In my last Blog, I mentioned that I was very much looking forward to guiding a mixed party of students from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the United States, France, and Germany around the First World War battlefields of the Somme valley. The trip, organised by Mr Simon Bendry, the Programme Director of the British Government’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, will coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Amiens next month; in addition, I will be joined by two fabulous guides, and personal friends, Mr Glenn Hearndon and Mr Allan Wood. I have worked with the Programme in various roles over the last four years, and feel privileged to have been in a position to tell children, and teachers, about the real experience of soldiers on the Western Front, rather than the mythology of mud, blood, and endless poetry.
Until 2014, I had never visited the Somme. I had read about it years before in School, both in English Literature and History, heard stories from my late grandmother of her father’s experiences in the infantry in the latter stages of the Battle, and been an avid fan of ‘Blackadder’. In the main, I found that my experience largely mirrored that of the teachers, albeit the older teachers, but that the students were to an even greater degree innocent of the experiences of veterans. The experience of my first trip encouraged me to learn more and I found myself increasingly turning towards the First World War in my Master’s and genealogical studies. Since then I have read avidly the work of writers like Jonathan Boff, Aimee Fox, Nick Lloyd, Gary Sheffield and Dan Todman and uncovered over a dozen forgotten relatives who fought in the First World War, many of whom fought on the Somme, and six who joined the almost one million Glorious Dead.
My greatest, if not the only, frustration throughout the four years of the centenary has been the way the First World War has been used by governments to further nationalistic mythology, encourage birth of a nation bullshit, and twist history to support current government policy. The truth of the matter is that the French bore the overwhelming majority of the Allied burden on the Western Front, the Royal Navy starved the German nation into submission over four years, the majority of casualties in Newfoundland Park on the 1st July 1916 were British, Canada had nothing to do with Newfoundland until 1949, the Australians at Gallipoli were in large part first generation British immigrants (including my relative Pte James Carr of 2nd Bn AIF killed at the Battle of Lone Pine in August 1915) and were heavily outnumbered as contributors by both the British and French contingents, at Le Hamel on 4th July 1918, the Australian infantry were heavily supported by French artillery, British aviation, armour, and planning, and American attachments. Monash was a great general but his miraculous 93 minutes was not his personal victory, or indeed the victory of Australia. Most battles on the Western Front were a coalition effort, no one had a monopoly on stupidity or genius, and every nation contributed to the operational success which would lead to the victories of the Hundred Days.
So far I’ve vented my spleen about the way in which governments have sought to create a mythology about the past in order to further a false mythology. The British are not immune from this sort of thing: in the Spring of 2016, David Cameron and President Hollande used the backdrop of the CWGC cemetery at Pozieres to convince the British people of the folly of Brexit and 2015’s Remembrance theme was set as the contribution of the Indian Army. The Indian Army contributed 1.7 million men to the British Indian Army in the First World War out of an available population of around 255 million ( 0.6% of the population) and suffered around 74,000 dead in all theatres. In comparison, my county regiment, the Durham Light Infantry, suffered over 12,000 dead throughout the War. My point in highlighting the ways in which governments have used the War to further current policies, is not to denigrate the contribution of any nation, but rather to highlight how important it is that we remember the War as an international and joint effort, without the nationalism.
When I take my groups around the Somme in August, and indeed thereafter, I will tell them of the heroism of their nation’s soldiers but I will remind them that what they think of as their nation is a complicated thing, that its efforts were as part of a coalition, that thoughts of exceptionalism are misplaced, and that they should beware the policies of their governments whose ‘remembrance’ is often little more than an excuse for social engineering… your mind is your own, use it!!
I apologise for the rant, and hope you have a lovely week wherever you are!