The German Spring Offensives 1918: Corollary: Why the British weren’t (quite) so dumb after all

Although, as I argued in my blog of 5 March (see below), the German army’s offensives in the spring of 1918 were always likely to fail, they did enjoy some startling successes. The first few days of both Operation MICHAEL (which began on 21 March) and Operation GEORGETTE (9 April) strained the British army almost to breaking point. More British troops raised the white flag and went into captivity during the two weeks of MICHAEL than during the whole of the war on the Western Front up until then: 75,000, in all. This was less the result of a general loss of morale than a symptom of British defensive tactics being sometimes unable to withstand a German attack which was always extremely violent and sometimes deployed stormtroop tactics to great effect.

One reason commonly put forward, by historians such as Tim Travers and Martin Samuels, for the failure of the British defence was that the BEF was trying, but failing, to put into effect tactics of ‘elastic defence-in-depth’ which they had cribbed from the Germans. ‘Elastic defence-in-depth’ (EDID) is a system, echeloned back from a thinly held front line, whereby most of one’s strength was held back, out of enemy artillery range, in a series of zones up to ten miles deep, which would operate rather like the crumple zones on a car. When attacked, forward garrisons were to give ground until the enemy, channelled into natural killing zones and disordered by his advance, could be counter-attacked and defeated by reserves manoeuvring up from deep. There is no question that GHQ ordered the BEF to organise their defences along such lines. Nor is there any doubt implementation was patchy and inconsistent, and that, when the Germans struck, many of the new defences were not complete, especially in the sector of the overstretched British Fifth Army.

To some extent, the British failed for a lack of resources: the manpower and material required to develop successive defensive positions in zones deep into the rear simply did not exist. To some extent, however, it is also represented as a conceptual shortcoming: the British, it is argued, never truly understood the idea of EDID, because (implicitly) they were either too dumb to grasp how it was supposed to work, or never possessed the tactical flexibility required to make it do so.

There is, however, a hidden assumption in here: that EDID was the best way of resisting offensives in modern warfare. With hindsight, we know that to be true. But in 1918 it was much less clear. Considerable doctrinal debate was continuing within the German officer corps, where three views of the best way to organise a defence contended. First, there were still a few traditionalists who believed that the morale advantages of holding firmly on to the front line (‘crust defence’) outweighed the rigidity of such a scheme and its vulnerability to enemy artillery fire. Secondly, there were the adherents of EDID, as outlined above. And there was a third group who, when they talked of ‘defence-in-depth’, had in mind not an elastic scheme of manoeuvre but a series of tough fixed defences echeloned deep. During the Third Battle of Ypres (July-November 1917), all three had been tried at one stage or another. None proved successful all the time. EDID had proved unable to prevent the ‘bite-and-hold’ tactics General Plumer used in late September 1917, but the crust defence employed at the Battle of Broodseinde (4 October) was no better at stopping the British. Although Ludendorff ordered an immediate return to EDID, in the mud of the Passchendaele Ridge defences, although deep, became increasingly static. In any case weather, terrain and logistics robbed the British offensive of much more force than any German tactical genius.

In other words, the evidence of the last full-scale battle before spring 1918 was that there was no single defensive panacea on the Western Front (any more than a ‘silver bullet’ existed for the offence). If the Germans, who after all had several years of defensive experience on the Western Front, couldn’t make up their minds, why are we surprised that the British were caught in several minds? EDID was not some self-evident answer which the British were just too dumb to see.

Why, then, does the consensus think EDID was so obviously the solution? The answer begins, as it did in the case I discussed in my blog of 5 March, with the German official historians. To them, manoeuvrists to a man, EDID seemed the only possible way for an emasculated and outnumbered interwar Reichswehr to defend Germany against Poland or, heaven forbid, France.* Therefore, they played up EDID in their studies of the FWW, and so it entered the mainstream. The experience of the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, especially on the Eastern Front (and at least when Hitler wasn’t, ironically, insisting on ‘no retreat’), reinforced the apparent utility of EDID, and fed directly into US and NATO doctrine for the defence of Western Europe against the Warsaw Pact. So hindsight, and the agenda of the German official historians between the wars, have conspired to make the BEF look dumber than they probably would have done at the time.

* There is a final, intriguing possible hypothesis, which it would take much research to test, if it is possible at all to reconstruct what happened in sufficient detail. The final volume of Der Weltkrieg, Volume XIV, which deals with the events of 1918, was not finally compiled until probably about 1943 or even 1944, by which point Hitler had issued several ‘no retreat’ orders, in the face of opposition from his generals of the traditional Army. ‘No retreat’ has similarities with ‘crust defence’. Might the emphasis on EDID in the later volumes of the official history represent coded criticism of Hitler from the official historians? After all the Reichsarchiv was closely aligned with the old-school army and, indeed, had intimate ties with the plotters of July 1944….




The German Spring Offensives of 1918: Last Chance or Forlorn Hope?

In the March 2018 issue of BBC History magazine, my esteemed colleague and friend Professor Alexander Watson has contributed an excellent article on the German spring offensives on the Western Front in 1918: ‘Germany’s Final WW1 Gamble’. He argues that the offensives, which began on 21 March with Ludendorff’s onslaught on the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) around St Quentin, marked Germany’s last chance to win the war and that they blew their opportunity by failing to pay sufficient attention to the operational level of war. Specifically, he argues, Ludendorff diffused effort when he should have concentrated it, and never identified  the importance of logistics, and especially the rail hubs at Amiens and Hazebrouck, to the BEF and so to the Allied war effort. Fine tactical performance, in other words, was undermined by poor operational art.

This line of argument has a long history, dating back at least to the German Official History (Der Weltkrieg), written in 14 volumes between the 1920s and early 1940s, the last volume of which, dealing with 1918, was finally published only in 1956. Professor Watson is an exceptional scholar, to whom I will gladly defer on most things to do with the Central Powers, and on anything concerning the Eastern Front, during the First World War. His article is very much of a piece with the consensus, and reflects in particular reflects David Zabecki’s outstanding The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War (Routledge, 2006). On this, however, the consensus, Zabecki and Watson are wrong, and the reason they are wrong throws up interesting issues around the way the German high command conceived the war they were fighting, as well as how its history was constructed.

There is no doubt that Ludendorff made a number of mistakes during the spring of 1918. He should have delegated command to a single Army Group rather than try to keep control himself. He under-estimated both how quickly his assault troops would tire and the logistics required to maintain the offensive’s momentum. He certainly failed to set a single operational objective, preferring instead to follow an opportunist approach which led to eccentric, rather than concentric, attacks. And he probably did not attach sufficient importance to either Amiens or Hazebrouck.

To argue, however, as the consensus does, that operational errors undermined brilliant German tactics, is to subscribe to a hidden assumption that the Germans would have succeeded had they not made certain mistakes. This, I would argue, is false, for two reasons, the second of which tells us something very interesting about how the history of the war has been constructed.

First, it underestimates the seriousness of the situation in which Germany found herself. On paper, at the end of 1917, Germany had three options:

1) settle for a negotiated peace

2) sit on the defensive in the West while eliminating Russia and Italy

3) attack in the West to defeat Britain, France (or both).

In reality, her choices were much more limited. There was no possible peace deal on the table, and even if public opinion in all the combatant countries had not hardened beyond compromise as the war went on, no one was more intransigent than Ludendorff. He could not give up Belgium but, unless he did so, no peace deal was likely to be acceptable to the Entente. For him, any outcome less than total victory would count as defeat and threaten revolution at home.  Further, Britain, France and the USA were clearly determined to fight on, with or without Russia, so sitting on the defensive would achieve little, except give the Americans time to build up their strength in Europe and shift the balance further against Germany. In other words, if Germany did not attack, she’d be admitting defeat. The Spring Offensives were a desperate gamble by a man and a country who felt they had nothing to lose because they were doomed. The parallels with the Ardennes Offensive of 1944 are striking: Ludendorff shared some of Hitler’s nihilism, even if he did not take it to quite such murderous extremes (as Michael Geyer has argued).

Secondly, it would be a mistake to see German stormtroop assault tactics as brilliantly successful but undercut by poor operational art. Often lauded as foreshadowing Blitzkrieg and establishing a template for modern warfare, they were in fact were far from invincible.  Even on the first day of the offensive, 21 March, for all the stunning gains made in some sectors, the Germans were stopped five miles short of their objectives in others. The attack on 28 March (Operation Mars) proved a disastrous failure at least in part due to poor German artillery and infantry tactics. German success and failure, even at the tactical level, depended, as always, on terrain, weather and the strength or weakness of the Entente defence. The Allies also did some important things which contributed to the outcome, right, such as appointing Foch to supreme command to reduce potential Anglo-French friction, and accelerating the pace of American reinforcement.

Why do we see the Spring Offensives so completely through German eyes? Why do we automatically assume that this was Ludendorff’s battle to lose? The answer, I think, lies largely in the role of the Reichsarchiv in writing the German official history. Those who composed the Official History had the same benefit of hindsight we do. They could have seen that the Central Powers were in a hopeless position by spring 1918, and had been since at least the First Battle of the Marne (September 1914) if not before, had they chosen to focus on the political and strategic levels of war. Instead, they obsessed about the operational and tactical, and they did so for a very specific reason. The Reichsarchiv authors were mainly retired officers of the wartime German General Staff, trained before 1914 by Graf von Schlieffen and his acolytes. They had been chosen specifically to construct an Official History which would serve to educate the officers of the shrunken post-Versailles Reichswehr, to maintain the technical excellence and self-perceived political aloofness of the army, and to keep the manoeuvrist Schlieffenite flame alight against the day when it might be required once more. The two campaigns which attracted most of their attention were the two where the German army most obviously failed: those of August-September 1914 and of March-June 1918; and their emphasis throughout was on the German mistakes made, so that these could be put right next time. To admit that the enemy had been better would not only generate no useful tactical or operational lessons, but also undermine the German soldiers’ image of themselves as the best in the world and threaten morale. Nor did they have any interest in narratives of strategic hopelessness, because the idea that Germany should never again fight such a war was irrelevant to those who saw themselves as preparing her in case she must. Hence we’re left with the German Official History, the ultimate source for almost all the accounts of the Spring Offensive written since, as a very influential narrative of what might have been, if only… Whereas, in fact, the German attacks of March 1918 were the last forlorn hope of a bankrupt regime and their defeat was as inevitable as any event in History ever is.*

* And in Haig’s Enemy (OUP, 2018, available at all good bookshops…), I discuss in detail how and why the German military could not, or would not, face this fact until it was too late.

Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front

I’ve refreshed this website to celebrate the imminent publication of Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front by Oxford University Press. You can find out more about the book here:

I intend to blog more about why and how I wrote this book over the next few weeks, but in the meantime, here’s the cover art (which I love):


Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Past

After a long hiatus, mainly the result of having to work flat out on my book about #Rupprecht, I’m hoping to get back in the blogging saddle here soon. In the meantime, here’s a link to a guest blog I did recently for the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London in the wake of a paper I gave there late last year and the very useful discussion which ensued. It’s about learning the wrong lessons from history. (There’s a link to my original paper within the KCL blog):

When Learning Goes Bad

Churchill’s advice on how to write

There is good advice here on how to make sentences and paragraphs work together. I hope it’s useful. I apologise in advance for any errors made as I transcribed it. This is intended only for student and academic use. Jonathan

Winston Churchill on Sentences and Paragraphs (My Early Life, Chapter XVI, Kindle loc. 3074-84)

On Writing The River War:

I affected a combination of the styles of Macaulay and Gibbon, the staccato antitheses of the former and the rolling sentences and genitival endings of the latter; and I stuck in a bit of my own from time to time. I began to see that writing, especially narrative, was not only an affair of sentences, but of paragraphs. Indeed I thought the paragraph no less important than the sentence. Macaulay is a master of paragraphing. Just as the sentence contains one idea in all its fullness, so the paragraph should embrace a distinct episode; and as sentences follow one another in harmonious sequence, so the paragraphs must fit on to one another like the automatic couplings of railway carriages. Chapterisation also began to dawn upon me. All the chapters should be of equal value and more or less of equal length. Some chapters define themselves naturally and obviously; but much more difficulty arises when a number of heterogeneous incidents none of which can be omitted have to be woven together into what looks like an integral theme. Finally the work must be surveyed as a whole and due proportion and strict order established…. I already realised that ‘good sense is the foundation of good writing.’… I repeated earnestly one of my best French quotations, ‘L’art d’ȇtre ennuyeux c’est de tout dire.’ I think I shall repeat it now.


(transcribed by JFB, e.&o.e.)

Mr Miliband in Mr Gladstone’s Boots? Scottish Independence and Irish Home Rule


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On ‘Newsnight’ last night (Monday 30 March 2015), Evan Davies drew parallels between the probable hung result of the current election and 1922-3. At the tactical level of immediate electoral mathematics and the formation of minority governments, of course, there are some interesting similarities. Inevitably, there are differences, too: not least that the uncertainties of 1922-23 arose from a major strategic political realignment as the Labour party rose and the Liberals were eclipsed. This doesn’t seem to be underway just now.
It could happen though. There’s a possible scenario which, at a very deep level, might echo the events of 1885-6 when Gladstone, to the surprise of most and despair of many, embraced the cause of Irish Home Rule. Ireland, the scene of growing anti-English unrest for decades, in the election of November-December 1885, saw, Irish nationalist candidates sweep the board in the south and win 86 seats, while unionists took the 17 on offer in the north. The Liberal party lost 15 seats and won none. Gladstone interpreted this – correctly – as an overwhelming vote for some form of Home Rule, which he now regarded as the inevitable end-state of the process. To his mind, coercion to maintain the Union was a viable option in neither the short nor medium term. If Home Rule was where things were heading anyway, best they headed there now.
When Parliament met after the election, no single party held an outright majority. In a 670-member House of Commons, the Liberals had 319 MPs, the Conservatives 247. But the Liberals, supported by Charles Parnell’s Irish nationalists, were strong enough to form a government and make Gladstone Prime Minister for the third time. The price of Parnell’s support, inevitably, was a bill giving an Irish assembly control over all but foreign and defence policy: the Government of Ireland Bill 1886 (often known as the First Home Rule Bill).
Large numbers of Liberals could not countenance a break-up of the Union and the party split. Eventually, 93 Liberal unionists voted against the bill in June 1886, helping to defeat both it, and Gladstone’s government, by 30 votes. Lord Salisbury’s Conservatives swept to power in the general election which followed. The Liberal party was so badly divided that, where it had dominated government for a generation, it won only one election in the next twenty years, until, in 1906, splits in the Tory party over protectionism themselves gifted power to the Liberal party for its last decade-long hurrah.
Personalities and events contributed to the depth and violence of the split but the central knot of the Home Rule problem, from a purely British political perspective, was that the Liberal party simultaneously wanted Home Rule and could not afford the loss of Irish nationalist support which would follow if a Bill passed and Irish members were excluded from Westminster.
This is precisely the position in which a Labour minority government might find itself after May. Imagine a world where the SNP did so well in the upcoming election that it further increases the legitimacy of the pro-independence movement. How long could the avowed unionism of both major parties be maintained in the face of growing ‘Yes’ momentum? For Ed Miliband – or one of his potential internal challengers – the point might come where another referendum on Scots independence, or greatly increased devolution, or even just full independence, becomes a price worth paying to win SNP support and keep the Conservatives out of government. The loss of Scots MPS from Westminster might be easier for Labour to bear if they have fewer of them. Once Scotland is lost to them anyway, the thinking might run, why not let it go altogether? The Labour split which would follow, one suspects, would be long and deep. Whatever the long-term political and economic effects on the United Kingdom, and whatever one’s views, the medium-term impact on the Labour party of such a move could vastly outweigh the short-run political gains and condemn Labour to opposition for a generation, as Gladstone found. One hopes that Mr Miliband, who has a PPE degree, knows his history well enough to avoid this trap. Do all his colleagues, though?

*** Apologies to any regulars: this post is indeed not about the First World War. I promise I won’t go off-piste like this very often. I just thought the comparison was striking. Also, I’m not trying to make a party-political point, here. (If I wanted to change the world, I’d be a politician, not a historian. In fact, I’d probably be Prime Minister!) The same thought process potentially applies to the Conservatives: but the ideological gap between them and the SNP is so immense that it’s much harder to see it working. Even if, had the SNP any sense, they’d see the quickest way to get a majority for independence in Scotland would be another Tory government in Westminster.

Coalition Dynamics and #ww1

Back in November 2014 I was lucky enough to take part in a conference at RMA Sandhurst as part of OPERATION REFLECT. This Franco-British operation aims to identify lessons for modern militaries from the First World War. It also included a conference at RUSI in July and a week-long staff ride to the Western Front in September. The November session sought to pull together the most important points arising from the work of the previous few months. One major theme running through the day was the nature of alliances and their impact on operations. As is often the way of these things, we had little time properly to define what we meant by ‘alliance’, much less to review the broad range of alliance relationships which existed at various times, even just between the British and French on the Western Front. In the months since November, events, most of them too tedious to rehearse here, have conspired to give me rather more time to think than usual and I thought it might be worthwhile to preview some thoughts on alliances and the First World War here.
First, some definitions and distinctions. From time to time, states come together to deter or fight others. Motivations for doing so vary. They may be negative (designed to avoid an outcome parties view as undesirable) or positive (aiming to progress towards either shared objectives or the promotion of shared values). They may be a mixture of both, and they may of course involve any number of compromises and trade-offs. In 1914-18, for instance, Britain and France were prepared to ally with Russia despite liberal distaste for Tsarist values. While a ‘coalition’ is ad hoc and relatively informal, an ‘alliance’ suggests a more formal relationship. It might be governed by a treaty which outlines the rights and duties applying to members: or might not. It probably possesses some mechanisms for shared decision-making, although these may be rudimentary or highly developed. It might be the product of peacetime diplomacy, or purely the outcome of wartime evolution.
Friction is inevitable in any coalition/alliance relationship, but the level of that friction varies according to four external variables. The more of each of these factors there is, ceteris paribus, the less friction results:
1) Homophily: the more closely two militaries, or the members thereof, resemble each other, the more closely they tend to be able to work. Shared language and culture obviously can enable easier working relationships, but won’t necessarily do so, as the case of Robert Nivelle in 1917 showed. Inter-operability can work in many other dimensions as well, of course. One is very unlikely to have time and space to improvise this in wartime.
2) Congruence of interests/objectives: the more alignment exists between partners in terms of desirable end-states towards which they are working, the more likely they are to be able to agree.
3) Urgency: the more critical it is that partners work together, the better. Petty frictions get overlooked and divergences are resolved most rapidly when the stakes are highest and time most pressing.
4) Integrated command: the more established the mechanism for reaching and disseminating coalition/alliance decisions, the more smoothly work gets done. The more ad hoc the decision-making process, the more opportunities exist for deliberate sabotage or by-pass, the less practice all involved have had of working together, and the less clarity there is around the chain of command.

If we look now at the operational level Franco-British relationship on the Western Front (and only there) in 1914-18, we can distinguish 5 main phases:
A) August-October 1914: The BEF and French army share a structure and approach to war but are socially very different in composition, often have no language in common and are thrown together into a war with a common enemy but no practice of working together and little opportunity for discussing and agreeing on common ends, ways and means. Distrust and confusion are rife. By the 4 September 1914 Declaration of London, GB, France and Russia agree ‘no separate peace’ but no provision is made for joint strategic direction, much less military command.
B) October-November 1914: First Battle of Ypres: Foch manages to achieve a remarkable feat of integration with British and French units fighting together as one army. This is achieved partly through Foch’s own qualities of leadership, largely because the threat is so overwhelming and urgent that there is no alternative. When the threat subsides, cooperation deteriorates and the relationship deteriorates into…
C) December 1914-June 1917: The BEF is very much junior partner in a coalition which shares fundamental values and vague objectives but has only limited ideas about how to achieve the latter. Although levels of goodwill fluctuate, the relationship is largely characterised by distrust and mutual lack of respect. Coordination of decision-making is ad hoc and the experiment of giving Nivelle authority as supreme commander is immediately undermined, first by Haig’s opposition, soon thereafter by defeat on the Chemin des Dames.
D) June 1917-March 1918: Failure of the Nivelle offensive and the rash of unrest, although quickly cleared up by Pétain, gives the British more weight in the coalition, which they use to launch the Ypres offensive. The Supreme War Council at Versailles (from autumn) offers a formal forum for joint decision-making but rarely moves beyond being a talking shop.
E) March-November 1918: The Spring Offensives come close enough to breaking the coalition apart that Foch is given the backing of national governments to act as supreme commander. He relies, however, on persuasion rather than giving orders to get his way. The accelerated arrival of the Americans (as soldiers of an Associated Power, note, not an Ally) makes for a stronger and more balanced effort which finally prevails over the (by now much weakened) enemy.
(You might feel that some of those phases correspond with stages in operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I couldn’t possibly comment.)

To summarise: the coalition worked most smoothly in phases: B, when the urgency was greatest; and E, when urgency was high, the objective clear and means most readily available. By 1918 both BEF and the French army had grown together and coalition had moved closer towards a tight formal alliance, even if it was still a long way short of the remarkable integration achieved under Eisenhower with SHAEF. Which was itself still far from frictionless, but that’s a story for another day…

Sainsbury’s, Christmas and #ww1


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I have deep reservations about the Sainsbury’s ad. As a historian, I think the representation of the truce plays into a stereotype of Christmas 1914 which is rooted in often weak evidence, much of it based either on hearsay at the time or emerging in reminiscences 20 or (sometimes many) more years after the war, by which time ‘memories’ have got overlaid with multiple other myths and agendas. A classic example would be Henry Williamson, whose memoirs for many historians are tainted by his association with fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.
Partly as a consequence, of this, partly because of the flattening media effect whereby the particular trumps – and often stands for – the general, the true historical context of those truces has been lost. That some truces did occur is beyond doubt. That someone kicked an improvised ball about is highly likely. But that’s a long way 1) from saying there was a general truce and 2) from the sad and unpleasant fact that many or most of the truces which occurred were for the much more pragmatic and distasteful purpose of burying corpses. The need to respect the dead and prevent disease was much more pressing than goodwill and sharing chocolate.
Now, the Sainsbury’s advert makes no pretence to show the whole truth about Xmas 1914: of course it has no need to. It’s an ad, not a history book. But it does concern me that associating the truce so closely with goodwill and sharing bends the past too far away from reality and to the advertiser’s ends. (The trenches are much too broad, clean and well-built for this stage of the war, but that’s real pedantry!)
Not as a historian, but as a layperson, I have a further concern about the taste involved here. First, I don’t see how one can use a theme of this nature (however respectfully handled, and I thought this was actually rather neatly executed) without being accused of exploitation at some level. Secondly, and on a lighter note: I am unfortunately old enough to shudder at the memory of Paul Mccartney’s hideous ‘Pipes of Peace’ video: everytime I see the ad, I’m going to have flashbacks to that. Sainsbury’s can’t expect anyone to thank them for stirring up THAT memory!

The Glamour of War

Professor Lisa Jardine – a model modern historian – wrote a very interesting Point of View for BBC Radio 4 about her visit to the new First World War galleries at the Imperial War Museum London. You can listen to it here or read a version here Her main point seems to be that she is concerned that the IWM is presenting ‘too upbeat, too coherent and focused’ a view of the war, sanitising it to the point almost of glamorisation.
Her piece – as thoughtfully and carefully composed as one would expect from such an eminent scholar – prompted three immediate points in my mind.
First, it seems harsh to criticise a museum – or a historian – for trying to impose coherence. It is precisely the purpose of both to step back and see patterns in the events of the past, even where those patterns were not perhaps apparent to those who lived through them. One of the things which makes history interesting is that interpretations of the past evolve over time as our preoccupations change and we see through shifting lenses. We should, of course, acknowledge that the First World War – or indeed any historical event – appears from a worm’s eye view to be incoherent and meaningless; but that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t stand back and analyse it in broader context. The First World War presents a particularly urgent problem in this regard, since so much of the popular interpretation is rooted in literature produced by a small group of talented artists who served as junior officers or soldiers. Their breadth of vision was literally bounded by the sides of the trench they stood in. There are levels of analysis at which the First World War does fit patterns and achieves coherence: see the short one-volume histories by Professor Sir Michael Howard or Professor Sir Hew Strachan if you want to test this. But if one studies it exclusively from the bottom up, as we have tended to do over the last century, we should not be surprised if the impression we get is of muddle, complexity and even perhaps futility.
Secondly, once we acknowledge that there were multiple viewpoints of the war, the idea that it was exclusively one long nightmare of horror and pity evaporates. Of course, the experience of many included death, wounding and destruction on an appalling scale. But that was not the daily experience even of the minority who saw war up close. Everyone involved lived a different war, and even those who were exposed to the worst still found many cases of beauty and of the higher human virtues such as selflessness and love amidst the brutality. As historians – or museum curators – must we not reflect these sides of the experience, too?
Thirdly, if we want to ensure that war doesn’t become glamorised, the best way to do so is not to pretend it doesn’t exist, but to engage with it and study it. There is an age where this becomes appropriate and I probably agree with Prof. Jardine that seven years old is not it. Older children and young adults, however, need to understand the nature of a phenomenon which sadly still defines our world. Ideally, spend some time with those who have looked down the barrel of the gun. I’ve just come back from a week as one of the historians on a British Army staff ride to the battlefields of the Western Front, an attempt by the top brass to draw out lessons from the First World War with relevance to the military today. Of the 100 or so young captains and majors, identified as the army’s future leaders, who were there, almost all had at least one tour in Afghanistan under their belts. Some had been in Iraq, too. When they discussed parallels between Ypres and Sangin, it was clear that this was no mere academic exercise but literally a matter of life and death for them and their comrades. For a lifelong civilian like myself, glad that I never had to do what these young men have, it was particularly chilling that stencilled on every backpack was the wearer’s blood group. At the other end of the scale, the scarlet tunics and busbies of the Coldstream Guards’ band, parading last Thursday at Thiepval Memorial to commemorate 73,000 men missing during the Battle of the Somme, are undoubtedly glamorous. But as they played ‘Abide with Me’, the overwhelming feeling with which I was left was this: those who know war best are those who love it least.

#ww1 Commemoration: an agenda for 2114-2118?

Many thanks to everybody who’s taken the time to read, re-tweet or comment on my last blog. It’s genuinely humbling. Three points came up from the responses which I think are worth discussing further.
First, @Louise35812631 accused me of suggesting that schools are guilty of perpetuating #ww1 myths. She’s right, I did. Now, Louise is clearly a dedicated and innovative professional history teacher who works hard to have her students engage critically with History as a subject. Her article makes that plain. I am sure she has many colleagues who are equally dedicated. No-one sensible believes that they teach Blackadder as Fact. Indeed, she makes a sophisticated point about her job being about teaching ways of analysing the world, rather than imparting facts. I agree, Me too. Indeed, as someone who teaches undergraduates history, I am continually impressed by the job she and her colleagues have done. The students who walk through the doors of my university are (mostly!) committed to their subject with a remarkable level of engagement. Many of them are equipped with terrific skills of critical analysis. Which makes it all the more surprising, then, that those first year undergraduates who turn up to my ‘Myths of The First World War’ course are almost universally awash with outdated historiography and half-remembered popular narratives. That’s the only real reason I have for being concerned, and the only evidence I have that something’s not going 100% right somewhere.
The reasons for this state of affairs, I don’t know. Although I can guess. Some of it is no doubt, as Louise explained in her tweets,to do with financial constraints sometimes meaning history must be taught by non-specialists. I hope and trust that doesn’t happen more than occasionally at A Level but I guess it might more often with younger age groups. It’s not only History classes where #ww1 gets taught, of course, which might be part of the problem. And there’s no doubting the sheer scale, complexity and intractability of the war itself. It’s a tough subject for all of us. Finally, of course, many students not only leave school, but graduate with history degrees, having done no courses and gathered only fuzzy ideas about the First World War. As, indeed, I have only the dimmest of outlines of Anglo-Saxon history. So I’m more than happy to accept Louise’s idea that it’s not history teachers who are responsible, but schools must surely share (repeat, share) some of the responsibility?
I definitely don’t mean to take sides in the Michael Gove/Richard Evans debate from earlier this year, by the way. A plague on both their houses, so far as I’m concerned. The only thing worse than being attacked by Gove is being defended by Evans.
A much more detailed and systematic discussion of this and other issues can be found in this excellent report by the brilliant Catriona Pennell’s team:
The second point is linked. If historians – wherever they work – see their mission over the next 4 yours as merely correcting myths about ‘lions led by donkeys’ and ‘shot at dawn’, then we are missing a much bigger and more important point and indeed a glorious opportunity. Merely to spend our time refuting the myths peddled by Liddell Hart, AJP Taylor and their wannabe Mini-Mes is accept their agendas, play the game by their rules: and so, to lose. Instead, we need to take advantage of the opportunity the next 4 four years offer to move away from traditional narratives and to demonstrate that this was a true World War. It was fought not just on the Western Front and self-evidently not by British males alone. It involved people all over the globe, the German hausfrau as much as the Bengali jute farmer or the French poilu. It gives us a chance to show how powerful history can be when we look at ‘stories’ not just from the perspectives with which we are comfortable. History is a story with many sides and we need to broaden the discussion of the shortcomings of how we look at the First World War away from this Anglo-centric and Western Front bias. Also, we need to avoid the (great) danger generated by this centenary of treating 1914-18 as somehow exceptional, as existing outside history, rather than of it being part of the warp and weft. The war had roots well before 1914, and consequences long after 1918. Hell, even in the narrowest sense, the war didn’t even finish on 11 November 1918 but continued in places at least into 1922 or 1923.
Thirdly, this blog
from one of Australia’s most respected First World War historians was recommended to me today. It resonates strongly with me. I think that amongst many other excellent points it’s warning you to be careful of me, too! And it’s right to do so. Empiricism and scepticism are the default settings of the historians, and perhaps the only life skills we teach which are genuinely useful to all.
Much of this seems, as I read it back, terribly pompous. I apologise. Those who know me well will agree that I can’t help that! Some of it also, however, seems rather patronising. All I can say is, it certainly isn’t meant to be, and I’m sorry if that’s how it comes across.