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…

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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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04gch0c or read a version here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29174556. 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 http://www.thehistoryvault.co.uk/history-in-the-classroom-a-teacher-speaks/ 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: http://ww1intheclassroom.exeter.ac.uk/
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 http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/jauncey-meets-mephistopheles-18-february-2014/
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.

Zen and the Art of Commemoration or, How I learnt to Stop Worrying and Love #ww1

It’s been a tough few months for historians of the First World War: events to commemorate the centenary started early and fast. Now that there’s only a little over a week to go before we get to some actual anniversaries, the pattern at least of the early responses to the centenary is becoming clearer. And frankly, if you believe that history ought to have some correspondence with facts, there are worrying signs. With a few notable exceptions*, many of the outputs from Whitehall and associated quangoes, in the national media, in schools (most worryingly of all) and across the country at grassroots level, reflect a lack of any intelligent engagement with the past. Why go to the trouble of reading a book, when it’s so much easier to trot out trusted old cliches?
It’s early days and perhaps by 2018 things will have changed but so far history and historians have seemed unable to demonstrate their value to the process of generating those outputs. I’m intentionally trying to avoid naming the guilty here, but that Newsnight treats Michael Morpurgo as a FWW expert is an indictment not only of lazy programme-making but also of the historians who could and should have made themselves indispensable by now. Perhaps our faces don’t fit; perhaps we don’t have a compelling new story; perhaps, we’re not speaking the right language. However we got here, it’s a dispiriting place to be.
I’m as much to blame as anyone. I, like all my colleagues, have regretfully had to turn down more chances than I’ve been able to accept to tell the story of the First World War to a broader audience. Also, it’s easy to complain that the same stale tropes are being endlessly recycled. Much harder to displace them. And that’s what we need to do.
That said, historians also need to accept that commemoration has not only a relationship with the past but also serves a purpose today. There will always be corners history cannot reach. It might be exploiting an event which probably never occurred, but nothing is going to stop the FA (an acronym which has the virtue of neatly describing its value as an institution) from commemorating the Christmas football match. The ‘Lights Out’ campaign, similarly, has a rickety foundation in either fact or coherent logic, but it seems to have caught the imagination and, I suppose, as a way of helping people engage with the war, is likely to prove rather effective.
If we (and I really mean ‘I’, here of course) can relax into this centenary a bit; can stop getting worked up at every new piece of historical illiteracy: then we may at least stand a chance of surviving the next four years with all major blood vessels intact. So I, at least, am passing a Self-Denying Ordinance (historical allusion alert). Instead of using social media (a particularly dangerous medium for this kind of thing) to castigate the bad – of which I’m sure there’ll be tons – I will only celebrate the good – of which I hope there’ll be more than we’ve seen so far.
We are going to get the centenary we deserve. And there’s a limit to how much any one of us can do about that. The emotional energy we waste on trash can, I think, be better directed to the production of first-rate and thus compelling scholarship; or to trying to change the world one student at a time. Which is, after all, what some of us are privileged to be paid for.

*I think, for instance, that this centenary is generating new and exciting ways of handling and presenting history online. Projects such as Europeana, 1914-1918 Online and Cendari, together with some of the exciting digital output from the BBC, I think and hope will prove an enduring legacy of the next four years. I must declare an interest here: I have been tangentially involved in some of the BBC’s digital output. But my influence, particularly on _any_ of the good stuff, has been minimal or non-existent, I can assure you!

#ww1 Battlefields: My ‘Top 10’

Nothing can teach you more about the way the First World War was fought than to see the ground on which it was fought. I’ve been several times now, with friends, with family and with students. Every time I go, I learn something new, even in the most familiar places. I thought it might be worth sharing some thoughts to tie in with #talkingww1 tweetathon I’m taking part in later today (Friday 4 July 2014).
I don’t know that it’s in very good taste to have ‘favourite’ First World War battlefields, but here are some of mine. No doubt you’ll have others and I’m interested to hear your ideas. I’ve only included those I’ve been to, and have restricted this to places which are easy to access from the UK, I’m afraid. This was a World War, and every continent has its battlefields to visit.
A general point, first: the cemeteries kept so beautifully not only by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but by the French and German equivalents, are beautiful places which cannot help but spark reflection. However, if you follow the itineraries suggested in some of the most popular guide books, ‘compassion fatigue’ can rapidly set in and the trip degenerates into a rather depressing blur of tombstones. Personally, rather than spend a whole tour staring at headstones, I prefer to pay my respects and do my remembrance once properly on a trip, and otherwise spend my time studying the ground over which the soldiers fought. As it happens, the cemeteries often offer convenient places from which one can do this, and one should of course behave respectfully in them. But that doesn’t have to extend to reading every inscription, every time.
10) Cleopatra’s Needle, Victoria Embankment, London
The easiest of all the battlefields to visit: you don’t even need a passport. Once can still see the damage done by German bombs during the First World War, however, and the story of the air defence of Great Britain is a fascinating one which tells us much about the political constraints on strategy.
9) Le Cateau
The BEF stood here on the ridge north-west of the town in 1914 much as Wellington’s army had at Waterloo 99 years earlier. Here they felt for the first time the force of modern firepower. Within weeks, the way wars were fought had changed for ever…
8) Le Quesnoy
…And yet, some things stayed the same. The fortifications of this little town were stormed by the New Zealand Division in the last week of the First World War. They used all the tools of modern war. But also medieval weapons such as scaling ladders and burning oil.
7) Vimy Ridge
From the Canadian Memorial here one is not only on the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, but on a clear day can see clear across to the Messines Ridge and Mount Kemmel south of Ypres. One of the few places on the Western Front one can get a sense of the strategic scale, and of the importance of high ground. Note also the monument to the Moroccan Division, who almost captured this ridge two years before the Canadians did.
6) Notre-Dame de Lorette
We often seem to forget that the French bore much or most of the heaviest fighting against the Germans on the Western Front. You can’t forget that in the huge cemetery and ossuary here. You also have an expansive view over Vimy Ridge and the area brutally contested during three bloody Franco-German battles for Artois in 1914-15.
5) Newfoundland Park, Beaumont-Hamel
The preserved trenches and No Man’s Land here are, for me, the most evocative around today and give the best impression we can get of how trench warfare was fought.
4) Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passchendaele
A beautiful and moving place built over old German defences with a good little visitor centre and a view back to Ypres, surprisingly close.
3) Monument of the Nations, Flesquières
By 1917 and 1918 all armies had developed new ways of waging war, integrating new technologies and tactics to fight. Here one stands within the German Hindenburg Line and can compare two interesting cases of the use of modern combined arms warfare: at the Battle of Cambrai (20 November 1917) and the Breaking of the Hindenburg Line during the victorious Allied offensive known as the Hundred Days from August to November 1918.
2) Riqueval Bridge
An iconic point on the Western Front, one of the keys to unlocking the Hindenburg Line. It was captured intact by men of the 46th (North Midland) Division on 29 September 1918 and later was the scene of an iconic photograph of the brigade commander congratulating his troops all standing on the banks of the canal it spans. (I would put the photo here but cn’t be bothered with the copyright, I’m afraid).
1) Devonshire Trench, Mametz
Back on the Somme, with the regimental history in hand, not only can one here follow exactly the course of the action which laid low 163 men of the Devonshire Regiment on 1 July 1916; but it’s also a beautiful and tranquil place to sit and absorb what one has learnt.

These are only sketchy outlines: one could write chapters on many of the above, and I and other historians have! Some of them are clichés; some more off the beaten track. I could easily have come up with a different list of another ten. No doubt you’ll have others and I’m interested to hear your ideas.
If one of you goes to one place, and learns one thing, you otherwise wouldn’t, I’ll be delighted.

The Pity of War? #ww1 Poets lived longer than Romantics: SHOCK!

I haven’t had much time for blogging recently, I’m afraid. This is partly because I’ve been working on a major new research project, the fruits of which I am delighted to be able to share with you now.
The question I and my collaborators from the Muir Institute of Health sought to answer was this: was it worse for your health to write War Poetry in the trenches of the First World War or to be wandering lonely as a cloud in frilly shirts as a Romantic?
Perhaps surprisingly, according to http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_292196.pdf, the modal age of death for adult males changed little over the century or so which separated the Romantics from the War Poets. It was reductions in infant mortality which increased overall life expectancy.
Ceteris paribus, therefore, we might reasonably expect the War Poets, caught up in the most terrible European war to date, to die younger than the Romantics.
In fact, however, the opposite is shockingly true.
Our study compared the lifespans of 5 random Romantic poets (William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron) with those of 5 random War poets (Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen; Siegfried Sassoon; Robert Graves; Edward Thomas).
Average age at death for the Romantics ranged from 25 (Keats) to 80 (Wordsworth) with a mean (average) of 46.2 and median 36. For the War poets, the youngest was also 25 (Owen) but the oldest (Graves) died at 90. The mean came out at 52.2 with the median 39.
In other words, becoming a soldier, far from reducing chances of survival, in fact ADDED some 6 years to average life expectancy. Of course, Sassoon, Graves and the others had no way of knowing this would be the case. If they had, perhaps they’d have been a little less glum about life.
Further research will of course be necessary. It is possible, for instance, that the Lake District is less congenial to human habitation than Flanders in wartime. Or that our five romantics suffered disproprtionately from quill pen allergy syndrome and that this affected their life expectancy. Perhaps Woodbines are better for you than keeping a pet bear?
We shall apply for follow-on funding to continue to explore this fascinating cross-disciplinary project.

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
Jonathan

*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.