Tuesday, January 07, 2014


The First World War began in August 1914. The centenary has started in January 2014. Perhaps this one really will be over by Christmas. I hope so, because centenaries usually mean the hijacking of history and the early kick-off promises a deluge of dubious reportage.

The commemoration has begun with some ferocious fighting. Michael Gove has spotted a left-wing academic plot to denigrate the brave British Tommy by pushing a particular line about the War as a pointless waste of life. On the other side of no-man's-land, Richard Evans has been launching telling counter attacks and here is the latest:
And who are these people who are peddling "leftwing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders"? Step forward, please, Professor Niall Ferguson, a self-styled right-winger whose book The Pity of War argues that it was wrong for Britain to enter the war in 1914 and claims that the British government of the day should have left the continental powers to slug it out among themselves. Step forward, please, Sir Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, whose trenchant criticisms of British generals such as Sir John French in his latest book Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 yield nothing in their severity to the coruscating attacks levelled at Sir Douglas Haig and other leaders of the British army by the late Conservative MP Alan Clark in his book The Donkeys, a term used to describe the British military performance in the war ("lions led by donkeys", was a phrase he attributed to a German commentator but later admitted he had invented himself).
Oh dear. But then Gove has always been better at preaching rigour than practicing it and he certainly suffers from the politician's malaise of being unable to distinguish between declaration and reality. To announce that it is so, does not make it true. Ever since I was first confronted with the history of World War I as an undergraduate in the late '70s, the War was taught as problematic, with multiple contesting interpretations. Whether these involved the social history of the home front, the experience of the trenches, the quality of leadership, the political controversies of the times, or, in particular, the causes of the War, I have never come across teaching that referred to the history as settled. It has always been taught as a continuing debate.

Of course, the image that Gove picks on does exist. It emerged at the end of the War, partly as a legacy of anti-war activists and the Russian Revolution, but mainly as a result of the remarkable literature of a generation who had been participants - Owen, Sassoon, Remarque, Graves - who captured, what Owen called, the pity of war. It became politicised by the inter-war peace movement. It probably is the dominant view in the popular imagination. But in academia? I don't think so.

So once again, Gove has turned his artillery on a straw man, whilst the massed ranks of historians, even those of whom he approves such as Margaret MacMillan, are replying with some murderous fire. Perhaps the centenary will be fun after all.


Anton Deque said...

I recall one uncle who had fought in the First World War that he told my mother off for wearing a poppy. "Have you seen what's written on the inside (sic)? 'Haig Fund'!" He did not buy one as a protest at what he saw after the war ended. He did however have a Modest job at Harrods and voted Conservative.

Nothing is ever fixed in history otherwise it is merely myth. If I live long enough I expect I shall read that Poland attacked Germany in 1939.

George S said...

Gove is the cartoon of the spluttering young-but-ageing fogey.He seems a reasonable (if wrong) man in informal debate but as a public figure he anticipates and outdoes Gerald Scarfe.