Posted 11 March 2010 - 11:54 AM
Although it may not seem like it on occasion, I do have the utmost respect for both of you, but I do find your stance on the particular subject matter of this thread (and others) to be somewhat confusing:
1) Is it good enough for Robert to say that "Neither can be deemed 'the whole truth' when considered in isolation from the other. Taken together, both views will give a closer approximation that we currently have", without examining in detail whether or not any micro-view fits the wider context? To look at as many sources as possible from all sides is desirable, but surely the cross-checking of alternate microscopic views is no guarantee of the reliability of any one side's version? That will only confirm that where they agree they agree - but, as often happens, what if they don't agree? When they don't agree, if we are to avoid personal and subjective opinion, the acid test then has to be one of logic i.e. which microscopic view fits snugly with the wider context?
Surely, if any one view does not fit the wider context then it creates a paradox, and that will create fundamental questions, questions such as I demonstrated earlier in the thread, that will challenge the validity of said view? And, more importantly from a reliability point of view, as long as those questions remain unanswered then is it not the case that said paradox cannot be resolved and thus the source that created it must be viewed with the utmost suspicion?
2) Consequently, is it fair of Robert to say, "What I find interesting, however, is that British accounts of something like Mons, which are based on variable quality content (including British regimental histories) are considered believable/reliable (or similar). The suggestion is that work based on German accounts is unreliable (or similar) because of regimental histories and other German primary sources." - is this fair comment?
I would say that it isn't fair, I would say that the unreliability of German sources is not because they are German per-se, but that many of them, such as Zuber's latest book with its micro-context focus, do not fit the wider context. That they create a paradox with the end-result, and I don't mean the end-result in 1918, but the fact that the German Army never achieved any of its objectives in the West in 1914 - and that this failure leaves many fundamental questions unanswered and the paradox unresolved when looking at Zuber’s reported German versions of events.
Both British and German commentators eulogise about the prowess and performance of their forces in 1914 - sometimes their accounts agree but many don't - but no matter how variable, no matter how over-the-top some British one's are, they show a remarkable consistency in passing the acid test i.e. they don't create a paradox with the end-result.
For example, Robert tells us that, "I totally endorse Jack's comment about the German sources referred to in the BOH. I have acquired as many as possible, and the references to Mons are very sparse, by-and-large. What is even more interesting is that the BOH often does not match what was mentioned in British War Diaries. Furthermore, what is NOT mentioned is the most interesting feature of the BOH. The disaster that nearly befell the British centre is clearly evident in the WDs, but is barely detectable in the BOH."
It seems to me, this sums up the problem with microscopic investigations of events – and the phrase, “The disaster that nearly befell the British centre is clearly evident in the WDs” highlights this problem admirably. The BOH was not a microscopic investigation of every single action, and the war diaries invariably have a narrow focus – so is it fair to imply that the BOH is guilty of neglect by omission?
And, is it not the case that “nearly” is a word that adequately sums up German performance in the field in 1914 i.e. they nearly broke through the British centre at Mons (but they didn’t) – a disaster nearly befell the British centre at Mons (but it didn’t) - the Germans nearly succeeded in their campaign in 1914 and won the war there and then (but they didn’t) etc. etc. etc… Surely, the “nearly factor” is an appraisal of failure not success?
To that end, lets have look at Smith-Dorrien’s view of the “near disaster” that befell his II Corps at Mons – from his memoirs:
“I shall not attempt a full description of the fighting, but shall confine myself largely to my personal experiences...
...It was a day of desperate and heavy fighting, especially on our right about Mons. In that salient and on the hill to the south-east of it, " Bois la Haut," the 8th and 9th Brigades were tried to the utmost, the 4th Middlesex losing half their strength; but they more than held their own and eventually fell back, evacuating the salient with the greatest skill, and at nightfall, although somewhat retired, our line was still unpenetrated. There was, however, a moment when the danger of penetration was very serious.
At about 7 p.m. a report came in saying that the enemy had penetrated the line near Frameries and were swarming through that village. I had no troops left, and all I could do was to request the 5th Division to push out to their right, which they did by sending the 1st Bedfords to Paturages. Knowing the gap was appreciable owing to the left flank of the 3rd Division in retiring having failed to join up with the right flank of the 5th Division, and that if the Germans' realised it there was nothing to prevent their pushing through in large numbers and rendering our position untenable, I sent the following message to G.H.Q.
" To G.H.Q., G 271, August 23rd. Third Division report at 6.47 p.m. the Germans are in front of his main position and are not attacking at present, they are, however, working round 3rd Division on left flank. If it should appear that there is a danger of my centre being pierced I can see no course but to order a general retirement on Bavai position. Have I your permission to adopt this course if it appears necessary? From II Corps, 7.15 p.m. (Signed Oxley, Colonel.) "
I then jumped into a motor and went to General Haig's head-quarters at Bonnet, some four miles away, and asked if he would allow Haking's 5th Infantry Brigade, which was on the road about two and 'a half miles from Frameries, to push on to cover the gap. I found Hubert Hamilton's G.S.O.2, Lieutenant-Colonel F. B. Maurice, there on the same quest. Haig readily gave his consent, and Maurice dashed off to tell Haking. The situation had, however, been almost restored by the 9th Brigade, and the Germans driven back before the 5th Brigade reached Frameries; but I would remark that although I had contracted my front to about twelve miles, it was still far too large for the troops I had and every man was practically in the front line, so that a break through, with no reserves to meet it, must have entailed retreat. Haking's borrowed Brigade remained to hold the gap.
The fighting was over for the time and our troops, though weary, and in spite of their heavy losses, were in tremendous heart and full of confidence in their superiority to the enemy...The II Corps then stood generally on the line from right to left Nouvelles-Ciply-Frameries-Paturages-Wasmes-Hornu-Boussu, confidently awaiting renewal of the battle at dawn; for the C.-in-C. had issued orders that this was to be done... “
This account does in fact agree with the assertion that the Germans “nearly” broke through the British centre at Mons, but it also confirms what we all already know, that they didn’t actually manage to do it. So how does the “nearly factor” help further this debate?
3) Further to the question of German source reliability, I’m going to cheat a little here, I’m going to quote a fellow member’s take on this subject. This comes from the “Machine Guns of Mons” thread (post #210), posted by George Armstrong Custer, who no longer frequents the forum (but I have informed him of my intention to use it in this debate). It was in answer to one of Jack’s post in that thread.
For me it sums up the problems with German sources in a most and eloquent and incisive way:
“…Jack has set the most store in these sources, but I think I am correct in suggesting that he has invested the Sanitaetsbericht as being the most accurate, least biased and therefore most reliable source for German losses. Alongside what Jack has said regarding German sources on this thread I have been reading Appendix III German Historical Sources, on p. 407 of his excellent The German Army on the Somme.
Here, Jack reiterates what both he and I and others have noted on this thread: "A major obstacle to the study of any aspect of the imperial German army is the fact that a bombing raid on Potsdam by the Royal Air Force, on 14 April 1945, completely destroyed the Prussian archives. Because Prussian formations and regiments accounted for almost 90 per cent of the army during the First World War, the seriousness of the loss of these documents cannot be overstated." This leaves three sources, the German Official Histories, the semi-official histories of the Reichsarchiv and the histories published privately by German regiments themselves. I need not expand upon the obvious caution which must be applied to the latter category - histories commissioned by the regiments of an army which has lost a war are unlikely to have had rubbing salt into the wounds as one of their purposes.
On the German official and semi-official histories, Jack himself poses the question we've all been asking in Appendix III of his book: "However, one obvious question arises: to what extent can the content of such books be trusted?" Before answering his own question, Jack candidly admits the purpose of such books and the political atmosphere in which they were produced under the auspices of the Reichswehr: "Quite apart from a natural human tendency to put the best gloss on past events, it is undeniably the case that what was produced was intended to chronicle a lost war in such a way that the reputation of the German military in general and the Reichswehr in particular, would be enhanced."
Pretty damning stuff, you might think, so far as how the credibility of these sources might be regarded so far as admitting to, for example, high casualties due to poor tactics and intelligence is concerned. Not a bit of it according to Jack, who tells us that, having found matches between what the official and semi-official German histories say and accounts in the privately produced German regimental histories (remember my caveat on those), as well as checking some content of Wurttemberg and Bavarian regiments (the Prussian archives - 90% of the German army - are gone, remember) with unspecified archival material held in Stuttgart and Munich, his conclusion is that this: "though not conclusive, certainly indicates that these secondary sources were produced with integrity and respect for the facts."
I'm sorry Jack, but it's my view that you cannot credibly admit in one breath that these sources were 'intended to chronicle a lost war in such a way that the reputation of the German military in general and the Reichswehr in particular, would be enhanced', whilst asserting in the next that 'these secondary sources were produced with integrity and respect for the facts.'”
So, to summarise – I don’t feel that German sources are unreliable because they are German per se, nor do I feel the British sources are reliable simply because I am British. But I do regard German sources with strong suspicion, because of the paradox many of them create with the end-result, and, of course, because the concerns raised by Jack in his appendix to his Somme Book seem highly pertinent to me, they seem to cast serious doubt on the reliability of German sources, and could explain why said sources appear to create said paradox.