Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The 'Old Lie'

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen, 'Dulce Et Decorum Est'

As someone interested in history, I always enjoy it when history itself becomes news. It is interesting to see our interpretations of the past argued in the full glare of media attention, reinforcing the fact that history is a continual process, as each period is re-evaluated by a new generation and old certainties and assumptions challenged. In the past year we've had two periods of history argued over - one recent; the 1980s, following the death of Margaret Thatcher - a period I can speak on with reasonable authority, as I remember it very well - and the other more distant; our verdict on Richard III, his winter of obscurity made glorious summer by the rediscovery of his bones (and the subsequent argument about where we should bury them). Now we have the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War approaching, and even eight months ahead of that our attitude to the conflict has already become a political football. Some on the right, with Education Secretary Michael Gove as their cheerleader, apparently feel that the national narrative has been hijacked by bleeding heart liberals, war poets and 1960s lefties who produced 'Oh, What A Lovely War!' and - eventually - 'Blackadder Goes Forth', and that we ought to reclaim the war from this pacifist tosh and celebrate our victory over Hunnish Militarism, or somesuch nonsense.

It seems to me that there are two separate arguments here, one about the causes of and justification for the war, which I call the 'Beastly Hun' argument, and the other about its conduct, and whether Lions really were led to the slaughter by Donkeys, stalwart Tommies walking slowly towards machine-gun emplacements while incomptetent toff generals swilled port twenty miles behind the lines, and so on, which might be called the 'Blackadder' argument. The Blackadder argument has definitely been broadened by so-called 'revisionist' historians, who have demonstrated that a lot of Britain's reaction to the war was based on shock of the mass casualties on the Somme, themselves the result of being bounced into action ahead of time by Von Falkenhayn's Cunning Plan to split the Allies by attacking Verdun, forcing Britain to commit masses of untrained troops on a large scale for the first time. British tactics evolved rapidly over the subsequent two years, it is argued, with greater use of mines (as at Paschendale) to destroy emplacements, more reliable use of tanks, greater coordination of artillery fire with advances etc. Battles were conducted as well as they could be under the circumstances, certainly not as stupidly as often portrayed, Germany was, in the end, largely defeated in the field, and much of the preceived futility of taking trenches only to immediately lose them to a counterattack came from inevitable communications problems during battles caused by relying on fragile telephone cables, meaning it was hard to reinforce success where it occurred. I think that this is the kernel of truth that the likes of Gove feel we have lost; a more nuanced appreciation that the soldiers were by and large led by professionals who did the best job they could under difficult circumstances.

Now this is all fair enough, but I do think it's possible to go too far down this road, with some revisionist historians arguing that the War Poets were just over-sensitive young men suffering from PTSD who happened to be the literate ones, and their voices have sounded over-loud down the decades compared to the silent majority who did their job and got on with it. There are various arguments as to why the revisionists may have gone too far, and they don't just rely on casualty figures or the debacle of Gallipoli. British tactics did change, it's true, but much more slowly than French and German. By 1915-16 the French army had developed the 'fire team' tactic of advancing in two leapfrogging groups, one covering the other as it moved, and the Germans likewise had developed 'stormtroopers', advancing in dispersed formation behind a creeping barrage, to destroy machine-gun posts and command positions in advance of the main infantry assault. The British Army proved more resistant to change and did not improve its small unit tactics in this way until 1917, and surely much of this was down to the attitude of the General Staff, who didn't think that conscripts were capable of mastering more involved tactics. This undoubtedly had an effect on casualty levels. And the dissatisfaction with the war and how it was being waged was not just the province of a few handkerchief-sniffing Brideshead Revisited types (by the by, Siegfried Sassoon won the MC after all) - all of the major armies had large scale mutinies, in a way that didn't happen in the Second World War, which was just as long and bloody. The French Army mutiny of 1917 affected half of the divisions on the Western Front. The British mutiny at Etaples involved 50,000 men. The Russian Army effectively ceased to exist as a fighting force during 1917 and the country suffered two coups d'etat. The conduct of the war may have become a charicature in the popular imagination, but there is still some truth in the charicature as well as the revisionist view, and I'm not sure Gove accepts that sufficiently. Richard Evans has also pointed out in the Guardian that a lot of the criticism of the conduct of the war actually has come from the right, people like Max Hastings, Alan Clark and Niall Fergusson.

Perhaps a lot of the dissatisfaction with the war was down to whether it was perceived to be a necessary one, and here the Beastly Hun argument about the war's justification is a much harder one, although that hasn't stopped people trying to make it.There seems to be an attempt to play up Imperial Germany's "aggressive, militarist" stance, lack of democracy (how so unlike our ally Russia...) and generally portray it as being somehow proto-Nazi. I'm far from the first to point out that there is far too much hindsight in this argument, and that it neglects Britain's own "aggressive, militarist" imperial past (to quote Blackadder - "the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front"). The causes of the war were far more about grand imperial rivalries than they were about Plucky Little Belgium, raped nuns or Hunnish Militarism, and the impetus was all the greater for no-one really being aware of what the terrible consequences of their actions would be. August 1914 was all cheering crowds and white feathers for cowardice, and it took the reality of the Western Front to make people re-examine the reasons for which they were fighting, and find them wanting.

The last word, I think, should go to the much denigrated Blackadder for summing it all up as succinctly as it is, I think possible:

Captain Blackadder: "You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way there could never be a war."

Private Baldrick: "But, this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?"

Captain Blackadder: "Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan."

Private Baldrick: "What was that, sir?"

Captain Blackadder: "It was bollocks."

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