Collective memory and the First World War

A. W. Purdue on the battles among academics over the conflict’s place in history

June 26, 2014

Source: Getty

Although the existence of widespread enthusiasm for war in August 1914 is now considered to be largely a myth, opinion rallied behind the war effort

As the centenary of the summer crisis of 1914 and Britain’s declaration of war on Germany has approached, another war has been taking place among historians, commentators and politicians: a battle for the national memory of the First World War.

It started with arguments as to how the war should be commemorated. Should it be in an ecumenical, liberal and Europe-friendly way that saw the conflict as simply tragic and senseless carnage, which destroyed a European civilisation; or in a manner that mixed recognition of the self-sacrifice of British and Empire servicemen with pride in their eventual victory?

Controversy then moved on to the reasons for British involvement, the justice of the Allied cause and the quality of the nation’s military and political leadership. Should we, in paying tribute to the million British soldiers who lost their lives, salute the steadfastness of men who did their duty to their country, or see those who fought as victims, befuddled by jingoistic propaganda and led to slaughter by incompetent generals and purblind politicians? Central to the debate is how Britain became involved in a war that it could well have kept out of and whether joining it was in the national interest.

Few in Britain in late June or July 1914 thought that the assassination of an archduke, in a corner of Europe that most of the public had never heard of, could lead to British participation in a major conflict. During apparently peaceful summer months, however, events moved slowly but ineluctably and, by 4 August, Britain was at war.

There was, and there remains, no constitutional requirement for parliamentary approval before a declaration of war by a British government. Nevertheless, the process by which a parliamentary democracy with a prime minister and Cabinet responsible to a Parliament elected on a mass franchise came to declare war in 1914 constitutes an astonishing sequence of events. Not only was there no vote in Parliament but the decision to go to war was taken largely because of arrangements and promises made secretly long before, of which most of the Cabinet and nearly all MPs were ignorant.

From 1906 onwards, British foreign policy, under the direction of the foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey and egged on by a clique in the Foreign Office, departed from its previous policy of neutrality in European affairs and reliance on naval power for the security of Britain and the Empire, and moved towards a continentalist position, marked by suspicion of German ambitions. Secret agreements made in talks between the British and French general staff in 1905-06 and 1911, and in naval pacts with the French in 1912 and the Russians in May 1914, have been seen as providing an explanation for what followed in August 1914, yet Grey was able to tell the Cabinet in July 1914 that there was no obligation for Britain to go to the aid of France and Russia in the event of a war between them and Germany. He was technically correct, in that Britain was not party to any alliance, except that with Japan. The ententes with France and Russia were not alliances: both had been made to settle disputes and avoid conflicts between the signatories, and neither had an anti-German text. Why, then, when as late as 1 August there was a majority led by Lloyd George within the Cabinet against any British involvement, did Britain declare war on Germany?

In this centennial year, many of the arguments that split the Asquith Cabinet as it belatedly turned its attention to the unfolding European drama have been dusted down and recycled: those of the Liberal Imperialist group led by Asquith and Grey who, together with Churchill, argued that Britain was duty bound to support Russia and France and could not afford to let Germany become all-powerful in Europe; and those of the radical anti-war group, headed until the last moment by Lloyd George, whose view was that Britain should keep out of a war in which its interests were not concerned and should not become aligned with autocratic Russia.

The Cabinet discussions were re-enacted in March in BBC Two’s 37 Days, a three-part drama dealing with the period between the assassination at Sarajevo and Britain’s declaration of war. Viewers were supposed eyewitnesses as the Liberal government edged towards conflict and French, German and Russian ambassadors were confined to waiting rooms as the Cabinet squabbled, the uncertainty of the outcome to the participants at the time sustaining the drama.

Grey, who many accuse of giving conflicting signals to Germany, got off lightly, but the exchanges between the politicians raised the important question as to whether the outcome of a declaration of war was due to international issues or to the internal tensions of British politics. Was Lloyd George’s critical volte-face during these Cabinet meetings the result of anguished moral deliberation or a calculation of where his political advantage lay? Was the government’s decision to declare war inspired by German aggression or done out of fear that otherwise the Liberal government might fall?

The historians had already begun their debate before the journalists and commentators got involved. Max Hastings was among the first on to the literary field of battle with his Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (2013), which argues that Britain had little choice but to join in a necessary war to stop an autocratic and expansionist Germany from dominating Europe.

Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University, who, in his highly influential The Pity of War (1999), had argued that there was no compelling reason for British involvement, was quick to take on Hastings. In February, the two transferred their differing views to the television screen: Hastings produced a programme called The Necessary War, which was carefully crafted to support his view and included comments from historians who agreed with it; while Ferguson, in a programme entitled The Pity of War, gave an illustrated lecture after which he, rather bravely, debated with a number of historians, many of whom disagreed with him. At the heart of the dispute was the question of German motives and war aims and contrasting counterfactual scenarios as to what would have been the result of Britain’s standing apart from the war and a consequent German victory over France. “Dire,” said Hastings; “not that bad,” said Ferguson, positing a European customs union dominated by Germany – much like what we’ve got today, but with a stronger Britain that had not been weakened by the war.

Crowd of soldiers and civilians during WWI

Which side one agrees with in the debates of the Cabinet in 1914 or between the historians in 2014 depends much upon one’s view of imperial Germany and its aims. For the past 50 years, the historical consensus has posited a Germany bent upon war, a thesis much influenced by the German historian Fritz Fischer, whose work – especially Griff nach der Weltmacht (Grasping for World Power) (1961) – has been seen as crucial in overthrowing the judgement of many previous historians who saw the outbreak of war as largely a tragic accident for which no nation was solely culpable.

The Germany of 1914 was a conservative monarchy and far from a military dictatorship, but did its leaders make a conscious decision to plunge Europe into war, believing that their enemies were getting stronger and that now was the time to strike before it was too late?

The dominance of the view of Germany’s responsibility was reiterated by David Fromkin’s trope in Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? (2004), when, in Agatha Christie mode, the professor of international relations, history and law at Boston University had the suspects summoned to the library so that the accusing finger of the detective could point at General von Moltke, chief of the German general staff.

The view that Europe stumbled into war has, however, received powerful and recent support from Christopher Clark, professor of modern European history at the University of Cambridge, in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2013), while Sean McMeekin in The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011) has seen Russia as the villain. (Clark will present Month of Madness, a series on the July crisis of 1914, on BBC Radio 4 from 23 to June.)

The debate over the causes of the war will continue to be fiercely contested but, of course, it was the views of the current education secretary on how we should regard Britain’s war, and indeed how its history should be taught, that raised the temperature.

In an article for the Daily Mail in January, Michael Gove regretted that attitudes towards the war had been influenced by Joan Littlewood’s agitprop musical Oh What a Lovely War! (1963) and the TV comedy Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), both of which had caricatured the war as a futile waste of the lives of soldiers led by incompetent generals. Gove’s targets were not so much the productions themselves, but the way their interpretation of the war was being imposed on schoolchildren by teachers. Gove had a good point, for there can be little doubt that public understanding of the First World War is often shallow and awry, especially when it comes to the question of popular support for the war and the relations between military commanders and the soldiers under their command, but Gove’s further suggestion that schools should be teaching a more patriotic account of the war inflamed political opponents and critics such as the Labour shadow education minister Tristram Hunt and Richard J. Evans, Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge.

Much of the impetus for the dramatic and comedic productions that Gove singled out came from the book The Donkeys (1961) by the politician and historian Alan Clark. It is ironic that far-leftist Littlewood owed a debt to Clark, who was later a junior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet; Gove, who wrote that “many of the new analyses emerging challenge existing left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders”, would find it difficult to portray Clark as being on the Left. The concept of the generals as “donkeys” was inspired by a remark supposedly made by the Kaiser or perhaps General Ludendorff, although no one has come up with an exact provenance. Clark’s book mercilessly portrayed British generals on the Western Front – and in particular Field Marshal Douglas Haig – as incompetent and callous leaders who consigned their men to needless deaths.

Just as this portrayal grew in influence, military historians were revising the history of the British commanders’ handling of the war and assessing it in a more favourable light, although few went as far as John Terraine, whose doughty defence of Haig in the book Douglas Haig: the Educated Soldier (1963) cast his subject in an almost heroic light.

The new military history, although rarely uncritical, was eventually to overthrow the “donkeys” view of British generals and reveal it as an unfair caricature that neglected the enormous problems facing men who had to revise tactics in the face of the rapid technical changes in the nature of warfare, and failed to appreciate the achievements of the British army in 1918.

There is little evidence that soldiers despised their senior officers or regarded them as “donkeys”, and the number of high-ranking British officers killed – 78 generals, from brigadiers upwards, lost their lives in action – belies the myth that all generals spent their time quaffing champagne in chateaux. A gap opened up between the popular image of the war and the work of historians that has continued to this day.

The view of the war taken by Alan Clark and popularised subsequently by productions such as Oh What a Lovely War! has been massively influential, but it represents more the cultural and intellectual outlook of the 1960s than that of those who fought in the war, and it is profoundly ahistorical. Probably only a minority of teachers employ the hackneyed approach he was deriding, but Gove was correct in thinking that teaching about the war should be informed by recent historical writing and provide a balanced depiction of the military record.

Seated WWI soldier hand drawing signs

The same applies to discussion of the public’s response to the war at the time and to the contrast between the notion that support for it was somehow imposed by a war-mongering Establishment and works that stress popular support for it. Although the existence of widespread enthusiasm for war in early August 1914 is now considered to be largely a myth, opinion in Britain, as indeed in most belligerent nations, rallied behind the war effort and remained there, despite the enormous casualties and civilian hardships. Enthusiasm dipped as the war dragged on, and after the failed offensives of the Somme and Passchendaele, but determination to achieve victory persisted and political groups opposed to the war got nowhere.

Debate over how those who fought in the war viewed it and how the history of the war should be taught has led, inevitably, to argument about the value of the war poets as historical sources.

A contrast is often drawn between poetry written at the beginning of the war and that written towards the end of it, and it has become almost axiomatic to see Rupert Brooke’s poems, particularly The Soldier, as an expression of naive patriotism, while the work of poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, which expressed bitter disillusionment, has come to be seen as representative of soldiers’ views after the experience of war.

It was the redoubtable TV interviewer and author of Great Britain’s Great War (2013) Jeremy Paxman who raised the question of the way the war poets were often used in teaching about the First World War, not only as important poets but also as evidence for what soldiers thought.

“All that is taught is about the pointless sacrifice,” he told a conference of teachers in London in March. “It’s not helpful to see the whole thing through the eyes of poetry.” His views seemed to tune in with Gove’s attack and became part of the wider controversy. Soon, Hastings waded in, arguing that “poetry is no substitute for history”. He was, of course, right, but poetry is part of history and, at the very least, the poets do provide an insight into the angry despair of some well-educated officers – for nearly all the high-profile poets were officer class – at the horrors of a war in which victory remained elusive for so long.

John Sutherland, emeritus Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London, in a perceptive article in The Times in March titled “Keep teaching the war poets – including the neglected ones”, pointed out that there was one exception: Isaac Rosenberg, son of a Jewish refugee and brought up in the East End of London. “He clearly loved the Britain which had taken him in and was prepared to die for it,” Sutherland wrote, which Rosenberg did in April 1918. Owen and Sassoon, too, were prepared, despite their reservations, to return to the Front and Owen died just before the Armistice.

It does not detract from the quality of the works of the war poets or the honesty of their reactions to the experience of war to point out that their views were far from typical of those of most British soldiers, whether officers, non-commissioned officers or ordinary soldiers. Military historian Peter Hart’s 1918: A Very British Victory (2008) makes extensive use of oral history archives that reveal soldiers’ attitudes in a very different light. Only a small section of the elite read Sassoon and Owen. It was Brooke who remained the best-known war poet throughout the 1920s with his 1914 and Other Poems continuing to achieve massive sales, while vast numbers of ex-servicemen joined the Royal British Legion founded by Field Marshal Haig.

A gap of several generations separates early 21st-century British society from the Britain that fought a century ago, and many find it difficult to understand how soldiers and civilians on both sides continued to endure and support their nations’ causes through and after the war. The young men who fought and died were undoubtedly tougher, harder and more patriotic than their modern successors and Paxman pointed to this in terms that were, probably deliberately, controversial. He said that a conflict such as the First World War could not happen in today’s “materialistic, self-obsessed, hedonistic” society because of the decline of the traditional notion of “duty”. Certainly it was the call of duty that made public schoolboys and men from mining villages volunteer in the first months of the war and continue to fight as the death toll mounted.

The desire to grieve for and remember the dead or the “fallen” was, after relief that the war was over, the salient reaction in Britain in 1918, as in most of the ex-combatant nations, but this was not incompatible with satisfaction at victory and the two feelings coexisted and are reified in the vast number of memorials erected in the post-war years. Later history may have qualified that satisfaction, but it would be an odd nation that omitted it and the achievements of its Armed Forces from its memory of what was, for those who lived through it, the “Great War”.

Just as the war that began in August 1914 was not to be over by Christmas, the battle for its memory will rumble on. For the next four years, the media will examine, commemorate or bewail as, one after another, the centenaries of the campaigns and battles come along and historians and commentators fight their own long war for its place in history.

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