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Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The First World War: Right- and left-wing interpretations?

[I post this with trepidation as it is likely to open all sorts of flood-gates of abuse.... What I want to do in this very personal essay, which has turned out to be far longer and more rambling than I envisaged, is to argue that there are ethical undertones to the different readings of the Great War that have grabbed the headlines of late and that therefore there are political stances that underpin different historical standpoints.  These need not equate with the proclaimed stance of the writers in question.   We need to be entirely up front about that and not pretend that one side's view represents truth and the other myth.  I will try to show,  first, that the revisionist view of the war is as partial as the straw man myth that it aims to dismiss.  I will then move to argue that there are non-empirical steps taken within the historical methodology adopted which are inseparable from a particular set of political ideals which implicitly underpin the reading espoused.  I will finally argue that the revisionist view, in its exclusion from the debate of a range of issues, is motivated, consciously or otherwise, by what I consider to be fairly unpalatable assumptions.  I also contend that a historian who espouses such a reading without seeing these underpinning assumptions can justly be castigated as not possessing the imaginative or critical ability appropriate to the status of a good practitioner of the discipline.]


First of all, since I will talk about others' inherent biases here, let me come clean at the start about my own position. I am not a WWI specialist of any kind, but then again nor are a number of those who have sounded off thus far.  I have had a passing hobby interest in the conflict (as a wargamer) for 20-odd years but won't pretend to any more than that.  In other words I am not going to dispute the fact that there are hundreds, thousands of people who know more about the war than I do in any sort of empirical terms. I couldn’t tell you what exactly happened at Loos or Messines or the Chemin des Dames, or at any number of other battles, or even, with the smaller ones, where they fit into the chronology; I couldn’t tell you who commanded whom, where and when; I couldn’t describe the organisation of a German division;  I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Mk.I tank and a Mk.IV or between a Spad XIII and a Sopwith Pup – actually maybe I could have a stab at that last.  Anyway, if you could, well done you.  I can always look them up. Where I take my stance is in the rather more complex area of the writing of history, and the ethics and politics thereof, something which I have been professionally interested in.  This has led me to a slightly macabre obsession with what I have termed (and I admit that I am quite proud of this coinage) ‘Haigiography’ (see what I did there?) - the attempts to rehabilitate the British high command in the First World War and to re-package the war (or rather restore the war's original packaging) as a Just War against tyranny.  My family, like most, lost several members in the conflict, one of whom was listed as missing presumed dead (blown to bits in other words, or mutilated or decomposed beyond identification) at Arras, and the powers that be couldn't even take the trouble to spell his surname properly on the memorial.  That puts me in the opposite camp from the likes of Dan Snow and his family.  For that I make no apology.


There has been a good deal of ink spilled in recent weeks over the commemoration of the Great War, particularly since Michael Gove dismissed 'left-wing historians' as propagating a 'myth' about the war as a fruitless waste of life.  Part of the response to Gove's characteristically ill-informed outburst(1) rightly concerned his depiction of rival interpretation as a myth. Another component concerned whether the view of the Great War as a futile and badly-conducted mess was really a left-wing view.  Richard Evans correctly identified a number of writers critical of the war and its conduct who could by no means be considered as left-wingers: his old sparring partner Niall Ferguson, for example; Alan Clarke; etc.  Empirically, that may be fair enough, but there are serious problems with the ad hominem refutation.  To my mind it involves making an important category error in conflating the documented political stance of the historian with the implicit political and ethical assumptions that underly the reading.  What I hope to demonstrate is that there can be serious discrepancies between the two but that serious grounds for a critique of a historian's work and indeed of their ability at the critical skills essential to the discipline are furnished when a historian proclaims adherence to one political viewpoint while penning history that is at least implicitly motivated by notions incompatible with such a stance. I will also propose that, while the critique of the First World War can originate from a variety of political positions, the view castigated by Gove actually is left-wing in its assumptions, while those of the 'revisionist' view in developed, Haigiographic form cannot be other than reactionary.

Let us take the critical view first.  As is clear from Richard Evans' description, a number of possible starting points exist for such a position.  Some critique originates from a judgement of the national interest - as in Ferguson's work - which is by no means incompatible with right-wing political views.  Other criticism of the war's conduct takes as its starting point a purely 'operational', military historical view.  Thus Max Hastings' (a journalist rather than a historian) criticisms of the British high command in 1914 are not out of keeping with his view of the war as a just conflict in defence of international law, against German aggression, in defence of small nations.  From what little I recall of Clarke's The Donkeys, the starting point was more on these tactical and operational lines, though I may misremember.  Thus a criticism of the First World War need not originate in a left-wing political stance.  It need not.  But I would maintain that the particular critique identified by Gove and others actually is, fundamentally, only compatible with political and ethical assumptions that sit more readily on the left than the right.  It is not often that I will admit to Michael Gove being correct about anything so, to whoever got 20 January 2014 in the sweepstake, well done!

The interpretation of the events of 1914-1918 as a European and even global tragedy, in which something like ten million soldiers lost their lives, as well as millions more civilians and still millions on top of that who were physically wounded or maimed or psychologically damaged, in a war that could have been averted had the ruling class (principally perhaps but certainly not only in Germany) had the will, sacrificed simply on the altar of the bragging rights of nations, fits uncomfortably with any political characterisation other than left-wing.  The tactical or strategic competence or otherwise of the high command is essentially irrelevant to such a reading, although if incompetence could be proven it might add to the indictment.  Some would say that a certain heartlessness in the high command is a requisite of effective military leadership, even in a somehow ethically justifiable, 'just war'.  Someone like U.S. Grant , willing, in Lincoln's words, 'to do the arithmetic' might end a war more quickly and at less cost than someone, like George McLellan, obsessing about risk and drawing out the war and the casualty list as a result.  What is at stake at the end of the day is the reading of the war as a waste of human life and a refusal to accept national honour and patriotism as any sort of justification for slaughter.
[Incidentally, let me clarify at this point that the justification of slaughter on the altar of the class struggle may unproblematically be a left wing reading of a sort, but it is not one that I share and is one that I would similarly - and fundamentally on directly analogous grounds - castigate as bad history.]

At this point it is worth pausing to consider the nature of the reply to Gove's attack made by Labour shadow education secretary, Tristan Hunt (who at least has a PhD in history, unlike some we'll encounter).  This is classic Labour Party gutlessness.  Hunt typically makes no stand  on any sort of actual left-wing principle, and instead air-brushes out those socialists like Keir Hardie who urged the troops not to go, and all those on the Left - in several countries - who rightly pointed out that the troops had much more in common with the soldiery on the other side than with the ruling class that was sending them to war.  Instead, he characteristically dances to the Tory tune and panders to the populist Daily Mail vote by arguing that the Tories had nothing to teach the Left about patriotism in 1914.  Well, good for them; we all know the Dr Johnson quote about patriotism.


Let us turn, then, to the so-called revisionist view. What, it seems to me, is crucial here is a consideration of historical motivation.  It is, let me be clear, entirely compatible with my idea of good historical practice to want to question received ideas; it seems to me, too, to be similarly commendable to want to set the record straight where analyses have been manifestly unjust to a particular group or person.  With that in mind one might consider the initial move to reassess the popular ideas of the Great War to be consistent with no particular political viewpoint.

Certainly the revisionist view has made a goodly number of important points, all of which are worth knowing about. These, to be fair, mostly confront the extreme version of what one might very loosely call the 'Blackadder view'. Attacks were not always unsuccessful; generals did not always send their men over the top in the same old way; the British army command did try new and more flexible tactics; troops weren't kept in the trenches all year round; the British certainly had no monopoly on blood-thirsty high commanders or military incompetence; some generals were quite good; some were actually popular with their men; in the end the war on the western front was a clear military victory for the Entente Powers.  And so on.  This is all fair enough and still not necessarily consistent with a specific political stance.

The problem for me is that revision has gone way beyond that, and become the distorted Haigiography that I mentioned earlier.  Here is a crude version of the genre, possibly - who knows?-  even a parody, though far from a misrepresentation of many.  It is written by self-proclaimed 'historian' Dan Snow.  ("The History Guy" on Witter - sorry, Twitter.  No, really.)  Like most of this sort of thing, it sets up a straw man (the so-called Blackadder view) before peddling an argument that becomes staggering in its sophistry.  Now it may be that somehow Snow doesn't see the political and ethical implications of what is written here.  Maybe the article is ghost-written.  It will be less insulting to Snow's intelligence though to assume that his views are consistent with those implicit in the argument actively being made.  If not, and if he cannot see this, then I think the honest thing for him to do would be to cease work in the historical sphere immediately. 

Elsewhere, in a Daily Heil article (and do please note the place of publication) where he claims that the officer class who led Britain into the maelstrom were as much victims as anyone else, Snow claims to have learnt his WWI history at school from 'Blackadder'.  That, evidently, is the historical education your seven to eleven grand a year buys you at St Paul's…  Caveat emptor. I know that, at the state school I attended, what we were taught about WWI bore no resemblance to what is now being peddled as the 'left-wing orthodoxy' spoon-fed to children by horrid, biased schoolteachers.  Be that as it may, Snow is descended from a WWI British general, he's public school- and Oxford-educated, married to a daughter of one of the land's wealthiest aristocrats and, as with most British army officers in the Great War, his family connections are hardly irrelevant to his position (though he does at least have a first-class degree in history, and that puts him ahead of some in this discussion).  That he seems clearly to be parti pris in support of the British aristocracy and military establishment is perhaps therefore no surprise.  Let me be clear, though, the article is not composed of lies, falsifications or untruths, as such. What it does is to select another set of facts and spin them in a particular way to make a particular argument in support of a political position, and then to pretend that that spin is 'the truth', debunking 'myths'.  The attitudes and decisions behind such selection and spin are what need to be brought to the surface.

To caricature Snow's article, only very slightly, essentially the war really wasn't so bad and anyway the toffs had it worse than the rest while the oiks were jolly glad to be out there.  Those of us whose origins lie in working-class families with members listed as 'missing', in the new euphemism of the war, on the western front should all actually be grateful to the aristos for risking their lives to allow the chaps to get out into the fresh air, have a decent square meal and get the clap off French prostitutes.  Huzzah!  Cor blimey, God bless you, mister Snow.  You're a real gent, gov, and no mistake.  Excuse me while I tug my forelock. 
…. OK, you may justly charge me with being a bit unfair in, as an actual historian, using my blog (readership at best 500 hits a day, some of whom redirected from some - shall we say? -  less wholesome websites) to take to task a little journalism by someone no better qualified than our MA intake last term: a simple summary of other people's actual research like an undergraduate essay, and not an especially good one at that.  But Snow's piece, he says, has had over a million readers and, even if only an intellectual pot-boiler in itself, it does sum up a series (and style) of arguments that I find grossly misleading and offensive and which constitute, as I hope to demonstrate, Bad History to the same degree as the equally caricatured 'myth' they take aim at.   It will mislead a lot of people.
Some of the chaps, taking time off from army food banquets
and banging Mademoiselle from Armentières to have
an absolute bally load of fun in the special Passchendaele
adventure playground, thoughtfully provided for them by the
kind-hearted gentry
Even at its best, the revisionist argument remains partial.  Not every unit on the Somme in 1916 was ordered to advance towards the enemy in a more or less straight line - but some units were.  If, as one 'revisionist' writer has been argued, it was tactically essential for British troops in the attack to carry those 60lbs of equipment with them into No-Man's Land, why was that not also true for their French allies and German enemies?  It is pretty difficult, with all the will in the world, to avoid the 'donkey tracks' on some fronts, especially the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia.  It's difficult to see the fruitless uphill frontal attacks against Bulgarian positions at the Battle of Doiran (18-19 September 1918; a Graeco-British defeat), when the war was all but over, as anything other than a senseless waste of human life - pointlessly adding another 10-12,000 to the war's 'butcher's bill'.  Haig was popular; a lot of very bad generals (most notably the afore-mentioned Geo. McLellan) were very popular with their men so you don't get far on that line.  It becomes a little difficult to push praise of Haig and the rest too far for their competent and flexible handling of a novel position with new and insurmountable tactical problems when one considers a series of points. 

Snow regurgitates: "Rarely in history have commanders had to adapt to a more radically different technological environment. British commanders had been trained to fight small colonial wars, now they were thrust into a massive industrial struggle unlike anything the British army had ever seen."  In fact, of all the western combatants in 1914, the British (after their experience of smokeless powder, magazine rifles, machine guns and quick-firing artillery, trenches and barbed wire in South Africa in 1899-1901, where the officer class hadn't exactly distinguished itself) had the best and clearestidea of what new forms of firepower could do on a large scale.  Since the Franco-Prussian war, forty-three years previously, the German and French armies had had less experience of modern warfare than the British.  And yet, in spite of the country having been steadily geared up for a war for years (viz the naval arms race with Germany), the British went to war with a small (if impeccably trained) professional army, in which no commander had had any experience or training in handling a formation larger than a division, in which the C-in-C Sir John French pooh-poohed his subordinate Horace Smith-Dorrien for having trained the cavalry disproportionately (in his view) in dismounted fighting.  Even Snow's account of his ancestor is filled with criticism of British preparation. Somehow, the British went to war, in spite of being as aware of the possibility of war as any other nation, in spite of their Boer War experience, with the view that a force of 80,000 men (from a population of 46 million) would somehow be sufficient, would somehow last long in a modern war on a European scale.  By way of comparison, and as the high command well knew, in 1914 the French were fielding an army ten times that size from a slightly smaller population. As they doubtless didn't know but could have guessed, the German Empire mobilised a slightly larger army (800,000 or so) from a population of 65 million.  If the nature and scale of this war really took the British military high command by surprise, that is something that, in terms of culpability, is really pretty difficult to put a positive spin on.  The fact that they subsequently (albeit slowly - more slowly than their opposite numbers - see below) did their best to put that right amounts to little by way of mitigation.
Passchendaele in 1916 before the battle...

More importantly, French and German infantry tactics evolved faster than British, even though they started from a lower base.  That the French turned up for the Great War dressed for the Franco-Prussian is well known; less widely appreciated are the facts that the German army still employed attack in deep, fairly close-order columns and, like the French, still brought their regimental standards forward into battle, something the British army had stopped doing in 1880.  '[W]ithin three years the British [sic] had effectively invented [sic] a method of warfare
... and after.  "Huge artillery pieces fired with pinpoint
accuracy - using only aerial photos and maths
they could score a hit on the first shot."  (Snow)
That dashed Jerry had to run about all over the place before
we got him.
still recognisable today', says Dan Snow or his researchers. 
The tactics that the revisionists praise the British command for having developed by 1917 were, in outline, in use by the French at least by the middle of 1916.  On the first day of the Somme, while the British lost 60,000 casualties in a day, the French attacks - using some of those tactical methods - broke through the German lines for some distance.  There were reasons for the difference in the degree of success, but none that entirely gets the British command off the hook, especially when requests to divert men and resources to support the French success were turned down.  By not taking a properly comparative view, even justifiable revisions of the stock view of the incompetent British high command nevertheless, misleadingly, only tell part of the story, and thereby, you might reasonably argue, become as bad history as the myths they claim to dispel.

So, although it has produced a welcome increase in nuance, the debate on tactical competence cannot be considered over. This is a pretty narrow element of the analysis, however.   If one is thinking about the inevitable political content of history, which is ultimately the main point of this essay, one is entitled to ask what motivates a historian to try to exonerate the officer class, especially when that argument pushes far beyond the establishment of corrections to earlier views.  And some of this work has very much done that.  One might take as an extreme case the apparently best-selling book by one Gordon Corrigan, not an historian but an ex-army officer, which dismisses the negative view of the war as 'poppycock' and even goes so far as to deny that the generation of the 1914-1918 combatants was a 'lost' generation.  I find that distasteful. Demographically, one in ten of France's active male population was killed; France did not recover from the war for decades in demographic terms.  Similarly, while Snow's piece does mention the numbers of British dead, although estimated on the low side (he claims 'just over 700,000'; other sources give figures 100,000 or so higher) he glosses this ('[a]lthough more Britons died in WW1 than any other conflict…') with sophistic arguments about percentages, saying that a higher percentage of British troops died in the Crimea and a higher percentage of the population during the Civil Wars, as though that in any way justifies those brute, absolute figures.  What is being presented here, firstly, is a pretty hollow attempt to exonerate the British high command by saying that British troops stood a higher chance of dying in a worse (if smaller) mess produced by the British military elite's organisational incompetence a half century earlier.  As for the Civil War, what Snow is doing here is presenting an estimate - we simply don't have robust data even for the sizes of armies and numbers of battlefield casualties, or overall population, for the Civil War - as a fact with the same epistemological status as the hard data from WWI.  So ponder, for now, the moral, ethical and political motivation that must surely lie behind such arguments.  Ponder how well it sits with what I have argued before to be the fundamental ethical demand at the heart of serious historical enterprise.  Ponder whether someone who writes such arguments without thinking of these issues or who simultaneously claims to take a political position incommensurate with them could seriously be considered competent.

I find distasteful the denigration, for the simple reason that it took the form of poetry, of contemporary primary source material, written by men who were there and who in many cases lost their lives.  What, politically, one might again reasonably ask, motivates a writer to deny the validity of a corpus of genuine source material simply in the interest of abstract, clinical, sanitised operational analysis?    Some have gone as far as to question the psychological or mental suitability of these 'mere poets', a view which really cannot be categorised other than as mindless right-wing militarism.  Certainly, for me, I would find the mental state of a Wilfrid Owen or a Siegfried Sassoon, deeply troubled by the slaughter, far less a cause for concern than that of an automaton who went through the experience of the trenches without suffering any adverse effect, let alone that of someone who actually enjoyed it (Ernst Juenger?).  Ponder whether the explaining away of a corpus of primary material constitutes good history.  Ponder the ethical and political motivation for doing so - let alone those for impugning the mental health of those sources' authors.

For what little it's worth, I think I might prefer to be commanded by someone who took a critical stance to the whole business than by someone who simply, slavishly and unquestioningly obeyed.  Who knows?  We have recently had it pointed out that the casualty rate among officers was higher than that among ordinary troops, as though this changes the 'lions led by donkeys' view.  That doesn't follow.  All armies make a particular effort to kill the other side's officers because doing so tactically disables a larger number of the enemy army.  Dan  Snow claims that it was the officers' job 'to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.'  Not so.  What a field officer is there to do is to lead and command, sure, but it is most certainly nothis job to get himself killed in heroic acts of derring-do - for precisely the tactical reasons just mentioned; it would leave his men leaderless.  Acts of battlefield heroism may demonstrate courage - and I don't believe anyone ever seriously doubted the bravery of these men - but say little about military competence or - to be fairer - appropriate military training.  As an analogue for what I mean (it may not be entirely apt but it'll serve) during one battle in the Boer War (maybe the Modder River but I forget), Lord Methuen, in command of the British army, abandoned his command post to lead platoon level attacks, when his operation got bogged down.  This was courageous, for sure, but it abdicated any sort of control over the battle.  My point, of course, simultaneously defends 'Chateau Generalship' to some degree, but, as mentioned, operational analysis is a pretty small part of the historical whole.  Dan Snow claims that 'most [generals] visited the front lines every day'.  Most.  Every day. The front-line trenches. That is a claim that cries out for actual demonstration.  And 'more than 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured'.  Note the sleight of hand here and again ask about its motivation. This includes wounded and captured - and, um, what's a decent general doing getting captured?  That couldn't be a reference to Townshend at that triumph of British Imperial arms, the siege of Kut al-Amara  could it?   50-70% of the imperial forces captured there died in miserable conditions in Turkish captivity while Townshend spent the remainder of the war in comparative luxury.  The figure for actual British/imperial generals who died in the war is 58, not all in action, compared with 900,000 other ranks.  Well that's all right then.  Some might say it was their war after all.  I'm not sure I would, but articles like some of those I have read, not just Snow's, are enough to turn even wishy-washy lefty liberals like me into raging Jacobins [Haigiographers: ask a friend what a Jacobin is].

Casualties among the officer corps might lead to the promotion of competent, experienced men from the ranks below, but few are the armies in which this is uniformly the case, and the army of the British Empire in 1914-18 certainly wasn't one such.  Field Marshal Slim, who made it to that rank from private, is well-known is precisely because his case was effectively unique.  What officer casualties led to instead was the appointment of ever younger men of the right sort of social class to field command.  From 1916 - so after only two years of slaughter (well done, chaps!) - the British did stop directly commissioning officers into the army in the old way but officers from the right class could be very young.  Anthony Eden (an old Etonian, needless to say) was battalion adjutant at 18.  Just three weeks ago I was looking at the memorial window in Worcester Cathedral to a seventeen-year-old captain killed in action in the Great War.  That was no less a tragedy for his family than the death of a relative in the war was for any other family, of course, and it is a pretty unimaginable burden for a seventeen-year-old to be put in charge of a combat unit.  But is it surprising that young lads like that got killed?  You might even say that that burden made things worse for them than for new recruits, just told what to do and maybe looked after by more experienced soldiers.  It's not a suggestion I would take issue with.  But spare a thought, too, for the men put under the orders of these teenagers. The Worcester man was a captain in a British imperial African unit, which raises an extra, unsavoury element of the 'revisionist' view, to which I will return.  But hey, if I was going to go over the top into No-Man's Land and into the teeth of barbed wire, artillery and Maxim Gun fire, how better to do it than behind some brave but inexperienced teenager whose ideas of war came from the playing fields of Eton?

For all that the revisionists have made the picture more sophisticated - and they have - the conditions of trench war, especially during the early years, were horrific.  Not so in Dan Snow's idea of the war.  He wants us to believe that many men enjoyed the war.  Not of course that we might question their mental state…  But to see that this is at best a gross distortion, just skim the Imperial War Museum’s recent volume of WWI photographs.  Again it does not get you away from brute statistics.  The British army is said to have suffered 20,000 cases of trench foot in late 1914 alone.  The overwhelming weight of contemporary witness to front-line experience suggests something horrific, which it simply won't do to explain away with the fact that they did get a square meal and some time away from the front.  Snow omits to mention that frequently even 'rest areas' lay within German artillery range so that troops could be and were killed even when their unit was officially 'out of the line'.  Here is an old veteran, Arthur Savage (not a poet as far as I’m aware), interviewed at the age of 92:

“My memories are of sheer terror and the horror of seeing men sobbing because they had trench foot that had turned gangrenous. They knew they were going to lose a leg. Memories of lice in your clothing driving you crazy. Filth and lack of privacy. Of huge rats that showed no fear of you as they stole your food rations. And cold deep wet mud everywhere. And of course, corpses. I’d never seen a dead body before I went to war. But in the trenches the dead are lying all around you. You could be talking to the fellow next to you when suddenly he’d be hit by a sniper and fall dead beside you. And there he’d stay for days.”

Ah, c'mon now, Mr Savage, you know you loved it really…

In my own family lore, the story goes that my grandfather's family knew his Uncle Joe wasn't coming back again on his last spell home on leave, when he sat with what would now be called a hundred-yard stare, by the fire, still obsessively listening for the sound of German miners.  The war had got to him.  When the war got to Dan Snow's ancestor, the general, he retired, commendably enough to give the job to a younger and better-suited man.  That option wasn't open to men like my Granddad’s Uncle Joe.  And they couldn’t even be bothered to spell his name right.  If he'd written an account, even his testimony would doubtless now be rejected by the revisionists as irrelevant, what with him being clearly a bit, you know, psychologically unfit, … 
More larking about in the puddles.  What jolly japes.

The blinkered aspects of the narrowly military historical revisionist camp are further pointed up by briefly considering the period after the war.  Returning troops came home to a bad situation.  Any understanding of 'shell-shock' was at best rudimentary.  Then there was mass unemployment and the Great Depression.  The likes of Douglas Haig, by contrast, returned to comfort,  honours and glory.  They are claimed to have 'done what they could' for their men, although in all fairness men of their position and influence could have done way, way more, had they had any sort of political will.  But then Haig in later life became, like many of his class, something of a fascist sympathizer, even on the account of his loyal historian Gary Sheffield – a fact which alone gives the lie to the revisionist ‘Great Just War for Civilisation’ argument


What I have wanted to do thus far is to demonstrate that the revisionist view is no less partial than that which it claims to confront - although that which it claims to confront comes frequently from satire, and the point of satire is frequently to exaggerate, but let's let that pass.  Its most common target, Clarke's The Donkeys, wasn't even a work by a proper historian - indeed Clarke evidently later admitted that he made up the 'lions led by donkeys' quote himself.  What I have also wanted to do is to suggest that, just that there are political reasons to paint the war misleadingly as a heartless and deliberate slaughter of the working class by the ruling classes, there are similar political and ethical choices that lie behind the attempts to exonerate or rehabilitate the British high command, the officer classes and so on.  All the selection of facts, the prioritising of some sources over others, the spinning of the casualties, emphasising the relative rather than the absolute: these are all the results of consciousdecisions independent of empirical accuracy.  It is entirely disingenuous, in other words, to claim simply that all this represents 'the truth', devoid of political intention.

I want to suggest, nevertheless, that there are also some serious methodological problems lying behind much 'revisionist' work, qua history:
1.       That it is narrowly military, and narrowly tactical at that
2.       That it concentrates to an unjustifiable degree purely on the years of the war, or its immediate prelude, choosing its time frame as narrowly as possible to suit its argument
3.       That it concentrates on the British army while ignoring the comparative aspect presented by other armies, not least because that would attenuate many of its arguments
4.       That it attempts to explain away or negate a considerable corpus of contemporary primary source material

That last point leads to others, which relate more directly to my own stance on history writing, as repeatedly outlined in this blog:
1.       That it does the latter (point 4, above) in an attempt to sanitise the war by concentrating on operational analysis, and
2.       That it is thereby unethical and breaches the fundamental, implicit ethical demand at the heart of the historical endeavour

For now, let us accept that the debate on the conduct of the war is now more nuanced and subtle than it was, and that it has some way to run.  Those are both Good Things.  Let us also assume that, even then, the case could be argued empirically either way.  If that is the case then, even if we assume that we went into the subject with a completely unbiased mind (were that possible),  we choose on the basis of politics or ethics between one reading or the other, where the empirical cannot help us decide.  In other words we enter the space of what Derrida would call différance.  This is where (for all that is such a misused term) deconstruction comes into history, to isolate and open up those spaces of the undecidable where writers (and readers) make choices based upon their political or ethical preferences.  It comes into play when historians make a choice to privilege one type of unimpeachable contemporary evidence over another.  In other words to expose all the decisions that go into how to write up an argument such as that in, say, Dan Snow's piece.  It matters to do this because it helps us to be honest enough about the inescapably political nature of all historical writing, rather than claiming one view (ours) to somehow represent an unalloyed, objective truth and the other (theirs) to be a distorted politically-motivated myth - as is all too often the case (on both sides but lately more on the Right) in this discussion.  As regular readers of this blog know, I think that there is a humanist demand at the heart of history that allows us to choose between readings.

Either way, given that the tactical argument is indecisive and even irrelevant, in order to progress, the debate has at this point to change terrain and become above all one over whether or not this was a war worth fighting.  The ‘revisionist’ view (not actually that revisionist since it first saw the light in a controversial German book published over half a century ago) alleges, first, that German militarism caused the war and, second, that, had the war been lost it would have led to a Europe dominated by a near-fascist, militarist German Empire.  German atrocities are used to claim, somehow, that the Second Reich was getting on for being as bad as the Third.

It is really at this point that the serious problems start to open up in the ‘revisionist’ view as any sort of 'good history', even in straight empirical/methodological terms.  As may have become clear already, in my view the revisionist discussions of the war’s causes are riddled with contradictions that make them very difficult to place coherently alongside the attempts to exonerate the ruling/officer class from claims of ineptitude.  Numerous countries were geared up for a war in 1914 for all sorts of reasons.  That didn’t make war inevitable.  Anyone (like me) who took history O-Level in the 70s or early 80s knows that the whole period between 1871 and 1914 was peppered with crises that could have led to war, but didn’t.  There was no prima facie reason why Franz Ferdinand and his wife’s shooting by Gavrilo Princip (who, ironically, very nearly survived the war he started before succumbing to TB in an Austrian jail in April 1918) had automatically to lead to war any more than the Agadir crisis of 1911 had done.  The German aristocracy and royalty were still hob-nobbing with their British and other counterparts (and relatives) right up to the war’s outbreak.  And so on.  As I tell my students, nothing in history ever ‘had to be that way’.  Plenty of good historians who know far more than I do have countered the 'wicked Hun' argument on many empirical grounds and without necessarily coming from any sort of unique or shared 'left-wing' political angle - even if those writers who have espoused the attempts to blame Germany have frequently overtly been of the Right (e.g. Max Hastings).

Further, to move from the fact that many troops believed that they were fighting to defend their land from aggression to the argument that that was what was definitely at stake in the war is to commit another ‘category error’.  After all, many German troops, Austrian troops, Russian troops, all thought they were fighting for something similar. 

Claims for a somehow proto-Nazi German inhumanity, worse than that of the other belligerents, that had to be stopped to make a better Europe are difficult to substantiate.  They ignore the many genocidal statements produced by British and French statesmen and others about wiping out all Germans.  It is impossible to say how Franco-British troops would have behaved towards German civil populations had the war been waged on German soil.  You could at least say that the history of the Boer War presents sufficient reason not to be too sanguine.  The revisionists also ignore the exploitation of the manpower resources of their African and Asian Empires (I don’t only mean as soldiers) by Britain and France.  Before you argue that that was somehow ‘different’, just stop and think for a minute about what rather – shall we say? – tricky assumptions underlie the idea that the exploitation, degradation and even massacre of white westerners was worse than that of non-Europeans in conquered colonies.  Again we enter the sphere of argumentative decisions and their inescapable politico-ethical implications.  I’ll see your German atrocities and raise you an Amritsar Massacre, gas-bombing in Morocco by Spain and France and in Abyssinia and Libya by Italy, and the bombing and strafing of civilian settlements by French and British air-forces in Syria Mesopotamia and the North-West Frontier - all after the war, all in the world allegedly saved from German military despotism by the sacrifice of 17 million lives.  While acknowledging that the alleged British use of mustard gas in Mesopotamia and Waziristan is at best unproven, one has to remember that RAF commanders (Trenchard and Harris) and politicians (Churchill) urged its use against ‘savages’ whom, they claimed, were not covered by the Geneva Convention. 

Here's another point, which seems to be overlooked by those arguing (Eurocentrically) that Britain went to war in August 1914 simply as a Just Crusade in defence of plucky Belgium and international law.  Britain declared war on 4 August.  On 5 August, British forces began hostile operations against the German colony of Togoland.  On 7 August, still a week before any British troops had even landed in France, British troops invaded, incidentally - and more than a little ironically - ignoring the 'Congo Conference' of 1884-5, signed by Britain and France, that had agreed on Congo Basin neutrality in the event of a European War and which the German governor had offered to respect.  By 25 August, a few days after the Battle of Mons, British troops ignored similar German offers of neutrality to invade Cameroon.  By September, operations had begun against German Namibia.  And so on.  The British Empire had its eyes on other issues than the violation of Belgian neutrality.

The treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, dating to 1839, which provided the pretext for the British declaration of war, was signed overtly to protect the newly created kingdom from aggression and annexation either by France or by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, against whom the Belgians had just risen in revolt to achieve independence.  Small wonder that Bethmann-Hollweg called it 'a scrap of paper' and justifiably saw it as merely a pretext for activating the Entente Cordiale.  For most of the war, King Albert did not view the British and French as technically his allies, maintaining instead that his country remained only a violated neutral party in the conflict.  It also seems to have been forgotten that the French Plan XVII envisaged at least the option for a French offensive through Belgium, an option taken up in the event.

Weakest of all in the 'Just War' revisionism are arguments about what 'would have' happened had the war been lost.  No decent historian hangs an argument on a counter-factual (a claim that something that didn’t happen would have happened if something that did happen hadn’t happened) for the simple reason that it is unprovable and untestable.  But then, to be frank, there are, in my estimation, few enough decent historians among the ‘revisionists’ and, among that group, proportionately not many writers who qualify as historians of any sort, rather than journalists, retired army officers and writers of popular tactical studies.  The simple truth of the matter (and this is a simple truth) is that no one knows what would have happened had the First World War been avoided, or lost.  It might have turned out that way; it might not.  There are so many variables, so many imponderables, in so many spheres that there is no - there can beno - ‘balance of probabilities’ to deploy either way.  One can as easily argue that a German victory would have produced a situation roughly comparable to that after 1871.

Nevertheless, one lands the real killer blow against the rather silly ‘what if’ justification for the 'just' Great War by looking at its actual results.  The militarist German-dominated Europe envisaged in the counter factual just mentioned would have been worse than the one that did actually eventuate, worse than fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, the Great Depression, the influenza epidemic … how, exactly?  Surely a war allegedly fought to prevent one particular outcome but which, even when won, at the cost of millions of dead, produced an even worse situation is the very definition of pointless slaughter.

The commemoration of the war should focus on it as a global tragedy, something put very well here by Margaret MacMillan, Dan Snow's auntie, as it happens.  Only by doing so can we challenge the ideas that helped bring the war about.  Banging on about courage, patriotism and national honour, celebrating national victory and apportioning national blame only does the opposite, perpetuating the factors that took Europe and her empires over the precipice.


Let me, at last, conclude. What I have been at pains to stress is that there is - as there always is - a process of deliberate selection at work in revisionist history-writing.  That deliberate selection and the choice to spin data in one way or another are not driven simply, empirically, by the data themselves.  A choice is made to play down the horrors and loss of the war.  A choice is made to do this in order to justify the war as a Just Conflict.  We see the deliberate, selective narrowing of analytical foci to suit the argument being made - whether thematically, geographically or chronologically.  In some cases I have argued that that makes the work in question bad history.  In other cases we can identify motivations, such as to exonerate a particular class, which only sit comfortably on the right.  The justification and celebration of the war for virtues such as patriotism and honour, sits still more comfortably in that area.  Some of the arguments deployed, ignoring the imperial context, are based ultimately on attitudes that can only be described as racist.  Now, let me be very clear here - read this bit as though I am saying this very …  slowly … and … clearly - that does notmean that writers who have made arguments ultimately on these grounds are racists.  It means that there is an assumption that underpins an argument that they have made which, if you excavate and scrutinise it properly, is based upon some fairly unpleasant, racially-based attitudes.  This leads me to propose two alternative conclusions.  There are only two.  One is that the writers are actually pretty happy with that and so are happy enough to be identified with the socio-political attitudes and positioning that their work implies (Max Hastings) - and all well and good.  The other is that they haven't bothered to think this through - in which case we can justly say that they are pretty damn poor historians.  Thus I contend that revisionism is reactionary.

As to the opposing view, the idea to stress the scale of damage and slaughter, the incompetence of generals where it existed, the disproportionate chances and opportunities for the elite over the rest, the disallowing of the justification of any of this by appeal to nationalism, patriotism, honour (personal or national) - yes, this does only sit comfortably on the political left.  As some of you know, I think this stance sits with fewer contradictions alongside the implicit ethical demands of the historical project and that that therefore makes it better history, but that case is argued elsewhere.

I am happy enough to own up to being a left-wing academic historian, and confess that that shapes how I conceive of and write about history.  It behoves all of us to be honest about their choices and not to pretend that they exist independently of political, social or ethical belief, let alone that they represents the single 'truth' of the matter.  That really is Bad History.


1: Not to be undone in their jockeying for position to be Cameron's successor, Boris Johnson penned a piece demanding Tristram Hunt's resignation for denying that 'it was the Germans that started it'.  It was in the Telegraph and so intellectually piss-poor that it's not even worth the link.


  1. Hmmm.... You could be on to something, there... I haven't, to be honest, dared to watch.


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