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.