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Interview with Military Historian Gary Sheffield

By David T. Zabecki 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: January 07, 2011 
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British military historian and author Gary Sheffield.
British military historian and author Gary Sheffield.
Professor Gary Sheffield, chair of War Studies at Britain's University of Birmingham, is a former instructor at both the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and the British Joint Services Command and Staff College. Sheffield has written extensively on 20th century military history, particularly on World War I. His 2001 book, Forgotten Victory: The First World War, Myths and Realities, is a highly acclaimed analysis of the many falsehoods about the conflict that over the years have come to be accepted as historical fact. Sheffield's latest book is The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army (2011).

You've said that World War I was not an "accidental" war into which the great powers stumbled. How so?
Growing up in England in the 1960s and 1970s, I was influenced by what amounted to a "national perception" of the Great War as an utterly futile conflict, fought over trivial issues. It was only when I began serious reading as an undergraduate that I realized how wrong this idea was. In particular, I was struck by the views of German historian Fritz Fischer, who argued that Germany had gone to war in a bid for world power—the events of July 1914 were the occasion rather than the cause of the war. I simplify Fischer's arguments, of course, and I don't accept them in their entirety, but at the very least he pointed to an expansionist, militaristic tendency among German policy makers.

'Berlin gambled the British could be starved into submission before America could make a difference. It was a huge miscalculation, and Germany later paid the price'

How did Germans react to Fischer's conclusions?
They caused absolute fury in West Germany when they first appeared in 1961, because he was basically saying the Nazi era was not a one-off, that there were continuities with the kaiser's Germany. This was a body blow to more conservative Germans, who looked back to before 1933 as the "normal" Germany.

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What was Austria-Hungary's role in precipitating the war?
There is no doubt Vienna deliberately initiated a war against Serbia after the assassination of Archduke [Franz Ferdinand] in Sarajevo in June 1914, in the full knowledge this might bring in Russia, which in turn ran the risk of a major European war. In this the Austrians were backed by Germany, which gave them a blank check on July 5. Berlin, too, knew that a limited war in the Balkans might turn into something much bigger and nastier. So at best in 1914 you have Germany and Austria deliberately risking a major war; at worst there was conscious aggression aimed at Russia and France.

Why was the United Kingdom so concerned about Germany's emergence as a naval power?
Simple: British security against invasion of the British Isles and safety of the sea-lanes that connected its global empire rested upon command of the seas. The German High Seas Fleet, developed after about 1900, could have no other target than the Royal Navy. To get anywhere the German navy would have to pass through the North Sea, which would mean challenging the RN.

And how did Britain view America's emerging naval strength?
London pragmatically accepted the growth of U.S. power, including the development of the Navy, realizing there was nothing Britain could do about it and that Washington would not pose a threat to the major British interest in the area—Canada—let alone to Britain itself. Things were very different with Germany, of course, since it was seen as a militaristic state.

What was the most significant World War I battle?
Inevitably national allegiances color such considerations. British and Commonwealth historians tend to argue that the turning point in 1918 was the Battle of Amiens, in August, where Australian, British, Canadian and French troops won a major victory. The French and some Americans, on the other hand, favor the Second Battle of the Marne, a few weeks earlier. The argument in favor of Amiens is based on the fact that while Second Marne finally halted the German offensives, it was the battle of August 8 that seized the strategic initiative for the Allies and initiated the "Hundred Days" of Allied victories that ended with the German capitulation in November 1918.

How about your view of the most decisive battle?
I would argue that the single most decisive battle came two years earlier, on the Somme. The fighting in the long term had an attritional impact on the German army, while the amateur British army learned how to fight, albeit at a terrible cost in casualties. As a result of the Somme, the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare, knowing this was likely to bring America into the war. Berlin gambled the British could be starved into submission before America could make a difference. It was a huge miscalculation, and Germany later paid the price.

The British experienced few large-scale mutinies, despite ghastly conditions, staggering casualties and a perceived callous leadership. Why?
You are right and wrong about this—right in that there was only one large-scale mutiny (at Étaples base camp in September 1917), but wrong about the troops' views of leadership. Contrary to the postwar perception that soldiers hated Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, there is very little contemporary evidence they thought very much about him at all. Haig was a remote figure, as were most generals.

Things were very different at the unit level. Enlightened, paternal, regimental-level leadership was in my view the key to maintaining soldiers' morale. The prewar ethos of the British officer, which laid heavy stress on putting the ordinary solder first, was passed on to wartime officers. And the British working class was prepared to defer to those of a higher socioeconomic class, provided they kept their part of an unspoken bargain to look after them. So, for the most part, relations were good, if formal—and don't forget that the generals were at heart regimental officers, which helps explain the army's attempts to support soldiers' welfare. Paradoxically, all this existed side by side with tough, even harsh discipline, but the paternalism tended to counterbalance the darker side. Étaples was really a one-off.

How do you address the perception of Haig as a stubborn butcher who was bent on frontal attack, believed in a perpetual role for cavalry and thought machine guns were a passing fad?
I concluded that the general perception you mention is almost entirely wrong. I am not claiming he was a military genius, but the nature of the Western Front meant that every attack by either side had to be frontal—there were no flanks to turn. Haig actively promoted the methods and technologies that eventually helped break the deadlock—new tactics, machine guns, effective training, airpower, artillery, tanks and the like. In my book I argue that Haig's role in the transformation of the British army from the clumsy amateur force of 1916 to a superb instrument of war in 1918 was his greatest achievement.

As for cavalry, along with many other thinking officers he continued to believe it had a battlefield role, and events on the Western Front (especially in 1918) and elsewhere, notably [Field Marshal Edmund] Allenby's campaign in Palestine, show he was right. Haig was undoubtedly too ambitious in some of his plans for use of cavalry, but that is not to say he was entirely wrong to use them.

Was Haig a "stubborn butcher?" He was too profligate with lives and prolonged some battles, but there were political or operational/tactical imperatives for doing so, certainly at the Somme and Passchendaele. Ultimately, he was a winner.

How did the conduct of World War I affect the conduct of World War II and subsequent wars?
The British junior officers of the Great War who became the senior commanders of 1939–45 rejected much of the Western Front approach. Many—like William Slim and Bernard Montgomery—deliberately rejected the "château generalship" fashion of Haig, adopting an informal, "people's general" persona. In the desert in 1941–42 there was a conscious rejection of the tried-and-trusted methods of 1918 in favor of a half-baked form of maneuver warfare, and the British simply weren't very good at it.

More generally, what happened from 1939–45 was in large part a development of methods learned by trial and error in the earlier war. "Three-dimensional" warfare, involving airpower and indirect artillery fire, was born around 1915 and continues to dominate conventional warfare today.

Describe the War Studies program offered by Birmingham.
We offer a range of War Studies courses: a three-year bachelor's degree; part-time master's courses in British First World War studies and British Second World War studies; and we are about to launch an exciting new master's course called "Airpower: History, Theory and Practice," led by my colleague Peter Gray, a retired Royal Air Force one-star. We are also planning a full-time master's course in military history. All are primarily taught courses but with a substantial research element leading to a piece of original, archive-based work. Finally, we have a number of people studying for Ph.D.s—a straightforward research degree leading to an 80,000-word thesis. We are exploring the possibility of reading for a Ph.D. by distance learning. Also we have a tie with the excellent military history program at the University of Southern Mississippi, led by Andrew Wiest and Michael Neiberg. Although it is early days yet, we have all sorts of plans to work together—so watch this space.


2 Responses to “Interview with Military Historian Gary Sheffield”


  1. 1
    cody sexton says:

    me and my classmates are doing career research unit and i am doing the military and i need someone to interview to learn more about it.

  2. 2

    [...] marshalling their forces. Building on the pioneering work of John Terraine, Revisionists such as Sheffield, the late Richard Holmes and the late Paddy Griffiths aided by the many amateur historians of the [...]



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