Posts Tagged ‘Siegfried Sassoon’

Farage: Britain Should Never Have Signed Armistice, and War Should Have Gone on for Another Six Weeks

November 13, 2014

While the rest of the UK on Tuesday was remembering the dead of the Great War, Nigel Farage was giving a speech stating his opinion that it should have gone on for longer. Even if this meant that a further 100,000 lives were lost. Farage made this bizarre and offensive claim speaking at the annual Tom Olsen lecture at St Bride’s Church.

His comments have been reported by a number of news agencies, including the MSN news. The anti-racist organisation, Hope Not Hate has an article on it, Armistice was the biggest mistake of the 20th century claims Nigel Farage, at http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/ukip/armistice-was-the-biggest-mistake-of-the-20th-century-claims-nigel-farage-4120.

Hope Not Hate quote Farage as saying, “I believe we should have continued with the advance We should have pursued the war for a further six weeks, and gone for an unconditional surrender. Yes the last six weeks of the war cost us 100,000 casualties, and I’m prepared to accept that a further six weeks of war might have cost us another 100,000.”

He goes on to say that this would have stopped the rise of the Nazis, as it would have forced Germany to surrender unconditionally, rather than negotiate the Treaty of Versailles.

The Treaty of Versailles and the ‘Stab in the Back’ Conspiracy Theory

This is an extraordinary claim, and shows that Fuehrer Farage has quite a bonkers grasp of history. He has a point in that one of the reasons the ‘Stab in the Back’ conspiracy became so widespread, was because British and Allied troops did not enter Germany. This added credibility the conspiracy theory that Germany had lost the War due to the Jews betraying their country. The theory itself is total nonsense. Jews had been patriotic citizens of the Reich since the Kaiser had granted them full citizenship, including lifting the restriction against them serving in the armed forces. There had been a wave of Jewish enlistment in the German forces as a response, and German Jews fought with pride and honour alongside their gentile compatriots. It is one of the savage ironies of history that the captain, who recommended Corporal A. Hitler for the Iron Cross, was Jewish.

Conspiracy Theory due to News Blackouts on German Defeats

Just as influential in spreading the malicious theory was the fact that there was a total news blackout on German defeats. The German people were kept under the impression that the War was going well. It therefore came as a complete shock that Germany and Austria had been defeated. Even the Kaiser was ignorant of the true nature of German defeat. The general were taught that you didn’t tell the Kaiser about military defeats either. You only gave him good news. This may partly have been because Wilhelm II would fly into rage. I read somewhere that he had a habit of rolling them in the snow, or taking their trousers down and having them spanked. If nothing else, it shows you how absolutely mad and unfit for rule he was.

Ethnic Tensions, Not Treaty, Cause of Rise of Nazis

Arguably the problem was not the Treaty of Versailles itself, but the crippling reparations and conditions that it set. Germany was saddled with a massive war debt, though the Weimar politicians succeeded in having it considerably reduced later in the 1920s. The Reich itself lost territories at home and its colonies, such as Cameroon and Togo in Africa. The Poles, Czechs and Slovaks became free peoples with independent countries, along with the other Slav nations of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The result was that ethnic Germans became a minority in some of the new states, like Czechoslovakia. There had been ethnic tension between Czechs and Germans since Germans were invited to colonise and develop their marginal parts of the country by the Czech crown in the Middle Ages. Hence the Nazis’ claims of the persecution of ethnic Germans in order to provide a pretext for the annexation of the Sudetenland. Polish independence was bitterly resented by the German nationalist Right. When Hitler later invaded eastern Europe, he justified it not by citing the Treaty of Versailles, but by arguing it was a continuation of the Drang Nach Osten, the German eastwards migration that had begun in the Middle Ages. He also claimed that Germany had a right to the territory of the Slav nations of eastern Europe, like the Poles, based on the argument that these areas had originally been occupied by the eastern Germanic tribes, the Goths, Burgundians and Vandals, before they were colonised by the Slavs sometime around the 8th-9th centuries. Modern scholarship has rejected this claim. The Vandals and Goths were indeed present in these areas, but they were just one element in vast tribal confederations that included many different ethnic groups. The main point, however, is that Hitler based his claim eastern Europe on spurious history, not the Treaty of Versailles.

Democracy Resented by Nazis as Imposed by Foreign Powers

The Nazis were also able to overthrow German democracy, because it was seen as a foreign imposition, alien to German nature. The political parties that signed the Treaty, the Social Democrats, Catholic Centre Party and the two Liberal parties, were denounced as ‘November criminals’ because they had done so. But it was democracy itself, as imposed by Britain and her allies, that was the true target of resentment. In one of his speeches, Hitler denounced democracy as a Jewish device to enslave the Aryan man. Utter nonsense, but it gained a kind of spurious validity because democracy had been created through the allied victory. This had forced the Kaiser and the Austrian emperor to abdicate.

The Occupation of the Rhineland and German Nationalist Resentment

Finally, the western powers did occupy parts of Germany militarily when they considered that the Germans were not meeting their obligations under the Treaty. The Rhineland contained Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr. They were occupied by the French in 1924, after they believed that Germany was not paying its full share of reparations to La Patrie. Again, the presence of foreign troops in Germany could hardly have been welcome to the Germans themselves. I doubt very much that Allied troops would have been any more welcome to German nationalists, and indeed could have been a source of resentment, if the War had continued until the invasion and absolute collapse of Germany itself.

The Nazis arose not merely because of the Treaty of Versailles, but because of the sheer humiliation of defeat. Farage is therefore talking utter nonsense with the suggestion that the War should have continued and the Armistice not signed.

Further Fighting in War Unnecessary, Siegfried Sassoon

And let’s have no illusions about just how callous, and unnecessary further fighting would have been. I’ve blogged on here before about how Siegfried Sassoon came to his anti-War stance from his conviction that the War had been won in 1917, and that further fighting was simply unnecessary slaughter. As it stands, thousands died unnecessarily in the last few hours of the Armistice. The Treaty had been signed hours before, yet it set the time for the cease fire as 11 O’clock for symbolic reasons. The soldiers continued to fight right up to the very last minutes, useless deaths in order to win a peace that had already been achieved.

Farage states that he would have had the War continue, even if it cost a further 100,000 dead. That’s a colossal number in itself, but it’s only a fraction of the total number who were killed in the conflict: 14 million.

Farage Chickenhawk: Talks, but never Fought, in War

Conservative critics of Bush’s invasion of Iraq called Dubya and his fellow warmongers ‘chickenhawks’. They were men and women, who had never served in the armed forces themselves, and had no experience or understanding of the brutal reality of combat. They were perfectly happy to mouth off about war, and send others to their deaths in pursuit of American power and corporate profit, but had never, ever, risked their own lives for their country in combat.

Farage has the same attitude. It’s the mentality of someone, who sees himself as a commander, above the bloody, messy business of actually fighting in the trenches, in foxholes and mud and filth himself. It’s the same attitude of the out-of-touch generals, politicians and princes, who sent their citizens to die in pain, fear and misery, for military glory. It’s the attitude of a man, who seems to feel that victory for Britain was certain from the outset. All that was needed is to throw more men at it, and hang the consequences.

The Stupid Officer and the Sergeant Major

It reminds me of a story I heard from a re-enactor friend of mine. I used to do Dark Age re-enactment years ago. It was great fun, and I met some really interesting, great people. Several of them were former soldiers. I was talking to an ex-squaddie one day, who told me about the sheer, bloodthirsty stupidity of one of the officers he’d come across. The man came out on parade one morning, and declaring that his father had had a medal. He also wanted one, and blithely told his troops that he didn’t care how many of them died, as long as he got it.

The RSM was mightily unimpressed. He walked up to the commander, and told him, ‘I don’t think you ought to be saying that to the men, Sir.’

The commander was indignant, ‘What, what! How dare you say that to me!’

‘See me later about it, Sir’, said the Sergeant Major.

Later on the Sergeant Major explained, ‘I really don’t think you should say that to the men, Sir. If you say that again, they’re likely to shoot you. And if they don’t, I certainly will!’

Farage Vainglorious, Waster of Human Life

Farage has the same attitude as the officer in this tale. It’s one of the reasons why he should never, ever, be given power. Remember, if he becomes Prime Minister, he becomes Commander in Chief of the armed forces. And then God help us all.

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Rembrance Day 2014: Remembering the Dead of Other Nations

November 11, 2014

German War Corpse

Skeleton of a German solider outside his dugout. In History of the World,II ed. Esmond Wright (Feltham: Hamlyn Publishing Ltd 1985) 582.

God heard the embattled nations shout
Gott strafe England and God save the King.
Good God, said God,
I’ve got my work cut out.

J.C. Squire, in Peter Vansittart, Voices: 1870-1914 (New York: Franklin Watts 1985) 255.

As if anyone needed reminding, it’s the 11th November, Armistice Day, 2014, the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War. Last Sunday was Remembrance Day. The media has been carrying stories about the First World War and its outbreak, including the inevitable ceremonies and services for the dead. It’s important to remember in all this that the War killed 14 million people from nations across the world. The official international ceremony at the memorials in Flanders did mark this, it’s true, and the Germans were properly included and their dead remembered. Yet the dead and suffering of other nations can all too easily be forgotten as Britain concentrates on its dead.

Earlier this year I posted pieces on collections of poetry about the War, including a forthcoming graphic novel of stories and accounts from the conflict by some of Britain’s great comics artists and writers, edited by Pat Mills. A number of commenters pointed out that the voices of the other nations that fought in the conflict were absent, and recommended a number of books, that contained works by them. In my article yesterday criticising Gove’s attack on Blackadder Goes Forth, I put up Christian Morgenstern’s poem, The Knee. Morgenstern was a soldier in the German army during the War, who started writing extremely dark, comic poems based on his experiences. These included seeing the head and entrails of a friend hanging from a tree after a shell had exploded near them. Morgenstern was struck by how funny and absurd the sight was, rather than its horror. The Knee is about a disembodied knee roaming alone across the Earth after the man it belonged to was killed in the War. And so

Since then, it roams the whole world, lonely,
It is a knee, now, only;
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
Only a knee, no more.

Here’s another poem about the War, this time by the Austrian poet, Georg Trakl, who committed suicide during the War.

Grodek

At nightfall the autumn woods cry out
With deadly weapons and the golden plains,
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But quietly there in the willow dell
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness.
All the roads lead to blackest carrion.
Under golden twigs of the night and stars
The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds.
A prouder grief! You brazen altars,
Today a great pain feeds the hot flame of the spirit,
The grandsons yet unborn.

From Vansittart, op. cit., 263.

The Austrian painter, Oskar Kokoschka, gave this description of his decision to enlist:

In 1914 I was twenty-eight years old, and thus liable for military service. It seemed to me better to volunteer before I was conscripted. I had no wife or child to await my happy return. I had nothing to lose or to defend. I felt melancholy at the sight of the young bank clerks, the little office workers, whom I saw hurrying with their suitcases to enlist, and yet I did not share the doom-laden mood that prevailed on the streets. The air was thick with rumours that part of the army had gone into the field wearing peacetime uniforms, with inadequate weapons and obsolete equipment. There had been no proper rearmament, and sloppiness was the rule in Austria-Hungary. Men took up arms only to die.

Vansittart, op. cit., 257-8.

So there it is. Across Europe, men and women were sent to their deaths en masse by a political and military establishment that had no notion of what the War would entail, nor any real idea how to fight it.

Dulce et decorum est, indeed!

I can remember reading one poem, I think it was by Siegfried Sassoon, which remarked how strange it was in war to be killing men you’d like and have a drink with, if you met them in the street in peacetime. Let’s remember that, rather than the vainglory of military ambition and pointless bloodshed, and strive to build a better world, where nation can truly speak peace unto nation.

The German Workers Who Struck For Peace

March 29, 2014

German War Corpse

Corpse of German trooper outside his dugout: a vivid image of the horrific carnage experienced by all the combatants in the ‘War to End All Wars’.

This year is the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. The BBC has already commemorating this by putting on numerous documentaries about the Great War, setting up on-line resources for schools so you can see what your particular bit of the country was like and did at the time. they’re also running trailers for forthcoming dramas where idealistic young nurses meet handsome soldiers in a saga of love amid the mass slaughter of the War. Documentaries about the World Wars are a staple of British television anyway. Dan Snow on the One Show has appeared several times striding across a World War I battlefield, while a few years ago Tony Robinson presented a Time Team special on the excavation of a system of WWI trenches in Flanders. Some of the coverage has already proven somewhat controversial. There was some comment a few weeks ago on television that something the BBC broadcast had provoked a complaint from the German embassy. There’s a difference of opinion here between German historians and the rest of the world. Most other nations see the War as being caused by Germany. German historians, on the other hand, believe that no single nation is to blame and that the growth of international tension and the web of alliances with which each nation surrounded itself led inexorably to the War. I really don’t know anything beyond the most general outline of events surrounding the First World War, and so leave it to people much better informed than I do to explain it.

One immediate result of the War was the break-up of international socialism. Previously the European Socialist parties had opposed working class involvement in any conflict between the European nations. For them, it would be a fratricidal conflict, as the working classes in each country had more in common with each other than with their rulers. The war would be a bourgeois war, started by the European ruling classes for their own further profit and enrichment, with the working class troops solely the exploited means by which they sought to do so. When the War finally broke out, however, the Socialist parties all over Europe joined the other parties in backing their governments.

Karl Kautsky, the head of the German Social Democrats, modified his party’s view of the conflict. He considered that Socialists in each country should now see the war only as defending their homelands. They should also campaign for a just peace, which would maintain the integrity of the defeated nations and avoid any cause for resentment on their part. This would prevent any further War from breaking out. He wrote

Further, the Social Democracy in every nation is obliged to consider the war only as a war of defence, and to set as its goal only defending itself against the enemy, not of ‘punishing’ or belittling the enemy. As this conception seeks the causes of the war not in the personal depravity or inferiority of the opponent, but in objective conditions, it will strive for the security which they conclusion of peace brings not by humiliating or mutilating its opponent, which would only cause new wars in the future, but by replacing those condition which led to the war – that is, imperialist conflicts and the armaments race.

Patrick Goode, ed. and trans., Karl Kautsky: Selected Political Writings (London: Macmillan Press 1983) 95.

It’s a pity that the Allies did not follow this advice when imposing the reparations and conditions on Germany afterwards. This could have removed some of the feelings of humiliation and resentment felt in Germany, feelings on which the Nazi preyed and used in their campaign to seize power.

Some Socialist parties continued to campaign against the War, such as the Bolsheviks in Russia, and the USPD – the Independent Social Democratic Party in Germany. One of those who campaigned against the War was the radical deputy, Karl Liebknecht, who went on to found the Spartacist League and the German Communist Party. There were also a number of strikes in Germany against the War. When Liebknecht was tried by a court martial for treason on the 28th June 1916, 55,000 workers went on strike in solidarity.

In April 1917 there was a much larger strike due to the government cutting the bread ration by a quarter. In Leipzig, the striking workers demanded in addition to the removal of their economic grievances the introduction of a direct, general and equal franchise, the removal of the state of siege, lifting of censorship, the release of all political prisoners, the re-instatement of the right to strike and hold political meetings. the government was also to make a declaration in favour of immediate peace without annexations.

On the 28th January 1918 a further mass strike broke out. In Berlin alone 200,000 workers downed tools and elected an action committee consisting of eleven Revolutionary Shop Stewards from The Turners’ union, and three delegates each from the pro-War Social Democratic and anti-War Independent Social Democratic Parties. Their demands included the

speedy conclusion of a peace without annexations and indemnities, on the basis of the nations’ right to self-determination, according to the provisions formulated by the Russian People’s Commissars at Brest-Litovsk.

They also wanted the removal of the state of siege and military control of the factories, the release of all political prisoners, the introduction of a general and equal franchise and a thorough democratisation of all institutions of the state. The strike spread rapidly to towns throughout Germany, including Munich, Mannheim, Brunswick, Bremen, Cologne, Hamburg, Kiel, Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) Leipzig and Nuremberg. In all of these towns with the exception of Munich and Berlin the strike collapsed after a week. In Berlin Military Command suppressed it by placing the leading armaments factories under martial law. In Munich Kurt Eisner, one of the leading USPD politicians and opponent of the War, Kurt Eisner, was arrested before he could call for a general strike to bring down the government. The moderate Social Democrats were thus able to retake control and the Strike ended a few days later.

See F.L. Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe 1918-1919 (Aldershot: Wildwood House 1972) 14-15.

I’ve blogged about the bitterness caused by the First World War across Europe, and the anti-War poems of some of the soldiers, who fought in it, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Germany also has its great anti-War work from the time of the First World War, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The original German title is Nichts Neues Im Westen – ‘There is Nothing New in the West’. It’s also a bitter comment on the belligerent nature of Western civilisation. I think it’s also important At this time to recognise that Germany also had its campaigners for an end to the War and for a just peace that would establish friendship between nations afterwards. It’s a point that could easily get forgotten in the programmes, documentaries and debates about the War during this centenary.

Patriotism, Idealism and Cynicism in First World War Britain

January 8, 2014

Jubilant Crowd War

Photograph of a British Crowd Cheering the Outbreak of the First World War.

I’ve posted three pieces this week and reblogged others from Vox Political, criticising Michael Gove’s comments in the Daily Mail, trying to defend World War One as ‘a noble cause’, and the courage, honour and patriotism of the troops and the tactical expertise and competence of their leaders from misrepresentation by ‘left-wing academics’ and biased TV programmes like Blackadder and films like Oh, What A Lovely War! Far from the British public being alienated and cynical about the War, they actively supported it as a ‘noble Cause’, according to Gove. Mike, the Angry Yorkshireman over at Another Angry Voice, and myself have already demolished this, complete with quotes from some of the soldiers, like Harry Patch, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, were fought in the War. Now I want to go further, and examine where Gove possibly got the impression that most people supported the War.

Now there was massive enthusiasm amongst the British for the War when it broke out. The photograph above shows a crowd thronging the street cheering it when the news broke. Such crowds gathered in Parliament Square and the Mall, and sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. This enthusiasm was shared by many artists, writers and intellectuals. Malcolm Brown, in his book Tommy Goes to War, recorded one artist as saying, ‘Would they (the Germans) invade us, I wondered. By George! If they should they’d find us a t5ougher nut to crack than they expected. My bosom swelled and I clenched my fist. I wished to something desperate for the cause of England’.

The modernist writer and artists, Wyndham Lewis, wrote ‘You must not miss a war … You cannot afford to miss that experience’. Lewis, it should be said, was an admirer of the Italian Futurists, who praised war and combat, calling it the ‘sole hygiene of the world’ and denouncing anything that smacked of pacificism, liberalism and feminism as ‘passeism’. Lewis founded the Vorticists, a similar movement in Britain, and was later strongly suspected of Fascist sympathies because of his authoritarian political views, expressed in the book, The Art of Being Ruled.

This war fever was also shared by Baden-Powell and the Scouts. The motto ‘Be Prepared’ is an abbreviation of Baden-Powell’s statement urging his movement’s young members to ‘Be prepared to die for your country … so that when the time comes you may charge home with confidence, not caring whether you are to be killed or not!’ Baden-Powell had other, highly unpleasant political views. Among the reasons he founded the scouts was to indoctrinate working-class boys with healthy, British Conservative patriotic values to take them away from Socialism, trade unionism and other subversive ideas. His idea of using a uniformed organisation, patterned on the military to inculcate its members with comradeship, patriotism and social solidarity, and support for militaristic, authoritarian politics was later taken up by the Fascist movements on the Continent. It’s because of this that Baden-Powell has been the subject of criticism in parts of the Left.

Poems celebrating the War, and urging soldiers to join up, were printed in the press, such as Julian Grenfell’s Into Battle, which was published in the Times in 1915. This had the lines

The naked earth is warm with Spring
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s gaze glorying
And quivers in the sunny breeze;
And life is colour and warmth and light,
And a striving ever more for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase….

As the War went on, and lasted far longer than the six months they originally believed it would last, disillusionment and despair set in. A Radio 4 programme on the First World War noted that this started a year or two after the outbreak of the War, when the younger brothers of men already at the front became increasingly aware of the reality of the War from their brothers’ letters and conversation when home on leave, and became very much afraid for their own lives. Among those who expressed this disillusionment was Isaac Rosenberg. In his poem, Dead Man’s Dump, Rosenberg wrote

‘The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.’

D.H. Lawrence, in Kangaroo,sharply criticised government propaganda and the patriotic exhortations to fight and die in the popular press: ‘It was in 1915 the old world ended … The integrity of London collapsed and the genuine debasement began, the unspeakable debasement of the press and the public voice, the reign of the bloated ignominy, John Bull‘.

Sassoon photo

Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon shared this cynicism, and his poetry includes sharp criticism of recruiting sergeants, who encourage others to go to their deaths while keeping themselves safe and sound:

‘If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my putty petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour, ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say – ‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.’

In my opinion, this should be printed above any statement made by Bush and the other ‘chickenhawks’, who have destroyed a country and sent thousands of brave men and women to their death or mutilation in Iraq, whenever they give any kind of statement about the invasion and occupation of that country.

Sassoon himself was strongly influence by the 1916 work, Le Feu, written by Henri Barbusse in France, who inveighed against the War and the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen, that had died defending Verdun from bombardment. It was translated into English in 1917, and not only influenced Sassoon but also Owen, who was also inspired to carry on his campaign against the War after meeting the former in a hospital near Edinburgh.

Wilfred Owen photo

Wilfred Owen

Owen was only one of a number of servicemen, who wrote about the War and their experience of it in order to prevent a similar conflict ever breaking out again. These works and memoirs include Robert Grave’s Goodbye to All That, Montague’s Disenchantment – surely a title that itself refutes Gove’s statement that the British people were largely supportive of the War, Blunden’s Undertones of War, as well as the more recent accounts by Harry Patch, the last British Tommy, who died only a year or so ago. In 1962 Benjamin Britten incorporated nine of Owen’s poems into his War Requiem.

Many Left-wing intellectuals were opposed to the War from the start. These included the Bloomsbury Grou, including Lytton Strachey and Bertrand Russell. Russell was fined by the government for ‘statements likely to prejudice the recruiting and discipline of His Majesty’s forces’. George Bernard Shaw also condemned the War and the fervid patriotism that sustained it. In an article in the New Statesman he declared that the best way of ending the war would be if the troops shot their officers and went home.

Now I’ve written that modern scholarship has suggested that there was much less disaffection and cynicism amongst the British public and servicemen than previously considered. There are, however, real problems in assessing just how widespread anti-War sentiments truly were. The problem is that much of the writings about the War from the men, who fought in it has been lost. It may be stored in attics and cellars, long ago thrown away, or lost with the rest of the fortifications and camps in which it was written. The material that has survived, from Sassoon, Rosenberg, Owen, Graves and others, did so because of the social connections of those officers to the middle and upper classes. The accounts of the War belonging to those lower down the social scale has been less fortunate. Nevertheless, it has survived, as the Angry Yorkshireman has pointed out in his piece on Gove’s attempt to revise the War. Another problem, highlighted by Lawrence in the above passage from Kangaroo, is that the government and media at the time were concerned to make sure that work critical of the War had a very limited circulation. This meant that not only was the pro-War sentiment preserved from much criticism, but it’s difficult to tell how many people actually agreed with it because of restrictions on its dissemination. The amount of material surviving, that patriotically supported the War, may actually be out of proportion to the number of people, who actually shared these views, simply because it was actively promoted by government and media while critical works were not.

I have, however, pointed out that even if the numbers of people disillusioned with the War is overestimated, nevertheless, the disillusionment still existed. I also pointed out that the servicemen’s newspaper, The Wipers Times, was very much like the depiction of the War and the black humour in Blackadder Goes Forth. This episode in the War’s history has been recently explored by Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye. It is therefore quite likely that further research will reveal much more material like this to challenge the revisionist accounts so loudly endorse by Gove.

Now Gove stated that children should be allowed to study opposing views. I actually agree with him about this. It is, however, hypocritical coming from Gove, who then goes on to attack the view of the War promoted by ‘Left-wing intellectuals’, which, as the Angry Yorkshireman has also shown, includes such notorious radicals as, er, Ken Clarke and Winston Churchill. Well, perhaps in a few years time, when Cameron has effectively turned this country into a one-party state and made the unemployed either beggars or state-owned slaves. Coming from Gove, these comments do pose a threat, as they strongly suggest that he believes that the state should dictate what views about the past should be taught in schools and universities.

Gove is wrong, often horribly wrong about the First World War, though others should certainly be free to share his views, if they agree with them. The danger is in the use of the power of the state to ensure that only the approved, Conservative version is taught. This must be strenuously resisted, so people can make their own minds up. This is the difference between education and indoctrination.

Another Angry Voice on Gove’s Great War Revisionism

January 8, 2014

Gassed Painting

Detail from the Painting Gassed, showing lines of men blinded in combat. This is what Wilfrid Owen described in his poem.

The Angry Yorkshireman over at Another Angry Voice has also weighed in with his comments about Michael Gove’s attempt to present the Great War as something better and nobler than the squalid debacle it was. It’s excellent, and well-worth reading. Entitled Michael Gove’s Great War Revisionism, it begins by referring to the posts by Mike over at Vox Political and others, before moving on to attack recent attempts, including Gove’s to present Haig as much more competent than he actually was:

‘In January 2014 the education secretary Michael Gove penned a ludicrous article in the Daily Mail invoking the spectres of left-wing academics and BBC bias in order to argue that the First World War was not “a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite”.

Other sites (such as Vox Political and The Huffington Post) have already covered this story quite comprehensively so I’ll try to avoid reiterating too much of what has already been said. I’ll go through some of Gove’s absurd ramblings and highlight some of the many things that he’s got wrong.

“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. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.”
The conflict has also been seen through the great volume of testimonies from people who served during the Great War, from the works of great war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon to the first hand testimonies collected by the Imperial War Museum and collated in books like Forgotten Voices of the Great War, The Soldier’s War and Britain’s Last Tommies (all of which I thoroughly recommend as infinitely more enlightening than Gove’s partisan wittering on the subject). Many of these first hand testimonies are pervaded by a sense of horror at the tactical blunderings of the generals that resulted in the mass slaughter of millions of men. Gove is desperate to discount the first hand testimonies of those who were actually there in order to present his favoured interpretation; that the war was noble and necessary, that generals like Douglas “butcher” Haig did a good job under difficult circumstances and that the battle of the Somme wasn’t a tragic and futile waste of life.

Despite his efforts to resuscitate the reputation of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, some of us are aware that Douglas Haig once said the “the machine gun is a much overrated weapon”. On the first day of the battle of the Somme 60,000 British troops were killed or injured, the great majority of them by machine gun fire.’

He then goes on to note that many of the historians, who argued that the generals were incompetent, were by no means all Left-wingers. The view that the British troops were ‘lions led by donkeys’ was articulated as far back as 1962 by Ken Clarke, who was a member of Maggie Thatcher’s cabinet. He then duly attacks Gove’s comments about the British troops recognising that it was a ‘noble cause’ and points out that to say that Germany did not recognise by the prevailing international order is hypocritical, as that order was composed of the militarily strongest European nations, Britain and France. He also skewers Gove’s statement that the war was fought against German ‘Social Darwinism’, by pointing out that as an imperial power, Britain also possessed a vast, subject population, who were excluded from politics and barred from voting. This is absolutely correct. The first British colony that gave a place on its council to one of its indigenous citizens was Ghana in the 1920s. This was extremely progressive for the time, and far ahead of the other British possessions. Even in Britain, a sizable minority of the British working class was excluded from voting due to the property qualification, and women only actually got to vote in 1928, although they had been granted the franchise much earlier. In fact, far from being ‘Fascistic’ in many ways the situation was the reverse: a higher proportion of the population in Wilhelmine Germany had the vote than in Britain, although their impact on politics was excluded by a property clause which divided the population into estates and guaranteed the aristocracy and wealthy political representation far beyond their numbers. Even here, one could reasonably compare this with Britain, and the unelected and very feudal House of Lords.

The Angry Yorkshireman also take Gove to task for his attacks on the Left, and totally ignores the fact that amongst the groups and organisations calling for war as response to Germany aggression against Belgium were the trade unions, who actively encouraged men to join the army.

He then ends the piece with a series of quotations from some of those, who actively fought in the War and were bitterly critical of its conduct and the actions of their superiors. These include the last surviving Tommy, Harry Patch, Arthur Graeme West, Henry Allinghame, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and that notorious Left-wing revolution (not!), Winston Churchill, who said:

‘”How many have gone? How many more to go? The Admiralty is fast asleep and lethargy & inertia are the order of the day. However everybody seems delighted – so there is nothing to be said. No plans, no enterprise, no struggle to aid the general cause. Just sit still on the spacious throne and snooze.”

The article’s over at http://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/micael-gove-great-war-revisionism.html, if you want to read another excellent perspective on the War.

Blackadder, Patriotism and the First World War: Michael Gove Repeats ‘The Old Lie’

January 6, 2014

Anzacs World War1

Anzacs at Passchendaele, 1917, the battle described by A.J.P. Taylor as ‘the blindest slaughter of a blind war’.

I’ve reblogged two of Mike’s articles on Vox Populi on Michael Gove’s latest attack on history and the received view of the First World War. In an interview in the Daily Mail, Gove criticised shows like Blackadder and the film, Oh, What A Lovely War!, for presenting the wrong view of the First World War and denigrating the courage, honour and patriotism of the men who fought there. It is, he said, the fault of left-wing academics, and seems particularly incensed at the cynicism and rejection of patriotism in the above TV series and film.

Now, Gove does have something of a point here. Recent scholarship within the last 30 years has criticised the old view that there was a profound gulf between the officers and the working-class men they led, and pointed out that there was more mutual comradeship, acceptance and respect between the two groups than previously considered. I was also told by a very left-wing friend, who has absolutely no time for the Tory party, that the amount of cynicism and bitterness generated by the War has been overstated. Of the men returning from the War, 1/3 bitterly hated it, 1/3 thought it was a good adventure, and 1/3 had no strong feelings about it one way or the other.

The same friend also told me that on the Western Front, the death rate was actually lower than in contemporary Edwardian factories. His comment on this was simply: ‘It’s sh*t.’ This does not exonerate the mass carnage of the First World War so much as show you how immensely cheaply life was held by the Edwardian factory masters. As for courage, George Orwell freely admitted in one of his essays that this was amply demonstrated by the numbers of the titled aristocracy, including dukes, knights and baronets, whose lives were ended in that savage conflict. He called the militaristic anti-intellectual upper classes ‘blimps’, and had nothing but scorn for their conduct of the War, but he did not doubt their courage.

The same friend, who knows far more about the First and Second World Wars than me, also told me that he felt that much of the cynicism about the First World War was a projection of the feelings of bitterness and alienation felt by many people after the Second, when the horrors of War and the Nazi regime seemed, to many, to discredit completely European culture. I dare say there is something in this, but, while the extent of such alienation after the First World War may have been exaggerated, the point remains that it was there.

Already in the 1920s there were complaints from British officers about left-wing propaganda about the War being spread by ‘acidulated radicals’. The film, Oh, What A Lovely War! is written from a left-wing perspective. It was based on the stage play, Journey’s End, which in its turn was based, I believe, on the experiences of First World War soldiers. The Fascist movements that sprang up all over Europe after the War, including Oswald Moseley’s BUF in Britain, were formed by ex-servicemen unable to adapt to civilian life, and who believed they had been betrayed by a corrupt political system. Martin Pugh in his book on Fascism in Britain 1918-1986, repeats that Moseley himself represented and kept true to the servicemen, who had fought and suffered in the War, and now had little to look forward to on their return to Blighty. I’m not so sure. Much of the conventional view about Mosely put out by Skidelsky’s biography has since been demolished. Rather than being a misguided, but at heart decent man, Moseley himself now appears very firmly as a cynical political manipulator all too eager and ready to jettison Mussolini’s ultra-nationalist, but originally non-racist Fascism, for the Nazis and Hitler. Nevertheless, the point remains: the First World created widespread bitterness, of which European Fascism was one expression.

As for Blackadder, this can be compared to the grim reality and the gallows humour with which British squaddies and their officers faced it in the pages of the Wipers Times. This was the servicemen’s newspapers, which took its name from the British mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’, where it was published. Private Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop, last year published a book and appeared on a BBC documentary about it. The Beeb also broadcast a drama about it. Hislop stated that it was full of very, very black humour, and was very much like Blackadder. You could hear the same sentiments expressed in the trooper’s songs of the period. Everyone remembers ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, but there were others with much less patriotic view of the War. A year or so ago I came across an old songbook, Songs that Won the War. Published about the time of the Second, it collected the songs sung by the troops during the First. Amongst the various patriotic ditties was ‘We Are Fred Karno’s Army’. Fred Karno, remember, was the Music Hall impresario, who launched the career of silent move stars like Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops. The final verse imagines how the British army will be greeted by the Kaiser when they finally reach Berlin. It has the Kaiser looking at them in horror and saying, ‘Vot, Vot! Mein Gott! Vot a shabby lot!’ Somehow, I don’t think that one has been played much at Tory party conferences.

Civilian music hall stars also shared in the deep disillusionment felt by the troops. In a programme on the Music Hall broadcast several years ago on Radio 4, the programme’s presenter, a historian of the Music Hall, noted that after the War variety stars became much more sombre in appearance. Before the War there were stars like ‘The One-Eyed Kaffir’, a White man, who blacked up for his act except for one eye, which was kept as a white patch. After the War, such grotesque make-up vanished. The presenter felt that this was part of a general, more sombre mood throughout British culture engendered by the War. This mood was felt most bitterly by some of the Music Hall stars, who had sung patriotic, jingoistic songs to encourage young men to do their bit and join up. One such singer became very bitter indeed, and stated that he felt personally responsible for the men, who had been maimed and murdered as a result of listening to him.

The bitterness about the War has been expressed most famously, and most movingly, by the great war poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and others less well-known. One of the books in my old school’s sixth form library was Up the Line to Death, an anthology of poetry from the First World War. As well as poetry, Sassoon wrote a letter, ‘The Declaration against War’, in 1917, during his convalescence after being wounded in France. Rather than risk the scandal of a court martial, Owen was declared to be shell-shocked and hospitalised. His declaration is one of the piece anthologised in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport. Here it is:

‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise’.

The last line sounds very much like a condemnation of the invasion of Iraq and the Neo-Con ‘chickenhawks’ – men who had themselves never seen active service and who indeed had shirked it – that demanded it. And I’ve no doubt whatsoever that it’s applicability to this situation was one of the reasons Arnove and Firth selected it.

As for Owen, I can remember we did Owen’s poem, ‘Gassed’, in English. This describes the horrific state of squaddies left dying and blinded by mustard gas in conflict. It ends with words attacking and repudiating ‘the old lie, ‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”, a Latin motto meaning ‘It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.

So there it is, Gove, a rejection of patriotism because of the carnage and suffering it caused, by two extremely courageous men, who fought and were injured in the War. I believe Owen was himself killed just before Armistice. Oh, you can argue that Blackadder is based on the prejudiced view of left-wing academics, but they based their views on fact – on what those who actually fought in it actually felt about it.

Yes, historians modify their views about the past all the time, as new research is done, and new arguments brought forth, new topics emerge and techniques used. And that means that some of the bitterness about the War has been revised. Yet there is no doubt that the War did result in mass bitterness amongst former combatants and the civilian population, and feelings of betrayal by the old society and elites that had sent so many to their deaths. Blackadder is fiction, and throughout its four series and numerous specials often took wild liberties with the facts. Yet Blackadder goes forth and its cynicism was based on fact, and I found, as someone who simply watched it, that the final moments of the last episode, in which Blackadder, Baldrick and their friends go over the Top to their deaths, actually a genuinely moving and respectful tribute to those who did die in the muck and trenches.

Way back in the 1980s the Observer wryly remarked that the Tories were now ‘the patriotic party’. This followed Thatcher’s vociferous trumpeting of patriotism as the great British value. ‘Don’t call them boojwah, call them British!’ screamed one headline from the Telegraph supporting her very class-based, politicised view of Britishness and patriotism.

Well, a wiser man, possibly, the great Irish wit, dear old butch Oscar (pace his description in Blackadder) once described patriotism as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’.
In this case, it is. And so is Gove.