A. J. P. Taylor’s captions

A. J. P Taylor’s Penguin history book, The First World War: An Illustrated History, probably did as much as Oh What a Lovely War to imprint on those growing up in the the sixties and seventies the ironic view of the First World War as merely a futile waste, conducted by buffoons.
Even those who did not read the pithy and brilliant text could appreciate the expressive photographs and the cutting captions that accompanied them. It’s interesting to read a letter in today’s Guardian from one of his collaborators on the book.

I’m glad that Jonathan Jones liked AJP Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History (History and all its grisly facts are worth more than the illusion of memory, 1 November). I collected the pictures for that book’s first edition in 1963 and pay tribute to Taylor’s visual perspicacity. When I presented my collection to the board of directors, he was the only person who unerringly pointed out the telling, the powerful, occasionally even wacky picture. All the other top brass went for the cliched or buttoned-up, stodgy portrait. He became my instant hero – until we received his captions, which were dreadfully meretricious, facetious even. (The editor and I had to trick him into toning them down, pleading lack of space etc.)
Catherine Boswell Fried

Taylor dedicated the book to Joan Littlewood, and said of Oh What a Lovely War that it had done the job that historians had failed to do. (Sorry, i forget the exact quotation) In this book he was clearly aiming to get as close as he could to the cartoonish boldness of Theatre Workshop’s play. It’s interesting to see his publishing collaborators trying to hold him back, as though they had a purer idea of the historian’s job than he had.
I wonder – had he been allowed to give his facetiousness (and meretriciousness) full rein, would the book have been as influential as it has been? As it is, it’s still in print, and still a great read, even if its conclusions do need to be taken with a pinch of salt.



  1. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted November 4, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Taylor’s remark about the historians appeared in his valedictory lecture at Oxford, May 30, 1963.

    When I studied the First World War as an undergraduate thirty-eight years ago under the American historian John Morrow, we used Taylor’s book as a “textbook.”

    John said that, as entertaining and provocative as it was (and we certainly needed to be entertained and provoked), it was rather misleading as to the intelligence of the generals and statesmen involved, as well as about the limited options available to them.

  2. Alan Allport
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    The companion volume, Taylor’s Illustrated History of the Second World War, is not so well remembered and (I think) no longer in print. But in some ways it is more interesting, because its puckish revisionism has become less a part of the conventional wisdom.

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