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Non-medieval Dark Ages

The Lousy Great War: Myth or Alternative Interpretation?

[As alluded to in the last post, here is a piece that I will probably send off to Miniature Wargames in response to the piece by Graham Evans in the current issue.  I doubt they’ll accept it.]

Paul Valéry once wrote that a poet spends a whole life looking for true poetry.  Similarly, a historian spends a whole life looking for true history.  I don’t mean ‘the true facts of the matter’ but what historical enquiry truly is.  After over twenty years researching, writing and teaching history at the highest level I’m still searching.  Nonetheless, my understanding of what it might be has evolved in such a way that pieces like Graham Evans’ article in the last Miniature Wargames, urging wargamers to tell people who don’t share his particular interpretation of the First World War that their reading is ‘wrong’, act as red rags to a bull.

I’m not a specialist on the First World War; I am a medievalist by formation.  I’m also a social, not a military, historian.  But I am interested in how historians write about ethically difficult issues like the Great War.  My political position on this is, admittedly, diametrically opposed to Graham Evans’ and – probably – that of the majority of readers of this magazine but, before people raise the cry of ‘keeping politics out of wargames’, let’s be clear that Evans’ piece (like the ‘history’ to which he refers) is written from a very clear political stance.  Michael Gove recently expressed a very similar view to his.  That’s fine.  All history-writing is, however subconsciously, political at some level; anyone whose understanding of the discipline goes beyond A-level knows that.  That’s not a license to mistreat or ignore, let alone falsify, evidence but it means that one may as well be up-front about it rather than pretending to have an impartial, objective view of ‘how it really was’ (which is impossible).  All views are, nevertheless, not as good as each other.  Some interpretations are more sophisticated and make better use of evidence; while there may never be a ‘right answer’ in history, some answers are less wrong than others.  Sometimes, though, one reading is every bit as empirically sound as the opposing view and we choose between them on other than ‘factual’ grounds.  Personally, I think we can judge between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ historical interpretations on ethical, humanist grounds, but this isn’t the place for that![1] (I will come to wargaming at the end!)

The trend in First World War history described by Evans troubles me deeply.  That ought to be A Good Thing; I tell my students that if you don’t find history troubling, you aren’t doing it right.  What worries me, though, is precisely that this history isn’t meant to trouble us, but rather to make a deeply unpleasant episode somehow palatable, cosier and more comfortable.  I also tell my students that one of the two ‘useful’ things about history is questioning what you are told.  The ‘revisionist’ view started from the right place, questioning whether received wisdom about the Great War was correct.  At some point, though, it strayed onto questioning the fact that people had questioned what they were told in the first place and so moved from being revisionist to being reactionary.  Hence its popularity with politicians, journalists and others of a particular bent.

Rethinking Great War history has yielded many important points: tactics were not static; the generals did not (always) commit their men thoughtlessly to mindless attacks using the same tactics (walking slowly towards the enemy carrying everything but the kitchen sink, to paraphrase the caricature); things evolved; troops were not kept in the trenches all year round; attacks were not always tactically and strategically futile or incompetently managed; ultimately the German army was defeated militarily in the West; and so on.  These things are worth knowing, especially if your only real exposure to the subject is ‘Black Adder Goes Forth’.  It’s also worth remembering, however, that Black Adder was satire, and it is part of satire’s essence to employ caricature and exaggeration to make a point.  Those dismissing ‘Black Adder’ as ‘poppycock’ rather than acknowledging that, as satire, it was based around a very real, factual kernel are as much in error as those who seem to think it was some kind of documentary.[2]

Other arguments are less solid.  That commanders were taken by surprise by the nature of this war hardly stands up to scrutiny.  The British had faced enemies with modern weapons – quick fire artillery, machine guns, magazine rifles and smokeless powder – in South Africa and had a better idea than most of what attack against such armaments on a large scale would be like.  There is little comfort to be found in the facts that British commanders in 1914 were less culpably antiquarian than their counterparts (whose infantry still took their standards into action – which the British army had not done for over thirty years) or that, for senseless pig-headed slaughter, no British disaster matches French operations in Lorraine during the Battle of the Frontiers (August 1914), especially when one compares the rate at which the French and Germans improved their infantry tactics.  The allegation that the British high command did as well as could be expected on, say, the first day of the Somme, encounters problems when one considers the extent of French success on the same day.  That British infantry had to carry 60lbs of equipment across No Man’s Land[3] is belied by the fact that their allies and enemies didn’t.  British infantry tactics had greatly evolved by 1917-1918 and were more flexible and effective, but the French were using such tactics much earlier.  It has been claimed that Haig was hamstrung by being the junior partner in a military cooperation.  Yet such factors didn’t prevent the British refusing to divert their efforts to support the French breakthrough on 1 July 1916.  And so on.  As one such author has written, even those who have set out wanting to revise the ‘lions led by donkeys’ view have been hard-pressed to avoid ‘donkey tracks’ on some fronts (notably the Dardanelles[4]).  Not every unit on the Somme walked in lines towards the enemy trenches – but some did.  Junior officers were allegedly twice as likely as their men to become casualties showing they were brave (did anyone ever deny that?) but, pace one recent commentator, saying nothing about their competence.  Haig was popular with a lot of his troops.  Sure, but then few generals have been as popular with their men as George B. Maclellan…  The argument doesn’t get you very far.

None of this authorises a return to the old view but it does challenge the idea that the ‘revisionists’ have decisively proved their point.  There is still debate to be had on the purely military aspects of the war, which is as it should be.  But let’s assume that careful and broader research led the ‘revisionist’ view to carry the day.  That would still only concern the strategic and tactical conduct of the war and would leave a very much trickier problem to confront.  It would still leave a string of unimpeachable, unpalatable facts.  A reasonable estimate of the military casualties in the war is around ten million.  That’s ten million.  Plus 6,841,248 civilian deaths.  886,000 British soldiers died, with 1.6 million wounded, as well as 1.3 million French troops killed and 4.25 million wounded.[5]  On the German side there were just over 2 million dead and 4 million wounded.  Britain’s total war dead totalled 2% of her population, Germany’s 3.8% of hers and France’s losses equated to 4.3% of her smaller population.

For all that the revisionists have made the picture more sophisticated, the conditions of trench war, especially during the early years, were horrific.  Skim the Imperial War Museum’s recent volume of WWI photographs.  The British army is said to have suffered 20,000 cases of trench foot in late 1914 alone.  No one can deny any of this, and one of the more distasteful aspects of ‘revisionist’ work has been a tendency to (at best) dismiss the views and (at worst) even cast aspersions on the mental stability of those who were actually there who wrote negatively about the war from the front lines – simply dismissed sniffily as ‘poets’.  Many of these men (like Wilfrid Owen) lost their lives in the conflict.

Here is an old veteran, Arthur Savage (not a poet as far as I’m aware), interviewed at the age of 92:

“My memories are of sheer terror and the horror of seeing men sobbing because they had trench foot that had turned gangrenous. They knew they were going to lose a leg. Memories of lice in your clothing driving you crazy. Filth and lack of privacy. Of huge rats that showed no fear of you as they stole your food rations. And cold deep wet mud everywhere. And of course, corpses. I’d never seen a dead body before I went to war. But in the trenches the dead are lying all around you. You could be talking to the fellow next to you when suddenly he’d be hit by a sniper and fall dead beside you. And there he’d stay for days.”

Returning troops came home to a bad situation.  The editor’s heroic commitment to the combat stress appeal, and the fact that there has to be an appeal at all, shows how comparatively little has been learnt even now; things were far worse after 1918.  Then there was mass unemployment and the Great Depression.  The likes of Douglas Haig, by contrast, returned to comfort,  honours and glory and in later life became (like many of their class) fascist sympathizers – a fact which alone gives the lie to the revisionist ‘Great War for Civilisation’ argument.  Put all this together and one has an admittedly much more nuanced view of the western front but one which can hardly be said to support the ‘revisionist’ view unequivocally.

So we’re left with whether or not this was a war worth fighting.  Evans gives a reasonable summary of the ‘revisionist’ view (not actually that revisionist since it first saw the light in a controversial German book published over half a century ago).  It alleges, first, that German militarism caused the war and, second, that, had the war been lost it would have led to a Europe dominated by a near-fascist, militarist German Empire.  Third, Evans alleges that the Second Reich was getting on for being as bad as the Third.

Here lie the real problems with the ‘revisionist’ view.  It should be clear from the discussion of tactical analysis that, as well as being historically parochial, the revisionist view is geographically insular – it pays very little attention to other armies’ experience in the war (on either side).  The discussions of the war’s causes are riddled with contradictions that make them very difficult to place coherently alongside the attempts to exonerate the ruling/officer class from claims of ineptitude.  Numerous countries were geared up for a war in 1914 for all sorts of reasons.  That didn’t make war inevitable.  Anyone (like me) who took history O-Level in the 70s or early 80s knows that the whole period between 1871 and 1914 was peppered with crises that could have led to war, but didn’t.  There was no reason why Franz Ferdinand and his wife’s shooting by Gavrilo Princip (who, ironically, very nearly survived the war he started before succumbing to TB in an Austrian jail in April 1918) automatically had to lead to war any more than the Agadir crisis of 1911 had done.  The German aristocracy and royalty were still hob-nobbing with their British and other counterparts (and relatives) right up to the war’s outbreak.  And so on.  A third lesson I give my students: nothing in history ever ‘had to be that way’.

Further, to move from the fact that many troops believed that they were fighting to defend their land from aggression (as shown by Margaret MacMillan) to the argument that that was what was definitely at stake in the war is to commit what philosophers call a ‘category error’.  And after all, German troops thought they were fighting for something similar.  Appeals to abstract notions of ‘patriotism’[6] are in any case problematic when it comes to justifying the sacrifice of human life on an obscene scale.

Weaker still are arguments about what would have happened had the war been lost.  No decent historian hangs an argument on a counter-factual (a claim that something that didn’t happen would have happened if something that did happen hadn’t happened) for the simple reason that it is unprovable and untestable.  But then, to be frank, there are few decent historians among the ‘revisionists’ and, among that group, proportionately not many writers who qualify as historians of any sort, rather than journalists, retired army officers and writers of popular tactical studies.  No one knows what would have happened had the First World War been avoided, or lost.  It might have turned out that way; it might not.  There’s no ‘balance of probabilities’ to deploy either way.  One can as easily argue that a German victory would have produced a situation roughly comparable to that after 1871.

Claims for a somehow proto-Nazi German inhumanity, worse than that of the other belligerents, are difficult to substantiate.  They ignore the many genocidal statements produced by British and French statesmen and others about wiping out all Germans.  They ignore the exploitation of the manpower resources of their African and Asian Empires (I don’t only mean as soldiers) by Britain and France.  Before you argue that that was somehow ‘different’, just stop and think for a minute about what rather – shall we say? – tricky assumptions underlie the idea that the exploitation and degradation of white westerners was worse than that of non-Europeans in conquered colonies.  And I’ll take your German atrocities and raise you an Amritsar Massacre, gas-bombing in Morocco by Spain and France and in Abyssinia and Libya by Italy, the bombing and strafing of civilian settlements by French and British air-forces in Syria Mesopotamia and the North-West Frontier.  While acknowledging that the alleged British use of mustard gas in Mesopotamia and Waziristan is at best unproven, one has to remember that RAF commanders (Trenchard and Harris) and politicians (Churchill) urged its use against ‘savages’ whom, they claimed, were not included in the Geneva Convention.  Nevertheless, one lands the real killer blow against the rather silly ‘what if’ justification for the Great War by looking at its actual results.  The militarist German-dominated Europe envisaged would have been worse than the one that did actually eventuate, worse than fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, the Great Depression, the influenza epidemic … how, exactly?

And so (at last) to wargames.  I’ve been interested in WWI wargaming ever since I was in my teens and read a piece by Stuart Asquith in one of the last issues of Battle for Wargamers.  That’s not to say that I have found it ethically unproblematic, but I’ve never found any wargaming ethically unproblematic.  I have nevertheless managed to keep that awareness alongside my enjoyment of my hobby, simply by thinking about the human reality that was the prototype of our games.  It doesn’t require a great deal of effort.  I was once accused of thinking I was God for daring to suggest that wargaming operations that were accompanied by atrocities ought not to be gamed in flippant fashion, but I make no apology for that; I stand by it.  The same applies to the Great War.  Wargamers (like me anyway) find the tactical challenges or problems presented by the war interesting to recreate.  They can make for a rewarding and illuminating game.  Devising such a game properly requires knowledge of the sort of more sophisticated and refined battle studies, to be sure.  Games can reflect heroism as well as slaughter. But let’s never forget the horrors and suffering of the Western Front, sanitise it through abstract tactical analysis or appeal to ‘we won the war’ patriotism.  Margaret MacMillan recently commented that she hopes that the anniversary of the war will produce some awareness of it as a pan-European and global conflict, rather than simple ‘patriotic’ national posturing.  She’s right.  We should be thinking about the forces that produced the war, because they are still very much with us, rather than diverting attention from them by celebrating national victory and apportioning national blame.  One of my relatives was listed as ‘missing’ on the Somme – the euphemism for blown to bits or mutilated or decomposed beyond identification.  He and the other millions of casualties of this war deserve that much at least.  None of this is antithetical to wargaming, enjoyable wargaming.

Either way, one thing we can be sure of is that this debate won’t be over by Christmas…


[2] I thought it the worst of the Black Adder series, hackneyed and lazily written but I suspect that’s another minority view.

[3] This is argued, for instance, in the Osprey ‘campaigns’ volume on the first day of the Somme.

[4] See also the battle of Doiran, Sept. 18-19, 1918, one of the most pointless battles of the war, yielding another 9-10,000 British, Greek and Bulgarian casualties.

[5] Because of the metropolitan constitution of the French Empire, it’s difficult to extract the numbers of colonial troops from the total.

[6] Or, just to be clear, other abstract notions like religion, the class struggle or the free market.  That is part of my humanist view.  On similar grounds I find sanitising at best the sidestepping of human suffering in the interests of abstract, clinical tactical or operational analysis.

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