Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, January 23, 2017

Tea and Biscuits with John Terraine

John Terraine
When I started my deep study of the First World War, John Terraine (1921–2003) was its most prominent living historian. He was also a founder of the Western Front Association (WFA) and its honorary president. The project I had in mind at that time was to produce a documentary video on the American involvement in the 1918 campaign, and Terraine had authored a very influential book on the last year of the war. I had countless questions about his commentary that I would enjoy asking of him if I had the opportunity.

In 1989 I found myself in London to explore the archives of the Imperial War Museum en route to the Western Front for my first visit. Thanks to Great War Society member Irv Roth, I was equipped with an introduction to the then president of the WFA, David Cohen. David and his wife hosted me for cocktails and could not have been nicer to me. In the course of the evening I mentioned that I would enjoy speaking to John Terraine about his 1918 study, and David promised to see if he could arrange a visit with the great man. 

John's Favorite
Within a day, I think, David called back and said John would be willing to set aside an hour, no more, to chat with me. There was a little tone of caution in David's voice and I asked if I was being an imposition.  David said no, it was just that John was a bit tired of people who wanted to debate Douglas Haig with him, (Americans were presumed to be in the anti-Haig camp). I responded no, that Haig was not a focus for me. But I also asked if there was anything I could do to reassure John of my goodwill. David mentioned that Terraine really enjoyed a certain kind of biscuit (cookie for you Yanks out there) sold only at Harrods department store. They came in a tall tin similar to the 21st-century version shown here.

The morning of the interview I rode the Tube to Harrods, bought a tin of the biscuits, then took a London taxi to John's flat in Kensington. When he answered the door his eyes went right to the tin of biscuits. I knew I was in. Those cookies were the best investment I ever made in my World War I education. John Terraine spent the entire afternoon—which was punctuated by several tea and biscuit breaks—educating me on the events of 1914–1918, and I got almost all of it on tape.  Which I proceeded to lose for 20 years.

When I moved to my current home in 2010, I was overjoyed to rediscover the tape, and one of our editors, Diane, made a transcript.  I published it in our magazine OVER THE TOP in full in January 2011.  It was one of the most appreciated and commented on issues we have every produced.  (If you would like  to download the issue with the full 7,500 word interview for $4.50, just email me here: and I'll send you information on how to do so.)

Here are three of the highlights from that day when I was able to share biscuits and tea with one of the most notable historians of the First World War.

1.  MH: There's a recent influential book out by James Joll titled The Origins of the First World War. He takes what a Californian, like myself, would call an "artichoke approach," peeling off layer upon layer [of causative factors]. I think if he were here, he would rank highly the arms race, the colonial competition, and a lot of the internal politics of each of the participants  as major contributing causes of the war [but add that these were, in good part, responses] to the modernization of society.

John's Work on the 1918
Campaign That Was of
Interest to Me
JT: Oh, absolutely, yes. As far as I see it, the First World War, and the Second World War, are part of the warfare of the period of the first industrial revolution. I think of three major wars during that period: the American Civil War being the third. They have very clear affinities. The character of each of those wars is determined—in my view absolutely—by the state of technology and by the influence of the Industrial Revolution.

2. MH: Do you feel there is a differentiation morally or in the laws of great nations as to the logic of the British naval blockade versus the submarine warfare of the Germans?

JT: Well, I made it perfectly clear in my book on the submarine war that, as I saw it, we were engaged in blockade in a manner not seen before, based on the Royal Navy, not at all like the kind of blockade that we conducted against the French in Napoleonic Wars, which involved sitting outside their ports, frequently in full view, and daring them to come out. It wasn't like that at all. It was a long-distance affair. They were about four or five miles away from the German ports, but it was effective nevertheless. We were the first off the mark because we instituted it from the word go, and it was a little while before the Germans retorted by declaring that their submarines would blockade the British Isles. So both sides were conducting a long-recognized, long-accepted naval warfare when they instituted the blockades. I don't really make any distinction between them.

One of John's Lesser-Known Works on War & Technology That I Strongly Recommend

3. MH: [By] July of 1918, there's over a million American men on the Western Front. By September 1918 there's almost two million men. And if we had been in the war another year, there would've been four million men. . . If the war had gone through 1919, it seems to me that the Americans would've had by far the largest contingent over there.

JT: I think that's true, yes. And it's one of the great ironies of history, and history is not short of ironies, that round about the period of June to September of 1918, when the tide was just about to turn and then did turn, and the Germans were palpably being defeated in the field, at precisely that time the British government was exploring ways of getting the BEF, or the bulk of it, out of France altogether and letting the Americans carry the Western Front. But the Armistice in November 1918 rather spoiled that plan. [News of this policy change by the Lloyd George government caught me truly by surprise.]

MH: Was that in the way of a serious plan or a contingency plan?

JT: It was a serious intention. "Plan" is going to far, because they couldn't formulate a plan, but it was an intention. . .The idea was to cart the British Army off to the Middle East, or somewhere like that, which in my opinion was a lunatic project. Utterly unpractical. And I would've thought, totally unproductive. But that was the idea—anything to get the army away from the terrible killing ground on the Western Front. And to enable the government to avoid doing its duty—that's the way I would express it.

MH: John, was Haig a supporter of that concept?

JT: Oh, no, absolutely not.


  1. As a neophyte in early 20th century history, the concept that the effects of the industrial revolution set the stage for WW I (and WW II) as they did for the American Civil War is enlightening and entirely plausible. How do we keep the current revolution in technology and world trade from becoming the fertile ground for world conflict in our generation? Only this time there will be nuclear weapons.

  2. In my opinion, nuclear weapons may only be employed by two state players: N. Korea against S. Korea where a lunatic heads a belligerent state & Iran against Israel where an evil ideology dominates the actions of the state. If either occurs, the USA will be drawn in and compelled to respond. Let us pray it does not occur. As for technological war - we already have it in the form of cyber warfare. We are skirmishing with each other and the players are too many to mention. Because the democrats need cover and contributions they won't shut up and stop whining about a false narrative regarding how Russian hacking changed the outcome of the election. This makes the USA look weak and vulnerable to more hacking. But I/m convinced that war has already started. Maybe the reason that the republican party was not also hacked is because they understood that and had no faith the former administration was doing anything to prevent it.