Many apologies for my prolonged absence, October turned into an incredibly busy month, not least because of the five battlefield tours, and over 250 people, with whom I travelled to Belgium and France in conjunction with UCL’s Centenary Battlefield Tour Programme. As always, the interest and enthusiasm of the teachers and students was infectious and humbling; it was, and remains, an absolute privilege to help tell the story of those men and women who fought for, and supported, the UK’s effort on the Western Front in the First World War.
Whilst telling the basic story of the War is relatively straightforward, ensuring the United Kingdom’s story does not overwhelm the stories of her allies and adversaries can be problematic. It is easy to unbalance the UK’s role in the War, but the British are often far more successful at achieving balance than others: the many Commonwealth countries, who encourage birth of the nation mythologies, our French partners who revel in exceptionalism, and the Germans who adopt a position of studied forgetfulness. In this Blog, I will look at two issues which I believe act to negatively impact on the telling of the story of the UK’s War: First, an arrogance that we can easily empathise with our ancestors without understanding their lives, and secondly, that in our efforts to tell the whole story we lose contact with the experience of the UK’s participants.
One of the tours I supported in early November concentrated not on the history of the Western Front, but rather on its literature. The tour used the work of poets like Owen and Sassoon and modern writers like Michael Morpurgo to try to get inside the head of the British Tommy. I believe it failed because it did not have an understanding of the nature of the subject. First, the writers used were unrepresentative of the bulk of the British Army, both Sassoon and Owen came from a privileged middle-class background and would have been horrified by conditions in the battle zone, a horror which would not have been shared by the ordinary Tommy, whose pre-War existence was often rude, brutal, and short. For many soldiers, their experience in the Army would have seen them better fed and looked after than they were in civilian life; while McConnachie Stew might turn our stomachs, and death at work might seem incredible today, to many soldiers of the First World War their rations represented a hearty meal and industrial injury and death were a common occurrence. Although authors like Morpurgo might like to categorise the volunteers of the War as victims, they were in fact trained and well-equipped soldiers; if we see them as victims they most certainly would not have seen them selves as such. If it is possible to describe the average experience of a British soldier of the First World War on the Western Front, and I am not convinced it is, it would probably be one in which a young man, unaccustomed to a regular wage, enjoyed decent food, copious entertainments, and the benefits of an outdoor life. Occasionally, he would be involved in combat, and indeed the fighting would be considered horrific to even the most experienced modern soldier, but to those who either never fought on the frontline or to those who came home (around 88%), it would probably have been, on balance, an overwhelmingly positive experience. No wonder then that at Field Marshal Earl Haig’s funeral in 1928 the streets filled with his former soldiers paying their respects to their commander. Clearly, if we are to limit our sources to writers and poets, we fail our ancestors through selective ignorance.
If we fail to understand the lives of the vast majority of our forebears, do we understand their place in the War? The First World War was war on a vast scale, it saw the mobilisation of 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, the death of nine million combatants and seven million civilians worldwide, and combined casualties in excess of 31 million military personnel. It was a war fought across the globe by Europeans and non-Europeans alike, indeed I have relatives who fought and died at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia. In terms of loss by far the most deadly campaign took place on the Eastern Front, but in terms of strategic importance it is the West that is most important. Strategically, the war at sea played the key role in the Entente victory, whilst operationally the British, French and American victories of 1918 put the result beyond doubt. In the West, the allied senior partner was France, her losses are significantly higher than those of the UK, and her influence on the war on the Western Front was absolutely pre-eminent. Britain’s role was dominated by her position as the leading sea power and as a substantial partner to the French on land in Europe, she also had an imperial role in Africa, the Middle East, and in the Orient. In the main, Britain’s efforts on the Western Front were conducted by British troops with some assistance from the Dominions.
Yesterday, the BBC highlighted the alleged oversight of 16,000 men and women from the Caribbean who volunteered to serve in the First World War with the intimation that this was a deliberate racial slur, it is not. All volunteers should be valued but we must retain a sense of proportion, the city of Manchester gave almost four times the number of Caribbean volunteers as dead, the total dead of British India roughly equate to the number of personnel mobilised in County Durham, the vast majority of Canadian soldiers were in fact first generation immigrants from the UK, and there were considerably more French troops at Gallipoli than Australians, a large number of whom were Pom immigrants. We must beware both reinforcing mythology and creating new myths. Last night at the Oxford Union, academic Professor Catriona Pennell stated that Remembrance across the Centenary had been selective, failing to recognise the experience beyond that of the white, male soldier. Whilst I admire her qualifications and scholarship, this is a crass remark. The vast majority of those who fought were white, and almost exclusively male, that is also true of the losses; notwithstanding that inconvenient truth, the UK Government chose 2015 to specifically mark the contribution of the BAME community and 2017 to similarly mark the contribution of women, I for one applaud these initiatives. Rather than neglecting the experience of the BAME community and women, this centenary has rather over-stated their contribution to the detriment of the ordinary Tommy; in effect, we celebrate women, the Indian Army in France, poets and sportsmen while in some corners of a foreign field the eternally remembered lay unvisited and forgotten.
It is Remembrance Day on Sunday, and coincidentally the centenary of the Armistice, as this four year centenary period draws to a close we should remember the ordinary Tommy who gave his life, not in pursuit of social engineering, an agenda, or his own perspective, but for his family, his mates, and his way of life. He is not us, we are not him, the past is another country, thank God they did things differently there.
All the best,