The first casualty: truth

8th November 2013 at 00:00
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

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.

Taking a closer look

These are powerful stories that deserve to be told, and they certainly give the lie to the smears of the Far Right that Islam is inherently and eternally opposed to British values, and other such nonsense. There is something immensely stirring in the vision of tens of thousands of men travelling thousands of miles to fight, and sometimes die, beneath the flag of a nation they had never seen because they believed it represented something worthwhile.

Nevertheless, these stories should not be treated as cheap parlour tricks to solve issues of modern citizenship, as in some of the examples of lessons on this topic I have seen. The complexities of these men's motivations deserve as much respect as those of any other historical figure; Khan's birthplace is in what is now Pakistan, but his story and his service predates that nation by a third of a century.

The service experience of European soldiers ought also to be re-examined. Few British children can have made it through school without at least one English or history lesson on "the war poets", the teacher sonorously intoning Owen's immortal phrase, "you would not tell with such high zestto children ardent for some desperate glorythe old Lie; Dulce et Decorum estPro patria mori".

This bitter anger at the futility of it all is sold as the authentic voice of the front-line soldier. Except it probably wasn't the majority view at all. Martin Stephen, a former high master of St Paul's private school in London, who completed a doctorate on the war poets, interviewed hundreds of First World War veterans in the 1970s and found not one who had a copy of work by the famous war poets or endorsed the views in that poetry.

In fact, Stephen suggests, many young men serving on the Western Front were happy with their lot. He found records of a Norfolk farmhand, gone to Flanders from an area of England that had suffered famines before the war, who was amazed at the endless supply of hard tack - army rations of dry bread. More days were spent behind the line than in the trenches; days spent in French villages where young, brave men in uniforms were feted, well-fed and popular with the ladies.

Many of the men Stephen interviewed were outraged by the patronising attitude of later generations that they had been mere cannon fodder, ignorant of the causes of the war and maltreated. They were clear why they had fought and satisfied that the war had been worthwhile. Nor had their experience been as unremittingly dreadful as some historians and polemicists claimed: 80 per cent of enlisted men came home again, and although most communities in the country bore some loss, there are villages in England where there is no war memorial because every man returned.

Even one of the most defining images of the war, John Singer Sargent's enormous canvas Gassed (referenced in Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est), is more complex than is often assumed. The painting depicts the victims of a poison gas attack stumbling blindly in a line, each one with his hands on the shoulders of the man in front and his eyes bound in cloth. But the men in the picture are not blind: the cloth they wear over their eyes was designed to help them recover their sight, as the majority of them would go on to do.

Stephen concluded that the Owen and Sassoon view took hold not because it represented real Tommies but because it reflected the shock of a middle class unused to war. Taking Owen as the "average" British soldier is like assuming that the Guardian letters page of 2003 provides an authentic representation of life in the armed forces in Iraq.

Lions led by donkeys?

Men did die in the war, and the blame for this is most often laid at the feet of the generals: the donkeys leading lions. Perhaps the lasting popular image of this is from the UK television series Blackadder Goes Forth, most memorably Stephen Fry's portrayal of General Melchett as a thinly disguised Field Marshal Douglas Haig.

In one scene, Melchett's battle plan is described as "getting the infantry to climb out of their trenches and walk very slowly towards the enemy". Although funny and, in the devastating final moments of that series, painfully poignant, this does not stand up to historical scrutiny.

Much of the negative image of Haig and his generals was created by a small group of historians, beginning with Basil Liddell Hart, who served under Haig in the war but later turned on him. Liddell Hart's haughty disdain for his former commander had a profound influence on the left-wing agitprop of the 1960s, and the myths of imperialist war and ignorant generals were grist to the mill.

This view has been challenged, and challenged strongly. Gary Sheffield wrote Forgotten Victory more than a decade ago, comprehensively deconstructing the myths of the Great War. Yet the group of actors, writers and musicians behind the No Glory in War campaign seeking to influence the centenary celebrations can still get significant play with their views, unchanged from that 1960s liberal consensus. When Brian Eno says that the war was "a total disaster that was unnecessary and destroyed a generation", he speaks for many, even if the historical record simply does not support such a claim.

Haig was an odd man whose difficulties in communicating with his staff led to him receiving over-optimistic reviews of intelligence and failing to convince his own commanders to follow his instructions in full. But to argue that he threw away men's lives without regard is narrow and ahistorical.

In the first place, the generals of the First World War had mostly been trained for colonial service, serving king and country thousands of miles overseas in places where ammunition was relatively plentiful but new soldiers took months to arrive; they were instinctively cautious with their men's lives. The reason the infantry was asked to walk across the Somme battlefield was to ensure that they arrived at the German lines together and thus were not slaughtered one by one as they climbed into the enemy trenches.

It is worth remembering also that hundreds of thousands of British Army veterans turned out at Haig's funeral to pay their respects; they did not see him as a butcher.

What Haig and the other commanders lacked was experience with the new weapons of war. These increased the killing power of an individual soldier to such an extent that offensive tactics that had previously been relatively safe became lethal: jogging in a pack across an open field in the face of machine gun fire is quite a different proposition from doing it against single-cartridge Martini-Henry rifles.

Haig was slow to appreciate this in the days of the Somme, but although that battle looms large in the collective memory of the conflict, it is not the defining example of British tactics and strategy. By the war's end, the British Army was one of most sophisticated war machines ever developed, deploying tanks, aircraft and extraordinarily accurate artillery fire in support of precise infantry advances that smashed German lines. Even on the Somme, more German soldiers were killed or wounded than British ones. In 1918, the German high command advised the German government to surrender because they knew they had been defeated militarily.

The First World War was an infinitely more complex historical phenomenon than British popular memory makes it. Instead of being approached with caution and examined - and learned from - as a multilayered event, it has become almost a "fixed point" in the historical calendar, a vision of war not as it was but as we think it should be taught.

This is neither desirable nor wise: it cheapens the contributions of those who served in full knowledge of what their service meant; it makes generals who may have been slow to learn but were ultimately highly effective into callous villains; and it substitutes an easy, allegedly historical lesson for a much harder set of truths.

The centenary of the First World War must not be a chauvinistic cavalcade but nor should it be a pacifist's parade. We should hope for an open, honest debate about the multifaceted meanings of this war, the diversity of the experiences of those who fought in it, and what lessons we can draw from it today. The rattle of the machine guns has long since fallen silent, but a fierce contest between popular memory and historical evidence is still taking place in the trenches of Flanders, on the sands of Gallipoli and on the alpine slopes of the Austro-Italian war.

Because of that battle, we should hope that this centenary leads to a profound public conversation about the First World War, challenging received wisdoms and raising uncomfortable truths. If it does, that may be the most suitable commemoration of the fallen we can make.

John Blake teaches history at a comprehensive school in London and is chairman of Labour Teachers


As the anniversary of the beginning of the First World War approaches, many teachers will be planning to cover the conflict in their classrooms, possibly going above and beyond what is required in the syllabus or curricula.

TES Resources blog has published an article, timed to coincide with this weekend's Remembrance Sunday, which considers whether primary teachers should teach the history of the war, going beyond the themes of commemoration and paying tribute to the soldiers who died. It looks at how they might address the scale and devastation of the conflict without romanticising it or causing distress to students.

For secondary teachers, there is a discussion of how English and history departments can work together to provide additional context and deeper understanding of the war for their students.

Both blogs are accompanied by a video collection and lesson plans, activities and worksheets, all shared by TES Connect users and partners. You can find both blogs and the associated resources at www.tesconnect.comresourcesblog


In the build-up to the conflict's centenary, TES Connect is planning to curate what we hope will become the world's largest collection of online teaching resources dedicated to the First World War.

If you would like to contribute one of your resources to this effort, the process is very easy to follow. Simply register with the TES Connect website, sign in and add your resource, being sure to tag it to the correct year groups, subject areas and topic.

We will be highlighting the best user-generated content throughout the centenary to make sure that however you decide to mark the anniversary of the First World War, the resources that you need will be available for you, for free, on

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