If you ask most people in Britain today for their views on the first world war, they tell you that it was a futile holocaust in which our nation’s brave and disillusioned young men were herded into a hell of mud and machine-gun fire by incompetent products of the English public schools. Executions for cowardice were a daily occurrence.
Fairly or unfairly, they will cite such various sources as Ben Elton’s Blackadder Goes Forth, Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and sundry articles by Max Hastings and others.
This is the modern myth. Only a few question it: war buffs obsessed with a local regiment, with weapons and medals perhaps, and a well established though relatively small group of historical scholars of which Dan Todman, the author of this book, is one.
The theme of The Great War: Myth and Mystery is the development of today’s myth and why it is completely dominant, despite, in recent years, a wealth of first-rate historical research. The fact is that the generals were not all incompetent; that it is often forgotten how the British army achieved an overwhelming victory in the summer and autumn of 1918; that British executions for cowardice and desertions were fairly rare and death sentences frequently set aside; that German military dominance of the Channel ports posed a threat to Britain’s imperial lifelines — of vital interest to us at that time; that most of the five million British soldiers who took part survived; and that British losses were absolutely less than those of the French, German and Russian, and, relative to population, than those of the Italians.
The modern myth rests of course on an element of truth; no account of the first world war presents a pretty picture; but the myth is a distortion, preferred because it is simple, democratic and unqualifiedly anti-war. As such, Todman recognises, it carries a far more powerful charge than any more sober historical analysis.
Attempts today such as I witnessed earlier last year –— to try to get, for example, English literature scholars to agree over a seminar table with historians on the ‘truth about the war’ — are doomed to failure, even though the ‘historians’ truth’ is hardly less terrible.
What Todman points out is that the modern myth has been many years in the making, and it is not merely a creation of the later Sixties, when establishment notions of empire, authority and tradition were apparently overthrown. In this thorough and stimulating survey, he takes the reader through the minutiae of changing attitudes over the past 80 years.
Immediately after the Great War a large population of the bereaved required a quite different myth of the war as a noble struggle, which, at a great price, freed mankind from tyranny. Anybody who had dismissed the war as ‘futile’ in 1920 would have been chased down the street by a furious mob.
Many of the soldiers returning from the Front took the same line, and felt, too, that their experience had been valuable personally; but others, as the decade wore on, felt disappointed about the postwar world, and bitter about the dislocation of their lives. There were the beginnings of an active debate, pursued also in war literature; and this continued among those who had grown up in the shadow of their fathers’ and uncles’ military service, such as the historians John Terraine and Martin Middlebrook on opposite sides.
This family link was not broken for the next generation, with the grandchildren still emotionally engaged but now at a greater remove and likelier to absorb uncritically the more pacifist mood of the Sixties and Seventies. These included Alan Bleasdale, whose Monocled Mutineer was such brilliant television — and such bad history — as well as many influential historians on the other side of the debate.
Today, with all but half a dozen of the 1914-18 veterans gone, people still under 40 have grown up with the modern myth, fully fledged, and have generally little awareness of any contrary view. Their tenuous connections with the event are forged mostly by television and a growing heritage industry. Despite the potentially deadening effects of ‘heritage’ battlefield sites with mown lawns, and, as they become increasingly routine, of the school trips and the readings of Sassoon’s poems, Todman believes this present phase has many years to run.
Much depends on what happens in the coming decades. Eventually this poignant, distorted myth will fade, as has happened even to the powerful national myth of the French Revolution. In 1989 on a visit to France I was amazed, having been taught that the Revolution was either a hideous bloodbath or a new dawn for mankind, to find that the French were treating the 200th anniversary mostly as the opportunity for parties and merchandising. There were revolutionary slogans on a cider bottle I bought, and processed cheese was sold with little cardboard cut-out Walt Disney figures such as ‘Mickey Mouse Révolutionnaire’ and ‘Donald Duck Aristocrate’.
The time may come, too, when General Haig is reduced to a cuddly toy and Siegfried Sassoon’s fine features decorate a mud-pack in a beauty parlour. It may take until then for conscientious historians, free at last of the myth’s dominance, to win their battle to be believed.
Hugh Cecil is the author of The Flower of Battle: How Britain Wrote the Great War (Steerforth Press).