Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Re-evaluating the First World War

Today’s Metro (A freebie newspaper for those travelling by public transport) recommends this website on the First World War. I’ve not had a chance to fully explore it yet, but it looks both interesting and comprehensive.

I’d always found the first world war a lot more inaccessible than the second, until I read Gordon Corrigan’s Mud, Blood and Poppy Cock last year. Corrigan is a former major in the Royal Ghurkha Rifles, and his is not a book which clouds itself in cold academic objectivity. It’s a passionate denunciation of the distortion of history that the First World War became, accompanied by an old soldier’s dryly witty asides, especially about the perfidy and vanity of politicians. A subject all to topical in the light of this governments attitude to defence commitments and cutbacks.

Corrigan deconstructs, one by one, the myths that have arisen about the war. As he says,

The popular British view of the Great War is of a useless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of patriotic volunteers, flung against barbed wire and machine guns by stupid generals who never went near the font line. When these young men could do no more, they were hauled before kangaroo courts, given no opportunity to defend themselves, and then taken out and shot at dawn. The facts are that over 200 British generals were killed, wounded or captured in the war, and of the five million men who passed through the British Army, 2300 were sentenced to death by military courts, of whom ninety percent were pardoned.

In fact just 346 men were shot, representing 1 in 14,500 soldiers. Many of those shot were either officers or senior NCOs, or had previously been pardoned for the same offence.

Corrigan says of Haig,

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, far from being the ‘butcher and bungler’ of popular belief, was the man who took a tiny British army, and expanded it, trained it and prepared it until it was the only Allied army capable of defeating the Germans militarily in 1918.

I last saw my late uncle nine months ago (he died in June) and we discussed the book quite thoroughly. Himself a servant of the crown for 26 years, he told me that his father in law wouldn’t hear a word said against Haig until the end of his life. The most evocative book I have read on the subject since was Forgotten Voices, edited by Max Arthur, a compilation of the memories of old soldiers, recorded in the 1970s, many of whom held views similar to my uncle’s father-in-law.

War is inevitably a product of the failure of politicians. Given the current state of the world, I think it’s right that this period of our history should be re-evaluated by historians.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Historian Paddy Griffith, for one, has made some of those arguments. Check out his web page on The Great War.

10:42 am  

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