Michael Gove and patriotism

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.


  1. Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    You are right to expose Michael Morpurgo’s over-inflated claims for War Horse. The play is a fine and affecting piece of theatre but the original novel, aimed at children, is slight and simplistic. It is also a misjudgement of Tristram Hunt to invoke it as anything more important than this. However, you do not do justice to Hunt’s otherwise well-argued article. His references to Christopher Clark’s excellent ‘The Sleepwalkers’ suggest that he, unlike Mr Gove, is at least keeping abreast of recent research.

    Hunt makes the point that ‘the very same tensions [that gave rise to World War 1] re-emerged to such deadly affect in 1939’. One might also add that they triggered the Balkan conflicts of the late twentieth century.

    This surely should be considered when discussing the ‘futility’, or otherwise, of 1914-1918 – a war that changed much but which solved little.

    Mr Gove is correct in his assertion that ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ and ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ are essentially left wing; the latter fed off the former. But the two books which most influenced ‘OWALW’ ( Barbara Tuchman’s ‘August 1914’ and Alan Clark’s ‘The Donkeys’) provided more than enough evidence that the British High Command at the start of the war was riven with rivalry, pettiness and stupidity. One could just about make a case that Tuchman was ‘left-wing’ (although this has little meaning when applied to an American Estabishment historian) but surely the same can not be true of Alan Clark.

    Moreover, the impact of OWALW and its two prime sources (along with the adoption of Owen’s poetry in schools) in the 1960s can partly be explained by the concurrent threat of nuclear holocaust and the futile and wasteful Vietnam War.

    Let us pay attention to contexts, including ours, here, now, when considering how to commemorate the war. Only thus might we avoid the crass simplicities of Mr Gove.

    • Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      Maybe picking on Hunt’s one really silly comment was unfair, but I think he fudges his argument when citing The Sleepwalkers: ‘In Clark’s judgment, other nations were just as imperialistic as the Germans and any attempt at a First World War blame game is futile.’ Nobody disputes that other nations were imperialistic, jingoistic and often downright nasty. But it was the Germans who actually made the crucial decisions that led to the outbreak of war.
      It’s interesting that both Hunt and Richard Evans (on Newsnight last night) ascribe British victory to the tank. Yet tanks, while useful, were too few and too unreliable to have made the a decisive difference on the Western Front. Are these commentators maybe avoiding giving credit to any of the British Generals?

      • Alan Allport
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

        If any technological advance was decisive in winning the war in 1918, it was the vastly more sophisticated use of artillery. Tanks, I agree, had relatively little to do with it.

  2. Bill
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    I am not entirely clear in what way the war was not futile. None of the combatant powers achieved their initial war aims, with the possible exception of Japan. All wasted vast resources of both men and material. The British Empire fought to maintain its pre-eminence and ended much less powerful, although the King-Emperor did at least keep himself on a throne of sorts, unlike the other emperors involved (again, except Japan). The Germans were not the only government to make catastrophic decisions and, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out, they did have a genuine and justifiable fear of encirclement by the allied powers. They may also have had a justifiable expectation that Britain would remain at least partly neutral, given the lack of clarity in the messages coming from the British government in 1914. And the inherent futility of the war hardly undermines the intelligence of those who nevertheless chose to enlist, especially since the full depths of futility emerged relatively slowly.

    • Posted January 8, 2014 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

      My own suspicion would be that more were disillusioned by the peace than by the War itself. It was the failure of the 1920s to live up to wartime expectations that led many to retrospectively decide that the War had been futile.

      • Bill
        Posted January 9, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, George. given your “wholehearted opposition” to the view of the war as futile, do you question the validity of that disillusionment? All historical judgement is part of a retrospective decision after all.

    • Alan aallport
      Posted January 9, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      If Britain had not fought, the Germans quite likely would have defeated France in 1914 and been in a position to defeat Russia the following year. Several hundred years of attempting (successfully) to prevent one continental power from exercising military hegemony over the whole of Europe would have been at an end. IMHO that was a cause worth fighting for. That the Germans were in a position to attempt this once more was a failure of the postwar years, not the war itself.

      • Bill
        Posted January 9, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        The implication of that is that the Versailles settlement was not strong enough (or not enforced rigorously enough). I am not clear why it was unreasonable for any power to have military hegemony on land when the basis of British policy was military hegemony at sea.

      • Alan Allport
        Posted January 9, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        I think there’s a good argument that Versailles was both too harsh and not harsh enough – aggravating the Germans by mostly symbolic punishments (reparations, for instance, hardly any of which were ever actually paid) while doing little to prevent them from eventually seeking a violent revision of the peace settlement.

        The British in 1914 were faced with a decision: to fight or not to fight. It was a decision that was going to have consequences, for them and for others. Given the circumstances, I think they made the least bad choice. That the war they entered into would have many ugly and unforeseeable repercussions was no more their fault than the atomic bomb was Neville Chamberlain’s.

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