Monday, 6 January 2014

Another fine mess....

Like Batman, I have an alter ego or secret identity. By night (and day, if I'm not working) I'm a fearless blogger on all manner of wargames subjects. By day I'm just a normal member of the community.

So why the secret identity or nom-de-plume? Partly it's to keep my working life and hobby life separate. But a large part of it is that I share my real name with another wargamer who is likewise reasonably well known. He's been world ancient champion more than once, I believe, so it is only fair to try to keep us both readily identifiable as unique individuals. Hence the creation of Trebian, who is a lot like me but also holds views that are like mine but possible slightly more extreme.

I have written and published under my real name, and continue to do so. Mostly stuff in Slingshot and for the Society of Ancients, where I used to foot note my name with "The other one, not the one from Pinner" so people could tell us apart should the other chap ever write anything.

My most recent published piece was in "Miniature Wargaming with Battlegames" #369. It was a one pager on how we should think about the Great War. Quite near the back as you can see from the contents list. It's now more than a single side of paper, and it isn't foot noted in proper, historical, fashion, but perhaps in retrospect it should have been.

You never know when you write these things - well anything in a magazine - what people think about what you've said. On this occasion I did get some feedback through blogs.

Firstly it got a response from Big Andy over at Glorious Little Soldiers. This was really favourable (although he can't spell my name) and explained exactly why he liked it. Andy follows this blog, so thanks to him for the kind words.

The other response was less positive and was written by Prof Guy Halsall of York University aka Historian on the Edge. This short, two line piece, name checks me and describes what I wrote as "officer-class right-wing twaddle". Guy has then followed this up with a longer rebuttle posting, which is considerably longer than the piece in MWBG.

Deciding to respond to this hasn't been easy, - some of what is said is personal, and friends have suggested I "rise above it". I think, however, that I need to make a few points as the implication is that I'm otherwise a stooge for a right-wing conspiracy, an ill-informed swallower of other's opinions. And the sort of person that cold-heartedly sent soldiers to their deaths, as well as being a historical ignoramus.

So, let me deal with some of the issues:

Being right wing & political writing: Because I'm a wargamer and have written in defence of the British Army in the Great War does not make me "right wing". It has nothing to do with my voting intentions or my views on the rights of workers or common ownership of the means of production. To leap to that conclusion in ignorance of who I am based on an A4's worth of writing is, to put it mildly, unwise. One of my dearest wargaming friends, Paddy Griffith, was a Great War revisionist. To describe him as being in anyway right wing would certainly mark you out as someone who never knew him. On the other hand, Alan Clark, author of "The Donkeys", the most damning indictment of British Generalship in the Great War, was once considered to be too right wing for the Tory Party. Applying simple labels as insults doesn't help the debate. Whilst everything someone writes is inevitably influenced by their background and upbringing that doesn't make all history political. 

Officer class: The previous four generations of my family fought in the British Army as volunteers. The highest rank ever achieved was CSM. We, as a family, are decidedly not officer class. I'm not entirely sure what it tells us anyway. I have my grandfather's memoirs from his service on the Western Front. I can tell you that the anecdotal stuff in them is very interesting, but that there are places where his memory played him false, where he did not understand what had happened, and also where his thinking was influenced by subsequent writing on the subject (a Reader's Digest article based on Clark's "The Donkeys" being prime amongst them).


Being a historian: Guy Halsall is a professional paid historian. He makes the point that he is still seeking truth. The implication is that he understands historical method and I do not. I hold History qualifications at "O", "A" and degree level. I seriously discussed doing a doctorate when I graduated and becoming an academic historian as a career choice. In the end I opted not to (money out in the non-academic world is much, much better), although I continue to read widely across both military and non-military subjects. There is also a very nasty side swipe in the piece where Guy says: "to be frank, there are few decent historians among the ‘revisionists’ and, among that group, proportionately not many writers who qualify as historians of any sort". This I think is potentially libellous. Paddy Griffith was a very fine historian (history degree from Oxford) and Gary Sheffield (history degree from Leeds) most definitely is as well. Steve Badsey,  another very good historian of the period, has a history degree is from Cambridge. All of them, of course, have doctorates, and have worked as professional historians at academic institutions as well as writing freelance. I assume Guy is talking about Corrigan and Paxman when referring to ex-soldiers and journalists. I'd like to see Guy debate with Paxo as to whether his book on the Great War is proper history or not.

The Second Reich as Proto-Nazis: I didn't actually say that. I said that their methods pre-figured Nazi methods. They Germans forcibly moved workers from Belgium and France to work in labour camps. That's not revisionist spin. That's fact. They asset stripped the bits of the Russian Empire they held after Brest Litovsk. That's fact. Whilst we cannot know how the Germans would have dealt with Europe if they had won we've got some pretty good clues based on what they did in the areas they occupied.

Me, Michael Gove and Blackadder: I didn't dismiss Blackadder as poppycock, and I am aware it is satire. It is, however, also fiction. As is Birdsong. And Regeneration Road. My point was that you shouldn't form your view on the Great War based on fiction. Go and read some history. You wouldn't want people to understand the Second World War by watching "Allo, Allo" would you? I realise what I wrote sounds like what Michael Gove said. It doesn't mean I share his political agenda (far from it - my daughter is a teacher!) and I've already indicated above that he's wrong. Revisionists are not all "right wing" and "conventionalists" are not all "left wing".

Me right, everyone else wrong: Guy said "(the) article in the last Miniature Wargames, urging wargamers to tell people who don’t share his particular interpretation of the First World War that their reading is ‘wrong’..." . Actually what I said was "when you start to hear someone spouting the same old lines about how futile the whole War was, fuelled by nothing except reading some poems and watching some sitcoms, tell them it isn’t so". I think that's a fair comment. I'm not saying I'm right and you are wrong. What I'm saying is don't take your view on one of the most important events of the 20th century from fiction. At least listen to someone who has read a history book on it.

There's much more in Guy's posting I could take issue with. If he submits it to MWBG, I'll write an full rebuttle if Henry lets me. For now, as someone who has very little spare time to spend on the hobby as I have a new job, I'll leave it.

Just don't take mine or Guy's word for it. Go and read some history. 

18 comments:

  1. Trebian,

    As a definite right-winger (an old fashioned 'One Nation' Tory), former history teacher (who stopped teaching the subject when political bias was introduced into the history curriculum) and someone who has read a bit about the First World War, I thought that your article was both timely and well-argued.

    One hundred years on would seem to be a good time to re-examine the events ... and to try to sift the myth from the truth about what happened, why it happened, and why we must be careful when using hindsight to make judgements about people and events.

    I don't particularly like Mr Gove (he looks too like Pob for my liking!) but in this instance he may have actually had a reasonable point to make, once the rhetoric and poor choice of exemplars is stripped away. Fiction (both written and on-screen) can help people to understand what happened, and can stimulate an interest to find out more ... but it should not be seen as the primary method of giving people that understanding. Without context, it is meaningless ... as is some of the history I have seen and read.

    If my memory is correct, the expression 'Lions lead by Donkeys' was originally coined by a German ... and they knew about such tactics if the Kindermorde is anything to go by!

    I look forward to reading an informed debate about this over the next few months ... just as long as we can avoid involving personal insults and jibes in the process.

    All the best,

    Bob

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    1. Bob, - I find you too multi-faceted to think of you either as left or right wing.

      My point, made repeatedly, isn't just about revisionism, it is about people considering that they have an informed view on the war because they have read or watched works of fiction.

      It is very difficult to have a debate because of where we are starting from. There is so much ground to be made up before we can even have a debate.

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  2. Difficult position. I would try and take it as no publicity is bad publicity, and the fact he has chosen to spend time writing means that you have achieved the goal of generating discussion.

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    1. I'm just so disappointed that someone who is paid as a proper historian could misunderstand and misrepresent what I said.

      Still, he's a medievalist and not a modernist, so he is used to dealing with the absence of facts rather than the overload of data we have for the modern period.

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  3. I'd love to see this chap debate against Gordon Corrigan. My money would be on the Gurkha.

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    1. Ah yes, but Corrigan doesn't count (although I agree that his mastery of the subject matter would make him odds on to win).

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  4. When I read the article - and had no idea it was by the author of a blog that I read with interest and enjoyment - the word that sprang to mind was 'tendentious'. That may of course say more about the peculiarity of my internal monologue than about your writing, but I think I'd stick to that description nonetheless. You've written a polemic and so shouldn't really be surprised when others express a different view. You may be right, you may be wrong. None of us were there and no-one even at the time was everywhere and knew everything. Harry Patch, the last British survivor, described it as 'legalised mass murder' and today's historians have different views on this as they do, for example, on who killed the princes in the tower. I suggest that the only thing we know for certain is that tomorrow's historians will have even more divergent opinions.

    I would refer you to George Orwell (officer class, but not right wing) who said "What do you do against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?'

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    1. Glad you had no idea it was me. Sort of the purpose of a secret identity.

      I agree the article is polemical. However, all of the apparent assertions in it are supportable from sources or reputable historical mongraphs directly relevant to warfare on the Western Front.

      It is true that I may be right or wrong (actually, in respect of most of what I wrote I'm "right" in as much as the facts supports me; the German Army was out fought, Germany was run by a military dictatorship, they did annex other countries when given the chance and they did use forced labour. These aren't matters of opinion in this case).

      I've read Harry Patch's memoirs, and a great many more. He's right - but since when was any war anything other than legalised murder? That's sort of the point of it. Often the charge against Generals in the Great War is that their soldiers died. Um, yeah.....

      The important thing is for the debate to be informed, - what that doesn't mean is watching Blackadder or reading Birdsong (both of which I have done and enjoyed). But I also read Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. That's doesn't mean that I should think elves and magic should exist. Fiction is fiction; it isn't historical research.

      Good quote from Orwell.

      Hope you continue to follow the blog.

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    2. I shall certainly continue to read your blog, not least because all this has given me material for a posting on my own blog.

      And another quote for you, this time from Stephen King (class and politics unknown): "Fiction is the truth inside the lie"

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    3. Stephen King would say that, wouldn't he. He writes fiction.

      I'll have a look at your blog (sorry, I don't follow it yet) and put a response over there.

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  5. Hello Trebian,

    Nothing much to really add other than I word of support. I'm in agreement with your views- an for the record I've a BA in History and working on an MA.

    Though I think Bob's wish that it doesn't descend in to jibes is too late. Prof. Halsall has already opened the door with an insult ( no doubt intended to end the discussion before it even gets going).

    A head to head debate with him in the pages of MWBG would be most welcome (as to throw an idea out there).

    Regards,

    Pete.

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    1. A Head to Head debate....well for that to have proper credibility it wouyld really need to be GH v another professional historian, not a bloke who writes a blog with 150 followers.

      Of course, if he writes a detailed articvle based upon his blog post I'd expect to be able to reply. Then it all gets out of hand a bit.

      Thanks for your support and best of luck with the MA.

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  6. Trebian, I thought your reply was restrained considering Mr Halsall's provocation.

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    1. Restrained, - that's a word not often applied to me. Thanks.

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  7. Surely a real historian would welcome debate? As for you being 'right wing', I've always regarded you as a dangerous liberal....

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    1. The idea of debate seems to be two sides shouting at each other from entrenched positions. Prof Richard Evans has pointed out it's not a right v left issue recently, so we should all get back to discussing this sensibly.

      Fat chance.

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  8. How appropriate that both sides in this debate should take up 'entrenched positions'! What better way to commemorate the Western Front...

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    1. It's a shame it has happened so early. We could have expected an early period of manoeuvering whilst both sides take up their positions, but alas no.

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