Lies, Myths (and television) about the First World War.

The nonsense some people talk (with great confidence) about World War One.  It was all futile, the troops were lions led by donkeys, the generals were incompetent and it was all for nothing. Really?  Myths dispelled and some WWI factual television, lightly reviewed.

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With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War fast approaching, followed by four years of more centuries, like the Battles of Somme, Verdun, Gallipoli and so on, not to mention WWI-related events like the Irish Easter rising of 1916, the Russian Revolution and the fall of three huge empires in 1917-18) a large amount of books, newspaper articles, television debates and documentaries are filing our news papers, our screens and our lives.

They were and are, inevitably, a mixed bag. I was less than totally impressed by Jeremy Paxman’s recent “the Great War” series, where if I understood him correctly he seemed to more or less describe conscious objectors as “cranks”.

Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War (discussed below) was also a low point. But many others are excellent, none more so than The First World War series screened recently by BBC 4 every Tuesday night for 10 weeks, a broad, authoritative survey, themed into different stages and theatres of war, based on the book by Hew Strachan, to which I’m certainly personally indebted for broadening my understanding of the whole conflict.

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But one of the best things about this entire period of memory and learning in general is that it allows us all to learn and to reflect, but also to revisit and correct some of the more absurd received ideas that have evolved about WWI, including what Max Hastings has described as the “Blackadder view of History” that the whole affair was essentially for nothing, or also (another, particular bugbear of mine, for many years now) that the officers were cowards or donkeys. Let’s have a look at some of these dafter ideas, right now.

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1-    “A Futile War, a tragic waste”. All war involves terrible waste of life, shattered bodies; lives cut brutally short; futures that will never be, that’s a given. But the charge often leveled against the First World War is that it was Futile, in the specific sense of being pointless. Really?

This view is so commonplace that it’s even thought, by some, it didn’t even matter much who won, that the two sides – Axis and Allied- were more or less the same, and were just as bad as each other. This is the most extraordinary nonsense and it stands up to no serious historical scrutiny at all. Yet this view- which the British historian Max Hastings has termed “the Blackadder view of history” is still astonishingly prevalent, the commonest, and laziest, of received ideas.

How did this “pointless” myth come about?

One reason is the enduring brilliance of the war poets, who were naturally reacting to seeing their friends and comrades slaughtered. They were understandably furious with the generals, with politicians back home and with a complacent public and a jingoistic press. There was indeed lot of lies, deception and propaganda in the First World War. Naturally this will be repellent to people fighting and dying in the front line. But that fact alone did not and does not make the war itself pointless.

But perhaps another, even more important reason for contemporary perception. A reason, often pointed out, is that we always see World War One through the lens, so to speak, of the Second World War. So as that second conflict has become in the popular imagination, “the Good War” – fighting an evil hate-filed madman like Hitler, and his racist, genocidal Nazis, so the First World War has suffered by contrast and by comparison. But perhaps this is just an epic failure of imagination. Isn’t it possible, just possible that there were two consecutive wars people felt they had to fight?   I’m, going to argue below that it was and is possible, that that’s exactly how they felt and furthermore they were fully correct to do so. I’m also going to argue later that the Imperial German High Command in 1914-18 was not all that different to the Nazis.  Honestly.

But let’s explode the more general pointless myth first.

What exactly is it that people feel is pointless about the First World War? The Serbs were invaded. Serbs lost a greater proportion of the population than any other country in WWI. Should they not have fought to protect their homes and homeland? Likewise France and Belgium were invaded, their towns, farms, homes, streets and their schools. The Germans shot 600+ civilians at the town of Dinat, burnt the university libraries in Louven and shot the British nurse Edith Cavell when they found out she was helping prisoners escape. They also stripped the agriculture and industry of occupied France away and shipped it back to Germany, took civilian hostages in both countries and executed anyone they suspected of resistance, but I’ll discuss that a bit more later.

So, should the France and Belgians perhaps not have fought to protect their homes, homeland and people?  Really? Wouldn’t you?

People living under both the Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman empires (like the Serbs, or Arabs respectively) were living under the yoke of ancient, autocratic regimes, indeed often under tyranny. (Think of the Armenian genocide for example) Should none of these many peoples not have fought for freedom?   How marvelously complacent it is, to look at people one knows nothing about, and then call their struggles pointless.

 

Myth 2- But did Britain need to fight? And 3- did it really matter who won?

But what about Britain, or perfidious Albion as we (and the 1914 German High Command) like to call it. They were not invaded, their homes and farms were not trampled on. Perhaps they should have stayed out.

This of course ignores the treaty Britain had signed with Belgium guaranteeing her neutrality and territorial integrity.

But given what was at stake, should Britain still have in fact reneged?

I personally don’t think so, and nothing I’ve learned over the past year has made me change that view.   But this is nonetheless a plausible line of argument that has to be taken seriously.  Because it was Britain’s entry into the war, the small but effective defense by Britain’s small professional pre-war army (called the BEF in summer 1914) that halted (just about) the rapid German advance towards the sea and the Channel ports and maintained a vital foothold in continental Europe, prevented French defeat, made the long defensive trench war inevitable and thus, tragically, ensured a long, agonizing war that would in time, become truly global.

 

Niall Ferguson

This argument above was put by Niall Ferguson in a recent BBC history television talk and debate, The Pity of War, (aired BBC2 February 2014)

I’d better put my cards on the table here, and admit I’m not a fan of Ferguson. I disliked his book “Empire” – which I found glib in places. I also find him something of a showboating historian, who loves a bit of controversy and notoriety. But I will try and summarize his World War One arguments as clearly and as fairly as I can.

Essentially Ferguson argues that the First World War flew in the face of history, and reversed decades of progress. The centuries of progress was decreasing violence, what we should accurately call the excess death rate. (even in war many people do not die of wounds but of hunger, disease, cold, and displacement, caused by war)

This excess death rate had been appalling in pre-history, classical and medieval times, but during and since the early modern period had been gradually declining for hundreds of years, due mostly to more strong consolidated (even highly centralized) Nation States, by strong international institutions and by a system of treaties, alliances creating a carefully constructed balance of powers) stopping casual violence and war-lord types, imposing the rule of law upon individuals and within states,  and the rule of international law between and among states.

All of this progress was spectacularly, tragically, undone by the madness of 1914-18 unleashing the hideous carnage of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history (bloodiest in absolute, if not per capita terms)

This is all true and accurate, as far as it goes.

But then Ferguson went on to argue that if Britain had stayed out, the 1914-18 war would never have lasted more than a year and half, it would have been the 1914-15 war, a relatively short-lived affair, not dragging in the whole world, (no Canadians, Indians, Africans or Americans who have fought or died) No U-boats or North Atlantic war, no Lawrence of Arabia, no Indian or African soldiers fighting in Europe and preventing further additional, huge, catastrophic loss of life. Again, this is very possibly all true, in the short term, as far as it goes.

And, Ferguson went on to ask, what did Allied victory, finally in November, at enormous, unimaginable, cost, really achieve?  Had the Germans won in 1915, we would have ended up with a Europe dominated politically, industrially, and economically by Germany. And what, asked Ferguson, theatrically, rhetorically, do we have now? Yes, we have a Europe dominated politically and economically by Germany.

QED, it didn’t matter and it was all a gigantic waste and (wait for it) “Futile”

But the whole construction and basis of this argument is utterly specious.  First of all, democratic Germany of the Post Second World War European Union era was and is,  utterly unlike the Imperial Germany of 1914.  To suggest otherwise flies in the face of history, reality and common sense, (not to mention being rather offensive to modern Germans).   Interestingly,  not only do nearly all serious historians from “the Allied side” disagree with Ferguson, nearly all modern German historians do too!

One of the pleasures of watching Ferguson’s broadcast was when he turned to a panel of historians for comment. They all, unanimously, told him his entire analysis and his assumptions, were all simply wrong.  Withering stuff, although Ferguson himself didn’t so much as bat an eyelid.

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above: Kaiser Willem II in 1905, 9 years prior to WWI.

The tragedy and ironies of German History.

In fact it the tragedy of Germany in the ante-bellum years that it was a country which already dominated Europe, but was led by an insecure, lightweight king who hadn’t the intellect or vision to realize that basic fact.

German industry was the greatest in Europe, her universities, factories, sciences, arts and culture the envy of the continent, and the world. Look at the amount of patents granted;  or the amount of Nobel prizes won by German chemists and physicists;  look at the huge factories;  the automotive industries and chemical plants.  But Kaiser Willem II wanted more, he wanted to challenge Britain at sea;  and he wanted a large overseas land empire too, to rival the English or French.

Following German unification, engineered by Otto von Bismarck in 1871, the Iron Chancellor wisely stayed out of the “Scramble for Africa” and other colonial adventures, doubting the value of colonies,  and seeing them as far more trouble than they were worth.

But when Kaiser Willem II came to the throne,  he was determined to compete with his cousins Nicholas and George (in Russia and England respectively)  with the French and others. He was determined Germany too should have “her place in the sun”. Not for any sound economic purpose really, but almost entirely for prestige reasons.

Among other things, the Germans then gained territory in East Africa, Tanganyika, now Tanzania, and also in Southern West Africa, now Namibia, a country far too dry to farm or for habitation by Europeans, where they (the Germans) distinguished themselves by a policy of brutal genocide, particularly against the Herero people, whom they all but annihilated.

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Herero people, a few survivors  returned after they were shot at then driven into the desert to starve by the German army, SW Africa, 1904-08.

Naval Race

The Kaiser, fond of boats, also started a naval arms race to challenge Britain’s sea-born hegemony. The British realized that the Kaiser and the Imperial German High Command wanted to seize or undermine their trade routes, and especially the crucial links to India. India unlike a lot of other colonies internationally, actually was worth a huge amount to Britain, underpinning for example, her entire textile manufacture.

It’s important to be clear here, I’m not defending British colonialism, her own motives here were entirely self-interested. The Belgians also, had committed horrific crimes, notably in the Congo of course.  But the British presence in India went back hundreds of years, and in any case, all these colonies now had a shelf life.   Because history would go on to show that colonialism represented an old way. Trade, commerce, finance industry and manufacture would be the way of the future, of the new 20th century.  It was Germany’s tragedy that,  of nearly all the countries in the world, Germany, (along with the United States and Japan)   was best positioned to lead the new way.  But while Britain and other states moved slowly and painfully towards a more genuine,  representative democracy, (not without a fight, admittedly)  the tragedy is that Germany’s political structures – outdated, and autocratic- lagged literally decades behind her culture, her industry and economy.

Democratic deficit and political structures.

The army for example, was far, far too powerful for a modern democratic state. The Kaiser also wielded far too much personal power. So the democratically elected deputies in the Reichstag, where the Socialists often held a majority, and who were utterly against the war, had effectively no say in foreign policy. Instead, and absurdly, German foreign policy was dictated by the unelected, unstable Kaiser, “assisted and advised” by the all-powerful, Prussian-dominated army, hungry to flex their muscles, for glory and victories.

Kaiser Willhem reckless policies led Germany to deliberately pick fights with rival European powers. Then later, to issue Austria with a “blank cheque’  even urging Austria to speed up her invasion of Serbia, before the Russians could mobilise.

Disaster, and the slide into Global war.

Nonetheless, Imperial Russia was forced, by both treaty and by popular feeling, to protect her brother Slavs in Serbia; France was forced by treaty obligations to side with Allied Russia; Germany was suddenly facing a war on two fronts.

Her imperative to knock the French out early and decisively led to the implementation of the Schleiffen plan. This plan meant a rapid march toward Paris by the quickest route, through neutral Belgium.   Hence dragging Britain into the war. The British, (as indeed the French too) would ultimately be able to call on troops and men from all over the world. The rest is hell, and history.

 

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Britain was indeed fighting to preserve her empire and her interests, and I’m not going to defend this. But there are some points worth bearing in mind. Firstly while I don’t dispute the evil legacy of British or any other colonization, I’d still argue that there were “better and worse people to be colonized by”. That fact is certainly true by the early 20th century. The acts of lunatics like General Dyer who ordered a massacre at Amritsar in India, (1919) stood out precisely because they were so unusual. By contrast, the Germans in Namibia (like the Belgians 20 and 30 years before in the Congo) killed untold thousands of Africans, as a matter of policy, with the full knowledge and consent of the leaders back home.   There is no compassion. German conduct in occupied Europe 1914-18 was also pretty barbaric.

No, the Germans did not massacre white Europeans, but everything else was fair game. They certainly shot civilians (especially in Belgium) they took French and Belgium civilian hostages as guarantors to deter resistance fighters. The Germans used forced labor, seizing people to work as de facto slave labour in their factories. They embarked on a ruthless asset-stripping of occupied territories. They took all the coal, timber, food they wanted, and every other type of material, taking away telegraph poles for timber and fuel for example; taking food and farm produce without paying. The German army was ordered to live “off the land” (and we all know what that means) The German state meanwhile, dismantled plant and whole factories and shipping them back to Germany. This was life under the German eagle, the Imperial German state and war machine.

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above: “The Germans arrive” top)  and Massacre at Dinant, 2 paintings by the artist George Belows, based on the war time inquiry and eye witness reports. Images courtesy of my Daily Art blog, (see link below)

So in reality German occupation in 1914-18 was not all that different to under the Nazis 20 years later, bar the one (disgusting) Nazi exception of virulent, murderous anti-Semitism. (It’s admittedly quite true, as Ferguson pointed out, and and important to acknowledge, that Jews in Eastern Europe would have been far better off under the Kaiser than under the Tzar)

But that is not why anyone went to war in either the First World War, (nor incidentally in the Second World war). Nor does it begin to excuse to or exonerate the rest of Germany’s conduct in occupied Europe 1914-18, which was barbaric. Again, our general ignorance about the realities of a hundred years ago and the Second World War as the “only Good war” often blinds us to this key fact.

Finally I’d also point out that although Britain had entered the war to prevent a take over of continental Europe by Germany, and indeed to preserve her own strategic and (yes) her imperial interests globally, once she was actually fighting the war it is ludicrous not to acknowledge she was engaged in an existential fight for survival.

We often equate the Blitz and Ariel bombardment of civilians with the Second World War. But the WWI Germans dropped dozens of bombs indiscriminately on London and other cities. They also sunk hundreds of thousands of tons of allied (and neutral) shipping, in an attempt to starve Britain into submission and surrender. Max Hastings has argued that with increasing German belligerence, the British would have had to fight the Germans some stage in the early 20th century anyway.   So, the only question was when and alongside whom.

More myths: 4a & b- the troops were lions, led by donkeys.

This is actually a sort of double slur, because depending who you are speaking to, the view is either that the generals were incompetent, and/or that all officers generally were cowards, who hid behind the sacrifice of their men. Both ideas are nonsense. But they are separate types of nonsense, so they’d better be demolished separately.

4a- The officers generally were cowards, who hid behind the sacrifice of their men. This is a view I heard expressed most forcefully by an Australian woman I spoke to a few years ago. I asked her did she mean the staff offices or the field officers?   She didn’t know the difference, then when I tried to explain the difference she told me she didn’t care and they were “all the same” to her.

The vast, vast majority of officers in the First World War were field officers. This means they slept and ate in the trenches and fought with their men. For the record, these officers suffered a disproportionately high causality rate, higher than the men, because they led from the front. They also died more frequently than other ranks because they were singled out by snipers, primarily to cause morale- loss and direction-loss among their troops.

Many, not all, but many, were highly respected by their men, toward whom most of they felt a huge sense of compassion and responsibility towards. It is they, particularly the major and captain ranks, who had the horrendous job of writing to the men’s families to describe their loss and death. When they themselves died, which was even more common (see above) it was their own commanding officer who wrote these letters.

 

4a again- Okay then, the staff officers were cowards.

A much, much smaller proportion of officers were Staff officers. It is true that these men suffered a far lower causality rate, as they were in headquarters behind the front lines, involved in planning, strategy, logistics and so on.

How much groud did we capture, and what scale is this model?

How much territory did we gain?

This much Sir.

And what scale is this model exactly? 

Well, its not really a model, as such.  This is the actual ground sir.

– Brilliant comedic writing, but very bad history, from Blackadder.

 

Some of the officers, including generals, went from the front line to staff duties, and visa-versa. We are speaking about a tiny proportion here, but it seems that if you were fortunate enough to spend the entire war in staff duties, perhaps because you were considered a brilliant planner or administrator, or perhaps because you had language skills, (the Allied staff had to communicate with each other across French and English) then that was unusual. But we of posterity want you to know that we resent your survival. We apparently want wanted you to have been killed or traumatized like everyone else, okay?

Or maybe we just don’t think there should have been any staff officers, in any headquarters, because it’s just not fair.   No,we feel that a huge continental war, involving millions of men, and billions of pounds of money, food, ammunition, and other materiel, a war upon which the future of the world depended, should possibly have been run with no attempt at planning whatsoever, in the interests of strict fairness.

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Or if there was to be planning and offices, then at least put the Headquarters and staff officers near the front line, so they have a fair chance of getting hit and killed or maimed by an artillery shell, okay?

What nonsense.

Lies, dammed lies and inverted snobbery.

Part of what’s behind all this suspicion is, I suspect is an ugly sense of inverted snobbery, and the idea that the poor suffered, which is absolutely correct, and the rich did not, which I’m afraid is just plain rubbish.

Yes, the poor certainly did suffer, but everyone did.  Soldiers of all ranks died, in huge numbers, but officers even more so.   At home on few industrialists got very wealthy making food and munitions and so on. But that did not mean did the traditional “social elite” shirked their duty.  On the contrary, the wartime Prime Minister of Britain, David Lloyd George, had had two sons serving at the front. Other cabinet ministers lost sons, as did nearly all the older wealthier families of Britain. In fact, because of the disproportionate officers killed, the losses among this class were so extreme, so pronounced,  it was called “the Lost Generation”. The wealthy Astor family, for example, lost all their sons, likewise the British arm of the wealthy upper class Jewish family the Rothschilds.  So did the author Sir Aurthur Conan Doyle, who lost his son Kingsley and never recovered from the grief.   Nor did another sucessful author, Rayard Kipling, who lost his son John at aged 18. Kipling senior would later write or choose all the texts that appeared on those famous War memorials,  in Britain and in war cemeteries across Belgium and Northern France.

Meanwhile, the poor of Britain who were not at the front saw a marked increase in living standards.  Because, the war time coalition were so desperate to avoid strikes and industrial action,  they were prepared to send the troops into Glasgow to take on riots and strikes there. But what they mostly did, (their preferred method of dealing with trouble)  was to cave in, early and often, to almost any industrial action or increased wages demands.   I think this is a really good thin, one of the very few “positives” out of the war.  In this way the British industrial worker saw a much needed, and long overdue in their wages, living and working conditions during the war years.  Rent control was introduced, for the same reasons. Women especially also experienced an unprecedented level of emancipation and personal and financial freedom. And there would be no going back.  The war changed the world, in many, many ways.

So no, it wasn’t all exploitation of the poor by the cynical rich.   The amount of ignorance and rubbish that people talk about the First World War is startling sometimes. I think we owe it to that generation to at least try to understand what went on.

4b- But at least admit that the generals were donkeys in the sense that they were incompetent,   They wasted their men’s lives.   -Right?

This of course is larger foundation stone of the “pointless” notion, and in truth it’s harder to refute. But as a friend of mine who lives in Paris pointed out recently, this view is far more prevalent in the Anglophone world, (in Britain, Ireland, Australia and so on) than say, in France, Belgium or say, Serbia.  For one thing, very few people thing it’s pointless defending your own territory or homes.

Also, given what we have just said about the the generals and politicians own children being at the front, think about this for a moment:  How likely is it really, that they wanted to waste lives,  or even that they somehow “did not care”?   Your own common sense will tell you this is nonsense.

In the case of Irish Australians, and New Zealanders,  Gallipoli must play a huge part in this idea of incompetence. It’s not hard to understand why, as its certainly true that generals made huge and costly mistakes there (and on the western front), throughout the war.   But it’s not because they were stupid, or incompetent or complacent or somehow “didn’t care”  That is just rubbish.  (we’ll look at the real reason why they made mistakes in a moment)     It’s certainly entirely true that the Gallipoli campaign was incredibly ill-conceived,  and then poorly executed. The naval barrage failed to dislodge the Turkish defenders and so Allied troops arriving on the beaches below suffered appalling causalities. Poor logistical support, dysentery and disease claimed thousands more. The whole campaign, which bears the finger prints of a meddling Winston Churchill, (good at big picture stuff, in two/both World Wars, appalling at vital detail) was an unmitigated disaster.

Landing_French-Gallipoli

above: landings at Gallpolli.

Likewise, the Battle of the Somme, with similar mistakes lost and wasted incredible amounts of lives. The bombardment, by huge field guns, did not destroy the well dug in and protected German defenses. The Germans, now conveniently alerted to an advance, easily repelled waves of allied troops with machine gun fire as attackers struggled across muddy ground badly cut up by their own cannons just few hours before.

But the assault had been planned for months. Generals were dubious. But there was huge political pressure to act, not least to take pressure off and partially relive French troops, fighting desperately to defend the all important fortress at Verdun.  And the public and the press back home wanted action too.

The truth is, WWI overall was an entirely new type of warfare. You can call the generals stupid donkeys if you like, and it is very tempting and gratifying. But is it true?

In reality, nobody knew how to force an early victory. No war like this had ever been fought before, a defensive stalemate type war, with hundreds of thousands of men well dug-in with trenches, new types of weapons, barbed wire and very rapid rates of machine gun fire, all of which favoured defense over attack.

How to Win a new type of Global war. Easy, right?

It would take years for the generals and field marshals to work out a way to win. Tactics evolved, technology and weapons evolved to an extraordinary extent. A war that in the beginning would have been recognizable to generals of the Napoleon era (cannon, cavalry, brightly coloured uniforms and large sweeping field maneuvers) turned into one that would have been recognizable to a general of the Second World War.

So its obvious that lesson were learned, the hard way. The generals did learn. The British learned short artillery bombardment was more effective than long ones. On both sides everything was tried to try and win the war, both desperately sought advantages in tactics, material, weapons or anything else. Contrary to the General Melchett stereo-type (of Blackadder Goes Forth fame) here was absolutely no complacency.

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Gen Sir Melchett: in truth, WWI generals were not really like this.

Uniforms changed, communications, weapons, tactics were transformed. Submarine U-boats were employed by the Germans. A convey system developed in the Atlantic by the allies in response.   Desperate to starve Britain the Germans at first demurred to sink neutral ships, then started it, then stopped again, then started again, all of which ultimately brought the United States into the war.

On land, the Germans tried chemical warfare and poison gas. Both sides made huge strides in aerial warfare, barrage balloons, airships, and of course airplanes, originally mostly for reconnaissance, became fighters and even used for dropping bombs. Both sides developed tanks, with the allied side winning the race, both in terms of production numbers and design.

The End at last.

But ironically perhaps, after all that, maybe attack was still trumped by defense.    In 1917 Russia dropped out of the war, freeing up hundreds of thousands of German troops to be shipped to the western front and giving them for the first time an large advantage in numbers there.

At the same time the United States had declared war.  But it would be months before they could cross the Atlantic in numbers and make their presence and impact felt.  And the Germans knew it.

The Germans now had a window they simply had to use. Their elite hand-picked troops called Storm Troopers, were trained and armed to travel fast and light, going around nest or defensive position, leaving stubborn pockets of resistance behind for others to mop up in favour of to seizing maximum ground fast . They succeeded spectacularly, punching a hole in the allied lines as British and French troops fell back in, well, in shock.

 

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German storm troopers attack, courtesy Great War Picture archive.

But the speed of their success proved their own undoing. The Storm Troopers only carried a day or two rations. Their support and supplies could not catch up. They had attacked the weakest point, correctly identified by German generals, But the middle section was the lightest defended because it led nowhere.

The German shock troops were now unable to follow up their success by turning north to seize crucial strategic objectives like the railway junctions in Normandy or, most crucially of all, the channel ports, which would have denied the British re-supply or (even better for the Germans) have denied American troops access to France.   The attack, which looked initially so successful, seizing more ground in a few days than in the previous 4 years, yet ultimately failed.

The Allies recovered and counter attacked, and finally pushed the Germans back. They in contrast never recovered. Although the German army never felt defeated in the field, and for the most part retreated in good order, they now lost the western front.

The war on the home front was going just as bad, with strikes, huge shortages, hunger and a weary, bitter disillusioned population. Suddenly, very abruptly, the war ended. The Kaiser was finally forced out, marking the end of the Hohenzollern dynasty and German empire.  He headed for exile in Holland, where he refused for the rest of his life to accept he did anything wrong, and thought the German army and people were cowards.  What an idiot.

The re-entry or retreat of the German army into Germany itself was quietly celebrated by many, as they were seen (admittedly with some justification) to have fought bravely and well. But even this was the portent of worse to come in future years, leading to the dangerous myth that the German army had never “really” been defeated, and so must have been betrayed in some way.  Later it was argued they had been stabbed in the back by an unlikely international conspiracy of Jewish financiers and communists, (It is amazing how anyone could think that financier and communists would ever collaborate about anything but there you go, that’s nationalist racist madness for you).

The War to End all Wars.

The Versailles treaty of 1919 achieved a mixed legacy. US president Woodrow Wilson insisted that small newly independent countries maintain their independence and his brain child, the League of Nations was set up to impose international law, yet without the teeth to impose it. Japan, Germany and other would flout such authority in the not distant future.

The Arabs who had been promised much by Britain during WWI in return for their help against Ottoman Turkey, were betrayed. (TE Lawrence of Arabia had known all along they would be, a fact he admitted only years later)

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The main event saw the Germans forced to confess full and sole guilt for the war and accept crippling war reparations. It was the worst of both worlds, as Germany was humiliated, something with huge repercussions for the future yet she could not afford to pay the reparations anyway.   The economist John Manyard Keynes, (a member of the British delegation) was one of many who expressed grave misgivings about the wisdom of the hash terms.

One French general said this is not a Peace as I understand it, we will have to fight again in another 20 years.

He was out by less than 60 days.

Legacy.

The First World War is an immensely complex and multi faceted affair. It shaped and defined the 20t century and the modern world, and we still live with its consequences a hundred years later. It re-drew the map of Europe, destroyed empires, created whole nations (including the vast Communist Soviet Union, led to the precursor of the UN and would also lead to the Second World war – of which you can say exactly most of the same things.   Indeed, the two wars are so interrelated that there’s even a school of historians who treat both wars as one, as two phases, of the same huge, protected conflict.

So is it complicated? Yes it is. But that means it’s also important enough for us to avoid clichés and received ideas, to at least try to understand what went on. We owe all those millions of dead that basic courtesy at least.

So lets start by not calling people “cowards or donkeys”. Nor by calling their extraordinary sacrifice “futile”.

Thank you for reading.

Young dead german soldier

Please feel free to leave a comment below, and/or to share via the social media buttons below. You may also enjoy my slightly more contentious “Irish In World War One” article, lambasting received ideas in Ireland on both WWI and our own War of Independence.   Thank you for reading.

Arran Henderson gives history walks of Dublin, (and reading historic paintings workshops at the National Gallery) both under the banner Dublin Decoded. The tour menu and contact information can be found here.     If you’d like to see testimonials, there are many reviews on Dublin Decoded tours, on TripAdvisor here.

Television Sources referenced:

Hew Strachan/BBC 4 The First World War.

Jeremy Paxman/ BBC The Great War.

Niall Ferguson/BBC: the Pity of War.

Max Hastings/BBC: the Necessary War.

Images courtesy of Wikki commons and other websites.

World War I paintings, by Georges bellows, courtesy of the wonderful, deeply erudite blog, My Daily Art Display, see here for the story behind these amazing paintings.

 

16 thoughts on “Lies, Myths (and television) about the First World War.

  1. Great stuff.

    A point in support of what you say of the German Kaiser and military – Ludendorf in the post-WWI period was for a while a rival to Hitler for control of what came to be the National Socialist Party.

    I forget the names but in New Zealand there was a young Labour Party member who spent the war in prison as a conscientious objector. In WW2 he was Minister of Defence and introduced conscription. His son became a conscientious objector and spent that war in prison….

    The TV series you refer to haven’t got to Australia as yet. I have been reading in the Independent though. There is an article there from today expressing similar points: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/should-britain-have-joined-world-war-one-keep-these-points-in-mind-during-the-argument-9322604.html

    There is also a series of 100 moments from WWI: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/history-of-the-first-world-war-in-100-moments/

    1. Thank you very much Murray, delighted to get your comments and i’ll certainly have a look at those links in a minute. Just have to do some more editing first and elsewhere first. But wanted to acknowledge your response, always great to hear from you, the most thoughtful of readers. I can’t believe that i wrote Irish and Australian troops (and attitudes) and committed New Zealand men, a dumb error I’ve only just put right now. As it happens a family member also spent a year in prison in WWII as a conscientious objector, in New Zealand. But he is not the son you refer to, this man moved to Ireland in the late 60 or early 70s. Its a funny contradiction, I hugely respect the men who fought and I’ve argued above that it mat=y well have been a necessary war, but i also hugely respect the objectors and the pacifists. I think the actor David Niven who fought in a tank regiment in WWII put it nicely once, when he was defending his friend Errol Flynn from accusations after the war, he simply said its a very personal decision for each person to make. Not a choice given to people in countries with conscription of course but that’s a separate issue, they could still choose to go to prison, and as you say many did just that. That another form of courage I reckon. i also believe that Luddendorf, joint head of the German army as you say, had cracked under extreme pressure and exhaustion and had gone mad by 1917/early ’18. (Not that he wasn’t a right-wing nationalist war-monger beforehand anyway ) Thanks for taking the time to comment Murray. I think you’ll enjoy this series (the 10 part one) when it arrives, it really is excellent. I ordered the Hew Strachan book a couple weeks back. Don’t know what the hold up is, now I think of it. But looking forward to reading that too.
      -Arran.

  2. Wonderfully comprehensive piece Arran. Two small caveats, or rather one with two parts; you say twice that you don’t won’t to defend the British Empire, before doing just that. And you are extraordinarily harsh on the Germans, itemising only their atrocities. Which is very much in contrast to the Hew Strachan Channel 4 series that you quite correctly laud.

    I suspect, as you reference elsewhere, that you and I and anyone else brought up in this part of the world, have been considerably more influenced by myths and propaganda than we are any of us aware of. Other than that, superb piece!
    Anthony.

    1. Hi Anthony, many thanks for commenting. I take your point entirely that we, anyone brought up in the anglophone world, especially Britain and Ireland, (where most people watch British TV, has been subject to a huge amount of pro-British propaganda. One hears a lot about the beastly Hun (mostly the WWII Nazis I’d argue, not the WWI outrages, which were very real) But its true as you say we hear far less about say, Blood Sunday(s) 1920 or 72, or Amritsar, or the brutal crushing of the Mau mau rebellion in Kenya, or the savage shelling of Alexandria, and so on and so on. It’s also entirely true hat the British ran their empire for their own ends and own selfish interests. They destroyed Indian cotton manufacture for example for the benefit of Manchester. Yet I’d still maintain there is no comparison between their conduct In GENERAL and that of say Belgiums or Germans in say, Africa. Sorry, just can’t agree with that. But your point overall remains totally valid. I quite agree with you, one always has to vigilant of in-built assumptions and bias. Thank you very much for commenting and for your kind words on the piece, really glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Thanks for posting another good overview of a topic about which many wax tendentious. I began First World War research reading about a year ago, and 56 books later have covered much of the same territory, and have come to similar conclusions. I’m glad I began with Norman F. Dixon’s “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence” (although in one respect it’s a bit dated), in which he makes a good case for why the officers weren’t donkeys, while showing how they managed to take such unbelievably wrongheaded decisions. (BTW, I wonder how much influence Kaiser Bill’s birth injuries had on his grasp of reality: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2589601/ )

    1. Many many thanks Christine for those very kind words. I am a bit wearied by the reply or rather response i had to write to another commenter, just below. In fact, he provided a link to a source b y an author i found so offensive I had to take the comment down. Long story, please see below. But its great to get your thumbs up, especially from someone so well read and well informed about the topic. Very encouraging, thank you. Great respects, from Dublin- Arran.

  4. An apology. I’m very sorry to anyone who saw the comment here earlier,, and more specifically may conceivably have followed the link posted here in the comments section, for about 20 minutes here earlier. I’ve now taken the comment and the link down,
    The response here criticized my piece above, essentially calling it ignorant and ill-informed, and suggested i click on a link. I believe in debate and disagreement, so I approved the comment, including the link obviously.
    When i then went to click and investigate the link for myself i found at first it was a very respectable-looking history paper, full of footnotes and references. I started to read it. It was about anti-German feeling in the popular British press in the years before WWI, and i am sure there was a lot of anti-German jingoism then, the British were far from blameless in this regard.
    yet I still found the more arguments hard to follow and the tone rather odd. So, after a while, i copied and pasted the name of the author, and having worked out it wasn’t the German psychologist, not the guy writing papers about mink farming either, realized it could only be the writer cropping up on the rather strange looking websites dedicated to and with names like “free debate about the holocaust” and “unbiased debate about the holocaust” and so on. Holocaust deniers, basically. I feel tainted even having looked at or read any of this crap.
    Holocaust denial is a crime and rightly so, To the guy who posted the comment earlier, It’s possible you have only read the academic piece and piece and you feel Germany was hard doen by in history and in the media and so on and consider its all very respectable to cast doubt on German atrocities in WWI and WWII. But it isn’t. My observations about WWI are a shifting, evolving thing. But I have absolutely no such ambivalence about Nazis. if you have any doubts about the evil of, or the reality of, the Holocaust, you are either on a very dangerous pat and I’d strongly advise you to turn back. If you’ve already made up your mind, then I am afraid you are an idiot, and worse. Don’t ever come near my blog again.

  5. The point you make about the field officers is a good one. The life of a junior officer at the front was incredibly short, and during an offensive it was measured in minutes. What I think we have to bear in mind is that Europe in general was still very much the rulers and the ruled over. The eilte formed the military caste of generals and decision-makers, and the lower classes provided the cannon fodder, and that was a generally accepted fatality. WW1 was conducted on such a mind-bogglingly massive scale that all classes found their young men getting involved and killed. Nobody, I suspect had a clue in 1914 what had been set in motion, much less how to stop it. They, the old-school generals could only play by the book, they didn’t know any other rules of engagement. Their own sons might have been dragged into the fighting but they still carried on chucking thousands at the enemy trenches.

    The British have a long history of making light of war and poking fun at the enemy, who, let’s face it, has often been Germany. I suspect that never having suffered occupation since the 11th century has much to do with it. You find a far different attitude on continental Europe. Laughing about the antics of the Hun just doesn’t figure in French humour as it does in English. The German classes at my kids’ school is referred to as Bosch class, and the teacher is the Nazi teacher. Europeans suffered terribly at the hands of the German army, and though the Brits were only involved in the two world wars, the rest of Europe has been occupied by them on and off for centuries. The morbid celebration of The War Dead and the associated myths, is far more of an Anglophone thing. Over here they don’t know the term The Great War, WW1 was just one war among many where France was invaded, occupied, starved and massacred. Generals are always considered useless by the ordinary soldier. Wars are always an uneccessary means to an end, and the politicians and leaders who bring them about never pay the ultimate sacrifice. (Then you give a Gallic shrug of the shoulders and go back to the bistrot).

    1. Great to hear from you Jane, thank you very much for commenting. I don’t know that much about French and continental attitudes to WWI and II, the way you do, living there, but i know enough to know you are right, it is quite different when someone invades your country, very different indeed. And as you rightly say, it happened a lot. Incredible that Prussia/Germany invaded France 3 separate times, in less than eighty years. Great to hear from you- Arran.

  6. An excellent post Arran. I’m rather afraid I was taught about the WWI at time (14 yrs) when I was far too young to understand it’s import. I was grateful years later though that the curriculum at least tried to inform. I don’t think they even bother to try now do they? I learned enough to want to go back and do my own reading years later. Your article so rightly points out the many misconceptions that I freely admit, I have held myself at various times. Thank you for this.

    1. Don’t beat yourself up about that, I think we have all had ideas and held views similar to the ones described above, including myself. I certainly thought, for many years, the generals were cruel, inept and nincompoops. I also thought, separately, but also for quite a long time, that the war was run in the interests of capitalists, bankers and war profiteers. I don’t think anymore that WWI was. But that doesn’t mean that others haven’t been or can’t be. Also, as of course you know, it’s not an either/or situation. War come in to being, and are maintained for a whole variety of complex and possibly even contradictory reasons. History is like that. But i do think that the British say, felt they Had to stand up to Imperial Germany in 1914 and therefore side with the Belgians and French, albeit it, mostly, for their own interests.

  7. Epic piece Arran. I’m unfamiliar with military matters generally so I glean much knowledge from what you have to say. Coming hard on the heels of ANZAC day it certainly throws a different light on Gallipoli etc.
    I’ll try to lighten a heavy subject momentarily. Jersey’s only direct connection with WW1 (other than the lads who went off to fight) was the establishment of a POW camp down on the sand dunes on the west of the Island. The German prisoners there must have thought it was a holiday camp. Comfy quarters, regular meals, beach nearby, recreation facilities. The camp had its own electricity supply at a time when it was rare in Jersey. Some of the prisoners worked at the docks, others on the farms.
    There were a few desultory escapes but these guys were happy enough to be recaptured and led back.
    The remnants of the camp are still to be seen and a bit of interpretation has broken up many a jog 🙂

    1. Hi Roy, great to hear from you. Yes, I’ve heard about that PoW camp in fact, sounds great, rather melancholy and mysterious now i imagine (?) Yet as you say, the German PoWs interned here were in fact the lucky ones. I’m relieved to hear most of them knew it! Sensible chaps. In fact, given food shortages in Britain and Germany and across the continent, they were among the luckiest people of the entire war, anywhere.
      Healthy working holiday, on a sandy island. off the south coast?
      Sign me up!

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