Anyone who has a specific interest in the Great War knows that there are many myths associated with it. Ask a member of the general public what comes to mind when they think of the War and they will probably respond with a comment based on one of a handful of things:
A generation of men were wiped out
It was a case of ‘lions led by donkeys’
The war was futile and avoidable
These images and lines of thought have been perpetuated by popular media over decades so as to become so entrenched in our cultural history that they are almost sacred and untouchable – rarely questioned by those without a specific interest in the conflict. From a young age, we are conditioned to accept the above as facts, proven long ago. It is only really when one takes a closer look, if by chance the subject draws you in, that you realise these points and many others are at best contentious and at worst, simply not true.
Inspired by recent discussions on social media, I’ve been reflecting on the centenary period and have concluded that there was indeed a missed opportunity to challenge these myths. Instead, mainstream media seemed content to stick to the status quo – and it is irrelevant whether it is factually correct or not. The question is, why is this case and why do these misconceptions seem so hard to overturn? Why is there such a void between what those in the military history ‘community’ believe and the wider public?
I’m no expert, but would like to share some of my musings as to why this might be, over the course of a few blog posts of which this is the first.
1 . Great War family history is sacrosanct
The war impacted pretty much every family in the country in some way. Our personal stories have travelled down the generations, and many of us have great pride in our ancestors as a result. People are uncomfortable about questioning the wider context in which these stories took place lest it upset relatives or change how we view our ancestors contribution to the war effort. If you have grown up thinking that Great Uncle Bill spent months on end in the trenches as part of the bloodiest and most brutal war there has ever been, would learning that he likely was only in the trenches for a few days or weeks at a time and that the First World War was no more brutal than past conflicts, undermine the heroic picture you’ve built up of him? Would considering that he enjoyed some of his time in the Army rather than every moment being abject Sassoonesque misery somehow devalue his contribution? It shouldn’t – for it doesn’t change a thing in reality and yet I sense to many that it is unsettling to even consider altering the context in which these emotive parts of family history dwell. It is a big boat to rock and perhaps the mainstream media fears alienating its audience in doing so. It is therefore easier to stick to the status quo – every man who fought endured endless hardships, they were not just heroes but all of them altruistic to the core, monochrome Angels. Yes, this scene of romantic tragedy is easier to accept and document than the truth and crucially it is less likely to offend because it does not in any way affect those precious family memories.
2. By questioning our view of the war, we are forced to address uncomfortable wider social issues.
One shouldn’t under estimate the power of socio-economic frameworks which have under pinned our country for centuries. The class system for example, is something we like to think has very little influence on how we view the world and each other these days, however I believe it has a hand in perpetuating some of the most common myths such as ‘lions led by donkeys’. It seems to me that it suits the majority to think of high ranking officers as cowardly and callously sending 1000’s of men to their deaths because it fits well with the age old narrative of the upper classed, privileged few treating the every day working class man with contempt. In 1873 Lorenz Diefenbach coined the phrase ‘arbeit macht frei’ or ‘work sets you free’ (which of course later become synonyms with Nazi atrocities). 100 years later in 1970 John Lennon wrote ‘Working Class Hero’, arguably based on a similar principle – the idea that the path to virtue is through labour. Here in 2019 the current political climate seems to once again give strength to ‘class divisions’ among us. Could we argue that at the heart of the ‘lions led by donkeys’ narrative is finding blame for the deaths of the many ordinary, working class men at the hands of the few, privileged commanders? Do people find comfort in believing the deaths of their forefathers was a selfless sacrifice at the orders of those who are part of the political elite? Does this in the nations subconscious make the dead seem all the more righteous? I believe so. It is easier and more comfortable to deride and tear apart the memory of the privileged few such as Haig, and raise ‘Tommy’ up on a pedestal than to invest the time and energy required to consider the much more nuanced truth that may cut a chunk out of the martyrdom that we have instilled on our ‘Glorious Dead’ after all.
3. We have forgotten how to remember
Linked closely with both of the above is what we have been conditioned to ‘remember’. In truth it feels at times as if the decades of Remembrance have brought us further away from the true meaning of ‘remembering’ in so many respects. As the last of the men who fought passed on, and now so too the generation of their children with hazy memories of their Fathers returning slip away, has the ‘cult of Remembrance’ caused us to forget reality? I sold Poppies for many years, after I made a promise to pick up from where my Grandfather left off after his death, and it taught me that a large number of people buy a poppy for 11/11 because they feel they ought to – but many aren’t really sure why they feel that. The pomp and circumstance of centenary events (3 of which I was involved with) run by the self appointed ‘custodians of remembrance’ seemed to become more about the events themselves rather than ‘remembering’ – the champagne slap on the back event after RBL’s GP90 event was surely an eye opener to me on this front. And when we do remember, well, we only seem to remember those who died. Armistice commemorations across the country revolve around memorials built for those who did not return from the war. TV coverage wheels out once a year the same rhetoric of seemingly the only two or three battles of the Great War, statistics of staggering numbers of the dead are placed upon the alter and draped in a cloth of Sassoon and Owen’s best work. Is it any wonder that most people are surprised to learn that only around 11% of those who were mobilised during the war were killed? Not really. In the years immediately following the war, our nation was gripped with grief, not just for the dead, but grief for the wounded, for lives torn apart, minds forever soiled, jobs and futures forever altered. As the survivors passed on, the grief remained but have we forgotten the wider context from whence that grief originated? Have we forgotten in part what we are really remembering and does this impact how we view the Great War? Almost definitely.
These are the first 3 points of a few that I have in mind, more to follow… Anyone who knows me knows that I am not short of opinions and of course the above are just that – my opinions, playing devils advocate a little, but as one of my heroes, Carl Sagan, once said ‘we can judge our progress by the courage of our questions’ and whilst I know in the history of war ‘community’ these questions are asked frequently, I’m not sure we are really asking them enough in wider the conversation.