Do Cameron and Gove even understand the first world war?

Education secretary Michael Gove has come out and said that the first world war was a noble war that was justifiable in the face of the ‘cruel and tyranical German nation’, at the same time as hitting out at the likes of Blackadder and the Monocled Mutineer for ‘mythologizing’ the war and making it seem like a ‘catastrophic shambles.’ He even calls the battle of the Somme ‘a vital precursor to victory.’ He’s not correct. He’s far from correct. His views come across as exactly the same sort of narrow minded and blind-sided opinions as the elitist top brass had before and during the war, before the benefit of hindsight and before everybody understood how terrible and savage that war really was. Those who came back were never the same again. They were haunted and scarred by that war for life and they were the lucky ones. On the first day of the Somme alone nearly 20,000 British troops were killed. 20,000! I went to a school with around 1000 pupils. Twenty times that many were killed on the first day of the Somme and Gove is calling it ‘a precursor to victory?’ If that’s what Gove calls a precursor to victory I’d hate to see what he would call a disaster. In terms of human life, not just those who were killed but those who were wounded, traumatized or knew someone who had been killed, the whole war was a catastrophic disaster. It was one of the worst wars in human history and yet Gove appears to be trumpeting it up as some sort of glorious imperial triumph, the last hurrah of the British Empire against the beastly hun… But it wasn’t. And not once does Gove mention the colossal waste of life, the horrors of trench warfare, the men who were traumatized or the broken families. Based upon what he has said he just doesn’t seem to understand the war at all.

But he isn’t the only member of the government to have recently come under fire for missing the point about the first world war. At some point last year the Prime Minister was criticized for making the anniversary seem like some sort of celebration by comparing it to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Put together with Gove’s comments it hints at something that is quite alarming: The government just doesn’t understand the first world war.

The main problem with Gove’s argument is that his claim that the war has been heavily ‘mythologized’ by the likes of Blackadder and The Monocled Mutineer shows a great ignorance about what actually happened during the war and some of the historical debate surrounding it. Putting Blackadder to one side for the moment, the Monocled Mutineer was based (loosely) on something that really happened, the Étaples Mutiny.  Yes, the involvement of Percy Toplis (the titular mutineer) is up for some debate but the whole reason there was a mutiny at Etaples in the first place was that it was a terrible place to be. It was a notorious base camp on the way to the front and it was run by officers who had never been anywhere near the trenches. It was  so bad that it has been said troops would rather go to the trenches than stay in Étaples. And we have testimony from people who were there as to how terrible the place was. The ‘chaotic shambles’ Gove talks about is not a matter of something that has been mythologized, it’s the truth,  at least as far as Étaples is concerned anyway.

And in a way the same is the case with Blackadder. Yes, it’s a comedy but that final series set during the war is hauntingly close to reality, in particular the final episode where all the characters go over the top at the end. Not only does that last episode perfectly convey a sense of tragic and horrific doom but the whole last series beautifully reflects how tragically insane the whole war was, how it was a campaign orchestrated by an out of touch elite who held very little grasp on reality. It frequently shows the appalling levels of strategy and the absolute hell of trench warfare. Though it mostly plays things for comic effect it still manages to create what is arguably a damned near realistic portrayal of life in the trenches. If it happened you can probably find it somewhere in Blackadder. The war it portrays, that of the ordinary soldier being sent to their deaths by a shambolic military elite is not the myth Michael Gove says it is. It’s comedy sure, but it’s a comedy that is blisteringly close to the reality.

Soldiers from the Royal Irish Rifles on the first day of the Somme, the battle which Gove has called ‘A precursor to victory.’ (Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

And we know that it isn’t a myth because, like with Étaples, we have the testimony of the soldiers who were there. Even before the war was over soldiers were coming back and telling people all about the horrors of the trench. It was well known and although people were eager to sign up at the beginning the number of willing participants soon dried up when the truth of the war became known. That’s why they ended up introducing conscription and bending the rules so teenagers could be sent up. Then you have the war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon who all describe the brutality and the horror and the stark, bleakness of no-mans land. All Quiet On The Western Front was written by a veteran of the war. Though he was on the German side what he writes about was still largely the case for the British and allied troops. There is no myth about how much of a ‘chaotic shambles’ the war was. It’s a plain truth that men were senselessly thrown in front of the German guns to be slaughtered, and not just once but continuously for four years. Last surviving veteran Harry Patch put it best when he called it legalized murder. Gove seems to have neglected all this in what he is saying. He seems to have forgotten about the multitude of deaths and the horrors of trench warfare. He’s even managed to negate the disaster of the Somme by calling it a prelude to victory. Sure, the allies did win the war eventually… But they only just won and victory came at a ridiculously heavy cost, a cost that was perhaps so heavy you could even argue that nobody really won the First World War in the end. Looking at what he says Gove just doesn’t understand this. He doesn’t once acknowledge the horrors or the senseless violence of the war, instead relegating them to the status of a myth perpetuated by the likes of Blackadder and The Monocled Mutineer.

Gove also seems to misunderstand the causes of the war and one quote strikes me as being particularly evident of his misunderstanding. He says that ‘the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.’ What Gove seems to have missed is that this sentence could just as well apply to Britain. To quote Edmund Blackadder himself, at the time the British Empire ‘covered a quarter of the globe whilst the German Empire was little more than a sausage factory in Tanganyika.’ There were many other, more complex reasons to go to war. Yes, German aggression was and still is touted as one of them but let’s not forget the complex system of alliances that caused a massive domino effect after the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand. There’s the possibility that Kaiser Wilhelm had a hatred for Britain (Because of an issue he had with his mother) and there was the issue of almost all of the royal families of Europe falling out with each other (They were all related through Queen Victoria). A part of it was British imperialistic bombast, trying to put down a potential empirical rival. There was the French wanting to reclaim Alsace and Lorraine and the arms race between Britain and Germany. There was Russian aggression against the Turks and the Ottoman empire (and the Russians were on our side don’t forget.) The causes of the First World War are deep and complicated and go back a long way. Whole books have been written on what caused the First World War and to claim it was caused by something as simple as ‘German aggression’ shows a severe lack of understanding about the subject.

And he isn’t the only member of the government to have recently demonstrated a misunderstanding of the war. The Prime Minister himself did it in a speech about the centenary, calling for it to be ‘like the Diamond Jubilee’ and ‘show who we are as a people.’ Comparing the centenary of the war to the Diamond Jubilee is ludicrous and  most notably it was Jeremy Paxman who brought this to public attention, hitting back and claiming that ‘only a moron would celebrate war’ in the way Cameron was suggesting. And he’s absolutely right. The Diamond Jubilee and the centenary of the war couldn’t be more different. There was no doubt that the Jubilee was a cause for celebration and in contrast the centenary of the war should be a time for reflection and remberence of one of the darkest and most savage periods in all of history. It should be a reminder of the horrors and the hell and why nobody should ever let it happen again. It shouldn’t be about ‘who we are as a people.’ The first world war is not something to be proud of or to celebrate and to even suggest such a thing not only shows a misunderstanding of the war but also a lack of respect for those who fought and died. Paxman is quite right to call Cameron up on his comments because they are very wrong and very concerning indeed. Everybody should be aware of how terrible and catastrophic the war was and the fact that David Cameron even contemplated comparing it to the Diamond Jubilee in the first place shows how out of touch with reality he actually is and it may even suggest how unqualified for the job of Prime Minister he really is.

And to have two high ranking members of the government show such a misunderstanding of a key part of world history is very concerning. How, one wonders, if these two men don’t even have the basic concept of something that is commemorated every year and something that even a small child is aware of, can they competently run the country? How many other government ministers don’t realize that the first world war was a horrific and terrible period? How many don’t know why we mark armistice day? I’d go out on a limb and say most of them. And that’s disturbing because these are the men and women who are supposed to be in charge, who are supposed to run the country. If they are unaware of the reasons why we still (and always should) remember the first world war, something which every school child is taught, then we can’t trust them to run the country. We can’t trust them because their thoughts make painfully clear how out of touch they are with the rest of us. To think in the way which Gove and Cameron (and possibly the rest of the government) have shown they do demonstrates that they are no better than the incompetent generals who sent men to the front to be slaughtered.

Ok, so history is a matter of opinion and it can be argued that the war was justifiable, at least in the beginning. There is even a trend amongst some historians (Jeremy Paxman himself is one of them) to claim that the actual horrors of the war have been exagerated or ‘mythologized’ over the previous century. But at least all those historians agree that there were parts of the war (like the Somme, Galipoli and Ypres) that were indeed tragic and horrific. Although, like Gove, they think some parts of the war have been mythologized, they at least have an understanding of the war and what it was about. They don’t pump it out to be some fantastic, imperialist victory over the vile Germans. They don’t do that because they know that it wasn’t. That much, at least, is historical fact. Even though these historians think it has been mythologized they still accept that it was quite a brutal war- Unlike Gove and Cameron who indicate that they believe it really was a fantastic imperialist victory. Personally, I don’t agree that the war has been mythologized. If it has then why were there four years of near constant deadlock on the Western front? Competent Generals would have strategized and they would have worked a way around the stalemate without continuously sending men into no mans land to be slaughtered. Men came back from that war and they never spoke about it. There was good reason for that- because it was hell. And you only have to look at some of the things the war poets wrote to see how bad things were. If anything I would say that the whole tragedy of the first World War has been underplayed rather than mythologized. But the problem is that, even if they’re trying to argue for the former (which can be a perfectly valid argument), Gove and Cameron have shown no signs that the understand the war at all. The comment about the Somme especially highlights this, as does their negation of the horrors and their implication that it was an imperialist triumph. Even the historians who argue that some aspects of the war have been mythologized would agree that it was far from triumphant. Anybody who knows anything about the war knows it wasn’t a triumph and by suggesting it was, by saying it should be ‘celebrated like the Diamond Jubilee, Gove and Cameron have demonstrated that they don’t even have a basic understanding of the war.
And the fact that they both lack that understanding should concern us all.

To finish up I just want to remind you of what I said about the first world war whilst doing the British History Challenge a few years back as I think it’s appropriate and never more true than after reading that nonsense from a man who should know better. ‘What they (the soldiers) did took guts, bravery and an enormous amount of courage. Those soldiers stared death in the face, many with fear, many knowing that once they walked out onto that battlefield they wouldn’t be coming back…  I don’t think I could ever do what they did and I’m all the more thankful that I live in a time of relative peace and stability after this. I have a deep respect for the soldiers of the first world war. Each and every one of them, no matter how small or large a part they played, was a hero. There is a reason we remember these men on November 11th each year… a damn good one. The first world war was horrific, vile and, like I said at the start of the article, one of the darkest hours in our history. It sickens me to think, however, that the people in charge today can still have such contempt for peace that they can start pointless wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan and send good soldiers to do what they themselves never would.’

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