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The Pity of War

Explaining World War One
Narrated by: Graeme Malcolm
Length: 21 hrs and 38 mins
Categories: History, Military
4 out of 5 stars (77 ratings)

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Summary

In The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson makes a simple and provocative argument: that the human atrocity known as the Great War was entirely England's fault. Britain, according to Ferguson, entered into war based on naive assumptions of German aims - and England's entry into the war transformed a Continental conflict into a world war, which they then badly mishandled, necessitating American involvement. The war was not inevitable, Ferguson argues, but rather the result of the mistaken decisions of individuals who would later claim to have been in the grip of huge impersonal forces. That the war was wicked, horrific, inhuman, is memorialized in part by the poetry of men like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but also by cold statistics. 

More British soldiers were killed in the first day of the Battle of the Somme than Americans in the Vietnam War; indeed, the total British fatalities in that single battle - some 420,000 - exceeds the entire American fatalities for both World Wars. And yet, as Ferguson writes, while the war itself was a disastrous folly, the great majority of men who fought it did so with enthusiasm. Ferguson vividly brings back to life this terrifying period, not through dry citation of chronological chapter and verse but through a series of brilliant chapters focusing on key ways in which we now view the First World War.

For anyone wanting to understand why wars are fought, why men are willing to fight them, and why the world is as it is today, there is no sharper nor more stimulating guide than Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio. 

©2000 Niall Ferguson (P)2009 Audible, Inc.

Critic reviews

"This is analytical history at its mordant best. With all its other merits, The Pity of War is also a work of grace and feeling." (The Economist)

"[Niall Ferguson is] the most talked-about British historian of his generation." (The New York Times)

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

A fine book but better to read than listen to it

This is a fine and very thought provoking book. You dont have to agree with Niall Ferguson's views to enjoy it, and it does give you a different and fresh perspective of many aspects of WW 1. The economic analysis a lot more interesting - and convincing - than the political, which lacks realism in my view eg on whether it would have been to the benefit of the UK to stay out of the war. There are some excellent reviews on Amazon.

But it is better to read it than listen to it. I say this for three reasons: first it is a fact-dense, closely argued analysis and consequently difficult to listen to and keep the thread - you really have to concentrate; second, frequent reference is made to tables and charts "from the downloadable pdf file", which was presumably on the original audio CD, and lack of access to this material does hamper understanding; third the narration is very poor - disjointed, lacking variation in tone and totally devoid of any colour - which makes the challenge of concentrating that much greater.

I intend to get hold of a second hand copy as it is worth re-reading. That's what I would recommend to anyone thinking of buying the audiobook.

10 people found this helpful

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Thorough but dry analysis read ponderously

I really wanted to like this book and when I could get past the ponderous narration I found some sections really engrossing but large parts of it were very dry and laboured the points somewhat.

My main problem was with Graeme Malcolm's delivery which, while not terrible, was very slow paced and involved some improbably long and ill-placed pauses. This made some of the drier parts of the book really drag.

The book was at its best when examining the causes of the war, and particularly German war aims and willingness for war, and when looking at why the soldiers continued to fight, and particularly why they stopped fighting. The sections on the economics of war, on the other hand, dragged on almost indefinitely and while undoubtedly worthy in academic terms did not engage the more casual listener.

5 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars

Dull

I love military history but the narration on this sends you to sleep. Feels like an university lecturer reading from the page as opposed to someone passionate about what they are talking about. Shame, because the subject matter and some of the content is excellent

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

Mechanical reading of a fantastic author

I had read some of this writer's work before and I was excited to find out his take on the First World War. Instead I had a mechanical, bored reading of what seemed a good book. Since it is a long book I have decided to use a Kindle instead. My only disappointment for over a year of being with Audible !

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

Disjointed history

I think Ferguson is an engaging and provocative historian but he tries too hard to be different in this book and it comes across as a messy listen. So much has been written about WW1 that Ferguson is up against it to try and say anything new. He tries two tactics. He firstly plays to one of his strengths, the importance of finance in history, which I don't fine that interesting. The other is trying to counter perceived notions about the war. For example that that Germany in the last years of the war was starving at home and that this undermine the army, not the case says Fergunson. He blames the leadership for the defeat. Lots of complicated arguments which don't help for a good narrative

2 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars

Dense

This is a heavy read, I've been looking into WW1 history in order to help my little sister and this was a little too much for me. It's doable but the narration makes this harder then it needs to be.

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    4 out of 5 stars

Must listen if you have an interest in the FWW.

Though there are parts of this book I disagree with, it's a must read for those interested in the FWW. it adds balance to the traditional arguments. However beware when Niall suggests certain technologies should have been used earlier and military leaders were at fault for not using them. The tank needed God ground, to achieve good ground the Artillery needed to be able to fire predicted fire. To be able to fire on unseen targets the targets needed to be accurately located. Guns needed positioning and calibrating, though in its infancy on the Somme it wasn't until the following year all the pieces came together. Worth a read.

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The Pity of War

Niall fergusson 's work was perfect with many detailed information.
The reader 's voice was monotonous which made it difficult to listen

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A Wealth of Information but Dry at Times

By its very nature this book has sections which are not as interesting as others but as an analysis of the first world war it is incredibly informative. I found the 'What if ..' analysis to be of particular fascination where he analyses possible alternate histories if Britain had not joined the war.

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Superb

Superb. Deeply researched. Evidence based analysis to rival any scientific theory. Cogent and hugely persuasive.

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  • gerry
  • 09-10-15

Written for Social Science Wonks -Patience needed!

I am not a political or economics wonk so I will admit this book was a huge bore for the first 13 or 14 hours (not sure when I woke up). The remaining part of it was a fascinating study of World War 1 in terms of what happened militarily and politically. I have read 2 other of Niall's books and this was by par the most intense study of them all. His references to books, plays, authors, politicians and poets and any other cultural figures of all the countries involved in the war was very impressive - although as noted above, over the top in terms of detail. I would even go so far as calling it an opus. Its not for everyone but if you love historical detail and insightful analysis - dig in.

5 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Michael
  • 15-11-10

Excellent study

If you are into the First World War, or just interested in the causes of war then this book is a must. It is also an excellent study of the 20 Century. History does tend to repeat itself, and to hear what is reported to be a truth of the war, open my eyes to the lesser noble aspects that I grew up thinking the war was. We all hear about the atrocities of the Second World War, but perhaps on a lesser level the First World War had its share, committed by all sides. Britain comes out of this looking rather shabby, Germany, the cause of its own nightmare with the Nazis and even the USA is shown to be foolish. A great read.

18 people found this helpful

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  • Charles
  • 20-06-15

Better in print?

As usual Ferguson's ideas are interesting and well-articulated. This book loses something in the audiobook medium. There is so much economic and demographic data that even though the thesis is clearly presented, much of the detail behind the argument clearly relies on the tables and figures. This is not to say that the book is not worth a listen; only that it is not so well-suited to audio as Ferguson's other books. Also I find the narration a little flat, which can be corrected somewhat by a faster playback.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Corey
  • 08-04-15

Informative but dry

Good financial and sociological study of world war 1 but drags at places. I would recommend it for a deeper understanding of the war but not as an introduction to the topic.

2 people found this helpful

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  • David
  • 23-10-11

A true history of the reason for war.

A long book, and a little dry, but a great history for the reasons for WWI. He is not an appologist for either side, like most authors. He just gives you the facts. Downloading the PDF is must for this book, it is 29 pages! Not a bbok for those looking for a light listen. I got this title because of his book, "The Assent of Money" and this did not disappoint.

6 people found this helpful

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  • deborah
  • 05-10-11

Textbook, not a novel

Though narrated by the great Graeme Malcolm of the Hamish Macbeth character in MC Beaton Highlands mysteries, have no illusions that Pity of War has any narrative. It is strictly a textbook spoken aloud, with tables and statistics. It is long, dry, and difficult to follow for the average listener. This book should remain a bible of a graduate history course, not offered to audiophiles looking for characters studies.

10 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • Kyle
  • 25-08-11

Too Detailed

I am a huge fan of Niall Ferguson, but this is too much. Admittedly, I was looking for a history of World War I, not book on the economic questions related to WWI, but this is too weighed down with statistics for audio.

9 people found this helpful

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  • NK
  • 28-09-11

The Pity of War

I was disappointed in the book. I really had higher expectations based upon a number of the reviews I read here. Nevertheless I did learn some things from the listen about the events around WWI so it was worth the time.

4 people found this helpful

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  • noVack
  • 12-11-17

Brave & profound

Ferguson has shanked the received wisdom about The Great War. He finds it our greatest mistake. This is an astonishing claim. Moreover, it takes considerable intellectual courage to face up to the possibility that the entirety of thinking on WW1 is vastly skewed by the outcome of subsequent western history, especially what then goes on to happen in WW2 and Europe for the 100 years hence.

Do not say that Ferguson is not entirely convincing - he is not trying to be. He is proposing a reconsideration & in the light of the weight of what he lays out, we have to uncurl our grip on the proportion of blame to be borne. And what he lays out is not straightforward. Yet this is part of the satisfaction of the case; the survey contrasts with quick pc assessments.

Of course WW1 remains a horror unlike anything & Ferguson’s work etches fresh pain into it. This is because the frailty of the economic & financial situation in Europe he reveals shows how very fraught the society really was. He unmasks the personal responsibilities of key figures (who’d often published memoirs absolving themselves because they were overwhelmed by larger historical forces....uh huh)

We’ve become accustomed to the cant about necessary war. Ferguson goes a long way towards proving that excesses of righteousness, chilling indecisiveness & imbibing our own propaganda contributed to a decision to enter the war & afterwards with the benefit of the outcome known, casting these decisions as if they were entirely coherent, buttressed by complete information & a clear reading of the future. All false & off to war the world went.
Ferguson should be applauded for this courageous work repudiating the why of WW1.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 18-05-20

You may want some before knowledge

It will be helpful to have read a book on prewar France, Germany, Britain before getting beaten by so many historical concepts in regards to multiple countries. Good book, but you may get lost in the mix.