De onbetrouwbare officiele Britse geschiedschrijving over de Great War

Door: J.H.J. Andriessen

De Britse officiele geschiedschrijver, brigadier-generaal James E. Edmonds, wel eens vergeleken met onze Dr. Lou de Jong, werd door de Britse regering belast met de officiele geschiedschrijving van de Eerste Wereldoorlog. Hij werkte hier vele jaren aan en het resultaat was een lijvige serie boeken die echter helaas niet al te betrouwbaar zijn geblekenI n het navolgende artikel wordt zijn wijze van werken uitvoerig beschreven. Een interessant en leerzaam artikel.”

The Official History of the Great War was the grandest official history ever produced in Britain. Its purpose was to provide „within reasonable compass an authoritative account, suitable for general readers and for students at military schools.” The Committee of Imperial Defense appointed Brigadier General James E. Edmonds (who had served with GHQ in France and, as an historian, was well-regarded for his History of the American Civil War). Luvass writes: Edmonds relied upon his competent staff, which included senior officers like Lieutenant General Sir George MacMunn, the noted authority on India, as well as promising writers such as Captain Cyril Falls, to compile the volumes on the war in Africa, Macedonia, Gallipoli, Egypt, and Palestine, while he himself concentrated on the military operations in France and Belgium. Edmonds prepared the final drafts for eight of the fourteen volumes in this series and was listed on the title page as co-author of two others. Three were written by assistants and one, the volume on the Passchendaele offensive of 1917, was „completed and edited” by Edmonds after the real author had left the work. Edmonds remained the official historian from the time the first volume was completed in 1920-21 until the final volumes were published in 1948. During this time Edmonds and his staff worked their way through a vast amount of material. The official records alone filled twenty-five thousand boxes, and the cartographers had ninety thousand maps at their command. Besides the official histories of the other belligerents and information provided by the historical sections in Paris and Brussels and the Director of the Reichearchiv in Berlin, war diaries and regimental histories constituted the basic sources. Casualty lists were carefully studied (one man spent six months reading Battalion Orders simply to determine British casualties during the Somme offensive), and countless survivors were interviewed. While the first volume of Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914, was in process of revision. Major General Sir Reginald Buckland spent two years collecting information from men who had participated in the opening campaigns. Finally, after each volume was compiled, proofs of the first draft were sent to participants—sometimes as many as four thousand of them—who would provide explanations, fill gaps, correct errors, and make suggestions. This exhaustive research eliminated many errors, for as Edmonds discovered, some departments had taken considerable pains to cover up traces of their actions; more than one high-ranking general had suppressed documents, war diaries occasionally had been written by officers who were not even present at the events they described, and a few personal diaries had been doctored with an eye on posterity. Patiently Edmonds and his staff tried to weed out the inevitable errors. Each new volume as it was published contained several loose pages of additions and corrections to volumes previously issued…. Edmonds’ work has many merits. In most essential details of battle it would appear to be scrupulously accurate: one can follow the Second Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers through the Battle of Ypres in confidence. Except for excessive detail, the official history also makes good reading. Edmonds had a sense of proportion, he was a master of compression, and he wrote in a vigorous prose…. Each volume, moreover, reveals new techniques in trench warfare, fresh strains in the alliance with France, and growing problems at home. Because he was writing about a total war, Edmonds also included lengthy sections on politics, war production, and manpower problems, indicating the way in which these factors had influenced the conduct of the war in France. The shortcomings of the Official History are found, not in the research or organization, or even in the description of battles…. The fundamental weakness of the work arises from basic questions of interpretation. Edmonds could not fulfill his stated goal „to discover what actually happened, in order that there may be material for study, and that lessons for future guidance may be deduced.” There was simply too great a fear of public indignation; reputations of military commanders were at stake, too many jobs might be lost, and lives ruined by full disclosure. Instead, Edmonds privately supplied material to outside historians such as Captain B.H. Liddell Hart, whose books were highly critical of Britain’s high command. Edmonds once wrote to Hart: „I have to write of Haig with my tongue in my cheek. One can’t tell the truth. He was really above the average—or rather below the average—in stupidity. He could not grasp things at conferences, particularly anything technical.” Luvass writes:In print, however, [Edmonds] was far more circumspect. Haig might relieve an officer from command for inefficiency and Edmonds would not even record the name, but let an „adventurer” like Lloyd George press for the removal of an army commander and the official historian would rise to the defense. Edmonds belonged to the generation of British soldiers that instinctively eyed politicians with distrust, and the pages of his work naturally became clouded with this prejudice. Nor was he always consistent in his judgment of events. In his analysis of the Loos offensive in 1915, for example, he appeared to accept the judgment of French and some of his generals that it would be better to use two new divisions to exploit the anticipated break-through rather than veteran troops because the latter had been „long engaged in trench warfare (and) had got out of the way of attacking and manoeuvring in the open.” Yet he sweetened the failure of the Somme offensive the next year by speculating that „Possibly it is as well that the break-through did not succeed, and leaders and troops were not tested against the Germans of 1916 in open warfare.” And in explaining the cause for the successful German offensive in March 1918, he claimed that the British armies, „after two and a half years of offensive warfare, were not well trained to stand on the defensive and to deal with an attack by infiltration.” He attributed most failures to inadequate material, poor staff work, inexperienced troops, the urgent need to bail out the French, or the folly of civilian ministers in not sending every soldier available to France. Rarely did G. H.Q. appear to be at fault. As criticism mounted of British command decisions, Edmonds grew increasingly defensive. He wrote to one critics, Liddell Hart: „I see the divergence between our views increasing as we grow older. I become more and more inclined to lay weight on the difficulties of the fighting soldier’s task and sympathize with them, whilst you are becoming more and more critical and see their blunders larger than their achievements… The new volume is now printed off… and it is too late to make any changes, if I wanted to which I don’t. Many of your points passed through my mind, but I had always space and the views of my comrades to consider.” Luvass writes: The last volumes are the most controversial. The history of the Passchendaele offensive of 1917 was published over thirty years after the event, when Edmonds was approaching ninety years of age. That thin line that he had always attempted to walk—to instruct young officers without revealing too much to the public —proved too fine for his aged legs to negotiate, and in his defense of Haig, Edmonds ultimately lost his balance. The real author of most of this volume was Captain G.C. Wynne, who previously had worked on the 1915 volumes. Wynne was known to be extremely critical of the conception and execution of the Flanders offensive and his friends looked for an expose when the volume was published. Instead they found Wynne’s account stripped of his critical passages and safely inserted between a preface and a retrospect by Edmonds, who by now obviously was convinced that Haig could do no wrong. Edmonds refuted the charges that British casualties had been „gigantic” by manipulating the casualty figures to demonstrate that the Germans took more casualties than the British, despite the fact that they had been on the defensive.1 He also attributed Haig’s persistence in the attack after the October rains had ruined any chance of further success to the „urgent pleas” of General Petain, although Haig’s diary published four years after the Official History mentions no such pressure and no contemporary record exists to support this contention. In 1935 Edmonds had written that nineteen out of twenty-one divisions in the Fifth and Third Armies „had lost a large proportion of their best soldiers in the Passchendaele battles”. Twelve years later, however, he made it appear as it if has been the Germans who had really been destroyed in Flanders! Even the mud, he contended, was not as hopeless as it had been the previous year on the Somme, or in Holland in 1944-45. No wonder Captain Wynne complained that „the editing of the volumes, and the comments and conclusions, twist the narrative to the outlook of British Headquarters at the time. * Edmonds’ figures are refuted in Leon Wolff, In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign (New York, 1958), pp. 259-61; and in Liddell Hart, „Basic Truths of Passchendaele,” Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, CIV (1959), 4-6. It should be pointed out that this remains a matter of controversy and that many still accept the statistics as they are presented in Military Operations, 1917, II. (London, 1948), 360-65. In fairness to Edmonds, who despite all shortcomings really produced a monumental work, it should be remarked that he was not alone in his desire to protect the army from outside criticism. Even the outspoken author of the official history of the Gallipoli campaign, which deservedly occupies a high rank in military literature, appears to have muted some of his judgments upon mistakes committed by former colleagues. When asked by a publisher in 1935 to write a short account of the campaign. Brigadier General C.F. Aspinall-Oglander replied candidly: „I could not write an unofficial account with expressing personal convictions which would be in contradiction of many of my statements in the official volume, and I feel that this, in addition to being rather undignified, and a lapse of taste, would be quite unfair to the Government which paid me for the official history.” Yet this same writer, two years later, published a condemning review of another book on Gallipoli on the ground that it was overly critical of failures of British military and naval leadership, although the author of the book in question had received from Edmonds „a list of really hair-raising comments on the individual commanders.” One suspects that Edmonds and Aspinall-Oglander initially intended their volumes to convey much more than they actually said. In 1932 a War Office committee was appointed to examine the lessons of the war as revealed in the Official Histories, and the unpublished report [Lessons of the War Committee, France and Belgium 1915; Somme 1916] makes it abundantly clear that the instructive lessons „are largely the mistakes of Command.” „Are we going the right way about producing self-reliant Commanders of initiative and imagination? The whole terrible story of these battles is a story of the lack of them.” „There was absolutely no need for a large number of casualties if troops had been properly handled with battle-wise Commanders.” Even the Official History of military operations in France and Belgium, the report of the War Office committee clearly demonstrates, was rich in examples of how not to fight a war. In the summation of his study, Luvass writes:The British official historians were, from the first, able men. Most of them were established writers at the time they assumed their official duties, and most were honest in their effort to get at the facts. If they failed to assert their independence as much as they might have, at least they never allowed themselves to become captives of the General Staff, which frequently was the case in Continental armies…. In England official history never became an illustrated text for official doctrine, although it might be interesting to speculate on the consequences of The Official History of the Great War if the War Office committee had published its report before 1939: at the very least it might have had a healthy effect upon British doctrine…. Finally, it would appear that the British official historians had always to consider public reactions as well as individual reputations, and in many instances this subdued the tone of their writings. Liddell Hart once dedicated a book [Through the Fog of War (London, 1938).] to Edmonds, „who knows more of the history of the war than he will ever write, but to whose guidance all others who write of it will ever be indebted.” This is more than a tribute to a helpful friend. Engraved in the past tense, it might also be a fitting epitaph for Edmonds, and also for many of his predecessors.

(Taken from: Official Histories: Essays and Bibliographies from around the World states: „This is the title given by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office in 1965. The one used on the title page of each volume is History of the Great War Based Upon Official Documents.”