Monday, 20 January 2014

Who is this going to annoy?

Well, clearly the BBC was waiting for my piece in MWBG.

Lions & Donkeys: 10 Big Myths De-bunked

Okay, it's written by Dan Snow who some would probably say wasn't a proper historian, but even so.

The Beeb also has these "iWonder" guides on the Great War. There will be 25 of them, with 8 published so far. Looking at the text on the website, I think this one might be very interesting and perhaps more controversial than you might think:

Has war poetry distorted our view of World War One?

This is written by the poet Ian McMillan and makes the surprising claims that "Although Dulce et Decorum Est is written from the poet’s point of view, it's important to remember it is a work of fiction" and "A select group of well-educated soldier officers, including Wilfred Owen, came to view the war as one of pity and horror. This was a minority view but expressed through powerful and well-written poetry. In the 1960s a literary elite decided this was the most authentic view of the conflict because it chimed with their own anti-war feelings."

I suggest we now all write up Barnsley's favourite son as a right wing officer class stooge.


  1. I'm glad you spotted this as I was about to send you the link. This will certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons, but sensible discussion, rather than ad hominem attacks is to be welcomed.

    1. This looks like one occasion when I might be ahead of the crowd.

      I'm tracking GH's blog to see how he goes about dealing with this. I think MacMillan's piece looks like the most interesting as it addresses the perception through fiction issue head on.

    2. I was about to post that as well based on our discussions on my blog... it'll probably be dismissed because Dan is not a "historian"... :o)

    3. Looking at Dan's qualifications, he copuld probably claim to be a historian, or at least trained as such. Looking at his career you'd have to say he was incredibly lucky. Never let it be said there isn't a role for nepotism in today's Britain.

  2. I remember a cartoon in Private Eye years ago:
    Two 'Tommies' are in a shell hole, scribbling in tatty exercise books. Behind them, a charge is going in, preceded by a soldier kicking a football.

    One of the men in the hole says: "That's Fothergill. Lucky blighter - he's excused poetry!"

    Apart from the War Poets, I can't help thinking that one of the reasons the Great War came to be regarded as it is in British culture was the fact that most of it was fought by civilians who volunteered and by conscripts. Britain's previous 'Great War' (with France), and its numerous colonial wars, were fought by a long-service professional army who were often written off as 'the scum of the earth', so their casualties didn't matter.

    The Great War of 1914-18 - not surprisingly - came to be regarded as futile when Germany had to be defeated all over again only twenty years later. I can't help thinking 'Black Jack' Pershing had the right of it; but the Allies didn't make the same mistake in 1945.

    1. "I can't help thinking that one of the reasons the Great War came to be regarded as it is in British culture was the fact that most of it was fought by civilians who volunteered and by conscripts." Yes - valid argument - but not because of the 'scum of the earth' so much as the fact that the volunteers were more likely to document their experience???

    2. Steve Precisely the memooirs were different ...

    3. If Pershing was right, it would be about the only thing he did get right. I think your point on the citizen army is spot on. We shouldn't forget that the Tommy in WW1 was considerably better educated than his professional predecessor at all levels of the service, and he was moved to write as he could see he was involved in world shattering events.

    4. Actually, quite a few ranker veterans of Wellington's Peninsular and Waterloo armies did produce memoirs. They were, in some cases, men who remained in the ranks because of the early C19th class system, who might well have been commissioned in WWI. Whilst they often describe the horrors of war, they do so from the perspective of a professional soldier who has become accustomed to such things; they have no anti-war axe to grind. As Sgt Wm. Wheeler put it, 'Let me have Old Nosey to command... We should be assured to be well supplied with victuals and grog ... and to give the French a d--d good licking. What can a soldier desire more?'

      These veterans wrote their memoirs precisely because they realised they had been involved in 'world shattering events' and so would have a market for their books.

      My point was really that the British public was not greatly concerned by the casualties suffered by those 'who enlisted for drink, or from having got bastard children, or to escape the law'. Peninsular veterans did not get a campaign medal until 1848!

    5. All fair points. The other thing, of course, is the sheer scale of Great War casualties being published daily in the papers.

  3. Thanks for the links, Treb ... had seen the Dan Snow one but not the very pertinent MacMillan contribution ...

    1. Haven't actually played the MacMillan link, - I found it during my lunch break at work.

  4. Dear Graham,

    I enjoyed the BBC piece because:

    1. Dan Snow is a Historian - it says so in the piece!
    2. I like lists.
    3. Footnotes are for hardback books, Academic Papers and Terry Pratchett.
    4. It is set at the level of popular pub debate. Which is where most of the action will be over the next four years.
    5. It will reach a wider audience than the wargames press usually does.
    6. This is a list of ten things, and I usually run out of patience at 5, So Mr Snow's piece has inspired me.
    7. The Military Chapel at Sandhurst features a lot of Dominion troops from the Indian and African continents, (as you know), and popular history forgets that.*
    8. I'm not fond of folk who automatically assume that General Officers are stupid.
    9. I'm even less fond of folk who believe that a full understanding of war can be gained by reading about it.
    10. I didn't gain an understanding of engineering or medicine by reading poetry about it.

    Kind regards, Chris.

    *Ok, so I was scratching about and off-topic at this point,

    1. Chris,

      Pithy and to the point, as ever.

      You'll excuse me if I stick to reading about war rather than going off and being shot at I hope.


    2. Agreed; realtime 1:1 scale live wargaming is rubbish :-)

    3. Not much better if you do it indoors.