The ongoing whitewash of World War I

Posted: January 29, 2014 in Media, Television, War

Last February I wrote an article on Dan Snow’s documentary series Locomotion, which was quite good until the last episode when he reduced the previous few hours of analysis of the history of Britain’s railways into a part of a grand political narrative about empire and global superpowers. At the time, I said “for a moment I thought I was watching a Niall Ferguson documentary.” Well, it seems I may not have been too far away from the truth.

Snow, the BBC’s go-to history television presenter at the moment (I mean they call him a “historian” but a first at undergrad level at Oxford doesn’t make you one), recently put his name to this article on World War I for the BBC website. Entitled ‘Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked’, the general ideas of it are:

– feel sorry for posh people too, as they also have feelings

– Britain is great and matters more than any other country

– the war wasn’t that bad

All of this was compiled with a smarmy tone of “you plebs should believe this because you’re wrong but you don’t know any better so that’s fine”. I was astonished that the BBC would allow such an arrogant and callous article to be published, but in the current climate, I’m not surprised.

We’re in a time where the centenary of the start of World War I is fast approaching. We’re in a time where the Education Secretary is making sweeping changes to the history curriculum in schools to put Britain back at the heart of it (after all, who wants to learn about all those other backward countries? It’s not like Britain has any immigrants or anything) and emphasise how great we all are. We’re in a time where British forces are fighting and dying in a rather pointless war we have no business being involved in in Afghanistan. We’re in a time where a referendum is soon to be held on Scottish independence.

All of this is coming together to form a situation where certain factions are trying to revise the history of World War I to suit the political ideology of those in power in order to influence public opinion. This is not a new thing – indeed, it is often said that history is more about the present than the past – but it is particularly concerning given that it seems to be happening without much effort to stop it, especially when it’s gaining credence with the national broadcaster, whose founding mantra is to inform, educate and entertain.

Instead of the established narrative of it being a pointless war in which hundreds of thousands of people were needlessly slaughtered over the period of four years for very little gain, it’s now being re-framed as a large jolly in which everyone had a good time (apart from the poor victimised posh people, evidently, who have suffered for so long in the words of those evil lefty academics) and Britain proved it was the best country in the world ever. Those Scots don’t know what they’ll be missing out on if they go their separate ways this year.

At the heart of this is Niall Ferguson. When not refusing to apologise for the atrocities of the British Empire, being a homophobe, worshipping money or killing babies, Ferguson has been attempting to re-write the history of World War I by using the same argument both Michael Gove and Dan Snow have evidently stolen from him. Funnily enough, he’s also one of the best-known historians involved in creating the new history curriculum for schools…

Gove’s recent claims have already been covered well by my mate Joe Harrison, who’s also a history postgrad, but I’m going to tackle Snow’s article.

As E.H. Carr wrote in his seminal text What Is History?, before looking at the facts, you have to look at the historian, and it’s not surprising that Dan Snow would be sticking up for the elites. Aside from being a posh television presenter who is the son of another posh television presenter, his great-grandfather was a general in World War I, and his wife is the daughter of the Duke of Westminster, the richest British person in the world.

With that in mind, here are the points he says he debunks:

1. It was the bloodiest war in history to that point
Snow argues that it wasn’t, because higher numbers or percentages of people died in other wars, as if this means something. “Oh well, it couldn’t have been that bad, because other wars were worse” isn’t a valid argument for anything; two or more wrongs don’t make a right. The English Civil War might have killed a higher percentage of people, but back in the seventeenth century, you could die from cholera. You can twist statistics like this to suit whatever argument you want.

2. Most soldiers died
Snow argues that they didn’t, again implying that means something. The implication is that if you didn’t die, obviously that was fine, even if you had your legs blown off or were left with PTSD for the rest of your life. It’s a totally unnecessary thing to say, and misses the point. It’s also playing upon the general public conception of World War I as just the Western Front, when actually it was fought in a far greater variety of locations; in the horrific battles on the Western Front in the Somme and Ypres, huge numbers of people were killed which distorts the balance of overall figures, something Snow doesn’t acknowledge. Again, you can twist statistics like this to suit whatever argument you want, especially if you don’t engage with them.

3. Men lived in the trenches for years on end
Snow argues that they didn’t, implying that the whinging proles should be grateful for the fact that they didn’t have to live in trenches for years on end. Again, it’s missing the point: the fact that trench warfare existed at all, let alone essentially continue for four years with new soldiers lined up every few weeks to replace the cannon fodder that had already been lost, in a supposedly civilised society should be enough.

4. The upper class got off lightly
Snow argues that a higher percentage of the poor old posh people were killed, ergo we should feel sorry for them too. This is ridiculous on several levels.

Firstly, he makes no attempt to explain where the idea of the upper class “getting off lightly” came from to begin with. You’d struggle to get decent marks at A Level for that.

Secondly, once again he does not attempt to engage with the statistics he’s presenting; he doesn’t place them in context, or attempt to explain why the upper class was hit disproportionately hard (aside from that they were often first over the top; those brave, brave posh people…), instead just saying that they were and that you should feel sorry for them.

Thirdly, even Blackadder Goes Forth, despite being beaten with Michael Gove’s stick a few weeks ago, reflects that posh people got killed too by including the character of George, who has already lost all his public school friends and eventually dies himself. If Blackadder is one of the primary reasons why the popular conception of WWI has developed, surely that suggests that, er, this supposed myth isn’t really that significant.

Fourthly, it completely ignores the fact that all those posh people who did survive (and remember that Snow was just arguing that not that many people died, therefore making the whole thing OK) could go back into normal society with their education from public schools or degrees and walk into (or back into) their respectable well-paid jobs, while the working class people who survived had to go back to working on farms or in heavy industry for next to sod all a week – at least until the General Strike. But then I imagine Snow will come up with some reasons for why that and the Depression hit rich people hardest of all as well…

5. ‘Lions led by donkeys’
Snow argues that his great-grandfather and friends weren’t all that bad, and that it wasn’t their fault anyway. Essentially, it’s a bourgeois version of the “no, really, it’s the system that’s to blame” argument. The problem is this works for working class people because they have no power, but the middle and upper classes making the same argument doesn’t work because they are responsible for that power structure being in place. They are the ones whose petty disputes led Britain into the war.

The implication of this argument as a “debunking” of a “myth”, as proposed by Niall Ferguson and other historians of his ilk, is that they are fighting a brave, noble battle against a narrative that has always been in place. On the contrary, the initial dominant narrative in the immediate post-war period was that Haig and the other generals were heroes. It wasn’t until the 1960s that this began to be revised when people sat back and thought “hmm, maybe sending thousands of men into no-man’s-land to be gunned down by Germans wasn’t such a good idea after all”. Ferguson and co want to take us back to that traditional narrative.

I’m sure there were some “good” generals – that much is obvious. But the thousands of people killed in each of these battles, or even over the course of one day, says it all.

6. Gallipoli was fought by Australians and New Zealanders
Snow basically says “hey, lots of British people died at Gallipoli too. More than the Anzacs too, which must mean it should matter more to us than them”. Considering he was more than happy to use the “disproportionate casualty” argument when talking about posh people, it’s odd (and, in some ways, amusing) to see him just walk over this argument when talking about foreigners. So not only are poor people irrelevant, but Australians and New Zealanders too. How about we tell him that some of the Anzacs that died were rich too? Perhaps he’ll change tack. Or perhaps he’ll continue to think that British people dying is a lot more of a travesty than someone from an inferior country.

7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure
Snow argues that tactics and technology improved, ignoring that trench warfare continued throughout the war right up to 1918. The technology did improve, yes, but only served to reinforce the method of warfare that was already being used. Either way, it’s pretty irrelevant, because whatever name you want to give the method, the men fighting the war were still getting slaughtered like animals. Another non-argument.

8. No-one won
Well yes, Dan, officially the Allies did win, but, y’know, this is a figure of speech meant to represent the huge waste of life on both sides for what was ultimately very little gain. It’s about the futility of war, a concept you don’t seem to understand.

In any case, the war was fought to a relative stand-still very early on and it took the introduction of the Americans to tip the balance in the favour of the Allies after four years of slogging and slaughter. Even then, it took German mutinies to settle it. After the millions of deaths and incomprehensible levels of damage caused, can we really talk about victory? According to Dan Snow, we can, because Britain is the best.

9. The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh
Snow argues that it wasn’t for some bizarre reason. Yes, we’ll just ignore the huge amounts of territory taken away, the occupied regions, the demilitarisation of the Rhineland, the banning of Germany from having an army, and the gazillion pound reparation bill which John Maynard Keynes thought was too high. We’ll also ignore the resulting recession Germany was sent into for the next decade and a half and the use of all of this by the Nazi Party to exploit the German public and gain power, leading to another costly, bloody world war. No, it wasn’t enough – we should have occupied the whole country, split it into four, billed them for every war ever, and taken all their children from them to be re-educated and integrated into civilised society.

10. Everyone hated it
So, unsurprisingly, after spending the whole article playing the war down (apart from for the posh people), Snow delivers the coup de grace – he says the war wasn’t that bad because some people enjoyed it, as it wasn’t as bad as conditions in Britain and they got “sexual freedom”.

Never mind what Harry Patch and other people who actually fought in the war said about it – “legalized mass murder” and all that. Yes, apart from the millions of deaths, thousands of wounded or traumitised people, the emotional loss for their relatives, the catastrophic damage, the loss of priceless cultural artefacts of historical importance, the development of barbaric tools for destruction, and the cause of the rise of fascism in Western society, the massacre of Europe’s Jewish population and a second global war which ultimately led to some of the worst aspects of world society today, it wasn’t that bad because some toffs got the opportunity to rape a few French village-dwellers without the fear of reprisal.

This is the BBC in 2014.

Images used in the spirit of fair use


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