Opinion: Politicians should keep out of history debates

Michael GoveMichael Gove’s intervention into the complex historical debate over the First World War was as bizarre as it was ignorant. Gove attacked ‘left wing historians’ for promoting the Blackadder (a satirical sitcom, not, unless I am mistaken, a documentary) viewpoint that thousands of young Brits were consigned to an early grave by an out of touch elite. The issue with Gove’s comments weren’t his interpretation of history, which is certainly arguable, but the idea that history and commemoration should be used to score political points.

It is the diversity of opinions and interpretations within historical scholarship which makes it such an interesting and enriching subject. One does not have to be a Marxist politically to appreciate the contribution Marxist historians have made to historical study, rather, these historians make up a small part of a multiplicity of opinions based on rigorous historical research.

When he attacks ‘left-wing’ historians (in a manner which would make Senator Joseph McCarthy blush) I am not entirely sure which group he is referring to, but he appears to think that there is a large, malevolent cabal of academics determined to thwart his nationalist view point that innocent, plucky Britain (whose Empire at the time of the First World War spanned nearly a quarter of the globe) was the subject of an unprovoked attack by big, mean, imperialist Germany. The absurdity of such a view point is apparent to most, sadly not to the Secretary of State for Education, unfortunately also the man in charge of history teaching in schools.

Gove’s intervention also brings up wider questions on historical commemoration and the state’s role in it. I am delighted that the Government has been extremely generous in its allocation of funding to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. I now hope they leave it to the experts and specialists to set the tone of debate; the historians, museums and teachers, quite frankly, anyone except politicians. It should be a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate to our young the historical context of the war in terms of its human and social cost. It should not be used to confirm to ourselves the doubtful notion that ‘it was all worth it in the end’ and promote a completely uncritical view of our past. I fear that Michael Gove would favour the latter.

2014, and indeed the next four years will no doubt contain many more debates such as this one over interpretations of the Great War. One hopes the majority of the debate will be more sober in nature and involve less Daily Mail fist-thumping. I fear I won’t get my wish, but nevertheless I am sure the majority of commemorations will be tasteful, accurate and most importantly, do justice to the thousands of young men and women across the British Empire who gave their lives for us.

* Paul Stocker is a PhD History Scholar at Teesside University, online blogger and Vice-Chair of Middlesbrough and East Cleveland Liberal Democrats

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77 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Jan '14 - 5:40pm

    I am glad somebody has written about this. I think history should be taught as objectively as possible.

    I think Blackadder is a good comedy, but I think Michael Gove is right to criticise it as a teaching tool. If anybody wants proof that left wing dogma and mockery has crept into history education then they should check out this I watched on GCSE bitesize the other day about the causes of WW1:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/history/mwh/ir1/causes_war1act.shtml

    It starts with the song “oh it’s a lovely war” then brushes past all the other causes besides NATIONALISM, then misrepresents what nationalism is about. It then continues the mockery and even has all different sounds and text going on at the same time, making it hard to follow.

    I’ve been reading a bit about WW1 recently, but I’ve never seen it being blamed almost entirely on silly nationalism.

  • Well said. As for Gove, there seems to be no end to the depths of his ignorance. Even more bizarre is today’s defence of Gove by Max Hastings in the Telegraph – a man that has written books detailing the incompetence of the army commanders, but is now engaged in attacking people with left-wing views for saying exactly the same thing.

  • @Eddie Sammon

    The clip you linked to is irreverent, but is it really “left wing dogma and mockery”? Is it only the left-wing that mocks? At no point in the clip did I hear the war being blamed on capitalism, for example. If you’re complaining at the dumbing down then I’d agree with you, but, unless I’ve missed something, I can’t see how that dumbing down can be blamed on the clip’s producers being left-wing??

    I was taught that Nationalism, along with Imperialism, Militarism and Alliances were the principle causes of the first world war when I began my GCSE in history some 24 years ago. Of course the sequence of events leading to the war in the preceding couple of decades are complex and debatable, but as a short, bullet-point list those four causes seem reasonable to me and were mostly alluded to in the clip you posted.

  • Interesting how Gove’s view goes from ‘arguable’ to ‘absurd’ in the space of two paragraphs. Is that because you are completely misrepresenting it?

    No, the idea is of course not that ‘innocent, plucky Britain’ was attacked by Germany: it’s that Germany (taking advantage of the chaos unfolding at the time in the wake of the assassination) launched an unprovoked attack on the low countries, and Britain faced the choice of either standing by and allowing Prussian domination of Europe, or defending the freedoms of the countries in accordance with its treaty obligations.

    The war, therefore, was not a massive, stupid waste of life with no real cause (the Blackadder ‘Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry and now we all have to die pointlessly’ view that Gove was criticising) but a correct and necessary response to an opportunist land-grab by an expansionist and militaristic power.

    This is of course not an uncontentious view (no view of the first world war is uncontentious) but it is certainly not an absurd one either.

    I think Gove had a good point but mis-aimed it: remembering my schooldays (now depressingly long ago), it wasn’t the history teachers who were dogmatic about the First World War (they, being historians, were careful to present the sources and make us to the analytical work ourselves); rather, it was the English teachers who taught Sassoon, Owen and, yes, showed us the final episode of Blackadder and so made it clear that the ‘correct’ view of the war, at least from a literary standpoint, was that it was a massive waste, the full ‘lions led by donkeys’ treatment.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Jan '14 - 7:37pm

    Hi Steve, it is definitely not only the left that mocks and I agree “dumbing down” is probably a better criticism.

    My central point is that I agree politicians should largely stay out of history debates, but I don’t think we should rush to the defence of using some of these dumbed down teaching methods.

  • Personally, I quite enjoy politicians getting involved in these kinds of debates. The study of history, in spite of its best intentions and claims to the contrary, is a deeply ideological pursuit. I’m all for different ideologies being sign-posted and worked through via debates of major historical events. This process is also enhanced when historians and others call out the politicians when they make fools of themselves or don’t do their homework.

    As for Gove, I think this debate on Andrew Marr’s ‘Start the Week’, between Gove and a number of historians on teaching history and WW1 is more illuminating on his position. I think readers will be quite surprised at the contrast with the Mail article, not least as Marr keeps telling Gove he should really be in the Lib Dems given his views on the subject….

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03mcmwx

  • Paul Stocker 7th Jan '14 - 8:43pm

    Eddie – I am not convinced there is such a thing as ‘objective history’. Of course we can have statistics and facts which are practically indisputable and few would argue, for example, against the consensus that Hitler was an awful man, but, as David says, a lot of history is ideological and thus open to interpretation. Historians try their best I think to be as objective as possible, some fail epically and others do rather well, but their are limitations. That is why I think the Education secretary should respect different interpretations of the war and let people discuss their various merits and shortcomings, rather than promote his own narrow view of the subject.

    Tom – I think Gove’s point is arguable, but that doesn’t mean it is right or credible. You are right – it is not absurd, but one of many interpretations, I don’t think it is right for the Education Secretary to make such a direct intervention in the subject and erroneously criticise ‘left wing’ historians – who are unlikely to agree the viewpoint he stated anyway.

  • Paul Stocker 7th Jan '14 - 8:46pm

    *there instead of their

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Jan '14 - 9:05pm

    Paul, I agree that politicians who are not historian’s shouldn’t be promoting myths, but when some of these myths are brought into the classroom, for instance via Blackadder, then it is perfectly within the education secretary’s remit to intervene. We should comment on the whole of what he said, and not just use half of it as a stick to beat him with.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Jan '14 - 9:27pm

    Just read Michael Gove’s full article in the Mail (hold your nose time):

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2532923/Michael-Gove-blasts-Blackadder-myths-First-World-War-spread-television-sit-coms-left-wing-academics.html

    His explicit criticism is actually of a Cambridge University professor, but his complaints about people being taught misleading myths and the war being mocked resonated with me after what I watched on GCSE bitesize.

  • The Tories would like to define the question as a dispute between the proud, patriotic, pro-Imperial loyal subjects of King George, and the cowardly, defeatist, disloyal sympathisers with the Enemy (let’s leave it a little vague as to who the Enemy was, since that might cause awkwardness).

    An honest discussion of the 1914-1918 war, on the other hand, might admit that the UK was fighting for a principle, which even in retrospect has much to commend it; and yet that it was not always clear at the time what that principle was, and many good people opposed the war for principles of their own. That, regardless of principle, there was mismanagement at the top levels which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths that need not have happened, and that lengthened the war by a year or more; that people were ridiculed, ostracised, beaten, imprisoned, and executed for simply not seeing why it was necessary to fight, in the name of freedom, for a system under which many were denied freedom; that the political situation in the aftermath was mishandled in such a way (the victorious allies being neither as stern as they could have been, nor as lenient as they might have been, but waffling in between in a way that angered the defeated without really disempowering them) as to encourage the rise of both fascism and communism.

    This is a complicated story, to which I have by no means done justice. It is a story of which Mr Gove and his ilk appear utterly ignorant. It is, however, a story which anyone who wishes to have charge of the affairs of state ought to understand in his or her marrow. If a generation of children are raised with as little knowledge of the historical facts as Mr Gove demonstrates, the future of the nation is bleak.

  • It is a story of which Mr Gove and his ilk appear utterly ignorant

    What makes you say that? The bit of Gove’s article you refer to is presumably the bit where he writes, ‘Other historians have gone even further in challenging some prevailing myths. Generals who were excoriated for their bloody folly have now, after proper study, been re-assessed. Douglas Haig, held up as a crude butcher, has been seen in a new light thanks to Professor Gary Sheffield, of Wolverhampton University, who depicts him as a patriotic leader grappling honestly with the new complexities of industrial warfare.’

    That doesn’t suggest to me that Gove is ignorant of the story you tell; rather it suggests the opposite to me, that he is fully aware of the story of mismanagement but thinks that that story is wrong, or at least not the whole truth.

    Disagreeing with something is not being ignorant of it. Indeed, one might suggest that in order to disagree with something — as Gove disagrees with the story of mismanagement — one must be at the least aware of it.

    (Of course, nobody disagrees that a lot of mistakes were made in the war: the ‘new complexities of industrial warfare’ took everyone by surprise, and with hindsight it’s easy to see where mistakes were made. But those at the time did not have our luxury of hindsight, and while the standard ‘mismanagement’ story casts the generals as out-of-touch fools blindly throwing away for which lives they cared nothing in futile gestures is is not the only explanation.)

    I suppose you might think that the story of mismanagement is so self-evidently true that simply to disagree with it is symptomatic of massive ignorance, in the way that to doubt the Holocaust betrays one as (at best) ignorant, because the historical evidence for the Holocaust is so overwhelming that it is not possible to in good conscience doubt it.

    But it is my impressions that the historical evidence around the First World War is nowhere near as clear as that around the Holocaust, and many plausible interpretations are possible, and that while the ‘mismanagement’ story is the one currently in vogue it is not so obviously true that anyone who doubts it must necessarily be ignorant.

    Perhaps I’m wrong, though, and it is that clear. Is it?

  • Julian Critchley 8th Jan '14 - 12:28am

    @Eddie

    You describe the picture painted by Blackadder as a “myth”. It’s not a myth, as that would suggest that it is demonstrably wrong. It’s an interpretation, and if you strip out the slapstick, a perfectly valid one – many of the soldiers conscripted into the British Army to die in mass slaughters were not only unable to point to Belgium on a map, but weren’t even allowed to vote for the Government who forced them to their deaths. The idea that they were all committed to defending western ideals against Prussian militarism is laughable. There are of course other interpretations, but I’m afraid all you’re doing is making the same mistake Gove did, which is to dismiss alternative views as “myths” or politically motivated propaganda. The whole point of history is to be able to examine sources and base one’s views on an interpretation of those sources.

    It’s not Gove’s first offence either- he’s very quick to state that any view other than his own is mere “lefty” propaganda, on any issue relating to education. It’s one of the reason why even Tory-supporting teachers (yes, there are some) loathe the man.

    Moreover, you suggest his real concern is that the use of such sources is “dumbing down”, but again, you’re making a very simplistic assumption, which is that these sources are presented in the classroom as if they are factual documentaries. No history teacher would do so. They might be presented and then discussed, with a view to asking the students to explain why the war has been presented in such a way and find sources which back up that particular interpretation. This would complement another very common approach, which would be to show the jingoistic and evocative propaganda recruitment posters from WW1, which portray the war as a glorious flag-waving exercise, and these sources can also be assessed and interpreted. Contrast and compare, interpret and evaluate – the very stuff of history.

    This is, I’m afraid, the problem with Gove. He wants to create the impression amongst the ignorant that his particular group of enemies (academics, teachers, people in the reality-based world) are doing these terrible things to students, and only he (and the Conservative-donor chums he’s handing our schools to), can possibly save them. So he builds straw man after straw man, and then laughs all the way to the bank while the outraged simpletons of the right set fire to his creations with their ignorant outrage.

    At least, that’s one interpretation of his actions. Another interpretation is that he really does believe the nonsense he spews (his personal draft of a revised history curriculum suggested a very limited intellect, and had to be abandoned when even his own sympathetic right-wing historians mocked it). He is also constantly banging the drum for a narrative view of history which does seem to suggest that he genuinely believes that great swathes of history happened in a certain way, and can only be viewed from one perspective. “Just one ****ing thing after another”, as the History Boys put it.

    Neither is particularly promising for the man in charge of our education system.

    I’m the head of a history department in a large and successful state school, and Gove is single-handedly responsible for turning me into Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus.

  • Gove’s ignorance isn’t that he holds a particular opinion that is different to other people’s opinions, it is that he ascribes other people’s opinions to them being left-wing and that there is, therefore, a left-wing conspiracy to re-define the first world war, particularly amongst teachers – that favourite target of irrational right-wing paranoia. Notable left-wing plotters that have contributed to the ‘myth’ he describes include the like of Alan Clark and Max Hastings. Hmmmm.

  • “the Government has been extremely generous in its allocation of funding to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.”

    The government has fallen over itself to organise a jongoistic celebration (not commemoration) of the start of a war that killed millions. It’s very difficult indeed to think of anything in worse taste. It should all be cancelled.

  • jingoistic – I can’t type

  • Probably worth reading Richard Evans responce to Gove here http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/06/richard-evans-michael-gove-history-education?CMP=fb_gu

    Evan’s piece on History teaching in the Observer last summer was very good. Michael Gove I think has a personal grudge against Evans for the response of the historical profession for his initial proposals for changing the curriculum.

  • anyone who wants proof of this has only to read the comments thread on Gove’s article in the Mail Online, where the newspaper’s readers, few of whom I would guess would describe themselves as leftwingers, overwhelmingly reject his views

    Oh, he really doesn’t know how the internet works, does he?

    Reading that article, he seems to be talking past Gove as much as Gove is talking past him (for example, providing a list of right-wingers who have promoted the ‘mismanagement’ theory is irrelevant to addressing the claim that left-wingers are doing it: if I say, ‘Xs do A!’ and you say, ‘That’s wrong, here’s a list of some Bs who also do A’ you have not addressed my point at all).

    Ideally what we would want is for them both to write articles setting out their positions that do not mention nor claim to be responding to each other, so that their arguments can be judged on their own merits instead of both being full of those kinds of logical fallacies and irrelevancies.

    But yes, now they’ve got this personal feud thing going, there’s no chance of that happening.

    Sometimes one longs for the days when in such a circumstance the gentlemen involved would have met with pistols or swords and that would have been an end of it. It would have been more dignified.

  • Charles Beaumont 8th Jan '14 - 12:28pm

    Surely the point here is that a professional politician should not assume that professional historians are acting from a politically motivated perspective. It’s the classic error that politicians make and it explains a lot of the public distaste for politics. Gove assumes that people who disagree with him are leftists and therefore part a group that , for him, is on the “wrong” side of every debate. Whereas most people don’t live in his mental world. In my experience, even people who consider themselves generally left or right-wing don’t actually look for the “left-wing” response to every question.

    I doubt that Richard Evans gets up in the morning and says “how can I write an unpatriotic left-wing account of WWI today” any more than Gary Sheffield gets up thinking “hmm, must write some more of that patriotic, right-wing history.” In Gove-land we are all neatly divided. I bet he hankers for the Cold War. Silly man.

  • @Tom
    “for example, providing a list of right-wingers who have promoted the ‘mismanagement’ theory is irrelevant to addressing the claim that left-wingers are doing it”

    You appear to be creating a logical fallacy. A list of right-wingers who have promoted the ‘mismanagement ‘ theory proves that the ‘mismanagement’ theory is not intrinsically left-wing. Where does that leave Gove’s paranoid claim? – that left-wingers are deliberately trying to indoctrinate our children with a version of history that is not intrinsically left-wing!

    The fact that Gove hasn’t provided any proof that it is indeed left-wingers that are promoting the ‘mismanagement’ theory in schools (has he surveyed all the teachers concerned and found that they are ALL left-wingers?) then we could assume that Gove came to the conclusion that left-wingers are promoting this theory on the basis of the evidence of what is being taught rather than who is teaching it? That hypothesis, however, is disproved by the fact that the theory has been promoted by right-wingers and is therefore not intrinsically left-wing, which leaves us with the not unsurprising conclusion that Gove actually bases his thesis on nothing more than an ignorant prejudice that tells him that teachers are a bunch of lefties trying to indoctrinate our children.

  • But Gove doesn’t mention teachers in the article, and the only reference to ‘left wing’ is ‘Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths’.

    Which there clearly are.

    Perhaps I might ask you to spell out exactly what ‘Gove’s paranoid claim’ is and point to the bit in the article where he makes it (or in another article or speech, if it’s not in that one).

    Because the claim that ‘to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths’ is neither paranoid, nor false (while of course people might disagree on whether the ideas he refers to are ‘myths’ or ‘facts’, there are left-wing academics who do feed them).

  • Matt (Bristol) 8th Jan '14 - 2:52pm

    Steve –

    “Notable left-wing plotters that have contributed to the ‘myth’ he describes include the like of Alan Clark and Max Hastings”

    I was hoping someone would point this out. Alan Clark is in some people’s view the greatest and most outspoken proponent of the theory that at least the Wester Front part of WW1 was a c*ck-up organised by an incompetent and out of touch military leadership-class. Other key contributors to this would include that notable leftwinger WS Churchill (who maybe just maybe have had political capital to rebuild after the Dardanelles), and Rupert Murdoch’s dad. Bl**dy commies.

  • It might also be interesting to point out the bit that indicates Gove thinks Blackadder is shown in classrooms, because I can’t find it in the article.

    The article’s only mention of Blackadder is in the sentence, ‘The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.’

    Which doesn’t mention it being shown in classrooms at all.

    Now, actually I happen to know the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth has been shown in at least one classroom, because I was there at the time. It was a GCSE English class, and as I recall we were all rather glad to get to watch a sitcom rather than do any work for a period.

    But unless Gove mentioned it in some other article or speech, I can’t see anything that suggest he thinks Blackadder is being shown in schools in that article.

  • “Sometimes one longs for the days when in such a circumstance the gentlemen involved would have met with pistols or swords and that would have been an end of it. It would have been more dignified.”

    The trouble is that people say this kind of thing in jest, and then the following week Michael Gove makes an earnest policy proposal of it.

  • I do not jest.

  • So Gove was simply referring to people in general who randomly watch Blackadder at home, do not learn History in school and therefore learn all their History from the TV

    That does seem to be how most people learn about history these days, yes.

  • Right. You think people shooting each other is more dignified than having verbal arguments. Churchill had something to say about that too, didn’t he?

  • Matt (Bristol) 8th Jan '14 - 3:16pm

    The more I think about it, the summary ‘a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite’ would describe the orthodox view of a significant amount of the British literary output when describing our military over the entire 19th and 20th centuries, including Tennyson on the charge of the Light Brigade.

    In Britain I think we just tend on the whole (with lapses) towards scepticism aboutthe benefits of religious enthusiasm, the financial motives of politicians and the genius of generals. Gove is unwittingly attacking (lazily) a huuuuge area of British (lazy, kneejerk) thinking.

    However, and this is where a very large chunk of the populace is ready to go to town big-style with WW1 commemoration next year, you can never never slag off the British Tommy (at least, not dead ones). Clark’s ‘lions led by donkeys’ phrase resonated because it is the _national_ myth, not a leftwing one.

  • You think people shooting each other is more dignified than having verbal arguments

    I certainly do not. I would not choose pistols.

  • My leg’s getting quite sore now.

  • andrew purches 8th Jan '14 - 4:33pm

    Whilst a lot of history is a matter of interpretation, the origins of the first world war go back to the Congress of Berlin in 1878,when the Great (Imperial) Powers – Britain,Germany / Austro Hungary and Russia met to resolve the post Crimea hiatus that led to the Balkan crisis in Bosnia – Hercegovina. There was a general carve up of Boundary lines, territories, lumps of Africa and all at the expense of France,the Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire. This is History that Messrs Gove and others seem not to take on board, and IS the basis of all that followed in the 20th Century, and which is not finished yet. The eastern question is building up nicely, and in quoting Otto von Bismark who after the Congress of Berlin stated ” Europe today is powder keg,and its leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal..A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all ” Well nothing changes, particularly where our leaders are sitting, and we may well find History repeating itself, with the next conflagration involving us all in a Christian / Muslim post imperial war of continuing attrition over two or three decades. ( Another 30 year war in fact)

  • Peter Watson 8th Jan '14 - 5:20pm

    @Helen Tedcastle “In fact he implies that indeed thanks to his own policy, more pupils learn History than ever before”
    Based upon my own kids (and myself if I’m honest), I would definitely give that credit to the team behind the brilliant Horrible Histories television series.

    @Tom That does seem to be how most people learn about history these days, yes.” [from the TV]
    Another chance for me to praise Horrible Histories!!

  • Simon Banks 8th Jan '14 - 5:38pm

    I think politicians have as much right as anyone to comment on historical controversies, especially if they’re debating issues of interpretation or values rather than matters of fact. However, I get a bit worried when ministers with power over what is taught do so.

  • On the first of July, 1916, the British Army lost 20,000 men with another 40,000 wounded, when the soldiers were ordered to advance on German positions that British commanders, led by Sir Douglas Haig, incorrectly believed to have been neutralized by a prolonged shell barrage.

    This is not myth. This is not left-wing hysteria. This is not a sitcom. This is a cold and deadly fact. It cannot be explained away by unfamiliarity with “modern mechanized warfare” when the war had been going on for nearly two years. There may be other explanations than a blind unwillingness to learn lessons different from those taught at Sandhurst in the 1880s. But there are *no* explanations that can wholly absolve the British command of responsibility for sending those soldiers to their deaths, both on that day and in other similarly fruitless offensives. There is *no* way to look at the facts of the matter and not conclude that “someone had blunder’d.” There are always a handful of rewriters of history who will try to shave the truth to suit a personal agenda, and these are much beloved of the Tories. But the facts are resistant to revisionism, and will remain to be appealed to — until the government order them shoved down the memory hole.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Jan '14 - 6:35pm

    Julian, I have just read your passionate rebuttal of my criticisms. I can only agree with you half way, mainly about not wanting a misleading or narrow British version of history. The part I disagree is that I think some of the material has either not been challenging or relevant enough.

  • David Allen 9th Jan '14 - 12:19am

    Schools are not places where politicians should intervene to promote propaganda favourable to their own world view. We do not send our children to school to be indoctrinated. That is what Gove is trying to do.

    Gove understands that he is on shaky ground. He knows that he is using government resources and influence to promote a private party political agenda. He has therefore found a tactic which minimises the risk he runs. That is, to bring party politics into the education syllabus by accusing his opponents of bringing party politics into the education syllabus. This is dishonest and despicable.

  • On the first of July, 1916, the British Army lost 20,000 men with another 40,000 wounded, when the soldiers were ordered to advance on German positions that British commanders, led by Sir Douglas Haig, incorrectly believed to have been neutralized by a prolonged shell barrage.

    This is not myth. This is not left-wing hysteria. This is not a sitcom. This is a cold and deadly fact.

    That is true.

    But there are *no* explanations that can wholly absolve the British command of responsibility for sending those soldiers to their deaths, both on that day and in other similarly fruitless offensives.

    But that is not, necessarily. It includes several implied, and highly arguable assertions. First, that the assault was ‘fruitless’; I thought that there was now a body of opinion that the Somme,and other such offensives, were not in fact ‘fruitless’ but contributed vitally to the winning of the war?

    Second, the idea that the commanders sent the soldiers to their deaths’. Well, of course they did; that is what commanders do in wars, send soldiers to their deaths. Every military operation is likely to involve at least some deaths. You can’t criticise commanders just for sending soldiers to their deaths, or you would have to criticise every commander in every war ever.

    So you must mean that what the commanders did at the Somme was somehow worse than normal, that the commanders were more culpable than, say, the commanders who sent many soldiers to the deaths on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. Right? That is what you are saying, right?

    But… unlike the casualty figures you gave, that is not a ‘cold and deadly fact’. That is in fact something that has been argued over again and again. The implication is that the commanders didn’t care about the lives of their men, that they sent them knowing it would be fruitless (though the fact that they believed the defences to have been neutralised by the artillery barrage rather suggests the opposite, does it not?), that they deliberately or at least culpably did not try to come up with new tactics to deal with the new situations in which they found themselves (and frankly, the crack about the war having been on for ‘two years’ would be laughable if it wasn’t so appalling: it takes far more than two years to develop tactics to deal with such an unprecedented situation as trench warfare, let alone to develop the technology to implement them).

    Offensives go badly. The Normandy landings could have gone badly — the decision to proceed was made in the hopes that the weather would remain good — and they had there could easily have been 20,000 allied troops killed on that one day: in that case would you be claiming that ‘There is *no* way to look at the facts of the matter and not conclude that “someone had blunder’d”’ about D-Day?

    So you’ve moved from a ‘cold and deadly fact’ to a very contentious position.

  • @Tom
    “So you must mean that what the commanders did at the Somme was somehow worse than normal, that the commanders were more culpable than, say, the commanders who sent many soldiers to the deaths on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. Right? That is what you are saying, right?”

    Every member of the infantry that advanced on the first day of the Somme was given the explicit order to walk slowly towards the enemy trenches. The reason for this was because the high command did not think the infantry were capable of doing anything more than marching in single file and because they assumed, very wrongly, that the Germans positions and infantry would have been destroyed by the bombardment . The attack went ahead despite the evidence that the previous week’s shelling and wire-cutting parties had failed to destroy the barbed wire in no man’s land, which made it impossible for the infantry and waiting cavalry to advance. Large entanglements of barbed wire are an extremely effective method of preventing infantry attacking and holding them in position to be shot. If the infantry on D-Day had been ordered to march single file towards the machine gun posts then Rommel would have thrown the invasion back into the sea. The first day of the Somme was the greatest disaster in the history of the British army. D-day was a success – albeit with the usual combination of plans that went to plan, plans that didn’t and some fortuitous luck in places. The infantry on D-Day weren’t laden with useless, heavy equipment and told to walk towards the enemy. They were also supported by conventional tanks, tanks designed to clear beach obstacles, rangers divisions trained and equipped to clear obstacles and a close naval bombardment of the German positions, all of which were more useful than a pair of wire-cutters. D-Day was also massively asymmetrical – the allies deployed the largest armada of ships ever launched and had complete air supremacy to support the infantry who numbered 15 times greater than the Germans (who included in their ranks old men and young boys). The commanders on the first day of the Somme were indeed far worse than those responsible for D-Day. This is a conventional view held by a majority of educated people.

    “though the fact that they believed the defences to have been neutralised by the artillery barrage rather suggests the opposite, does it not?)”

    The fact that they believed the bombardment would have prevented the German infantry from mounting a defence shows them to be grossly incompetent. The fact that they ordered the attack to go ahead despite the fact that they knew the barbed wire was still in place shows them to be callous.

    ” to deal with such an unprecedented situation as trench warfare”

    Trench warfare was certainly not unprecedented as you state – it had existed for 200 years prior to the first world war (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trench_warfare#Field_works). By the middle of the 19th century it had become obvious that it was virtually impossible for infantry and cavalry to assault a trench system – and that was before the use of machine guns and barbed wire had been established. The British army had recent experience of trench warfare from the second Boer war.

    The biggest reason the western front didn’t move very far was because that was precisely what the Germans planned for it after the failure of the invasion of France in 1914. They deliberately dug-in, safe in the knowledge that trenches were a proven method of holding a line, to keep as few men as possible on the western front as possible so the rest of the army could concentrate on finishing off the Russians first. The eastern front moved over a thousand miles during the German defence of the western front. The Germans didn’t even bother attacking on the front throughout the whole of 1915. On the other hand, we had to be seen to be doing something (especially with the French taking so many losses at Verdun) and the Somme was something – in the same way that butting your head against a brick wall is something. Attacking a trench system with infantry, when there was a well-established military knowledge that infantry were useless against trench-systems, was insane. The small territorial gains of the Somme were later overturned by the Germans and the battle resulted in a larger number of casualties for the British than the Germans. It takes some mental contortions to describe that as a success. Those British men had to die to demonstrate to the French that we were prepared to take large casualties and to demonstrate that the British high command were prepared to do something, even if they didn’t have the means at their disposal to do something effective .

    Six of my mum’s uncles died as a result of fighting in the British army on the western front. Aside from her brother, she’s quite possibly the only person alive in this country today that can claim such an horrendous loss from just one generation before her. Can I kindly ask what point it is you are trying to prove with your quirky, unconventional opinions? Could you look her in the eye and try and justify your contrarian theories, based as they are on some quite ignorant knowledge of military history?

  • I agree in the main with David Allen 9th Jan ’14 – 12:19am
    But he seems to have forgotten about the Church of England’s role in schools when he says –
    ” We do not send our children to school to be indoctrinated. “

  • Read diaries of first world war soldiers or war poets like Wilfred Owen and it is clear that initial optimism about this war was extinguished in the trench warfare massacres like the Somme

    I have done; I had to read a lot of war poetry at school.

    However, I fail to see (perhaps you could explain) how war poetry, or the diaries of men at the front, could tell us anything about what was going on in the minds of the commanders.

    No one disputes that the scale of the killing was horrific. But it arrogant, uncaring commanders throwing away the lives of men they didn’t care about on offensives they knew would be futile is a very different thing to commanders struggling and failing to find offensive tactics that would work against the new defensive technologies of machine-guns and poison gas, and doing their best to grind a war of hideous attrition towards an eventual victory, would you not agree?

  • Or to put it another way: what do you think the generals should have done instead?

  • The Japanese military used to have an answer to the question from Tom –

    Tom 9th Jan ’14 – 10:53pm
    Or to put it another way: what do you think the generals should have done instead?

    Ritual suicide was required of Japanese Generals who were incompetent failures or who exposed their troops to unnecessary danger. Unfortunately Generals in the British Army during the 1914-18 War seemed to have had little sense of shame or any sense of duty to the soldiers under their command. There were exceptions but one has to remember that those who became Generals at that time achieved their rank because of their class rather than any ability , military or otherwise.

  • @JohnTilley
    So do you think the politicians should also have committed suicide?

  • These might be interesting, Helen:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25776836

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/z38rq6f

    Poetry is not history.

  • (Especially myths number 5 and 7, which you seem to believe).

  • Tom

    I am sorry but since when has Dan Snow been an academic authority on WW1 – some of those comments are subjective and he has no pedigree – there are plenty of academics who disagree? More eminent than him as well

    Just because he presents tv shows on history ( what did his dad do again?) doesn’t make him anymore of an expert than any other amateur historian

  • Chris_sh 10th Jan ’14 – 1:07am
    @JohnTilley
    So do you think the politicians should also have committed suicide?

    Well after the last couple of days I could volunteer one.

  • Wow. First you complain that the generals were incompetent at waging war, and now you’re complaining that they were to good at it!

    Is there any way to win with you?

    You never answered the question of what you think the generals should have done instead.

  • Tom 20th Jan ’14 – 7:36pm

    Are you denying that incompetence was rife in the officer class in the 1914-18 war ?

  • ‘Naturally, some generals were not up to the job, but others were brilliant’.

  • Tom 20th Jan ’14 – 7:59pm
    ‘Naturally, some generals were not up to the job, but others were brilliant’.

    Sorry to come back to you, but just to be clear, is that your way of acknowledging that incompetence was rife in the officer class in the 1914-18 war ?

  • A Social Liberal 20th Jan '14 - 8:52pm

    The Somme was an offensive trying out new tactics for a new kind of warfare. It turns out that they were the wrong tactics but that was not known beforehand. The Battle of Flanders the year after used new tactics which achieved many of the objectives set and more importantly placed the German forces in the position (along with the Americans imminent arrival in the war) of having to use their near suicidal strategy of 1918 – which incidentally failed!

    This is the way of warfare, strategies, tactics, are tried out and if they don’t work then different strategems and tactics are thought out. This is true of the Boer War, of the Crimea and of World War 2. Each posed new challenges which cost our armies dear.

    John Tilley – the ‘officer class’ was more or less wiped out by the end of 1916, many of the lower and middle officer ranks were ex ORs because of the rate of attrition.

    B Crombie – Dan Snow has a first in Modern History, and has won acclaim for his work in history since. I would say that he could be called an authority on the subject.

  • http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25776836

    Dan Snow, despite being dark blue [email protected], nails all the old cannards in this article.

  • http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/1409102149

    Junior officers had a casualty rate twice that of other ranks.

  • Helen Tadcastle. I suggest you park your prejudices, read the above work and cease from generalising about the “officer class” (who included my “temporary gentleman” grandfather, the other being a private)

  • As far as I am concerned, the officer class were incompetent, elitist and inconsiderate of the tommies.

    Some of them were, others weren’t. But you seem to object to them both being incompetent (because it got their own troops killed) and to them being competent (because it led to improved ways of killing the enemy).

    So I would ask: what does a general have to do to gain your approval? Or do you disapprove of all generals on principle because they wage war and waging war is bad?

    It still does not disguise the fact that ‘tactical errors’ sent thousands of men to their gruesome deaths

    Do the scare quotes there mean you think that they weren’t really errors? You think those deaths were deliberate? If so, what evidence have you for that?

    (And if not — if they really were errors — how can you blame the generals for doing the best they could with the information and experience they had, only to discover that they were, tragically, mistaken?)

    Or maybe that’s acceptable to those who enjoy military history- collateral damage and all that

    And again I ask you: what do you think they should have done instead?

    If you had been there, how would you have avoided the casualties of the Somme? Without the benefit of hindsight, mind. The day before, no one knew it was going to be a massacre; what would you have done instead?

  • I don’t see WWI as a good thing to have happened to Britain.

    That’s one for Hoggart’s law of the nonsensical reverse, isn’t it?

  • @jedibeeftrix
    “You make an interest in military history seem like some form of social deviance.

    Is this truly the triumph of willful ignorance over ‘immoral’ pursuits?”

    How ironic. Have you read the earlier comments in this thread? Did you read Tom’s comments comparing the Somme to D-Day, and my answer? If there is a case of wilful ignorance then it is the misrepresentation and re-writing of what is largely accepted and evidence-based wisdom on the likes of the Somme. This re-writing of history, by those with a political agenda such as Gove and some of the people on this thread, I find, sickening.

  • Helen T its worth a read.

    WW1 casualty rates for officers of brigadier or above were far higher than in ww2

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing. WW1 Generals had to operate without it. Not to say that mistakes weren’t made, but as Dan Snow says 1918 was unrecognizable from 1914. Tactics of massed armour still used today were developed in ww1

  • Is an interest in military history a form of social deviance?

    It is often an unhealthy juvenile enthusiasm that thankfully most boys grow out of by the time they get a girlfriend.

    It usually has far more to do with military and is often unrecognisable as history.

    This thread indicates some enthusiasts who seem incapable of lifting their eyes to see the far more important political aspects.

  • Is an interest in political history a form of social deviance?

    It is often an unhealthy juvenile enthusiasm that thankfully most boys grow out of by the time they get a girlfriend.

    It usually has far more to do with political prejudice and is often unrecognisable as history.

    This thread indicates some enthusiasts who seem incapable of lifting their eyes to see the far more important historical facts.

  • A Social Liberal

    Dan Snow has a first in Modern History and his tv shows have won some acclaim

    Well – is that what it takes to become an expert now is it? Where is his PhD to show his expertise and capability in research on one detailed subject? Where are his academic works on the 1st World War and its causes and effects

    He is a professional historian – let me give you an analogy. A friend of mine has a first in chemistry and teaches chemistry to A Level standard. Does that make her an expert in all aspects of chemistry – able to challenge academics in their specialist areas?

    He is an informed amateur – and nothing more.

    I am not saying his opinion has no value but to use him in this way to support your view is stretching it a bit far isn’t it?

  • Bill le Breton 21st Jan '14 - 8:38am

    I thought this review of some of the literature and perspectives by Sam Fowles for History Today was a good starting point: http://www.historytoday.com/blog/2014/01/complex-origins-first-world-war

    Just a pity the sub-editor chose an inappropriate photograph to support it.

  • History Today will forever mean David Baddiel and Rob Newman trading playground insults to a certain generation

  • Thanks for providing that link Bill le Breton 21st Jan ’14 – 8:38am. Although I think AJP Taylor would have approved of the photograph.

    I like the final sentence in the History Today piece — “The historian must master multiple meta analyses and the ultimate goal is not truth but understanding. ”

    Any lessons in that for Liberal Democrats given today’s headlines ?

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