Should we emphasise the heroism and courage of a ‘just war’ in a ‘noble cause’, as education secretary Gove wants, or highlight imperialist war as the worst form of barbarism?


Teacher John Blake, writing in the Times Educational Supplement (The First Casualty: Truth, 8 November 2013) says it is time to dispel three myths about the first world war:

First, that it was, without question, an unjust and imperialist war; second, that war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen provide a representative response of soldiers to the conflict; and third, that the generals of the first world war were ignorant and callous butchers who had no regard for their men. All three of these myths appear to be deeply embedded in too many of our schools and in too much of our culture.

Blake also point the finger at the No Glory campaign as guilty of disseminating the same myths. But fellow teacher John Westmoreland disagrees and argues below that John Blake’s agenda is simply a variant of the view professed most prominently by British education secretary Michael Gove, who says the first world war was a “just war” fought in a “noble cause”.

John Blake is hoping to revise the approach to teaching the history of the first world war. It appears that teachers have been too fascinated with the immorality of war, and not conscious enough of the actual history. Thus he writes: “If we accept that the purpose of remembering the first world war is to learn about the horrors of war, we are not teaching it as it was but rather as we presume it to have been.

In other words, we have accepted that the conflict is not a historical event to be dissected and understood, but a moral lesson to be recalled. That is profoundly dangerous.”

Quite why learning about the first world war’s horrors is ‘profoundly dangerous’ he fails to tell us. Having taught the subject for a number of years at A level, I find that it is absolutely necessary to start with the horror, and indeed the scale of the horror in order to get the students to ask, ‘How the hell did this happen, and why the hell did it last so long’?

John Blake’s article is something of a puzzle, I am always a little concerned by someone who starts a debate by saying ‘my facts are better than your facts’, and implying that what we thought were the real facts should be displaced by some new facts.

There is an agenda here and sure enough when we read a little deeper Blake actually wants to emphasize a variant of Michael Gove’s patriotic history in place of the traditional view, where instead of focusing on the horror, we celebrate in Gove’s words “steadfastness, heroism, endurance and courage“. We actually get no new facts, or ‘real history’ just a patriotic spin on the old stuff. Blake identifies three particular popularly taught ‘myths’ that he wants to bust: “first, that it was, without question, an unjust and imperialist war; second, that war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen provide a representative response of soldiers to the conflict; and third, that the generals of the first world war were ignorant and callous butchers who had no regard for their men”.

An imperialist war

John Blake cites Christopher Clark’s book The Sleep Walkers: How Europe Went to War, with approval and concludes that the war’s origin was “much more complicated than a narrative of imperialist states seeking expansion suggests”. Powerful countries and empires rarely sleepwalk into anything. Their rulers, generals and bureaucrats always make the calculations, and those calculations are based on economic imperatives. The war was clearly and openly motivated by imperialist countries wanting to repartition territory, and the resulting treaties at the end of the war clearly support this conclusion. It is also worth mentioning that the great historians of the topic such as the late Fritz Fischer and Eric Hobsbawm do not deal with World War I in isolation. They locate it as an early turning point in the imperialist stage of history which would include the partition of Africa by European countries, the direct link from World War I, which actually stimulated imperialist rivalry, to the Second World War and indeed the subsequent development of the USA as the now dominant but declining world super-power.

The unassailable facts which no ‘new facts’ have displaced, are that the war was caused by the strongest country in Europe which was also the most productive, Germany, being blocked in by the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia. Bethman-Hollweg, the German Chancellor in September 1914 when the German army looked poised to take Paris, dictated what Germany wanted if the French succumbed – the ore fields of Briey for the German steel cartels, the disarming of France and the reduction of France to a state of economic dependency on Germany, and then an open war on Russia that would carve out enough Russian territory so that Germany would be the masters of central Europe for the foreseeable future.

Of course Germany ultimately lost, and exactly the same annexationist demands were made at Versailles. The treaties at the end of the first world war all attempted to weaken the central powers to their own advantage. All Germany’s colonies and navy went to Britain. Britain and France carved out extensions to their empires, with France reclaiming Alsace and Lorraine and huge reparations in order to cripple Germany; and with the Sykes –Picot agreement dividing the oil rich Middle East between France and Britain. These treaties made further war for empire inevitable.

Remembering the fallen

A key point made by those who want to glorify war is to play the poppy card. The argument made by John Blake and others such as the historian Margaret MacMillan is that the oft quoted description of the British soldiers as ‘lions led by donkeys,’ misrepresents the soldiers fighting in the trenches. John Blake laments that our kids are taught that the “war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen provide a representative response of soldiers to the conflict”. Instead of the working classes being led to their deaths in a mindless slaughter the apologists for war want to stress that many of them volunteered, including enthusiastic recruits from the empire. Blake says we disrespect them by denying that many of them agreed with the war and few veterans had read the war poets or agreed with their values. Is this really a point of substance?

Firstly, it is of course true that many soldiers went to war willingly. It was presented as an easy opportunity for glory that would all be over by Christmas. It is also true that war has different effects on those who take part in it. Adolf Hitler and his henchmen were not put off by violence and death. They gloried in war, and they showed no qualms in killing opponents to the end of their lives. British troops were involved in the slaughter of Indians in Amritsar in 1919 when they rebelled, as well as Irish rebel seeking independence and I doubt if the poetry of Sassoon or Owen was of any importance to them. However, I also doubt very much if the apologists for war are accurately going to remember the fallen, and far less those who refused to fall.

It is impossible to tell the soldiers’ story without recalling that the war was ended by protest against war. In Russia and Germany there was revolution. Central to those revolutions was opposition to war, imperialism and the system that ordered it. Soldiers across Europe turned their guns on their officers. I hope the apologists will include the British troops in this largely untold story. There were mutinies in the British army in Flanders, and when the government pledged arms and troops to fight against the Bolsheviks in Russia there was a ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign involving soldiers and sailors and this included a march to Downing Street. British troops sent to fight the Reds at Murmansk mutinied and some went over to the Bolsheviks. The end of World War I saw a huge rejection of war and it fed into the massive growth of Communist and Socialist parties across Europe in the 1920s. The rejection of war is a key part of the soldiers’ tale and the No Glory in War Campaign might well want to write more on this.

The officer corps

John Blake insists that poor old Field Marshall Douglas Haig has had it rough from all these lefty teachers. He particularly objects to the portrayal of Haig by Stephen Fry as Lord Melchett in the television comedy Blackadder Goes Forth. His defense it has to be said is weak. His first trick is to use the straw man argument of exaggerating what we say about the generals “ignorant and callous butchers who had no regard for their men”, and he hopes that this will appear unreasonable to the new reader. Actually what we say is that they were typical of the ruling class who had a callous disregard for the working class generally and were prepared to see working class people slaughtered in a war for empire.

Then he tries to offer a rationale for the slaughter of millions –

“The reason the infantry was asked to walk across the Somme battlefield was to ensure that they arrived at the German lines together and thus were not slaughtered one by one as they climbed into the enemy trenches”.

I think the only response we can make to this is ‘are you serious?’ How long did it take the much misunderstood Haig to work out that the soldiers were not all arriving at the German trenches together? Sixty thousand dead on the first day of the battle of the Somme is pretty damning evidence to justify the conclusion that the officer corps were worse than donkeys.

The truth is that the British Empire based on the barbarity of racial domination, was no different in its disregard for human life than other empires. The first world war did not end the madness either. The Irish War of Independence or the ‘Black and Tan War’ raged between 1919 and 1921. Britain resorted to the foulest violence to prevent the Irish from gaining their freedom as the following from a commanding officer of the mercenary killers known as the Black and Tans makes clear:

“If a police barracks is burned or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there – the more the merrier. Should the order ‘Hands Up’ not be immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching (a patrol) carry their hands in their pockets, or are in any way suspicious-looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.”

The reason for studying war is far more simple than John Blake would have us believe. It is to show that imperialist war is the worst form of barbarism, and that there is nothing noble about it. It served the interests of big business and tyrants and destroyed countless innocent lives. That was the view in 1918 and it is the view we should continue to teach because, it seems, our rulers refuse to learn their history, and they want to distort ours.

From No Glory

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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