Book Review: Britain's Two World Wars against Germany: Myth, Memory and the Distortions of Hindsight


by Brian Bond

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. vii, 120. Append., notes, biblio., index. $27.99 paper. ISBN: 1107659132

Perceptions of the World Wars in British Memory

Prof. Bond takes a look at perceptions of the world wars in British memory and culture, and finds them both deeply embedded and highly ahistorical.  After a short introduction to outline his theme, Bond addresses the shaping of the popular, and even academic, images of the world wars in the aftermath of the second. 

He then devotes a chapter to British policy and strategy in the two wars, in which he makes a good case that despite its image as “unnecessary” the 1914-1918 war was more vital to British interests than that of 1939-1945. Bond then takes on the question of generalship in the two wars, and, in keeping with most contemporary scholarship, finds that in the first by no means as bad as is customarily believed. 

Bond then gives us a chapter comparing the experience of combat in the two wars, which is one of the most valuable parts of the book. He stresses that in 1914-1918 massive numbers of British troops (c. 90 divisions with Imperial and Commonwealth forces), were in direct combat almost literally every day for four years in contrast to the Second World War, when World War I scale operations involving British Empire forces (at most a few dozen divisions) occurred sporadically in 1940 in France and then for 11 months from D-Day to VE-Day. Adjusted for the number of troops in daily contact with the enemy, British combat losses in the two wars were similar; daily Allied combat deaths during the Normandy Campaign exceeded those of the British at Passchendaele. 

Bond then devotes a chapter to strategic attritional warfare in each of the conflicts, the naval blockade of the first war and the air campaign against Germany of the second, and discusses surprising similarities and differences in their effectiveness.

There follow chapters on the evolution of the British Army in each war. These are particularly valuable, given the pervasive image of “Lions led by Donkeys” for the first war. Noting again that heavy combat was literally continuous from 1914 through 1918, he argues, again in keeping with recent scholarship, that the British Army underwent a remarkable transformation under fire, and by 1918 emerged as the best in the world.

Bond ends the book with a look at Britain’s gains and losses in the two wars, the first, the “unnecessary” and “wasteful” one bringing the Empire to its greatest extent and influence, and the second, “necessary” one, sparking its quick dissolution. 

A volume in the series “Cambridge Military Histories,” this is a very important work for any student of military history, of the problem of history and popular memory, and of the wars themselves.

Note Britain’s Two World Wars Against Germany is also available in hardcover, $80.00, ISBN 978-1-107-00471-9 , and pdf $22.00, ISBN 978-1-316-12113-9.


Reviewer: A.A. Nofi   

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