The first casualty: truth

Imperialist injustice, incompetent commanders and the horrors of the trenches: these are the lessons of the First World War. But are they the whole story? John Blake argues that we must abandon our unthinking acceptance of such facts and teach the conflict as it really was

John Blake

For too many years to remember, discussion about the teaching of history has centred on the question of knowledge. Just about everyone agrees that children should "know" more history, but precisely what it means to "know something historical" is up for debate. Is it sufficient for the bare facts of an event to be passed on, or must students grasp something more profound about how historical information is discovered and shared before they can say they "know" a thing?

A good example of a historical event to which these questions can be applied - and one that's particularly relevant given the upcoming centenary - is the First World War. Is it enough for students to know that it broke out in 1914, was fought in trenches, was extremely bloody and ended in German defeat and collapse in 1918? Or is there a need to understand more, to appreciate the impact of trench life by reading the diaries of the men who served, investigating the battle plans of those who commanded and assessing the propaganda of those who reported?

That argument might rage for ever and I do not propose to go over it here. I bring it up because I think it is missing a crucial component: a consideration of the historians and others who have shaped our view of this vital piece of the past, and the uses to which our opinions about the First World War can be put.

There has been much discussion recently in the UK of what, if any, ceremonies of remembrance should be set up by the government to mark the centenary. As part of that, thinktank British Future published the results of a poll that shows the overwhelming majority of people - 87 per cent - agree that "the cost of peace and freedom is high. We must remember that and invest in peace to ensure that such wars can never recur." Almost as many - 84 per cent - agree that schools should "do more to help our kids and people of all ages to learn more about our nation's history".

What is interesting is that these two options are presented as perfectly compatible, when they should be seen as sharply opposed. If we accept that the purpose of remembering the First World War is to learn about the horrors of war, we are not teaching it as it was but rather as we presume it to have been. In other words, we have accepted that the conflict is not a historical event to be dissected and understood, but a moral lesson to be recalled. That is profoundly dangerous.

Teachers often complain about market ideology being poured into their classrooms, but it is equally as dogmatic to maintain that the only possible lesson to be learned from the 1914-18 hostilities is about the horrors of war. In fact, if the centenary is to be truly historical, the First World War needs to be considered in far greater depth, and the myths that have grown up around it challenged.

I would like to take aim at three here: first, that it was, without question, an unjust and imperialist war; second, that war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen provide a representative response of soldiers to the conflict; and third, that the generals of the First World War were ignorant and callous butchers who had no regard for their men. All three of these myths appear to be deeply embedded in too many of our schools and in too much of our culture.

Addressing the first misconception is what started me thinking about all this to begin with. I realised recently that I was teaching the causes of the First World War in almost exactly the same way as they were taught to me 15 years ago, and using almost exactly the same resources and textbooks.

The lack of references in exam syllabuses to assessing historians' interpretations has tended to mean that this area has gone unchanged, with little engagement with new historiography as it emerges. This is despite significant shifts in the view of academics, most recently represented by Christopher Clark's magisterial The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914.

In Clark's book, the traditional villains of the piece - Austria-Hungary and imperial Germany - are re-evaluated, set against not "tiny, helpless Serbia" but an aggressive, posturing, expansionist Serbia, heavily influenced by a shadow government drawn from the intelligence services. The foreign policy of all the major powers, Clark argues, was conducted by competing mishmashes of factions, with misunderstanding so built into the system that the people apparently in charge of these nations watched in horror as they accidentally went to war.

The point here is not to argue that Clark is entirely correct - many would suggest that he is far too generous to Germany and, especially, to the troublesome Kaiser Wilhelm II. But his thesis does imply that the causes of the war were much more complicated than a narrative of imperialist states seeking expansion suggests.

Another of British Future's discoveries in the poll was that many British people want the contribution of Commonwealth countries to the war to be given greater prominence. This is clearly noble, but what applies to the outbreak also applies to the course of the war: it is profoundly ahistorical to view the contribution of non-European soldiers drawn from the empires of the colonial powers through the lens of a post-imperial narrative.

So, for example, there has been some excellent recent work by history educators on the experience of Muslim Tommies, many of whom came from the vast Indian Army. This entirely voluntary force served in theatres across the world during the war, including on the Western Front where Khudadad Khan became the first South Asian man to win a Victoria Cross for bravery.

By the end of the war, more than 100,000 Indians had been killed or wounded, and 13,000 had received medals of some sort, including 11 further Victoria Crosses.

Get the full story with a digital subscription to TES at

Sign up today and get your 1st 3 months free

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

John Blake

Latest stories