Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war, and in this book James Hayward demonstrates just how true this was during the First World War. He examines many of the falsehoods that arose during the way, from rumors of nonexistent spies to such fabled tales as the “Angel of Mons” and the Russians in England. Addressing each of these, he details the impact of the particular legend and traces its probably origin, an effort that requires equal parts detective work and reasoned speculation.
Yet for all of his admirable work in penetrating through the mythos of the war, Hayward’s book suffers from some notable flaws. His text suffers from errors borne of sloppiness; he makes factual mistakes when establishing the context, and in one instance he cites a novel as if it were a memoir instead of a work of fiction. The most problematic part of his book, however, is his chapter of the “legend” of the incompetent British command on the Western Front. While the idea of the “lions led by donkeys” has faced increasing challenges recently from several quarters, Hayward treats it as if it were simply another. By lumping it in with the other falsehoods he addresses, he distorts the process of historiographical debate underway, ignoring the evidence that led many historians to their views on the incompetent leadership of the British generals. A different approach towards the topic would have served the author better in this respect.
For the most part, Hayward is to be commended. His book offers an entertainingly written examination of the propaganda and rumors that grew out of the First World War. People who are seeking an introduction to the topic could do worse than to turn to its pages, though a certain amount of skepticism is warranted in some parts.