The Pity of War

The Pity of War

[explaining World War I]

Book - 1999
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Baker & Taylor
Studies the origins, financing, and outcome of World War I, and discusses public support, recruiting and retention of soldiers, treatment of prisoners, and related issues

Perseus Publishing
A landmark work of history. An explosive and argumentative new book that rewrites our most basic assumptions about the causes and consequences of the First World War.

In The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson makes a simple and provocative argument: that the human atrocity known as the Great War was entirely England’s fault. Britain, according to Ferguson, entered into war based on naïve assumptions of German aims—and England’s entry into the war transformed a Continental conflict into a world war, which they then badly mishandled, necessitating American involvement. The war was not inevitable, Ferguson argues, but rather the result of the mistaken decisions of individuals who would later claim to have been in the grip of huge impersonal forces.That the war was wicked, horrific, inhuman,is memorialized in part by the poetry of men like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but also by cold statistics. More British soldiers were killed in the first day of the Battle of the Somme than Americans in the Vietnam War; indeed, the total British fatalities in that single battle—some 420,000—exceeds the entire American fatalities for both World Wars. And yet, as Ferguson writes, while the war itself was a disastrous folly, the great majority of men who fought it did so with enthusiasm. Ferguson vividly brings back to life this terrifying period, not through dry citation of chronological chapter and verse but through a series of brilliant chapters focusing on key ways in which we now view the First World War.For anyone wanting to understand why wars are fought, why men are willing to fight them, and why the world is as it is today, there is no sharper nor more stimulating guide than Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War.

Book News
World War I spawned seven decades of Communist rule in Russia, the rise of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich, and the horror of the Holocaust. As the century draws to a close, the time is right for a radical reassessment of the Great War. This analysis argues that the war was not inevitable, and investigates causes the of the war, why it continued and why it stopped, and above all, why men fought. Includes rare b&w battlefield photos from private collections of soldiers. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Publisher: New York, NY : Basic Books, c1999.
ISBN: 9780465057115
Branch Call Number: 940.3 FER
Characteristics: xliii, 563 p., [32] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm.


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May 28, 2016

I have not read this book, but I noticed an error in the "blurb" above: it incorrectly asserts that 420,000 British soldiers died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (a number greater than all American soldiers who died during the Vietnam War). As a matter of fact, official tallies suggest only 19,240 killed the first day of the battle, with total casualties (wounded and dead combined) around 350,000. Sources: ,

RickUWS Apr 25, 2014

Here's the catch: for anyone who has not read a background on the war, this is not the one to read, because it is so dense with detail and the conclusions so controversial it's not fair to read just it; for anyone who has read about the war you can skip to the last chapter where the controversial conclusion lies, not having read 95% of the book.

The conclusion is intriguing that Germany began a continental war for whatever reason, and Britain made it into a world war by entering on the side of France, which on its own would have lost. That's not much fun, since the preceding information does not explain very well what was going on in the Germanic mind in the years leading up, so we don't really learn how the war came about except for the usual discussions of the naval race and faulty diplomacy. For a clearer analysis read Margaret MacMillan's "The War That Ended Peace," a brilliant and more readable work.

One nutty part is where he says one reason the war went on was that soldiers actually liked fighting. Another is where Ferguson projects that Germany would have created a European Union 80 years ahead of when it actually came about, and there would be the British Empire more or less intact. Keep in mind that comes from a scholar whose most recent work finds the British Empire the best way to run the world.


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