Michael Gove writes in an interesting Daily Mail article:
Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.
I’d strongly agree with the first twelve words of that sentence (it’s what this blog is mostly about, if you hadn’t noticed) but I wish he hadn’t written the rest of it, which was the bit picked up by the Daily Mail editor puffing the piece, and his given a chance for Tristram Hunt to do some Gove-bashing in the Observer today.
Probably some people do have a sweeping compulsion to denigrate all sorts of things, but it doesn’t do to impute dark psychological motives to a whole swathe of your intellectual opponents.
I wholeheartedly oppose the futile war hypothesis (which seems to me to cast the average volunteer as very stupid) but it would be dishonest to deny that very good history has been written by those arguing for that view. The war looks different according to the angle you view it from – which is, I suppose, what makes it such a continually fascinating subject.
Douglas Jerrold, writing against the ‘school of futility’ war books of the late twenties, made this point well. Since the individual in modern war is only a small piece of a pattern larger than he can comprehend, concentration on one person’s subjective experience inevitably produces an impression of futility, because ‘to the individual personally, all operations of war are meaningless and futile.’ The operations of modern warfare make meaningful sense not at the level of the individual, the company, the battalion, or even the division, but the army.
To the infantryman who saw his best friends slaughtered in an attack that achieved little or nothing, the whole business must often have seemed no more than a colossal waste, but there was a bigger picture. Balancing these and other viewpoints is the job of the historian.
It is limiting, too, to limit the motivation of soldiers to patriotism. There were many reasons for fighting (and we must never forget those who enlisted in 1914 because their jobs had disappeared in the economic recession at the start of the war). The indications seem to be, though, that, while some were simply rallying to the British flag, the great surge in recruiting came with the revelations of German atrocities in Belgium. The brutal invasion of that neutral country affected Britain in something of the same way that 9/11 would shock the west several decades later. It seemed an attack on civilisation itself.
Perhaps the British were naïve to be so shocked, but most Britons had never been close to war, as Kipling reminded them in 1914:
It is almost as impossible to make a people who have never known invasion realize what invasion is as it is to make a man realize the fact of his own death. The nearest a man can come in imagination to his own death is the idea of lying in a coffin with his eyes shut listening to the pleasant things he thinks his neighbours are saying about him; and the nearest that a people who have never known conquest or invasion can come to the idea of conquest or invasion is a hazy notion of going about their usual work and paying their taxes to tax collectors who will perhaps talk with a slightly foreign accent. Even attempted invasion does not mean that; it means riot and arson and disorder and bloodshed and starvation on a scale that a man can scarcely imagine to himself.
It was the Germans’ shooting of civilian hostages and punitive destruction of historic buildings (and the wilder – but sometimes accurate – stories that came from distraught refugees) that motivated the nation to take the War very seriously indeed. Patriotism came into it for many, but the almost universally accepted sense that Britain was fighting for the right was what made support for this war so much greater than that for the Boer War twelve years before.
And while on the subject of patriotism, I do think that it is wrong to call sincere critics of the War effort unpatriotic; if you genuinely believe that your country is fighting a futile or misguided war, then patriotism should lead you to say so. I’d say that Sassoon was probably politically naïve in his call for a negotiated peace in 1917, but I do not think he was unpatriotic in doing so.
Meanwhile, Michael Gove is right to say that there are many misleading myths. Tritram Hunt, for example, cites the sentimental fantasy of War Horse as ‘likely to generate the kind of reflective understanding of the meaning and memory of the First World War that its history so desperately deserves.’ Oh dear.