Not all Quiet on the Western Front

Much as I didn't really want to return to this subject I feel I have to. Most recently Guy Halsall has suggested that I'm actually a nom-de-plume for Michael Gove, and that my historical views are fairly summed up by a satirical piece in the Daily Mash. Ha ha. Very funny. But not in my view a true representation of what I wrote and think. The subject has also got a lot hotter in the last week and is now way out of my pay grade. However I think there are some issues I should also return to as Guy has imputed certain views to me in a disparaging fashion.

So, for what it is worth, this is what someone who trained as a historian in the early 1980s and has read a lot of history ever since, thinks about some key issues.

Left, Not Left and some thoughts on Blackadder
I get the feeling that Guy, and to some extent left wing satirists such as Mark Steel (see Mark Steel - Independent article), have been looking for an opportunity to have this fight with the likes of Michael Gove. I can understand that, - I find his policies as a Secretary of State for Education to be illogical and dangerous. He's not a complete ignoramus (see the debate on Start the Week between him, Simon Sharma, Tom Holland and Margaret MacMillan about teaching history) but he is a politician with a penchant for controversy. His accusations of "leftie bias" in the historiography of the Great War show an astonishing lack of understanding of the debate (do I need to reiterate the point re Alan Clark & Winston Churchill, which I believe was also made  by Dr Lucy Worsley on BBC news when this first came up?) . His point on the influence of Blackadder is more difficult to dismiss than Mark Steel implies.

Steel satirises Gove's view thus:

"Gove insists it is time to reverse the “myths” spread about the war by relentless left-wing propaganda. The evidence he gives for this tide of pacifist mythology is an episode of Blackadder. And it is hard to see how anyone can counter a constant barrage of brainwashing such as a half-hour of situation comedy broadcast 25 years ago."

Now Mark Steele is exaggerating to make a point and get laughs. However Blackadder wasn't only shown 25 years ago. It has been on almost constant repeat ever since it was broadcast on some digital channel somewhere. It still comes over as fresh and funny. As to its effect on modern understanding of the Great War....well I have had conversations with people who think it portrays the Great War accurately. I don't think it is unreasonable to say to such people "go read a history book". Interestingly enough, if you read Ben Elton's novel "The First Casualty" you'll find a much more authentic portrayal of the Western Front.

I also heard over the weekend a suggestion that you wouldn't try to understand WW2 by watching "Dad's Army", so why single out Blackadder.My father was in the Home Guard, and if he still was with us he would confirm that it's not a bad portrayal of both the Home Guard and the Home Front in the Second World War. "Dad's Army" does not intend to be satire. Blackadder does. They are different types of programme.

German War Guilt
The extent to which German guilt for the war is greater than the other Great Powers of the time is still the matter of heated historical debate. I should have made this clear in my piece in MWBG. This controversy has raged for over 50 years since a German historian, Fritz Fischer, published  "Griff nach der Weltmacht" published in English as "Germany’s Aims in the First World War". His thesis is that Germany (actually, I should say "The German Government", - most of the German population didn't get a say) had aggressive war aims and should bear more of the blame for the war. This is still debated by historians (see this summary of a conference organised by the Open University in 2011: Fischer OU Conference), but I think it has the upper hand in explaining what happened. I'm convinced by Fischer's thesis. Others aren't.

What I do know is that Great Britain really did not want to get involved in a continental land war, and had no plans to invade other European nations. Whilst a colonially belligerent nation when it needed to be for its own self-interest, the British Government had no interest in a European conflict and with a pathetically small army could never have any amibitions of European conquest.

Just War or Not?
Was it a "Just War"? Great Britain had treaty obligations to protect Belgian neutrality. These were internationally known and were non-aggressive. Given that situation the British casus belli was just.

Did the British Army out fight the German Army?
Yes. The British Army developed an all arms tactical methodology that at the end of the War was superior to that of the German Army and did not require the creation of wasteful specialist "Stormtrooper" units. All the modern research shows that the British army was at the forefront of developing the all-arms battle and in evolving infantry tactics. It was an early adopter of the LMG, with the Lewis Gun, and deployed them in large numbers by the end of the war, considerably enhancing section firepower. It achieved full mastery of all aspects of the Artillery War. It won the Air War. And for wargamers it had tanks and worked out how to use them properly.

This is not to say that the British Army did not take awful casualties throughout the war, all the armies did. The Generals did not have a monopoly on common sense, nor did they have a monopoly on idiocy.

The other point that is being bundled up with the attack on the revisionist historians (and people like me) is that they are trying to "sanitise" what happened, and pretend that it was all jolly fun in the trenches. That isn't the case if you read what has been written in recent years. It was an awful way of making war, although being in a trench is better than camping out in the open if the enemy has modern weapons. Mistakes were made. The First Day on the Somme was a national disaster, but we are horrified by it because it is uniquely awful. There were serious miscalculations in what happened and lessons were learnt (that's the point of Paddy's original book on the Great War. It effectively starts on the second day of the Somme battle). Haig was lucky not to have been sacked. Other Generals were. Gary Sheffield's book "Forgotten Victory" doesn't hide the losses, - they're clearly reported throughout.

There seems to be a view that you can't rehabilitate the British Army's tactical methodology without at the same time denying that people died. It's not a logical connection. When wars are fought, people die. If you don't want that to happen then politicians need to find a way of not starting wars.

Was it all futile? This is said so glibly that its another issue where it is difficult to know where to start. If you say that the entire British war effort was futile then you are saying it would have been better for us to have let the Germans walk through Belgium, roll the French Army up and win the war. To say that you then have to have a view on what Europe would have looked like under the Second Reich. You can't say "We fought the war and what we got was Communism and Nazism". Those are historical facts but weren't historical inevitabilities at the start of the war, or even in anyone's eye-line (I'd say "on anyone's radar" but that would be anachronistic).

I've taken the view that we can see what Europe would have been like based on what was done in the occupied areas. I accept that extending this to all of Europe is stretching what we know. Prof Richard J Evans (no relation) says that we can't know that is what would have happened, but he can't say what would have happened instead. So I think what I've said is the best guess we can make. If you are going to make a value judgement about whether the War was futile you have to have a view of what the world would have been like if it hadn't been fought.

You then have to ask yourself if the cost was worth it.

As an island nation if we'd kept out of it lots of people would have been alive who were otherwise killed. Germany could not have invaded us behind the steel wall of the Royal Navy, nor probably wanted to.We would not have nearly bankrupted ourselves getting funding from the Americans and building an armaments industry we didn't need. I suspect if we had known the cost and longevity of the war we'd have kept out of it. But then so would Germany and France.

I don't know if the blood price of beating Germany was worth it. But that's not the same as saying all the deaths were futile.

Finally you might find this link interesting: Dealing with the Blackadder view of history.

I shall be returning to this subject again, briefly, to discuss how military history is written and brought to us, as this may go partly towards explaining why there's a fair amount of heat being generated in an unexpected way.


  1. Good post, but here's the thing understand that debates do not change other people's minds. So when it stops being fun, my advice is to walk away.

    1. Funny thing is I do find that debating an issue changes my mind. In this case all I see being kicked my way is stuff that has already been discredited or superseded. I think it is important to keep on at it for those who are truly undecided.

    2. Of course that should have read WW1 not WW2- I enjoyed your origonal piece in the mag it was approiate and not just to WW1.
      the real point I suspect is that whilst you may change a historians view with evidence changeing the mind of a small p politician (ie somebody with a satirical axe to grind is a different matter . those fellows never let facts get in ther way of a pre-concieved opinion.

    3. I guessed you meant 1 not 2. that's one of the reasons I persist with "Great War", as it stops me mistyping.

      I agree that my thoughhts have wider applicability. Wargamers who care about the hobby in a wider context than just buying the next box from Warlord Games. tend to be quite well informed about the past, - at least they read some history.

      There's a blog I wrote in October 2012 entitled "Honestly, Are Wargamers Boring?" that developed this theme.

    4. Yes I read it and referenced it on one of my blog posts-as you may have gathered one of the things that interests me is chaps motivations for sharing in this hobby of ours that and of course the History- and apparently to some knowing your stuff is "boring"
      but then being an empty knobhead can hardly be the epitome of coll... can it ....

    5. I think being an "empty knobhead" is what the Nation's youth aspire to, only they call it "being a celebrity".

  2. It'll all be over by Christmas was the common view at the time- never forget that. That it didn't happen that way only shows that mistakes were made on all sides. The vast amount of 20-20 hindsight used by all parties in the various debates about WW2 is amazing.
    I too am suposed to be a trained historian- late 70s - lefties of the world unite- but only as long as I needed to pass the courses.
    Unfortunately politiics infuses popular History like a really insidious cancer and of course popular history viewpoints change with the politics- the whole futility debate is asinine- usually people with no knowledge trying to second guess blokes who had little more but at least were there.
    The war may not have been futile the debate usually is.

    1. Andy,

      Thanks for your thoughts, and thanks for supporting me on your blog.

      The Great War is such a significant event I have to believe that the debate is worthwhile. I can't bear the thought people draw their views from such ill-informed or inappropriate sources as works of fiction.


  3. I sympathise with you, Trebian. I don't read the magazine your original piece was published in and so don't know exactly what so inflamed Guy Halsall, but I did check his blog - and have seen his, shall we say, 'critique' - so can piece together the main elements.

    Sitting in a bar over a beer with him you would no doubt find some areas of common ground and be able to understand and hopefully respect each others' point of view. But that's not the way the internet works, it seems. I don't have a problem with his general argument - that the Great War was a horrible thing and that we shouldn't let ourselves off our share of the blame by hiding behind patriotic posturing - but that is not what you were advocating, was it.

    That said, he has every right to his opinion and clearly thinks it is an important issue. I agree with him on certain aspects, but the snide comments and name calling was totally out of order and this is where he has let himself down. You have shown your own worth by refusing to respond in kind and hats off to you for that.

    I guess the lesson here for the rest of us is that we have to think carefully about what we write, because we never know who might actually be reading!

    Anyway, don't let it discourage you and I think you can congratulate yourself for a mature and considered response to a situation that must have taken you somewhat by surprise.

    And happy New Year to you, by the way. All the best for it :)


    1. Aaron,

      I never had any qualms about what I wrote and who read it. Guy didn't actually address what I said in the context I said it. Everything I wrote I can back up with appropriate references. As you said I was astonished at the petty name calling attitude taken by him to someone who is a complete stranger (perhaps, - we had a mutual friend in Paddy Griffith, so we may have met at one of his games).

      As to whether we'd ever agree if we had a pint, - I don't think so. He's a professional historian and he doesn't seem to care about the opinion of anyone who isn't.

      And a Happy New Year to you, too.


  4. Hi Trebian
    I find it really heartening that on the 100th anniversary of World War I people are debating it in such a heated manner. The Great War has been my historical passion for just about my entire life (not kidding, I read my first magazines about it when I was 7 years old). For much of the that time military history was about 'the war' - that is World War 2. WWI seemed to be largely irrelevant. The 'myths' were quite persistent - Lions led by Donkeys, the war was futile etc. and seemed unlikely to be challenged. Then, when I was writing my Master's thesis (on a NZ WWI soldier who became a controverisal WW2 Brigadier), along came Paddy Griffith's book and it was a shot in the arm. All of a sudden there was a whole new world of WWI study. The intervening 20 years have been wonderful not just for the shattering of so many 'myths', but to have a historical community that was prepared to see WWI as more than simply the bloody catalyst for what came later.
    So I welcomed your article in MWBG and was enjoying reading it until you got to the part about the 'brutal military government' of Germany. There are a whole host of reasons that I disagree with this view (not just yours, but shared by a large number of historians). The key one being that Germany was not a 'brutal military government' at the outbreak of the war. That it later acted in a brutish way can't be denied, but given the choice of a war that ended in December 1914 being won by Germany or by 'our' allies the Russians, I'd pick Germany every time. The British Empire can claim some moral high ground in going to war over the Belgian treaty. However, given the high level staff talks that had already happened between Britain and France, I believe we would have joined the war regardless, to preserve the position of the empire vis a vis Germany. And that is what I believe the Great War was really about - the will of all sides not to lose what they had. It was an Imperial war that was about preservation, and not a moral crusade to defeat a morally reprehensible enemy. If you go down that track, you have to start asking about our allies and what morality their governments possessed. It isn't a pleasant prospect.
    I also believe that the Austro-Hungarians and the Russians bear a great deal of the responsibility for the war, the greater share falling with the Russians who were scared of being made to look like fools yet again. Was a World War started for the Tsar's pride worth it?
    I've tried to outline (briefly) my point of view. I can accept that it may not change your mind, but that is I believe the beauty of history. My greatest concern would be for ideas to go unchallenged. I hope that nothing I have written is offensive in any way.

    1. Nat,

      Please, disagree with me but be civilised about it (as you have been). As you might expect I don't entirely agree with you, but your comment re the "brutal military dictatorship" is probably close to the mark and I did over state the case.

      But then it was a polemical piece and what i want wargamers to do is to share what they know with others.

      As for being allied to the Russians....well we were allied to stalin in WW2 and we've got into bed with some bad people both before and after the Great War. Fact is, for the UK, Russia wasn't a threat and wasn't going to invade France. Germany was.

      Let's keep the discussion going not just here but in the outside world.

      Absolutely no offense taken at all. If GH had put his views out like this then I'd have had no problem with him.



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