which is that he has a poor knowledge of the First World War.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2004

    'The Truth of the Great War' another appropriate title

    In all, it can be summed up as such: IF Germany was all the while in the process of 'losing' the First World War, it was not related to ground losses. As such, the charges of many that the German commanders were incompetant, and 'bungled from one disaster into another,' are entirely baseless...and in fact quite disconnected from the facts as they were occurring. As the author points out in the work, the Central Powers, with the German Army as the major player, not only contested but eliminated at least one major opposing power per year until the arrival of United States reinforcements turned the tide against them. From what this author has now explored through Mosier's work, the Allied blockade of German seaports was fantastically more successful than any ground offensive even remotely came to defeating Wilhelmian Germany...and even that 'Allied success at sea' remains somewhat suspect. I recommend this book to anyone interested in military history and political history, both from the standpoint of a revision of Germany's battlefield prowess and from a branching off point for future in-depth study of just how the British and French --democracies-- were so successful at propagandizing not only their citizenry, but the United States of America as well as even eventually themselves, into believing that they, unassisted, were on the cusp of total victory, rather than the complete opposite. Upon being enlightened by Mosier's material, this author can't help but theorize that the second war's German propoganda campaign, conducted by Josef Goebbels, not only now faces stiff competition for the title of most effective in history, but may have even learned something from the Allies during the first. A work for every serious collection.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2010

    Good and New Perspective

    Offers a new perspective on the Great War. Mosier provides much detail in building and supporting his arguments that the Germans were winning. However, when it comes to how the Americans saved the Allies, Mosier runs out of steam and doesn't close the sale. Even though the ending is less than satisfying this is a book worth reading.

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  • Posted November 11, 2009

    Mindblowing

    Until I read this book I bought into the same propaganda that our side had been spewing since 1914, but that's all over now. Now when I read the books I've got about the 1st World War, I find myself reading between the the lines and see that Mosier is very accurate. The fact that I didn't get that before is humbling. I've always been fascinated by this war as it set the stage for, and was the chief architect of the 20th Century. Seeing it now with some more open eyes, I'm even more fascinated. A VERY GOOD BOOK AND A VERY GOOD READ!!

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  • Posted August 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent recasting of WWI

    If your like me, the standard text book explanation of the events of WWI where never clear and left an number of questions unanswered. Even college European History classes treat WWI as a mysterious event which began with an assaination, progressed to a stalemate, and ended in a German defeat; all the while Germany is presented as being ill prepared and suffering humiliating loss after loss. This book explains and dispells the this specious ideal and shows how "German won the battles and how America saved France and England". A difficukt read I would not recommend it for a saturday afternoon reader, rather an individual with an enthusiastic intrest in history and a little background in military history (a lot of technical details and jargon).

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  • Posted February 8, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Good Supplement to WWI Knowledge

    I first read "Blitzkrieg Myth" by John Mosier and I really enjoyed it. Myth of the Great War, however, does lack some of the...verve of it's WW2 counter-part. While the historical research and thesis are still extremetly strong, the depictions of the battles and how new methods of warfare came directly into play leave something to be desired; specifically, a general understanding of how WW1 battles were conducted at the time. Descriptions like, "The Allies conducted X offensive, they were defeated/annhilated/etc." are all too common in this work. I (at least personally) would have preferred some extra description about exactly what was happening on the ground. However, besides all that, this is a very enjoyable read and the book presents its thesis well. Also, there is no lack of accounts concerning what generals, politicians, and NCO's were thinking durning the conflict. These are perhaps more important when considering the main topic of the book: that the Allies manipulated defeats into victories through use of the media and propaganda while all the time lagging behind German/Austrian military science.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2003

    An excellent book that will revive interest in WW1

    This book rings true for a number of reasons. The author looks at the German, French, British, and US Armies from the ground up, analyzing tactics and weapons, strategy and training. His conclusions are abundantly supported. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in military history.

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    Posted November 1, 2012

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