British Official History
From the Crimea to the Great War
Source: Jay Luvass, Official Histories: Essays and Bibliographies from around the World (Robin Higham, Editor, Kansas State University Library, 1970).
This page contains both a bibliography and an essay below.
Bookmarks Colonial wars / Maurice and “Campaign of 1882 in Egypt” / “War in South Africa” Swinton and Russo-Japanese war Edmonds and “The Great War”
BIBLIOGRAPHY: British Official Histories through the first world war
Crimean War 1845-55
Elphinstone, Major General Sir H. C., and Lieutenant General Sir H. C. Jones. Journal of the Operations Conducted by the Corps of Royal Engineers. Published by order of the Secretary of State for War. 2 vols. (1859).
Reilly, Major General W. E. M. Siege of Sebastopol. An Account of the Artillery Operations Conducted by the Royal Artillery and Royal Naval Brigade before Sebastopol in 1854 and 1855. (1859).
War Office. Reports and Plans Relating to the War in the Crimea and the East. (1856).
China War 1860
Intelligence Branch, India. The China Expedition, 1860. (1895).
Abyssinian Expedition 1867-68
Holland, Maj or T. J. and Colonel Sir H. M. Hozier. Record of the Expedition to Abyssinia. Compiled by order of the Secretary of State for War. 2 vols. (1870).
Ashanti War 1873
War Office, Intelligence Branch. Precis of the Ashanti Expedition. (1874).
Second Afghan War 1878-80
Intelligence Branch, India. The Second Afghan War, 1878-80. (1908).
Zulu War 1879
Rothwell, Colonel J. S. Narrative of the Field Operations Connected with the Zulu War of 1879. Prepared in the Intelligence Branch, War Office (1881, reprinted 1907).
Wasiri Expedition 1881
Intelligence Branch, India. The Mahsud-Waziri Expedition of 1881: Diaries of Officers of the Q. M. G. ‘s Dept. in India attached to the Mahsud-Waziri Expeditionary Force. (1889).
Egyptian War 1882
Maurice, Major General Sir John Frederick. Military History of the Campaign of 1882 in Egypt. Compiled in the Intelligence Branch, War Office. (1887, reprinted 1908).
Sudan Campaign 1884
Colville, Major General Sir H. E. History of the Sudan Campaign. Intelligence Division, War Office, 2 vols. (1890).
Third Burmese War 1885-92
Chambers, Captain W. R. Report on the Chittagong Column, Chin-Lushai Expedition of 1889-90. Compiled in the Intelligence Branch, India. (1893).
Intelligence Branch, India. Burma Field Force. Brigade Histories, from the commencement of the Campaign up to October 1886. 1st to 6th Brigades, and Chindwin Command. Head-quarter supplement to Brigade Histories from October 1886 to February 1887. (1887).
Intelligence Branch, India. History of the Third Burmese War. 11 vols. (1888-93).
Markham, Lieutenant C. J. Report on the Sikkim Expedition from January 1888 to January 1890. Intelligence Division, India. (1890).
Hazara Expedition 1891-92
Mason, Lieutenant Colonel A. H. Expedition against the Isasai Clans on the Hazard Border, etc. Intelligence Branch, India. (1894).
Abor Expedition 1894
Little, Captain W. R. Report on the Abor Expedition, 1894. Intelligence Branch, India. (1895).
Chitral Expedition 1895
Robertson, Lieutenant Colonel W. R. An Official Account of the Chitral Expedition, 1895 (1898).
Northwest Frontier, India 1897-98
Hoghton, Captain F. A. Operations of the Mohmand Held Force in 1897. Compiled in the Intelligence Branch, India. (1899).
Walters, Captain H. F. The Operations of the Malakand Field Force and the Buner Field Force, 1897-98. Compiled in the Intelligence Branch, India. (1900).
Ashanti Campaign 1900
Beddoes, Major H. R. Report on the Military Operations in Ashanti, 1900. Compiled under the direction of Colonel Sir J. Willcocks. (1901).
South African War (Boer War) 1899-1902
Maurice, Major General Sir Frederick and others. History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902. Compiled by direction of His Majesty’s Government. 4 vols. (1906-1910).
War Office, General Staff. Official History of the Operations in Somaliland 1901-04. 2 vols. (1907).
Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905
Committee of Imperial Defence, Historical Section. Official History (Naval and Military) of the Russo-Japanese War. 3 vols. (London, 1910-20). [Volume III was completed in 1914 but publication was delayed because of the war.
Official History of the First World War 1914-1918 **
Nordern, Lt. Col. Charles. Vol. I. August 1914-September l9l6. 1941.
Vol. II. [Never published].
Egypt and Palestine
MacMunn Lt. Gen. Sir George and Capt. Cyril Falls. Vol. I. August 1914-June 1917 and case of maps. 1928.
Vol. II. And case of maps. [no date given in bibliography]
Aspinall-Oglander, C. F. Vol. I. and case of maps. 1929
Aspinall-Oglander, C. F. Vol. II. and case of maps. 1932.
France and Belgium
Edmonds, Brig Gen. Sir James E. 1914, August-October. Mons, the Retreat to the Seine, the Marne and the Aisne. Vol. I, 1922; 2d ed., 1925; 3rd ed. 1934; and case of maps.
Vol. II 1914, October-November. Antwerp. La Bassee, Armentieres, Messines and Ypres and case of maps. 1925.
Edmonds Brig. Gen. Sir James E and Capt. G. C. Wynne. Vol. I. 1915, Winter 1914-15. Neuve Chappelle-Ypres, December 1914-May 1915 and case of maps. 1927.
Vol. II. 1915, Aubers Ridge, Festubert and Loos and case of maps. 1928.
Edmonds, Brig Gen. Sir James E. Vol. I. 1916, to July 1. The Somme and case of maps. 1932.
Vol. II. 1916, July 2 to End of Somme Battles and case of maps. 1938.
Falls, Capt. Cyril. Vol. I. The German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line and the Arras Battles and case of maps. 1940. Appendices separate volume.
Vol II. June 7-November 10. Messines and Third Ypres (Passchendaele). 1949.
Miles, Capt. W. Vol. III. The Battle of Cambrai. 1949.
Vol. I. March Offensive and case of maps. 1935. Appendices separate volume.
Vol. II. March-April and case of maps. 1937.
Vol. III. May-July. 1939.
Vol. IV. August 8-September 26. Franco-English Offensive. 1947.
Vol. V. September 26-November 11. 1949.
Edmonds, Brig. Gen. Sir James E., and H. R. Davies. Italy, 1915-1919. 1949.
Falls, Capt. Cyril. Macedonia
Vol. I. August 1914-Spring 1917. 1933.
Vol. II. Spring 1917-November 1918. 1935
Moberly, Brig. Gen. F. Mesopotamia. Vol. I. 1923.
Vol. II. April 1916. The Attempt on Baghdad, the Battle of Cteeipfion, the Siege and Fall of Kut-al-Amara. 1924.
Vol. III. April l9l7. The Capture and Consolidation of Baghdad. 1926.
Vol. IV. The Campaign in Upper Mesopotamia to the Armistice. 1927.
Togoland and the Cameroons
Moberly, Brig. Gen. F. Togoland and the Cameroons, l9l4-l9l6. 1931.
Part 1, The Regular British Divisions. 1935.
Part 2A, The Territorial Force, Mounted Divisions and the 1st Line Territorial Force Divisions, (42nd-56th). 1936.
Part 2B, The 2nd Line Territorial Force Divisions (57th-69th) with the Home Service Divisions (7lst-73rd) and 74th and 75th Divisions. 1937.
Part 3A, New Army Divisions (9th-26th). 1939.
Part 3B, New Army Divisions (30th to 4lst), and 63rd (R.N.) Division. 1946.
Part 4, The Army Council, G. H. Qs., Armies and Corps. 1914-1918. 1946.
Henniker, Col. A. M. Transportation on the Western Front, 1914- 1918. 1937, 1938.
Naval, Military, Air and Political. (In Diary and Index form). 1922.
Mitchell, Maj. T. Casualties and Medical Statistics
Macpherson, Maj. Gen. Sir W. G. (ed.), and others. Diseases of the War
Vol. I. 1922.
Vol. II. Including the Medical Aspects of Aviation and Gas Warfare, and Gas Poisoning in Tank and Mines.1923.
Macpherson, Maj. Gen. Sir W. G. Vol. I. Medical Services in the United Kingdom, in British Garrisons Overseas, and During Operations against Tsingtau, in Togoland, the Cameroons, and S. W. Africa. 1921.
Vol. II. Medical Services on the Western Front, and During the Operations in France and Belgium in 1914 and 1915. 1923.
Vol. III. Medical Services During the Operations on the Western Front in 1916, 1917 and 1918, in Italy, and in Egypt and Palestine. 1924.
Macpherson, Maj Gen Sir W.G. and Maj. T. Mitchell, Vol. IV. Medical Services During the Operations in the Gallipoli Peninsula, in Macedonia, in Mesopotamia and North-West Persia, in East Africa, in Aden Protectorate, and in North Russia; Ambulance Transport During the War. 1924.
Macpherson, Maj. Gen. Sir W.G. (ed.) and others. Hygiene of the War. Vols. I and II. 1923.
Macpherson, Maj. Gen. Sir W.G. (ed.) and others. Pathology. 1923.
Macpherson, Maj. Gen. Sir W.G. (ed.) and others. Surgery of the War. Vols. I and II.
Blenkinsop, Mai. Gen. Sir L.J., and Lt. Col. J.W. Ramsey (eds.). Veterinary Services. 1925.
Official History of the War
Bell, A.C. The Blockade of the Central Empires, 1914-1918. A History of the Blockade of Germany, and of the Countries Associated with Her in the Great War, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey. (Produced and printed in 1937 for official purposes only, released for general sale 1961)
Official Histories on Shipping
Fayle, C. Ernest. Seaborne Trade. Vol. I. The Cruiser Period. 1920.
Vol. II. Submarine Campaign. (From the opening of the campaign to the appointment of a Shipping Controller). 1923.
Vol. III. The Period of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. 1924.
Hurd, Archibald. Merchant Navy
Vol. I. 1921.
Vol. II. 1924. (No Volume Titles)
Vol. III. 1929.
War in the Air
Raleigh, Walter. Vol. I. 1922, 1939.
Jones, H. A. Vol. II. 1928.
Jones, H. A. Vol. III. 1931.
Jones, H. A. Vol. IV. 1934.
Jones, H. A. Vol. V. 1935.
Jones, H. A. Vol. VI. 1937.
Jones, H. A. Appendices. 1937.
Corbett, Sir Julian S. Vol. I. To the Battle of the Falklands, December 1914. 1920; 2d ed, 1938.
Vol. II. From the Battle of the Falklands to the Entry of Italy into the War in May 1915. 1921; 2d ed., 1929.
Vol. III. May l9l5-June 1916 (Including the Battle of Jutland). 1923; Rev. ed., 1940.
Newbolt, Sir Henry. Vol. IV. June 1916-April 1917. 1928.
Vol. V. l9l7 to the Armistice. 1931.
RELEVANT NON OFFICIAL HISTORY
“The British Army and Modern Conceptions of War,” Edinburgh Review, CCXIII (1911), 338-343.
Robert Blake, ed., The Private Papers of Douglas Haig 1914-1919 (London, 1952),
(Sir George S. Clarke), “Military History of the Campaign of 1882 in Egypt,” Edinburgh Review, CLXVII (1888), 286. This was a nasty review of Maurice’s work, published anonymously. The author was identified by Walter E. Houghton, General Editor of The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900
John Burgoyne, “Remarks on the Journal of the Siege of Sebastopol, Papers on Subjects Connected with the Duties of the Corps of Royal Engineers, IX (1860), 139-40.
Colonel A. M. Delavoye, British Minor Expeditions (London, 1884).
Colonel Henry M. Hozier and Colonel von Wright, translators, The Campaign of 1866 in Germany (London, 1872). [translation of the Prussian official history of the Campaign of 1866 against Austria.
Sir Harry Jones, Journal of the Operations Conducted by the Corps of Royal Engineers (London, 1959).
Major General Sir John T. Jones, Journal of Sieges Carried on by the Army under the Duke of Wellington, In Spain (3 vols., London, 1846).
Lessons of the War Committee, France and Belgium 1915; Somme 1916 (Typescript copy in the Liddell Hart Papers).
Lt. Col. Frederick Maurice, The Artillery in 1870-71: From a General Army Point of View (Dublin, 1892)
Major W. Edmund M. Reilly Account of the Artillery Operations Conducted by the Royal Artillery and Royal Naval Brigade Before Sebastopol in 1854-55 (London, 1859).
Sir Ernest Swinton, The Defence of Duffer’s Drift. This text was published anonymously in 1903, and, according to John Luvass, became a sort of official text and was circulated by the War Office in 1944. It was reprinted in 1949 at the instigation of another member of the ‘team,’ Field Marshal Earl Wavell, who had translated Russian documents for use in the Official History of the Russo-Japanese War
Lord Wolseley, The Soldier’s Pocket-Book for Field Service (London, 1886).
George Wrottesley, Life and Correspondence of Field Marshal Sir John Burgoyne, Bart. (London, 1873).
Captain G. C. Wynne, “Pattern for Limited (Nuclear) War: Riddle of the Schlieffen Plan,” Part II, Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, XVII (1958), 42.
The text below is a summary with quotations of Jay Luvass, “The First British Official Historians”, OFFICIAL HISTORIES: ESSAYS AND BIBLIOGRAPHIES FROM AROUND THE WORLD, Robin Higham, editor. (Kansas State University Library, 1970).
Quotations from Mr. Luvass’ article are identified and set off the body text.
Britain’s blundering, bloody victory in the Crimea led to the Army’s first official histories.
There had been a great public outcry while the war was being fought. London Times correspondent, William Howard Russell, graphically depicted the sufferings of gallant British soldiers caused as much by their leaders’ incompetence as the enemy. Parliament formed committees, launched investigations, and wrote reports, but the outcry ended with fall of Sebastopol.
The public’s response had been emotional. Men of cooler judgment still wanted to know how the Army that defeated Napoleon could have been in such a muddle against the Russians. Jay Luvass writes:
The Secretary of State for War ordered the compilation of an official record of the siege. Two volumes were devoted to the operations of the Royal Engineers and a third covered the activities of the Royal Artillery. Each volume was written by an officer who had participated in the siege and had access to the official documents as well as published French and Russian sources and the personal recollections of others who had been present.
This first attempt at official history in England was aimed at the military professional. Accompanying the brief general narratives were numerous and elaborate tables of statistics, general and brigade orders, daily reports and memoranda, and while these bulky volumes contain a wealth of information about the siege, their value as objective histories has been questioned. Field Marshal Sir John Burgoyne, the engineer in charge of the siege who had been recalled because of the need of the Government to find a scapegoat, selected a Major Elphinstone to compile the first volume. Although he refused to write of his own experiences for fear he would offend “private feelings, and perhaps public interests,” Sir John now found himself accused of appointing an editor who “would naturally be interested in giving the best colour” to his own services….
A more serious failure, particularly in view of the fact that this official history was written for the express purpose of acquiring practical military knowledge, was the inability of the authors to agree on the fundamental lessons of the war. To the engineers, the superiority of earthen parapets over masonry “was fully and clearly shown at Sebastopol.” The author of the volume on artillery disagreed with this analysis, however, claiming that “earthworks, however laboriously and skilfully constructed, cannot successfully withstand a heavy and continuous artillery fire.” Within a very few years the American Civil War decided the issue in favor of the engineers….
The official history of the siege of Sebastopol was forthright in its criticisms of allied strategy and correctly emphasized the difficulties arising from a divided command. The impression gained from reading these volumes, however, is that the professional outlook had remained essentially unchanged from the day when Sir John Jones, whose brother had succeeded Burgoyne in the Crimea, first compiled unofficially the reports on Wellington’s sieges in Spain.
Whatever its shortcomings, enough value was found in the Crimean War volumes to continue with official history. And in those days of Empire, there would be no shortage of subjects.
To handle official history, the War Office established an Intelligence Branch in 1873. The London branch produced histories of the Ashanti Expedition of 1873, the Zulu War of 1879, the Egyptian Campaign of 1882, the Campaign in the Sudan in 1885, and the Operations in Somaliland, 1901-04. The Intelligence Branch in India produced histories of operations in China, Burma, and the Northwest frontier.
The stand-out among these volumes, according to John Luvass who actually read them all, is The Military History of the Campaign of 1882 in Egypt by Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Maurice. What made this book special was Maurice’s purpose: to educate the public about the complexity of small wars in foreign lands. Luvass writes:
Recognizing that responsible government must always be sensitive to the pressures of public opinion, Maurice considered English ministers to be less well informed about military affairs than many statesmen on the Continent, and he feared that the sensational press, in satisfying the craving of readers hungry for “morsels of exciting news,” might force the government to make unreasonable demands upon generals struggling with slender means to overcome time, distance, and hostile native populations. Any expedition overseas involved immense preparations and problems that generally remained hidden from public view….
Perhaps, Maurice reasoned, the fate of the next expedition to leave England would depend upon the public understanding those factors that had been ignored after the initial landings in Egypt, when it had taken considerable time to accumulate supplies, repair railroads, and remove obstacles from the Canal. Even the Prussian victors at Sadowa would have been detained by similar conditions, and it irked Maurice to think that his own countrymen had overlooked the difficulties in the happy assumption that “the moment was immediately at hand when a final forward movement upon Cairo was to take place.” Years before, Sir Arthur Wellesley had observed that the English public never formed “an accurate estimate of the difficulties attending any military enterprise which they undertake.” Maurice believed that this was still the case, only now the risks of disaster had increased because governments were more responsive to public opinion and the larger and more complex armies required still longer preparation before those at home could see the results.
As a record of the campaign, Maurice’s History has many shortcomings. He was, in many respects, comparable to a court historian, and one might easily conclude from reading his pages that Wolseley never made a mistake. He neglected to mention the dispute between Wolseley and Major General Sir Edward Bruce Hamley and to recount the whole story of Hamley’s role in the battle of Tel-el-kebir….
Of far greater significance was the eternal problemor plightof anyone in Maurice’s position: Is the historian of a military campaign who writes under official auspices really an independent agent? Maurice insisted at the time that he was, and that no evidence had been withheld although secret documents had to be released by competent authority before they could be cited. “No one,” he claimed, “ever had, in the composition of any history, official or other, a freer hand or more ample resources.” Privately, however, he conceded that “an official historian is not his own master,” and his later comments on the German official history of 1870-71 perhaps reveal something of his own troubles. The German official historian, Maurice told a military audience, “does not frankly tell you the plain fact. He ought not to tell you, because there are some things that an Official Historian must conceal.” [Italics are Luvass’, the remark is from The Artillery in 1870-71: From a General Army Point of View (Dublin, 1892)]
Maurice would have been a happier man if his first official history had also been his last. But that was not to be. The official historian of the Boer War, Colonel G. F. R. Henderson, died in 1903 leaving work was still in an early preparatory stage. Luvass writes of the end result:
Probably the War Office was happier than Maurice with the results, for the History of the War in South Africa conformed tactfully to German standards as a literal, fully documented record of the campaigns with reputations adequately protected. When illness forced Maurice to give up the project, his staff prepared the final two volumes in the belief that official history “would be valueless to military students if it could not be referred to for information concerning the minutiae of the campaign.” In such a narrative the only casualty, one is tempted to remark, was the civilian reader.
Yet the lessons were there for all to see. British armies had suffered once again from inadequate peacetime preparation, inferior staff work, and lack of a general doctrine. The Boers had succeeded initially because of their greater numbers, mobility, mastery of the terrain, and the longer range of their guns, advantages which eventually were offset as the British built up their forces, adopted more realistic tactical formations, and learned how to utilize mounted infantry.
The weakness of Maurice’s Official History is not the occasional misstatement of fact, for Maurice did a painstaking job of research: the weakness lies in the fact that Maurice was never free to analyze motives and describe all the circumstances behind the basic military decisions. In vain he protested that military history was “worthless except in so far as it places the man who reads it in the position of those whose actions he is studying, and therefore enables him to profit by their experience, and to learn both from their failures, their misfortunes, and their successes.”
Official historians may have found more freedom when writing about other country’s wars. Throughout the 19th century, General Staffs observed each other’s wars. In the last quarter of the 19th, histories of other countries’ wars began to be published.
In Germany, the Historical Section of the Great General Staff produced a history of the Boer War. [It was published in translation as The War in Africa (2 vols., London, 1904)]. British official historians looked to the east and the war between Russia and Japan. Luvass writes:
The Official History of the Russo-Japanese War represents a significant departure from the conventional campaign study. These three sturdy volumes were produced by the Historical Section of the newly-formed Committee of Imperial Defense, which was concerned with all questions relating to imperial strategy and therefore with every aspect of the war in the Far East. The History consequently was perhaps the first of its kind to treat war as an integrated whole rather than a composite of independent military and naval operations.
In part this is explained by the fact that the work really is a synthesis constructed by a talented team that included Major Guy Dawnay, Captain F. E. Whitton, Captain Archibald Wavell and Sir Ernest Swinton, each of whom later achieved prominence….
The result was a work of exceptionally high quality. As a record of what had actually happened, this is probably the best account of the Russo-Japanese War produced by any general staff in Europe. Reports of the British observers and the official accounts of Austria, Germany, the United States, Russia and Japan were all consulted; Russian authorities provided much useful information, and the proofs were “very carefully revised” by Japanese military and naval officers in Tokyo. There is no need to question the historical accuracy of this work, for the authors felt free to criticize and comment upon the actions of both armies. No British military reputations were at stake.
This history is more instructive than its predecessors….In the Comments the authors remarked upon the value of hand grenades in trench warfare, the effectiveness of the machine gun, the repeated failure of cavalry, the need for sufficient artillery preparation in the attack, and the growing dependence upon earthworksall lessons soon to be experienced by the British Army. They analyzed the tactics and strategy of both armies; they even speculated what the results would have been had the rival commanders had aerial reconnaissance and submarines at their disposal.
In one respect, however, they may not have projected their views far enough. The Japanese army had been German trained, and here was a unique opportunity to test the soundness of German theories. This was not done….In contrast, the triumph of the Japanese in Manchuria was regarded by German critics with much the same satisfaction as a teacher contemplating the achievement of a prize pupil.
Moreover, the British official history had practically nothing to say of the effectiveness of its own doctrine as revealed in the Field Service Regulations of 1909, and in the Memorandum on Army Training of 1910. Just how did the General Staff plan to deal with the enveloping attack that was obviously “characteristic” of the German method of war? Evidently some looked to the Official History for a clue, for it was pointed out at the time [in an article, “The British Army and Modern Conceptions of War,” Edinburgh Review, CCXIII (1911), 338-343 that “if the comments in the Official History are to have any value for the Army they must be in consonance with the doctrine of war which the General Staff is teaching.” German staff histories never failed to drive home the soundness of the German conception of war, but the British official history left the reader to deduce this for himself.
The next undertaking, 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 fulfil 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.”
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. 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.
**The editor, Robin Higham, of Official Histories: Essays and Bibliographies from around the World states: “This is the title given me 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.” Higham also notes: “The Stationery Office’s free Sectional List No. 60, Histories of the First and Second World Wars (1963) omits the Gallipoli volumes.”