Saturday, January 04, 2014

Michael Gove and the First World War

Much though it pains me to admit it, there is some foundation to the remarks made by Michael Gove yesterday (in The Daily Mail, to which I shall not link). The view of the Western Front presented in Blackadder Goes Forth does indeed include a number of inaccurate myths. In particular the view presented of the general staff, insane and with little feeling for the soldiers they sent to the slaughter, is unfair on the real Captain Darlings and General Melchetts. Staff officers often worked themselves into a state of nervous exhaustion, and many tried to get posted back to the front, feeling that this was the proper place for them. Fifty-eight generals were killed as a result of combat (Richard Holmes, The Western Front, pp. 117-18). 

Nor is it the case that everyone saw the war as futile and pointless, either in 1918 or now. As Hew Strachan notes (The First World War, p. 321), it wasn't seen as pointless in Belgium in 1918.

Where Gove is wrong is in his politicization of the debate, in his lack of respect for those who disagree with him, in his promotion of an equally simplistic view of the war as a heroic struggle, in his support of the government's plans to commemorate the First World War, which are dangerously close to celebration, and in his linkage of all this to his educational "reforms", which seem intended to prepare young people for a world of imperial heroics, a world that no longer exists.


Unknown said...

It's Gove's attack on lefties that rankles when maybe he should look to his own. One of the most influential books shaming 'The Donkeys' was written by arch-Thatcherite darling, Alan Clark. Meanwhile, hardcore lefties like Peter Hart pour nothing but scorn on the Blackadder view. This is all looking-glass politics. Gove is a shit.

Tony Keen said...

Indeed. I should have mentioned both Clark and Max Hastings as rightwingers whose views do not chime with Gove's.

T Guy said...

While I have a certain sympathy for what I understand are Gove's views on History, he really should keep his nose out of the details. Professional Historians (working in Oxford, Cambridge, etc.) have been pouring books on the Origins of this war out virtually since it ended, with, it appears, no resolution as to the reasons it began; it is only relatively recently that they have turned their attention to the Course rather than the 'Cause' of the war and The Blackadder Thesis has been subjected to examination. I am willing to bet a tenner that Gove is not up to date on all the Literature.

Tony Keen said...

I should add that I am not in the slightest against suing Blackadder as a teaching tool, as long as it is employed as emblamatic of the popular perception, that can then be deconstructed.

Gavin Burrows said...

This is the first time I've come across this post, please excuse my tardiness Tony!

I wouldn't doubt that the 'Blackadder' take on the First World War is in very many ways inaccurate. Which is hardly surprising, of course. It's a popular satire, not an academic paper. If I was to criticise it I'd start with its lack of acknowledgement of any refusal to fight among soldiers, which was so prominent a factor in its ending. Instead participants are presented either as enthusiastic, bright-but-dim Tommies or individual schemers and malingerers. If it was intended as the "left-wing propaganda" of Gove's imagining, it was manifestly a failure. But then again that's not what it was in the first place.

Mostly, I don't think it makes much sense to frame Gove's comments around the First World War itself, even if that's his ostensible subject. As many people commented at the time, they've got more to do with him bigging up his position as a future contender for leadership. Which is part of a general theme. These "debates" say a lot more about contemporary discourse than anything about the past. As I ranted about here, I was much more concerned by Jeremy Paxman's absurd, one-sided and xenophobic so-called 'documentary' series than any headline-baiting fulminations made by Gove.

It now seems Andrew Mitchell never actually uttered the infamous words "best know your place". But that's effectively the substance of what Gove and Paxman are saying. To which we could add myriad other examples. The Snowdon revelations, for example, have brought the reaction that we should simply trust our betters and that anyone who says otherwise is a "traitor".

If I did have any particular interest in the causes of the War, I'd be asking how much it was fallen into through admin error (mismanagement, miscalculations and so on) and how much the great powers had painted themselves into the proverbial corner over previous years. It's almost certainly a bit of both, but I'd have no clear idea what the proportions are.