On Being Invited to Write a Letter to the Unknown Soldier

This is my (slightly redacted) response to a very kind e-mail I received from the organisers of the project to collate letters to the Unknown Soldier:

Dear Andromache*,
Thank you for your e-mail and the invitation to get involved in this project. I was aware of it, of course: your publicity machine has been excellent.
I’m afraid I take a rather austere line. If this offers an opportunity to commemorate those who made a sacrifice during the FWW (which included many more than just soldiers who died), then we’re in danger of missing the target and turning it into a sentimental exercise which is actually all about us, not them. If, on the other hand, it could give us an opportunity to educate, at least on the evidence so far (especially Stephen Fry’s letter, which was desperately lazy and disappointing) insufficient effort is going into that aspect. We run the risk of perpetuating cliches, stereotypes and myths, when we should be giving folk a chance to engage with them critically.
Anyway, that’s all rather pompous, for which I apologise. I hope, though, that it makes clear why I shan’t be participating.
I wish you very good luck with it, nonetheless.
Best wishes

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.


War Movies and the Suspension of Disbelief

(If you want to cut straight to my 3 favourite war films of all time, scroll straight to the bottom).

Where Eagles Dare versus War Horse: why does historical inaccuracy in movies/TV sometimes not faze me at all, and sometimes drives me crazy? How is that I can sit, equably sipping my tea, while Clint Eastwood mows down unfeasibly large numbers of Germans using a Schmeisser with a seemingly bottomless (well, almost) magazine and a barrel which never melts? Yet the mere thought of a horse running up a trench fills me with dread or rage?
I’m an academic historian of the two world wars, which means I get paid (not very much, mind) for raising pedantry to levels of hair-splitting unseen since the heyday of medieval monasteries. For example, I must be one of the last essay markers in the world to pull students up for using a split infinitive. It matters to me that my students get their facts and chronology straight. (To be honest, maybe some of these don’t matter as much as we professionally think; but some of them REALLY do, so it’s worth getting in the habit of getting them right. For instance, in the big scheme of history, it doesn’t matter too much if a student knows the exact date of the Battle of Jutland; but it matters A LOT that he knows it happened before Germany ordered a reversion to unrestricted submarine warfare and the USA entered the war.)

I mused on this phemonenon on Twitter and had some helpful responses.

Julian Hall directed me to his blog http://julianmhall.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/history-v-entertainment.html where he argues that literature is better at this than movies/TV because writers take more care with their research. Maybe: they certainly have a big stake in the project: that’s why they’re called the author! But I’ve seen the geniuses toiling away in the London Library every day for years writing the novel that will re-cast the world: they have all the passion, but they cannot match the budget a Production Company could (if it wanted) throw at getting historical details right.

Phil Weir made a great point:

Stephen Barker said something similar:

There’s probably something in this age business… I was born in 1966 so was brought up on all the classics of the war movie canon that boys of my generation will remember. However, it doesn’t always work: for instance, I remember being moved to tears as a teenager by Gallipoli (as I never was – sober- even by the wounded airborne soldiers singing ‘Abide with Me’ at the end of A Bridge Too Far. Yet now I look at it, see the facile inaccuracies, and have to breathe deeply through the nose for a count of ten. Equally, a film like Saving Private Ryan, to which I came much later in life (of course), I can watch without tying myself in knots about the obvious lacunae. And I’m far from convinced about the professional aspect, as hinted above. I actually (believe it or not) care far less overall about the minutiae than many ‘amateurs’ and regularly turn down ‘invitations’ from TV companies to advise on their costumes. (Largely because I choose what to remember, and cap badges are not included on my list).

Nor do I think it’s about which war is being represented. Zulu is an example from another war altogether: laughable history in places, but rarely out of my personal top 3 war films.
At the margin, if I think very hard about this, I do perhaps think it matters a bit less that we get the SWW right because it offers a clear moral resolution – evil defeated by good – in a way which is much harder to perceive in the FWW case. But that doesn’t explain the depths of my contempt for War Horse and Birdsong on the one hand, and heights of reverence for Where Eagles Dare and A Bridge Too Far on the other.
I think the difference lies in Effort and Art. The latter try very hard to do what they set out to do, and succeed brilliantly. They are fine works of art (by their own lights, I’m not trying to claim either is Citizen Kane). Hence we are willing to suspend belief. But the former two, IMO, fail first and foremost because they fail as works of art. Part of that failure lies in a lazy refusal to do what any good writer – or historian, for that matter – must do, to try and think themselves back into the minds of the ‘historical’ characters. Instead, 21st century people are plonked down in a 1916 setting and wander around taking about ‘feeling your pain.’ Audiences pick up on dissonances of that nature, feel the writers’/producers’ lack of respect for them and refuse to suspend their disbelief. No number of accurate cap badges can recover from that.

I know I’m not saying anything more interesting than ‘respect your audience’ and I’ve gone on longer than I’d hoped, but shorter than this topic properly needs. Sorry for the ramble and for not managing to squeeze in some Brechtian alienation analysis, etc.

Oh, and the rest of my Top 3 all-time war films: Zulu, Das Boot and A Bridge Too Far. Not necessarily in that order!

Ready to be Dazzled?

How appropriate that dazzle painting should be one of the motifs of the programme of publicly-funded artistic responses to the First World War announced by http://1418now.org.uk/ this week. Dazzle paint was applied to ships to confuse the observer. The idea was that it would draw attention to a ship, but, by breaking up the outlines, prevent the onlooker from seeing her real outlines. No experiments were carried out on its efficacy before it was introduced and there was no evidence that it led to a reduction in sinkings. What a good metaphor this is for the artistic programme promoted by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport: little forethought: superficially striking; more liable to confuse than enlighten; and unlikely to have any useful impact.
I’m all in favour of artists finding inspiration in the First World War and sharing their work with us, as many great artists, such as Nash, Owen and Jagger did in the past. But I’m concerned by two things.
First, that we are going to be swamped by a tsunami of clichés. The Welsh at Mametz Wood? Tick. Shot at Dawn? Tick. Setting First World War poems to music? Tick. Where is the creativity and originality we surely have a right to expect? These are lazy, lazy projects dreamt up by people who haven’t even bothered to do the research which underpins all true originality.
Secondly, that these projects will make up in schmaltz for what they lack in hard-headed engagement with the truth. Write to the Unknown Soldier? Lights out? Both these vacuous ideas tug at our hearts without ever challenging us to engage our brains. Some will see this mawkish sentimentality as disrespectful to those, members of possibly one of the most stoic generations in our history, who made sacrifices a hundred years ago. I have sympathy with this view, but I also feel that art today need not go out of its way to respect the feelings of anyone, not even the dead. If art is to be selfish, however, the quid pro quo must be that it is honest and true; and that it has a chance of enduring. The programme so far seems set to be none of those things. Another opportunity has been missed, and I for one would rather the money spent had been used instead to give away history books on the concourse at Paddington Station.

Myth, Memory and the Great War: the Strange Case of Henry Williamson

The BBC is releasing a series of interviews conducted in 1963 for the Great War TV series. These contain all sorts of striking, vivid and interesting recollections. http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/collections/p01tbj6p/the-great-war-interviews
The highlights of some 13 interviews have been cut together into a documentary, ‘I Was There’ (Friday 14 March 2014) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03y76xl
Press reaction so far has generally been extremely positive. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/10685149/Tarka-author-tells-of-1914-Christmas-truce.html
I also found the television programme gripping and moving. Inevitably, for the professional historian it flattens out the very diverse experiences of the war and over-privileges the Western Front; but it is nonetheless an extremely effective bit of TV.
However, it also raises particular issues of interest. The interview with Henry Williamson is a particularly good example: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01tcyg5/The_Great_War_Interviews_Henry_Williamson/
First, to what extent am I right to feel uncomfortable about Williamson’s testimony given his later membership of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s and 1940s? When, especially, he speaks of the (cliché alert!) Christmas truce and his realisation that soldiers on both sides thought they were fighting for freedom and had God on their side: how much of that is his raw 1914 reaction, how much later rationalisation? Does it matter? Further, am I guilty of over-simplifying the meaning of fascism to Williamson, as his daughter-in-law suggests in the Telegraph article? Or can I say ‘well, I’ll never be able to untangle his private thoughts about it, so I’m justified in considering only the available public evidence’?
Secondly, and in a sense more interestingly, his son Richard’s reaction at the preview screening was fascinating. He was evidently deeply moved and spoke with undoubted sincerity about the fact that his father never spoke about the Great War to his children. The filming of the interview, therefore, cleared the logjam denying his father a voice and made it impossible for him at last to speak. I guess there’s also a further Freudian implication that this would at last enable Henry to begin to process the trauma of the war and so to heal. Richard’s view coheres closely with preconceptions of how the war stiffened upper lips all over Britain and created a silent generation who could not describe what they had been through. This is one of the abiding myths of the First World War, with which we are all familiar.
Who knows how far this was true for the average ‘soldier from the wars returning’ (to steal the title of one of the war memoirs of another of the interviewees in this collection)? In Williamson’s case, however, it is demonstrably nonsense. Having become a professional writer in the 1920s, he wrote a book of reminiscences about his war as well as several autobiographical novels in which he repeatedly processed his war experience. http://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk/biography/firstworldwar
As I said, Richard Williamson evidently believed strongly what he was saying. That Henry’s own son could subscribe so fully to the myth, in the face of hundreds of pages of written evidence, demonstrates its remarkable power.

The Great War, Great Britain and the World

At the risk of sounding like the drunk in the bar (‘and another thing…’), here’s another thing which has been bugging me about Professor Ferguson’s argument about GB and the FWW: his view of the damage it did to Britain as a world power and to her empire.
First, there’s a huge amount of hindsight in his view that the FWW marked a step change in Britain’s ability to project global power. From where we sit today, one of the compelling historical problems in the traditional political history of GB in the C20th remains how to explain how Britain lost the superpower status she enjoyed in the C19th. If one looks at the First World War from within that declinist narrative, as Ferguson does, then of course the FWW looms large. In financial terms, he has a point. Three times in the last hundred years the UK’s total debt/GDP ratio has jumped above the 120% threshold often thought unsustainable: after each world war, and during the Great Depression. When one remembers that almost every other major country in Europe explicitly or implicitly defaulted on large parts of their debt, however, Britain looks less weak in comparison. If we think further, beyond economics, and try to see Britain more holistically, then her relative power (which is what matters) was enhanced, not reduced, by the war. Every single one of Britain’s pre-war rivals – and allies – was struggling with political and economic problems which dwarfed those of the UK. The Habsburg and Ottoman empires lay in ruins; Russia was wracked by civil war and turned inwards; Germany had been emasculated; France faced a monumental reconstruction task. Only the United States emerged from the war stronger in both absolute and relative terms, but she chose not to exercise that power overseas.
Otherwise, it is ahistorical to see GB, in both the 1920s and the 1930s, as a busted flush. David Edgerton has argued this already, arguing primarily from British data. He’s probably reached the correct conclusion, but I’m not sure he got there the right way. How Britain spent her money and saw herself is certainly important. But if we want to gauge her global power, then the more important question that needs to be answered is surely how she was seen overseas. More research needs to be done on this (I hope to, one day) but I suspect that if, between the wars, one had asked observers in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Washington or Tokyo who was the dominant world power, every answer would have been the same: Great Britain.
Secondly, he relates this specifically to the collapse of the British empire. Let’s leave on one side his assumption that the empire was a ‘Good Thing’ which deserved to continue: that question’s more prone to generate political heat than historical light. But to see the evolution of the empire in purely geo-political terms assumes that each colony and dominion enjoyed the same relationship with Westminster – clearly false – and also ignores rapid change in a whole raft of cultural and demographic factors both in the UK and overseas. Many of these had at least as much impact as the war, and not all of them weakened the links holding the empire together, anyway.
(That’s enough Ferguson: Ed.)

Let’s play the Niall Ferguson First World War Counterfactual Game.

When Professor Ferguson suggests that it was a mistake for Great Britain to enter the war, he makes the argument commonly associated with the left (as he points out) that continental involvement in 1914 locked GB into a costly and unnecessary fight. In his view, either Germany was benign and GB had nothing to fear from a proto-EU. Or, even if she wasn’t, it would have suited GB better to wait and fight ‘on her own terms’ later, using naval power. Why anyone would ever choose to fight later without allies than sooner with them, I cannot imagine. Especially when Britain had direct experience against Napoleon of the impossibility of seapower alone, without European allies, defeating a continental hegemon. That would be like GB in 1914 volunteering to be in the position she very unwillingly found herself in between June 1940 and 1941. But let’s leave that on one side.
Also hidden within his argument, however, is a more traditional conservative (or dare I say neo-con) argument. This is that with greater foresight GB could have prepared better for war in 1914 by having a bigger and better army. Now, this was, as everyone knows, impossible. The ranks could only have been filled by conscription, which was anathema to the Liberal government. The administration in any case had wildly different priorities and worries on the home front to distract them from a defence problem which had to be seen not just in European, but also Imperial, terms, which the Royal Navy seemed to have (expensively) covered. There was no sign that taxpayers were willing to take on the indefinite burden of maintaining a much larger army, either.
Still, let’s assume that GB did manage, perhaps in the wake of the Boer War, to build a force which, when mobilised, could muster, say, 2 million men, and that plans existed to send a million of them to France on the outbreak of war. Let’s assume that industry was geared up sufficiently to support them in the field with weapons and ammunition. Let’s further assume that Germany had not launched a preventive war to forestall that development, perhaps while Russia remained prostrate after the Russo-Japanese conflict. Nor reacted in any other way: for instance, by building a bigger army of her own. Then the question becomes whether GB’s possession of a 2 million man army might have deterred Germany during the July Crisis. Well, who knows?
If it didn’t though, there’d have been a million British soldiers in France in the autumn of 1914, fighting the bloodiest of all wars: a mobile campaign with modern weapons. Would an extra million men have been sufficient rapidly to decide the campaign and guarantee a German defeat? Perhaps. But perhaps not. One of the factors which led to stalemate was the fatal interaction between modern firepower and a high number of men in a relatively confined space: there’s no evidence that throwing more men at the problem would have solved that. Indeed, 1915-17 suggests the opposite was true. New technology and new methods were required eventually to break the deadlock.
And if Germany were not beaten in 1914? Then we’d have been in the same situation as we ended up anyway, but with much higher losses, much sooner. As it was, the small BEF suffered 63% casualties in 1914. It’s unlikely a larger force would have suffered such a high proportion. But even the much bigger French and German forces endured shocking losses. Each committed about 4 million men to the Western Front, in front line troops, their supports and replacements. Each endured up to a million casualties. There’s no reason to believe the British would have got off any more lightly. Great Britain, therefore, might have had 500,000 casualties, with perhaps 100-150,000 of those dead: roughly five times as many men as fell in fact. And the result of these losses? Quite possibly little different from the historical outturn.
It seems that Ferguson’s conservative argument makes little more sense than his liberal one.

#ww1 #bbcww1 Debate Fri 28 Feb 2014: A Few Thoughts

In 1967 my uncle was the BBC producer on the world’s first worldwide TV broadcast, a programme called Our World which you’ll remember for the famous footage of the Beatles singing ‘All you need is love’. Last night I was involved in another important, if smaller scale, first: a live massively open debate about History, specifically the First World War, extending across TV, Radio and Online via a live blog and Twitter on #ww1. I was just the equivalent of the man in the background banging the tambourine while John Lennon sang: I was one of the tame historians tweeting responses to the Niall Ferguson programme ‘The Pity of War’ and to questions from the public. Nonetheless, here are, in no particular order, a few gut reactions to what was an impressive and enjoyable experience.
1) I don’t yet have the stats of numbers of hits, tweets, new followers, etc. so I can’t comment on how successfully we managed to reach to out and involve new audiences, much less inspire people to go to the bookstore today and start reading up for themselves. However, I was struck by how far it was not just ‘the usual suspects’ getting stuck in. Many of the voices seemed fresh ones.
2) The quality of debate was, on the whole, extremely high. No flaming, no trolling, no ad hominem arguments: just robust discussion of the questions Ferguson and his distinguished guests raised.
3) I think Twitter worked well as a medium. Of course the 140 character limit makes it hard to capture every nuance. But for a broad brush argument of this kind, it worked perfectly well and indeed that discipline, by enforcing concision, concentrated the mind.
4) But, having a blog pulling together prime Tweets and allowing room for slightly longer responses was crucial. Especially, this helped pull together threads which otherwise would have been unclear because of the way Twitter works. This needs skilful editing, though: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01nl00x/live
5) Don’t try this at home: I didn’t see the preparations – I was lucky enough to walk in just before curtain up – but the BBC team and chair @historyworkstv had clearly spent days prepping. The control centre had about 20 people working flat out, managing the debate and the feeds, with live feeds coming in from TV and Radio. We always forget how hard the swan has to paddle under the surface and technical requirements at this level require extraordinary levels of skill to manage. The ability of experienced broadcasters to remain calm and in control, given the furious pace, was also crucial.
6) Some might find the information overload, with info and questions coming in through multiple screens and both ears, daunting. Personally, I found it invigorating: it reminded me of my former life on a City trading floor, and I’m sure it evoked the same physiological effects. It took me a couple of hours to come down. Yesterday we carried on for three and a half hours: I used to do it for 10 or 11, but I was in my 20s and 30s then: I’m glad I don’t have to do that any more!
Thanks to Tim, Ruth, Martin and Helen for a great evening and to the rest of their team for looking after me and making me feel welcome. I hope they thought it as successful as it seemed to me.