Saturday 24 November 2018

Settled Dust

It has been, as I am sure you might have noticed, the ‘season of remembrance’. It has also been, as most people cannot have failed to have been informed, the centenary of the end of the First World War, at least in the sense that the shooting stopped. Quite a few wargamer blogs that I follow noted the event, which is a good thing. But the whole has set me pondering, which is often a bad thing.

Still, an awful lot of energy has gone into the commemoration of events of the First World War, even though many of them have been kind of obvious ones: the start, the Somme, Passchendaele and the end, although the start of the battle of Amiens did get a mention. Quite a few other major events were downgraded or ignored quite widely, such as Jutland and the Russian Revolution. Interestingly, my hometown has a war memorial which commemorates its fallen from 1914 b- 1919. I recall being told at school it was because the local regiment had been sent to Archangel after the end of hostilities to intervene in the Russian Civil War in favour of the Whites.

A local village here has big signs us ‘XY Remembers’, together with fairly large numbers of knitted poppies. I might be a bit sensitive to language, and a bit of a pedant, but it did make me wonder ‘Remembers what?’ After all, no-one actually remembers fighting in the First World War any more. A great deal has been made of the last Tommies who died recently. But the point is that few people will actually remember the fact of the war at all. Anyone who does will be well over a hundred years old themselves.

History does not quite work in the same way as popular remembrance does. While most of the country is ‘remembering’ the fallen, the ‘heroes who died so we may be free’, history is wondering exactly what all this meant and means. After all, there was a piece on the BBC News website recently observing that the evening of Armistice Day was the occasion of a big fancy dress party in the Albert Hall. The generation which had survived that war wanted to celebrate still being alive. The piece also noted that around 88% of British troops were not killed in the war. It was only with the darkening of political and economic clouds at the end of the 1920’s that the event became more sombre.

As I am sure you are aware, there are various strands of historiography about the start, course and end of the First World War. An article in November’s History Today (Boff, J. 1918: Year of Victory and Defeat, History Today November 2018, 68, 11, 24-35) notes that Operation Michae was probably the second biggest German mistake of the war. Ludendorff did not have clearly defined political and strategic aims, and therefore, at any defeat for the allies was unlikely to break the Anglo-French Alliance; further, significant US reinforcements were arriving.

Incidentally, the biggest German mistake of the war is usually noted as starting it in the first place. The Schlieffen plan was not going to work as the timetable for the German right was never going to work against any but practically zero resistance. Germany did not have to go to war. The fact that it did is usually put down to a sort of bone-headedness and over-optimism in German High Command from the Kaiser downwards.  On the other hand, I think Niall Ferguson argues that economically Germany had to go to war or risk being out-produced by the Western powers.  

Anyway, Boff’s point is that by November 1918 the German army had been defeated on the battlefield. The stab in the back theory was politically useful in the 1920’s and 1930’s but is historically untenable. The British army, in particular, had learnt how to conduct modern warfare and, with increasing technological and numerical advantages, could out think and outpunch the Germans, switching axes of attack when the German reinforcements arrived, maintaining surprise and momentum. Incidentally, no-one I have seen has mentioned what I thought was the crucial bit of the 100 days campaign, which was the severing of the German north-south railway line, at which point German divisions north of the point of disruption were out of supply and forced to surrender. Maybe I imagined it.

Anyway, the point is that, probably beyond historians and wargamers, the myths of the First World War are entrenched in our minds. Lions led by donkeys, Oh What a Lovely War and the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al have seen to the ‘fact’ that all the Tommies mown down in their thousands are heroes, all the generals are idiots, and the whole class system of the British is shown for the folly that it was.

Boff argues that the British army had learnt to fight a modern war, and also to learn as it did so. Logistics was solid; commanders and subordinates experienced and permitted to get on with the job. Morale was high. Britain worked well with her allies, both internationally and within the Empire. British politicians had a good idea of what the war was for and the necessary outcomes: Germany must be defeated. This sort of political realism seems sadly lacking today. It was also, according to Boff, lacking on the German side. Starting the war was a mistake. Continuing it after the 1914 defeat on the Marne was another. The 1918 spring offensives were nothing but the forlorn hope of a country down to its last reserves of manpower, material and ideas.

In 1918 the British army played a key role in defeating, on a continental battlefield, an enemy who had set the military standards since the mid-nineteenth century. This was achieved by Britain, the Empire, and France, in alliance with others, but it was, on the whole, British power that was being projected around the world to pick off German allies and isolate and defeat the Kaiser. This, we do not seem to remember. Maybe we should start and maybe, after that, we might learn something about Britain, Europe and the world.


  1. I think what you've touched upon here, and with 'accepted' historiography as a basis, is the thin line between accepted history and folklore. I think we're beginning to see what Guy Beiner refers to as 'the folkloric representation of events' and 'folk commemorative practices' in relation to our perception and, almost, required commemoration of the First World War.

    I'd recommend Beiner's book 'Year of the French'. Now, the topic is the 1798 French incursion in Ireland, but the concept and protocols of his work are the main emphasis - where folklore and accepted history meet. Adopting the same approach to WWI would easily make a PhD.

    We've seen a great deal more folklore in relation to WWI that I think we would ever realise. I can remember union representatives in industry using the phrase 'lions led by donkeys' in relation to management practices, which can only help reinforce a glass ceiling/elitism used in order to copper-fasten political opinions. There is considerable meat here in terms of a research topic.

    1. There certainly is a great deal in how history is interpreted, and several PhD's worth, I suppose.

      I guess we could use the word 'myth', in its technical sense. Some of the bits of the First World War would qualify - Mons and the BEF, for example, as well as the lions and donkeys thing.

      History is interpreted by every generation, even every few years. There is a great deal more out there now about Britain and Europe than there was say, 5 years ago.

      But history is important because we use it today. We can all to easily distort it for our own purposes. Sadly, we often do, even the relatively recent past (c.f. I suppose Mr trump and some of the issues raised in North America, but lots of other leaders to it too, perhaps a little more subtly).

      I've just read a piece about GR Elton and his I think 7 sorts of historical distortion. One is amateur sentimentalism, which seems to broadly fit the Remembrance stuff.

  2. Hmmm, thoughtful post. Thanks, enjoyed that.