Obituary of Military Historian John Terraine

Historians in the News

Anthony Trythall, writing in the London Independent (Jan. 23, 2004):

JOHN TERRAINE was one of the outstanding military historians of the 20th century. His intellect, scholarship and breadth and sharpness of vision marked him out amongst his peers as one to be listened to with great care and attention, and challenged with circumspection, although challenged he was.

The fundamental reason for the controversy he aroused, and the challenges his challenges met, was that his study of generalship in the First World War led him to criticise, indeed demolish, the argument that British generals in the period 1914-18 were all "donkeys", that their actions simply led to slaughter and disaster. What he could not abide was the "Oh! What a Lovely War" syndrome espoused by the historical, political and pacifist left and also to some extent by B.H. Liddell Hart. In his work he made a very strong case for the view that British generals were actually pretty good and, in the end, unlike their enemies, won the war with a great victory.

Terraine was right, but those who questioned his position did also have a point. A central characteristic of scholarship is that its conclusions always, and should always, lead to further questions. He would almost certainly, on a good day, have accepted that dialectic. In a book review in 1977 he pointed out that J.F.C. Fuller's "Plan 1919" for ending the war (the antithesis of attrition) was really only a variation of what actually took place in 1918: open warfare but without many tanks, which were not ready technologically or available in sufficient numbers - again a dialectical point. Perhaps one criticism of Terraine's work that carries some weight is that his judgements were primarily military; when millions die other considerations do have to be heard.

The books in which Terraine made his case included: Mons: the retreat to victory (1960), Douglas Haig: the educated soldier (1963), The Road to Passchendaele (1977), To Win a War: 1918, the year of victory (1978), The Smoke and the Fire: myths and anti-myths of war 1861-1945 (1980) and White Heat: the new warfare 1914-18 (1982). Perhaps the most succinct summary of his views is contained in a chapter, "British Military Leadership in the First World War", in Home Fires and Foreign Fields (1985). This contains the typically Terraine-like comment apropos of Alan Clark's "donkeys and lions" attribution to Luderdorff and Hoffman, "Curiously enough, when pressed, Mr Clark failed to offer any source for this reported conversation."

Terraine's historical writing was not, however, confined to the land campaigns of the First World War. He also wrote Business in Great Waters: the U-boat wars 1916-45 (1989) and a definitive work on the RAF, The Right of the Line: the Royal Air Force in the European war 1939-45 (1985), which won the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award. A senior RAF officer was heard to say about this book in the Royal United Services Institute that he had learnt the last one and a half pages by heart.

John Alfred Terraine was born in 1921 and educated at Stamford School and Keble College, Oxford, of which he was elected an Honorary Fellow in 1986. Although he twice volunteered, poor health prevented him from undertaking military service and in 1944 he joined the BBC, where he remained until 1964, serving as Pacific and South African programme organiser from 1953 to 1963. He then became a freelance historian, and in 1964-65 acted as associate producer and chief scriptwriter of the BBC TV Great War series. Other television series followed, notably The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten (1966-68) and European History in the 20th Century (1974-75).

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