Gove, M. Your essay on the remembrance of the Great War was too much argument and too little evidence. You must back up your statements more, and more precisely. I cannot give your essay more than a C grade, for the following reasons.
First, let’s consider the theory that the War was a ‘misbegotten shambles.’ ‘Shambles’ comes from the York butchers’ street. It isn’t an inappropriate term for a war which cost millions of lives. It implies incompetence and waste of time or, in this case, life. There was both incompetence and waste of life: both are undeniable. The incompetence was not necessarily because the commanding elite were stupid or out-of-touch, but that the conditions of the War were such as no one had hitherto encountered, and reactions were not as efficient as they might have been. A tried-and-tested tactic in winning a battle was to throw more troops at the problem. Recently the Vietnamese commander of Dien Bien Phu, Vo Nguyen Giap, died; he was hugely successful, but at the cost of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers’ lives. His attitude was that he would win whatever the cost, and troops were a necessary expendable. No one would say that he was not an effective military commander, but many would object to his methods. Ditto the Great War commanders. However, troops on the Western Front were not so much cannon-fodder as machine-gun fodder. No one had really been on the wrong end of a machine gun before, because they were new. Also new was the use of gas. The British (and French) commanders were a bit slow on the uptake here, but the development and deployment of the tank surely indicates that they recognised that past tactics simply wouldn’t work.
There was, in some areas of the War, worse than incompetence: in Africa, the British Army killed more of its African troops through neglect than putting them in front of the enemy. That was fine, because they were only fuzzy-wuzzies. In commemorating the Great War, we must acknowledge the thousands of Empire men who gave their lives supporting a war which was only relevant for them because Europeans had seen fit to invade and subjugate their countries.
Secondly, your statement that the Great War was a ‘just war’. The just war theory is fraught with problems. Thomas Aquinas invented it as a get-out clause for Christians, who shouldn’t be at war at all, but just can’t help themselves. No war is just: however righteous your cause, the destruction of war will outweigh it. The Second World War has a claim to be as just as a war gets, but one of the causes of that war was the injustice meted out as a result of the First World War. You say:
“The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified. And the war was also seen by participants as a noble cause. Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.”
Social Darwinism and a pitiless approach to occupation just about describes all colonial powers at the time. Look at British behaviour in the Boer War – not pretty: it was we who invented the concentration camp, after all. And as for ‘aggressively expansionist war aims’, yes, admittedly this is true, but you only have to read thrillers of the time (Sherlock Holmes investigated missing submarine plans twice; Austin Freeman’s anti-hero took part in outwitting German spies in a similar escapade) to appreciate Blackadder’s reply to George’s question about why they were at war: ‘because it’s too much bother not to’. The Germans (the Prussians, really) were itching for war, but so was Britain, France and Russia.
And while we’re on Blackadder, perhaps you need to watch it (again). Blackadder is more nuanced than you give it credit. In George, we have a character who believes in pro patria mori, in the Arthurian heritage of Britain, in the duelling glory of maintaining honour, in fighting for that good old British liberty. You have the more cynical Blackadder, who, despite criticising them, follows orders. And Baldrick – who doesn’t really know what the war’s about, but will go along with whatever. Reading letters and novels from the period, these seem very credible characters. Melchett is a caricature of the Donkey-leading-Lion Hague, but a caricature. And you need to know the whole donkeys-leading-lions debate to understand the series, anyway. Blackadder can be a very useful tool in introducing this debate, as you’d probably see if you went into some history lessons.
Whenever I’ve taught the Great War, we’ve focused on two main themes: one, causation, and two, interpretation – was is a war led by donkeys? Getting pupils to understand the complexity of the causes of conflict is very important – and getting them to understand that sometimes there is no black-and-white good or bad. Getting pupils, too, to understand that events are subject to interpretation and that a narrative may not be all it seems is a crucial lesson in history. I used to feel satisfied that if my pupils left my class not believing everything they read in the Daily Mail, I’d done my job.
Thirdly, if you’re going to criticise a Big-Bertha-weighted historian like Richard Evans, it’s a good idea to have read his books and articles first.
And finally, a minor, but important, point is your English – like many lives of Great War soldiers, it is nasty, brutish and short. Please remember that written English is different from spoken and that sentences require a verb.