Tory Historian was not going to comment on the row between Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, Tristram Hunt, his Shadow and the egregious Blackadder series but an article in yesterday's Evening Standard by Anthony Beevor seemed too good to ignore.
Mr Beevor, who is known as an historian of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, tells both Mr Gove and Mr Hunt that they are wrong (and sometimes right) about the reasons for Britain getting involved in the First World War and whether it was a good idea or not. On balance, he thinks, it was a good idea and Britain was right to do so but the object was not to protect freedom and democracy (a doubtful concept even at the time) but to prevent German hegemony of Europe.
Then he moves on to the problem of people writing about the way the war or, to be quite precise, the war on the Western Front was conducted. It is at this point that the Blackadder problem raises its ugly head. The discussions on what is, after all, a comedy show about the reason for the war are rather simplistic and the image of how it was conducted is based on a series of myths first promulgated by middle-class writers and poets who had not, as a class, taken part in a war before and thus had no idea just how horrible it really was, then by historians like Alan Clark who has never been able to show where he got that quote about lions being led by donkeys and, finally, by various showbiz personalities. In the meantime, real historians have been doing a good deal of work on the subject but that did not always get through to popular consciousness, let alone the educational establishment.
In the course of the article Mr Beevor also discusses the question of anti-militarism, its growth in reaction to the preceding "patriotism at all costs" ideas and, also, its anachronism.
Much of the anti-militarism is a perfectly natural reaction against the earlier, collective versions of history depicting the story of country, army and regiment. In the past 20 years especially there has been a far greater emphasis on the individual. But at the same time there has also been a certain element of sentimentalisation, generalising tragedy from individual cases. The demands for a sweeping pardon for deserters overlooks the fact that a few were hardened criminals, not just sufferers from shellshock.Why the teaching profession in its majority has taken so strongly in recent decades against anything to do with the armed forces and service rendered to the country is a large subject and Mr Beevor barely touches on it. He is right to point out, however, that this attitude must not extend to distortion of facts as it too often does.
I was appalled when I heard from a historian who is a First World War battlefield tour guide that he had heard a teacher tell her school group that officers stayed in their trenches and forced the men forward. As a recent article in the New Statesman acknowledged, young officers died at twice the rate of ordinary soldiers. Such deliberate distortions tend to underline the way that intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage.In this connection TH calls attention to a fascinating review by Charles Moore of a recent book by Anthony Seldon and David Walsh, Public Schools and the Great War, which gives figures of casualties and the rate at which young officers, most of whom were from public schools, were killed.
Public schoolboys died at getting on for twice the average for all those who served — a rate of more than 18 per cent. One reason for this is that most were commissioned officers, and therefore led their men into battle, making themselves conspicuous. Another is that they were, generally, five inches taller than their working-class contemporaries in 1914, so they were easier for the Germans to hit.Facts and figures are always interesting in such emotionally charged discussions but are rarely produced. It is sad to think that teachers do not bother to do so either.
Mr Beevor does mention at the end of his article something that is of great importance:
School-leavers unfortunately will come away thinking the First World War consisted simply of “going over the top” on the Western Front to slaughter in no-man’s-land, when the conflict extended so much further, to the collapse of four empires and numerous civil wars.TH is already rather bored with the endless, mostly inadequate and politically charged articles, essays, speeches and general bilge that will pervade this centenary year. It would be good to to assume that at least one good thing will come out of it all: a realization that the war consisted of a good deal more than just the trenches on the Western front. So far, there seems little hope of that assumption being realized.