The Village is just the beginning, it seems.
The latest centenary news is that the BBC will be marking Armistice Day next year with a five-part mini-series drama called The Great War.This will apparently follow two soldiers, one English and one German, through the War. Which is a not unreasonable idea, though potentially a bit schematic.
But the heart sinks at this comment from the scriptwriter:
The series creator Tony Jordan, a former EastEnders lead writer, said he realised the decision to give equal weight to both perspectives might cause controversy, but dismissed any critics as ‘cretins’.
He said: ‘If there’s a moron in Tunbridge Wells who thinks that what we’re commemorating is beating the s*** out of the Germans, then all I can say is these are the kinds of people who made the war happen in the first place.
‘Back then, no one knew what a world war meant. It was all going to be over by Christmas and so all the kids dashed in – it was the equivalent of an iPod craze.’
Is he really going to present the volunteers of 1914 as utterly stupid?
The style of his comment suggests that it may be a hasty and poorly-considered response to some telephone provocation by Daily Mail reporters, but I think it’s worth sorting out a few of his misconceptions:
1. The idea that the War was caused by popular nationalism.
This really doesn’t hold water. The Kaiser was fairly indifferent to public opinion before the War. Britain’s entry was not caused by popular hatred of Germans; before 1914 there was a thriving German community living peacefully in London – most noticeably employed as waiters in many restaurants.
Rather than ‘popular nationalism caused the war’, it would be more accurate to say that the war created the popular nationalisms (which then made it difficult for democratic governments to arrange a compromise peace).
2. ‘No one knew what a world war meant.’
The Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) had shown clearly how vicious and destructive modern weapons could be. Everyone knew that any European war would be hard-fought and cruel. What was less expected was the trench stalemate which produced the long war of attrition. This was not the result of its being a ‘world’ war.
3. ‘It was all going to be over by Christmas.’
Did many people believe this? It’s quite difficult to find any commentator at the start of the war who takes this view. The Kaiser originally hoped that his Western campaign would be finished quickly, so that he could then turn towards a longer war with Russia, but after the Battle of the Marne (5-12 September) few on any side believed that there would be a quick solution to the problem.
4. ‘all the kids dashed in – it was the equivalent of an iPod craze’
The myth of mindless enthusiasm was thoroughly demolished by Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War. The great rush to enlist came not at the start of the War, but a few weeks in – when it became clear that the regular army had been in deep trouble after Mons, and when the Belgian refugees were arriving, with reports of atrocities. Enlistment was not a craze, but a principled response to the political situation. On the other hand, there were many who enlisted for economic reasons – especially those who lost their jobs in the slump at the start of the War.
Mr Jordan’s phrasing suggests that the volunteers of 1914 were mindless idiots, fighting for nothing. This is the kind of thing that happens when a writer of fiction starts from the premise that the War was meaningless and futile. To make sense of this, all participants have to be fools, rogues or dupes.
Mr Jordan could learn something from a lecture I found on the useful Centenary News site, in which historian Michael Nieberg discusses the outbreak of war, with the intent of taking the participants ‘out of the stupid box’ and showing how events resulted from considered, though sometimes unfortunate decisions. (You may want to skip over the conference formalities at the beginning of the video. The lecture proper starts about sixteen minutes in. )