I’ve only just started tracking the controversy in Great Britain, now several weeks old, that has followed from comments made by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, on the legacy of the First World War, or as it is sometimes called, The Great War. As I understand it, Gove attacked images of that war in Britain’s popular culture, from the 1969 play and film, Oh What A Lovely War, to Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), which portrayed the war as a pointless slaughter managed by imbeciles. He is also not fond of certain academics, such as Richard Evans, for saying that those who died in that war died in vain.
Here are some of Mr. Gove’s remarks, as carried on The Daily Mail’s website:
“… it is important to recognise that many of the new analyses emerging challenge existing Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.
Instead, they help us to understand that, for all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.
Indeed, the more we reflect on every aspect of the war, the more cause there is for us to appreciate what we owe to our forebears and their traditions.
But whatever each of us takes from these acts of remembrance and hours of debate it is always worth remembering that the freedom to draw our own conclusions about this conflict is a direct consequence of the bravery of men and women who fought for, and believed in, Britain’s special tradition of liberty.”
Based on my reading of Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by the British journalist and popular historian, Max Hastings (Alfred A Knopf, 2013), I’m inclined to be somewhat more sympathetic to Mr. Gove than I might otherwise have been had my knowledge of the war been confined to Blackadder. A thorough review of Hastings can be found here, so I will simply make a few comments.
First, I would suggest that if you want to do some thinking of the importance of 2014 as the centenary of World War One, or don’t know much about the subject, this is a good place to start. Some dismiss writers like Hastings as journalistic hacks rather than serious historians, unfairly, I think. Hastings’ virtue as a writer is that he is a synthesist, allowing the reader a way in to the many historiographic debates about the cause of the war and the wisdoms of its conduct. Hastings disputes the view that the war was an accident, a mistake of the architecture of treaties and alliances that were set up by the European powers. In fact, he argues, there were plenty of agents, from psychopathic Serbian officers to vengeful Austrian aristocrats to a simple-minded German leader surrounded by delusional and vainglorious generals, who wanted a war and wanted it badly. Once they deliberately put the machine into motion, there was little that other powers, like Britain, could do to stay out.
Hastings gives a lot of attention to the diaries and letters of people across Europe whose lives were shattered by the events that unfolded in the summer of 1914. Some of them are quite memorable. Lt. Edward Louis Spears, a British liaison officer attached to the French army, wrote of the start of the war that it engulfed Europe like a disaster: “When an ocean liner goes down, all on board, great and small alike, struggle with equal futility and for about the same time, against elements so overwhelming that any difference there may be in the strength or ability of the swimmers is insignificant compared to the forces against which they are pitted, and which will engulf them all within a few minutes of each other.” The recent memory of the Titanic sinking obviously seemed to Spears to be an apt metaphor for what was happening.
Hastings himself has many a fine turn of phrase. In describing the technological changes that slowly became apparent to the generals, he writes that “It was realized that barbed wire could be used to check the movements of soldiers as effectively as those of beasts.” The aequation of “soldiers” with “beasts” is a clever and antiheroic pairing that calls to mind the first line of Wilfred Owen’s "Anthem for Doomed Youth”, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?"
Owen and the other war-poets created a legacy view of the war as the butchery of the young by stupid old generals. There are times when Hastings comes close to this view, particularly in his treatment of the early British generals like Sir John French (his leadership of the BEF and his conduct in the Mons campaign loses much of its lustre in Hastings’ account), or of the Austrian and Russian incompetents who poured out the lives of their men like water. There were many times when I had to put the book down because I was too angry and sad to read on, emotions that I suspect Hastings wants to provoke in his readers.
However, in his last chapter Hastings is more nuanced, arguing that once a war this vast was set in motion, requiring a military outcome to force a political conclusion, then there was no easy or cheap route to that outcome. In his conclusion, Hastings argues that the outcome of that war did indeed matter. While it was a war between rival empires, shared imperial ambition should not allow a morally relative view that all the players were equally heinous. German ambitions for Europe were particularly broad and oppressive, Hastings argues, meaning that it mattered who won the war.
“Once the struggle had begun, it would be entirely mistaken to suppose, as do so many people in the twenty-first century, that it did not matter which side won. The Allies imposed a clumsy peace settlement at Versailles in 1919, but if the Germans instead had been dictating the terms as victors, European freedom, justice and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit. Germany adopted territorial war aims in the course of the First World War which were not much less ambitious than those favoured by its ruler in the Second. It this seems quite wrong to describe the undoubted European tragedy of 1914-18 as also futile, a view overwhelmingly driven in the eyes of posterity by the human cost of the military experience. If the Kaiserreich did not deserve to triumph, those who fought and died in the ultimately successful struggle to prevent such an outcome did not perish for nothing, save insofar as all sacrifice in all wars is just cause for lamentation."
It may well be that the slaughter of a generation is a collective moral failing so vast that it denies all attempts to find any merit or justification in its outcome. The catastrophe of the peace which followed, and which lead to the rise of Hitler, is ably described by Margaret McMillan and others. However, Hastings delivers a strong argument that World War One was consequential, and not simply a horrid and futile accident.