The Myth of the War

Whenever a writer needs an image that suggests doomed struggle, incompetent leadership and meaningless slaughter, he reaches for a historical parallel – and the one he always finds is the Great War. Andrew Gimson, in a rather well-written article in today’s Telegraph, pretends to have sympathy with the poor bloody infantry of Labour back-benchers after the recent local elections:

And it is true that there are few predicaments less enviable than crouching at the bottom of a trench with Mr Brown, waiting for him to launch one of his botched attacks.

Even Mr Brown’s courage becomes, in these circumstances, a liability: he leads his troops over the top at the very time when the only sensible thing is to sit tight and devise a new plan of attack.

Any Labour MP who watched Mr Brown’s performance on the Andrew Marr show yesterday morning will have been driven to the conclusion that the only sensible thing to do with this Prime Minister is to shoot him in the back. For if Labour’s situation looked bad before Mr Brown mounted this operation, it looked a lot worse afterwards.

There was a pitiful absence of any element of surprise: Mr Brown launched his offensive long after dawn and everyone could see him stumbling, revolver in hand, towards the enemy lines. He was a sitting duck.

This is vivid and enjoyable writing, but the historical parallel has just a couple of flaws:

  • Whatever the morale of the British Army during the Great War, and it obviously varied according to the situation, the morale of the other combatant armies was usually worse. The British Army was the only major force never to undergo large-scale mutinies.
  • The British Army actually became rather good at developing new tactics to cope with the conditions of trench warfare.
  • Mr Gimson wants to present Brown as a hopeless donkey – but is he a General plotting incompetent strategy or a front-line officer having to carry out a hopeless raid? He can’t be both, surely.
  • In the end, it was largely the actions of the British army that won the war for the Allies during the last hundred days of fighting in 1918.

What Mr Gimson refers us to is the Blackadder version of the War, a cultural myth so powerful that mere historical analysis stands no chance against it. It is a myth that encapsulates modern feelings about War, about class, and about the folly of leaders. There is a lot to be said for the values that the myth encapsulates.

The myth is now such accepted wisdom that there is probably little use pointing out that Oh What a Lovely War is mostly inaccurate, or that Pat Barker’s novels tend to be a bit on the fanciful side. People believe what they need to believe, and they’ll go on believing it, usually.

Yet anyone who really delves into the period discovers that the facts are stranger and more complicated than themyth. And discovering about them is fun.

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