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Monday, 30 June 2014

We Were All in it Together. A Brief (and basic) further historiographical reflection on the Great War debate

The piece I wrote on interpretations of the Great War in January has become the second most popular post on this blog.  Since then I have been doing a fair amount of reading of Great War history, on which more anon, time permitting.   I may indeed update and add to this post in the following days.  For now, let me recommend Hew Strachan’s The First World War as an antidote to the sheer oceans of second-rate or worse tripe available.  In particular, allow me to draw your attention to the blurb on the back cover, which describes the mud, blood and futility, not as a ‘myth’ put as ‘only part of the truth’.  I think that alone serves to mark it out from the Haigiography.  OK, I think the conclusion drawn at the end, that it was not a war ‘without purpose and meaning’, is a tad ambiguous and the phrase ‘objective truth’ appears on p.xix without evident irony but it is a book that anyone taken in by the Haigiographers ought to read as a corrective.  It is subtle and aware of material and historiography in several languages, unlike the almost entirely Anglocentric and Anglolexic (to steal a term from the late Tim Reuter) Haigiography.  Indeed it goes some small way to reassure me that – at least on occasion - people with prestigious posts in the Oxford history faculty may actually indeed deserve their resources and prestige.

My point today is simply a very basic historiographical one.  The currently fashionable narrative sees the critical position taken towards the First World War as inevitably located in the liberal culture of the 1960s.  ‘The most disrespectful decade’, Gary Sheffield dubs it, in a comment which surely seems pretty revelatory of his own political stance.  Take the tooth-spitting, mouth-frothing ire directed at ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, a ‘fatuous burlesque’ one wargames writer calls it in a gratuitous comment.  These people seem incapable of either comprehending the concept of satire or of seeing the film version at least in context - as an anti-war production that drew a lot of its popularity from the fact that it was released during the Vietnam War.  Be all that as it may, there is one point that ought to give us pause when considering Haigiographic revisionism as somehow representing the Truth, correcting ‘myth’.  Take the following list of soi-disant revionist (reactionary) authors : Steve Badsey, Gordon Corrigan, Christopher Duffy, Paddy Griffith, Richard Holmes, Alan Mallinson, Ian Passingham, Gary Sheffield. What do they all have in common (apart from sharing historical capabilities ranging, in my estimation, from ‘poor’ to ‘not particularly good’)?  No?  They are all retired army officers and/or have at some time been involved in teaching army officers, whether at Sandhurst or Cranfield.  Another raft of work (including, and I am not making this up, a PhD that shows that even the cavalry was well handled and made an important contribution in the Western Front) comes from the same stable.  To be fair, Strachan also taught at Sandhurst, proving that such points cannot ever be taken as having automatic, predictive, formulaic validity.  But be that as it may, surely that ought to calibrate their work and its claims to represent the ‘truth’ at least as much as the vague claim that work critical of the conduct of the war was produced in the permissive, ‘disrespectful’ ‘sixties.

Pursue the point.  If it is relevant that critical work stemmed from a particular ‘progressive’ moment in British history, when the post-war settlement furthered the welfare state, free education, proper health care and a general sentiment that ‘patriotic’ national wars of the old type, led by the traditional ‘Old Etonian’ social elite, were rather less than desirable, is the historical context of Great War revisionism not also significant?  Is it irrelevant that this work, seeking to rehabilitate the officer class, the Edwardian social elite, while denigrating liberal politicians, should be produced when Thatcherite and sub-Thatcherite (New Labour) governments were unpicking that post-war settlement, attacking the welfare state?  Is it insignificant that a political attack on critical attitudes to the war should be led by the government that is promulgating an insidious ideology of ‘we’re all in it together’ while making the rich richer and the poor poorer, while distracting the working class by creating out-groups of foreigners, whether immigrants or ‘Europe’, while promoting the entirely misleading ‘blame the Germans’ reading of the war’s causes and trumpeting patriotism and British values?

The old lie.

I will have more to say on this.


  1. Well, we always end up looking at the past through a lens constructed from the recent past, don't we? That has a corollary. Revisionists will use the same lens, but, to make a tortured metaphor, reverse the telescope.

    If the 1960s saw a liberal, anti-establishment approach to evaluating the recent past, revisionists are guaranteed to start from the re-evaluation and seek to turn it on its head. It is going to be impossible to completely overthrow a new interpretation so whatever revision occurs, it is bound to contain a germ of the hated liberal standpoint.

    If we look at the distant past, the then-current narrative of the rise of the Indo-Europeans was embraced by 19th century figures as a precursor of white western colonialism. The interpretation that served them best was one of conquest of lesser cultures by more advanced martial ones. This was particularly helpful for the supporters of Manifest Destiny because the proto-IE peoples were so clearly "identified" as white people, the ancestors of modern Europeans and Americans.

    One only has to look at the 19th century German adoption of the Spartans and the myth of the Doric invasion as one obvious example of this.

    The myth of the Great War as a victory for democracy rings particularly hollow when one remembers that a very large proportion of Britain's combatants didn't actually have the vote in 1914, or indeed until the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918.

    Since the WTC attacks in 2001 we have seen a gradual and rising fetishisation of the military in the UK to the point now where, even as the government dismantles the military, it has become difficult to criticise any warlike actions by the UK (although the unwillingness to get involved in Syria is encouraging).

  2. Points well made.

    As an aside, Matt Bennett is further evidence that instructing at RMAS shouldn't calibrate one's work. I'd also hate to think I'd be put in some box labelled 'conservative' due to having been an Army officer and passed through 'faraway hall' :-)


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