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Demolishing Great War Haigiography
February 22, 2014 1:33 PM   Subscribe

"Nevertheless, one lands the real killer blow against the rather silly ‘what if’ justification for the 'just' Great War by looking at its actual results. The militarist German-dominated Europe envisaged in the counter factual just mentioned would have been worse than the one that did actually eventuate, worse than fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, the Great Depression, the influenza epidemic … how, exactly? Surely a war allegedly fought to prevent one particular outcome but which, even when won, at the cost of millions of dead, produced an even worse situation is the very definition of pointless slaughter." -- In the wake of the Michael Gove led attack on the socalled "Blackadder view" of the First World War as a pointless slaughter, historian Guy Halsall does his best to pour cold war on their idea of WWI as a just war.
posted by MartinWisse (90 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
For those who, like me, had never heard of WWI described as anything other than a stupid pointless conflict, much less as a just war, the bit this guy is responding to seems to be a link to the Daily Mail.
posted by XMLicious at 2:02 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


Oops, scratch that, the Daily Mail piece is another reaction against this Gove fellow.
posted by XMLicious at 2:06 PM on February 22


I saw a trailer on the BBC for some new upcoming documentary about the first World War, and it had somebody saying something like "where I part with the Blackadder-school historians...", and I thought, wait, that throwaway line by the education minister Gove is now an actual thing that people are referencing?

So it's not just the retro-jingoism of the Daily Mail. It's a bunch of people who think that this stuff matters, who want to go back and have strident discussions about history long gone, probably for the sake of a distraction.
posted by The River Ivel at 2:07 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


That was a great article. It's nice to see the First World War being treated with a bit more subtlety than is so often the case.
posted by Palindromedary at 2:12 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


somebody saying something like "where I part with the Blackadder-school historians

IIRC that was Max Hastings, who always has been a rightwing, jingoist journalist turned "historian".
posted by MartinWisse at 2:19 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


It's a bunch of people who think that this stuff matters, who want to go back and have strident discussions about history long gone, probably for the sake of a distraction.

1. Those who forget ... um ... something something blah blah.

2. It's WWI's 100th birthday this year. Get used to it.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:19 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


Tangent: I wonder what would have happened to the South Slavs if WWI had never occurred, or if it had gone down very differently, or if the A-H Empire had dissolved in a completely different manner.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:20 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


wait, that throwaway line by the education minister Gove is now an actual thing that people are referencing?

Throwaway lines from Gove will be an actual thing for years to come, because he is most likely to be the UK's next Tory Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson won't get the backing of the party and Cameron is finished, so it's open for the deeply psychologically damaged Gove. Throwaway lines are one of the key units of political debate in the west - Palin was a good exponent.

Gove will pick up millions of votes from UKIP idiots and could even enjoy steering us into a war somewhere (there are loads of little countries ready to be pushed around) - for glory, the Queen, and Great Britain.
posted by colie at 2:24 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


(Since the FPP mentioned Blackadder Goes Forth, this is probably as good a place as any to recommend Chickens.)
posted by Sys Rq at 2:24 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


he is most likely to be the UK's next Tory Prime Minister.

My condolences in advance.

It's a shame that a man with a face so suited for punching went into politics instead of underground bloodsports.
posted by Iridic at 2:33 PM on February 22 [25 favorites]


Tangent: I wonder what would have happened to the South Slavs if WWI had never occurred, or if it had gone down very differently, or if the A-H Empire had dissolved in a completely different manner.

Well, I don't want to go out on a limb here, but I'd venture to say--with all due caution--that if things had gone very differently the outcomes would almost certainly have been different.
posted by yoink at 2:36 PM on February 22 [19 favorites]


There was a roundtable discussion over at AV Club earlier this week about the dark and touching finale to "Blackadder goes Forth". Someone mentioned that when he was in high school in Great Britain, the general rule was that if a teacher called in sick, they would just put in Blackadder for the kids to watch. Color me extremely envious.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 2:41 PM on February 22


I always suspected Blackadder-school history would turn out to be the most accurate (and I'm referring to all 4 series AND most of the specials - still not sure on Back and Forth).
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:43 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


he is most likely to be the UK's next Tory Prime Minister.

Worst. Reality Show. Ever.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:45 PM on February 22 [15 favorites]


Well, I don't want to go out on a limb here, but I'd venture to say--with all due caution--that if things had gone very differently the outcomes would almost certainly have been different.

YOU TAKE THAT BACK RIGHT NOW YOU HEAR

Tangent: I wonder what would have happened to the South Slavs if WWI had never occurred, or if it had gone down very differently, or if the A-H Empire had dissolved in a completely different manner.

Answering my own tangent, I would say at the very least that Trieste would be Trst. No Treaty of London, no Treaty of Rapallo, no forced Italianization. Also, no international fear of a Communist Yugoslavia to stand in the way of Trst, as Tito had risen through the Partisan Resistance of WWII, and the Allies only supported him when it became clear that the Četniks were increasingly weak, splintered, and collaborationist. Probably we'd get a Serb-led Yugoslav state, maybe some Croatian resistance eventually. If things got too hot, then the Slovenes would probably activate the ejector seat sooner rather than later. Maybe non-Fascist Italians would find more diplomatic means to control Istria and/or Dalmatia.

OR MAYBE EVERYBODY WOULD JUST FRENCH KISS EACH OTHER FOREVER
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:46 PM on February 22 [8 favorites]


I wonder what would have happened to the South Slavs if WWI had never occurred

Considering the Second Balkan War had just ended, there probably would've been a third one. Perhaps an already recovering Ottoman Empire would re-establish itself in Europe, or Austria-Hungary would be drawn in. Trouble is, once Austria is in, so probably are Germany and Russia on opposite sides and before you know it, you get just another version of WWI going.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:53 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


I hope the centennial of the Great War is observed in a few months here in the USA but I fear we're waiting for 2017 since, of course, it didn't really kick off until we got involved. But the Great War is one of the most monumental events in human history and, in very real ways, ushered in the modern era. It was really the first World War, not the second, that ended the era of the aristocracy and European world dominance.

The Great War was an unparallelled break with the past.
posted by Justinian at 2:53 PM on February 22 [8 favorites]


Thanks MartinWisse, that was a good read.

I've been feeling increasingly uneasy by how this year's "commemoration" of World War I in the UK looks like a low-key national celebration. I'm not keen on the "It wasn't so bad, most people loved it, it had to be done, the generals were trying their best" angle, but the repeated use of a British focus is worse. This page on WWI from the BBC is very focused on the UK. Tying any of the war to today's Britain is dangerous, especially in the current unpleasant political atmosphere congealing around UKIP.

We're not the same people and not the same countries that fought each other then. I've got little more in common with British soldiers back then as with Russian, German or French soldiers. Of all the topics that should avoid a national "us and them" angle, you'd think this would be good candidate.

A long time ago I did some research work for a British MP, and was sent a package of information by a campaign group wanting pardons for soldiers executed for "cowardice". One case that's stuck in my mind ever since was of a young African soldier, sent to fight in cold, muddy Europe for the Empire that owned his country, who hadn't slept for days, had collapsed from exhaustion, and was then shot by the British army for being a coward.

That's what springs to mind when anyone talks about "us" and World War I.
posted by BinaryApe at 2:59 PM on February 22 [34 favorites]


Unfortunately, this article by Guy "Historian on the Edge" Halsall seems poorly researched besides being a slog to read - actually he seems to prefer to make guesses (!?!?!) based on his ideological prejudices and presumptions rather attempt referenced research.

Halsall writes: "Casualties among the officer corps might lead to the promotion of competent, experienced men from the ranks below, but few are the armies in which this is uniformly the case, and the army of the British Empire in 1914-18 certainly wasn't one such. Field Marshal Slim, who made it to that rank from private, is well-known is precisely because his case was effectively unique. What officer casualties led to instead was the appointment of ever younger men of the right sort of social class to field command. "

In contrast:
From January 1916 onwards [British Army] Officer Cadet Battalions (OCB) were formed. These provided a four month course for ex-rankers recommended by their commanding officers in the field - soldiers with talent, experience and some evidence of sporting leadership if possible. ...

The OCB trained 107,929 new officers by the end of the war. Gary Sheffield has argued that this enlarged, diverse and non-traditional officer corps was what sustained Britain's successful military effort. Many of the new officers were men of working and lower-middle class origins. It has been claimed that this was one of the ways in which class barriers were broken down by the Great War, but if anything the training regime for new officers maintained the social hierarchy by emphasising 'good form' over technical ability. When the 'Temporary Gentlemen', including many schoolteachers, were demobilised after November 1918 their erstwhile social elevation disappeared along with their temporary commissions.


Academic sources with citations here and here (the second link here deals with problems that working class men who had been promoted to commissioned officer during WWI had when they adjusted to civilian life in peacetime.)

Halsall is also crudely ("Daily Heil"? why descend to the lowest levels of debate too?) and mockingly dismissive of the idea that the British upper classes suffered terrible and proportionately larger losses. He cherrypicks the generals death rate (as if generals are comparable to frontline junior officers!) and also ignores the widely discussed recent book by Anthony Seldon and David Walsh, "Public Schools and the Great War" which shows that public schoolboys (i.e. not just generals!! mostly junior officers; and some serving together as ordinary soldiers as well as officers in all-public schoolboy battalions) in the British Army in WWI had a fatal casualty rate about twice that of the overall army average. (that last link is a conservative history blog linking to a review of the book in a conservative newspaper, the Telegraph (well, OK, if Halsall disagrees with the statistics, why ignore this prominent book in the recent debate completely? here's a link to a positive review of the book (describing the same sets of statistics) in one of the UK's main left-wing magazines, The New Statesman, that I originally wanted to link to first but it seem broken/down at time of writing.
posted by Bwithh at 3:09 PM on February 22 [7 favorites]


The "Daily Heil" is rightly called that for their support of Hitler and Naziism under their publisher in the inter-war period, Lord Rothermere.


An interesting historical footnote: the Daily Mail's founder, Lord Northcliffe, was virulently anti-German, and went mad from syphilis!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:20 PM on February 22


I am going to go and read this now, but "does his best to pour cold war on their idea" is an excellent typo/Freudian slip.
posted by corvine at 3:22 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


he is most likely to be the UK's next Tory Prime Minister.


Just as soon as he finishes school.


Or is that finishes schools?
posted by srboisvert at 3:23 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


It's a bunch of people who think that this stuff matters, who want to go back and have strident discussions about history long gone, probably for the sake of a distraction.

The sheer wrongheadedness of this response is hard to express. There are direct and traceable causal links between the world wars and everything that we are now. The reason that we have to argue about these things is not out of some abstract need to "learn from history", it is in order to understand where and what we are now.

We are finally, it seems, nearly 70 years after the end of WWII, moving out of the post-war era. Global power structures are starting to genuinely shift away from those that were laid down at the end of that war. We live at an exceptionally precarious point in history, and the decisions that are made over the next 10 or 20 years are likely to define the course of the human journey for many decades (or possibly just to journey's end). If we don't understand how the hell we got here, how the hell are we supposed to work out where to go next?

If we allow jingoistic little turds like Gove to define our past, we allow them to define our future.
posted by howfar at 3:24 PM on February 22 [25 favorites]


does his best to pour cold war on their idea

Bloody hell, had you not pointed that out I would've never seen that.

Bastard.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:25 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


I thought you'd maybe done it on purpose. You should've just nodded knowingly and I'd have thought you were a genius.
posted by howfar at 3:26 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


Now you tell me.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:32 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Tangent: I wonder what would have happened to the South Slavs if WWI had never occurred, or if it had gone down very differently, or if the A-H Empire had dissolved in a completely different manner.

Well, I don't want to go out on a limb here, but I'd venture to say--with all due caution--that if things had gone very differently the outcomes would almost certainly have been different.


Of course, we all know that historical outcomes are determined by the causal forces involved in the context. But what if they weren't?
posted by clockzero at 3:33 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


Of course, we all know that historical outcomes are determined by the causal forces involved in the context. But what if they weren't?

What is a pitch meeting at The History Channel?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:36 PM on February 22 [15 favorites]


Of course, we all know that historical outcomes are determined by the causal forces involved in the context. But what if they weren't?

What is a pitch meeting at The History Channel?


The question this series asks is, What if they weren't?

And I guess I'm cribbing pretty hard from this scene in The Royal Tenenbaums, upon reflection.
posted by clockzero at 3:40 PM on February 22


He cherrypicks the generals death rate (as if generals are comparable to frontline junior officers!)*

Generals are completely and absolutely comparable to frontline junior officers insofar as they are all human beings. What's your point here?
posted by jammy at 3:43 PM on February 22


Here's a good summary of the atrocities committed against Belgium from an actual WWI specialist. I couldn't read much of this Historian on the Edge because the guy is just so dismissive of, for instance, 125,000 Belgians being sent to German labor camps.
posted by Luminiferous Ether at 3:44 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


What's your point here?

His point is a good one, and though I liked the article this was definitely one of its weak points.

Original argument: WWI was a slaughter of the common folk
Counter: lots of officers, which were drawn from the upper classes, died too. You can't make the war some simplistic bit of "kill the poor"
Counter Counter: bah - the death rate amongst generals was nothing

Talking exclusively about casualties amongst the highest tier of the officer corps as a way of countering the argument that the officer corps in general was butchered just as the line infantry were (worse, in fact) is bad argumentation. We're talking about young men of the rank of Major and below, not Field Marshals and the like.
posted by Palindromedary at 3:55 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


Talking exclusively about casualties amongst the highest tier of the officer corps as a way of countering the argument that the officer corps in general was butchered, just as the line infantry were, is bad argumentation. We're talking about young men of the rank of Major and below, not Field Marshals and the like.

And so? I'm not following you, sorry - seriously and sincerely. What I'm hearing is something very different.
posted by jammy at 4:02 PM on February 22


Here's a good summary of the atrocities committed against Belgium from an actual WWI specialist.

Although, of course, "bad things happened during the war" is not, in itself, proof that the war, on balance, prevented more bad things than it caused. By definition, every actual historical atrocity you can cite is something that the war failed to prevent.

Historical counterfactuals are, of course, difficult to prove and difficult to disprove. One can construct rosy narratives in which, absent WWI, we don't get the fascists, we don't get Stalin, we don't get the Holocaust, we don't get the Cold War etc. etc. One can equally create narratives in which all those things happen regardless. But while it's fair enough, it seems to me, to refuse to play the game at all, if you are are going to play it then you have to come up with claims of the form: "here are things which would have been worse if WWI had never happened" rather than "here are dreadful things that happened during WWI."
posted by yoink at 4:07 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


The interpretation of the events of 1914-1918 as a European and even global tragedy, in which something like ten million soldiers lost their lives, as well as millions more civilians and still millions on top of that who were physically wounded or maimed or psychologically damaged, in a war that could have been averted had the ruling class (principally perhaps but certainly not only in Germany) had the will, sacrificed simply on the altar of the bragging rights of nations, fits uncomfortably with any political characterisation other than left-wing.

The left-wing view is that WWI was the inevitable outgrowth of the militarism whose roots lay in the development of late 19th century capitalism.
Some good folk and deceivers want to make us believe that the strained relations between Germany and England[7] are merely the result of some misunderstandings, agitations of mischievous journalists, the braggings of unskilful diplomatists; but we know better. We know that these strained relations are a necessary result of the increasing economic competition between Germany and England in the world's markets, a direct result of the unbridled capitalistic development and international competition. The Spanish-American War for Cuba, Italy's Abyssinian War, England's South African War, the Chinese-Japanese War, the Chinese adventure of the Great Powers, the Russian-Japanese War, all of them, however different their special causes and the conditions from which they sprung might have been, yet exhibit the one great common characteristic feature of wars of expansion. And if we remember the strained relations between England and Russia on account of Thibet, Persia and Afghanistan, the disagreements between Japan and the United States in the winter of 1906, and finally the Morocco conflict of glorious memory with the Franco-Spanish coöperation of December, 1906,[8] we must recognize that the capitalistic policy of colonization and expansion has placed numerous mines under the edifice of world peace, mines whose fuses are in many hands and which can explode very easily and unexpectedly.[9]
The idea that history rests on "the will" of the elites is completely antithetical to the left-wing view.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:30 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


And so? I'm not following you, sorry - seriously and sincerely. What I'm hearing is something very different.

You've quoted the salient part. Ultimately it's about an argument framing the First World War in class warfare terms:

1) WWI was an attack on the lower classes, or, the upper classes didn't suffer very much at all.

2) The counter: that ignores the even proportionally heavier casualties amongst the higher classes, who led from the front and were prime targets from a military standpoint. If the rich uppers were trying to keep the lowers down, emptying out Eton by marching their best and brightest into German machine gun positions was a rather poorly thought out method of achieving this.

3) The (article's) counter to #2: not a lot of generals and field marshals died at all.

Surely you can see how #3 is not, in fact, a counter to #2? It substitutes the mass slaughter amongst young lieutenants, captains, and majors with the safe rear area life of the most senior military leadership (which the article takes pains to point out is the way they were supposed to be leading). When speaking of casualties amongst the upper classes, comparing a handful of generals with the however many thousands of low-ranking officers is a bad argument, because it masks the number of young aristocracy actually killed.

Bwithh's point that current research has shown that officer casualties were so high as to open up the ranks to previously excluded lower-class candidates is very valuable in this case, as only a breakdown of the old system could have caused such a radical shift in membership; a lot of deaths amongst the old guard had to first occur to facilitate this. Class barriers did not so much naturally die off in this case as they were hosed down with Maxims until shattering.
posted by Palindromedary at 4:43 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


Maybe this is a little simplistic --seems fair game considering the whole Gove-inspired tempest-- and since this is the centennial and all, I'm inclined to recall the words of actual WWI veteran and poet Wilfred Owen:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:54 PM on February 22 [7 favorites]


If we don't understand how the hell we got here, how the hell are we supposed to work out where to go next?

we're not going to work it out, it's just going to happen - on some level we know that, thus all the arguing about ww1, as our times are starting to resemble those times quite a bit
posted by pyramid termite at 4:56 PM on February 22


John Keegan's one-volume history of the war says, in the introduction, that the war will never make sense to you, because it was in no one's interest to go to war. He also does not think it was inevitable, iirc. He says that the diplomatic staffs of the great powers worked tirelessly to avoid a war, in the 1914 crisis, but that the governments chose to listen to their military staff instead. I think he believes that an agreement to let the AHE invade Serbia, without triggering the alliance system and a general mobilization, could have been reached.
posted by thelonius at 5:05 PM on February 22


Halsall doesn't do himself any favours with lines like It is written by self-proclaimed 'historian' Dan Snow. (The History Guy on Witter - sorry, Twitter. No, really.) Snow actually has a good degree in history and is a TV presenter of history programs. It's not like he's some random guy giving himself a title; he makes a living as an historian. Halsall does the same thing, but to smaller audiences.

Incidentally, Halsall makes a big deal about his sense of humour in his profile:
He is also well-known as a controversialist, for a somewhat (by academic standards) off-beat sense of humour. The Historian on the Edge sees himself simultaneously as the clown prince and enfant terrible of medieval history ... though he admits that he is really too old to occupy either position
I pity his students.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:19 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


Yeah if you've read A Distant Mirror the start of WW1 was pretty much a rolling clown show and the clown car was driven by utter morons.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 5:22 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


ennui.bz >

The left-wing view is that WWI was the inevitable outgrowth of the militarism whose roots lay in the development of late 19th century capitalism...The idea that history rests on "the will" of the elites is completely antithetical to the left-wing view.

Unless I'm missing something, and I definitely could be, I don't think either of these statements is entirely accurate as a general principle.

Karl Liebknecht, who ennui.bz quotes above, doesn't speak for "the" left wing, or for all leftists. He was a Communist (which, I would like to make clear, I am not using pejoratively), and his thinking was somewhat doctrinaire along those lines. So, while the idea that WW1 was the inevitable outgrowth of a particular era of capitalism is fairly described as a Communist or Marxist analysis, it's not the only historical explanation that leftists might make, nor would making other explanations be somehow inherently non-leftist.

In a similar vein, while leftism is concerned with effecting social and political emancipation, which necessarily entails cultivating respect for the agency of non-elites, it doesn't follow whatsoever that leftists seeking to explain history would deny that people in positions of great power have great agency to direct the courses of events. If they did, their normative agenda would become incoherent. Leftists don't deny that the people in power call the shots, they rather problematize that fact; equally importantly, while materialist historical determinism has its origins in leftist thought, it evinces an excessively simplistic conception of social processes and thus of history itself.
posted by clockzero at 5:23 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


The last post: letters home to India during the first world war. More than a million Indian soldiers fought in the first world war. As the British Library's collection of their correspondence is put online, Daljit Nagra reflects on their horror, heroes and hopes
posted by homunculus at 5:33 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


So it's not just the retro-jingoism of the Daily Mail. It's a bunch of people who think that this stuff matters, who want to go back and have strident discussions about history long gone, probably for the sake of a distraction.

almost dove in and responded to this with a passionate denunciation of all who would stoop to justify any war. But then remembered this is 2014, the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of that "rolling clown show" (with catastrophic results), so decided it's best to save my breath.

this is going to be a long four years of military-historical to and fro.
posted by philip-random at 5:41 PM on February 22


Yeah if you've read A Distant Mirror the start of WW1 was pretty much a rolling clown show and the clown car was driven by utter morons.


You're thinking The Guns of August. A Distant Mirror is the Hundred Years' War. Actually, it's pretty much the same thing, but with some additional famine, plague, and religious mania thrown in for good measure.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:47 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


There is a demographic study of deaths in the First World War: The Great War and the British People.

Proportionally, more upper class men died than lower. Junior officers died at a higher rate than enlisted men, and middle and upper class men were more likely to volunteer than working class men. It's been 10 years so my memory of the numbers has faded, but the proportion of British upper class men who died was much much higher than lower class. (any historians with the book handy want to look it up?)

Whatever one thinks of the start of the war, it was never about class or a war by the upper class on the lower. The decimation - more like 1/3 dead - of the halls of Oxbridge and the public schools undermine that theory. Maybe one could say that WWI was a war of the old against the young -- or of women against men, since it was us who called men cowards for not going, though we sat at home. (I hate my fellow women who did such things). But it wasn't upper against lower.

That said, I think the group with the highest casualties were the Newfoundlanders - 90% wounded or killed. They were a small force and they were in the worst of the Somme. So many men were killed and the Newfoundland population was so reduced that they could not recruit a Newfoundland regiment for WW2.
posted by jb at 5:48 PM on February 22 [10 favorites]


Homunculus' last link is especially good: The last post: letters home to India during the first world war
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:56 PM on February 22


I have had a passing hobby interest in the conflict (as a wargamer) for 20-odd years

Just want to say, in reaction to this bit near the beginning of the piece: rock on!
posted by JHarris at 5:56 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


You're thinking The Guns of August. A Distant Mirror is the Hundred Years' War.

Since we're talking Tuchman here, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 is the prequel to the whole saga.
posted by ovvl at 6:05 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


Proportionally, more upper class men died than lower. Junior officers died at a higher rate than enlisted men

I believe the rank of Second Lieutenant in the British forces of those days was:

A. the first posting a young man of upper class connections would receive,
B. inevitably first over the top into no man's land and thus the single individual most likely to die in any given attack.

The Brits lost almost an entire generation of young "gentlemen" in that war.
posted by philip-random at 6:07 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


It's "hagiography." There's no "haig" in "hagiography," although there was a Haig in WWI. Apropos of philip-random's comment, Wikipedia says about Douglas Haig: "Some called him "Butcher Haig" for the two million British casualties under his command."
posted by John Cohen at 7:26 PM on February 22


The author of the article makes it a point near the beginning to let us know that his coinage "Haigiography" is a pun on Haig's name. Which is why he always capitalizes it.
posted by JHarris at 7:45 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


I'll be honest. I have no idea what he is really talking about. I know a considerable amount about First World War historiography (my history M.A. was centered on the war and Germany), and I really don't get this. I think he's sort of playing to a TV audience, because someone made a joke on a TV documentary about the war.

I do not see the value of fighting over whether a war was morally right or morally wrong right now. I see this more as a proxy fight for battles we are having now in our society.

With a conflict as large as a world war, the numbers get so big that to talk about whether a war was "justified" or not makes no sense. Overvaluing such subjective judgments seems irrelevant now, because there were millions of reasons why people signed on to participate and the decisions of the people forced that war.

That's why I don't understand the need to discuss a hundred year old war in "justified or not?" standards. Let's leave that to Buzzfeed.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:01 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


I'm by no means a historian, merely fascinated by history, and it feels to me like this constant "debate" is just historians doing busy work. World War I just doesn't feel that complicated to understand.

It wasn't so much pointless as it was inevitable. The network of treaties and alliances in place in the years preceding the war were basically trip wires that ensured that somebody eventually was going to stumble over one and get it all going. Hence the "damn fool thing in the Balkans." And the advances in technology meant that there was going to be death on a scale that had never been encountered or even contemplated. The pointlessness was the millions of soldiers thrown against machine gun and artillery fire and being turned into corpses because the tactics to deal with those things hadn't been developed yet.

I haven't written a dissertation or anything. Just read a few books (including Tuchman). I'm not usually the type to think I have a detailed understanding of a topic based on some cursory curious examination, but yeah, it seems pretty straightforward.
posted by dry white toast at 9:07 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


I do not see the value of fighting over whether a war was morally right or morally wrong right now. I see this more as a proxy fight for battles we are having now in our society.

...

That's why I don't understand the need to discuss a hundred year old war in "justified or not?" standards. Let's leave that to Buzzfeed.


But that is rather the point. A good deal of British political elites, including many in Government, are attempting to use the hundred year celebrations to justify the First World War. This is a political act to strengthen miltarism, nationalism, xenophobia, and a fistful of other tools that such politicians may find useful now and in the future. In a Parliament which has only lately found enough strength to gainstand military adventurism with the vote against action in Syria, the Government welcomes the response this First World War revisionism offers them.
posted by Thing at 9:35 PM on February 22 [11 favorites]


100 year anniversary, eh? Is there a twitter or blog I can follow that re-creates the historic headlines, news, and commentary from 100 years ago?
posted by rebent at 9:39 PM on February 22


Simon Jenkins, The Guardian: Germany, I apologise for this sickening avalanche of first world war worship
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:54 PM on February 22


WWI had a big impact on British society. The take-away lesson was not so much that working class people died, and upper or middle class people did not. The lesson learned was that upper class decision makers were not up to the job. Many people of all nations and classes died, but British people died because British leaders were no good. The war made that clear to the whole of our society, and destroyed the credibility of the upper classes. It boosted the Labour movement.

This flaw or wound on British society - the incompetence of leaders - continues to afflict us. Our current government are just the kind of nincompoops who made bad decisions in that distant war. That is why this issue is so fraught, so fiercely contested.
posted by communicator at 11:29 PM on February 22 [6 favorites]


So, meant to add this, the issue of 'who died in the biggest numbers' is a distraction. Don't get sidetracked by that. People died in their hundreds of thousands, because of the stupidity of our leaders. That is still happening today. 'Lions led by donkeys'? the donkeys don't like that kind of talk.
posted by communicator at 11:32 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


I'll be honest. I have no idea what he is really talking about.

Really? In what way? Did you just not parse his statements?

I think he's sort of playing to a TV audience, because someone made a joke on a TV documentary about the war.

He says specifically that he's reacting to the statements of Michael Gove, the British Secretary of Education. The Guardian reporting on it. Here's a Guardian column discussing it. I'd link to the Daily Mail article which seems to be the closest to the actual source, but, you know, Tea and Kittens.

So, that's what he's responding to. The Daily Mail, a popular newspaper, and Michael Gove, a man in a position of some power, and thus worth countering.

(NOTE: The first link above contains an image of a man saying wibble. I'm just mentioning. Would you like a cappuccino?)
posted by JHarris at 12:05 AM on February 23


Because we should all pay close attention to what probably the most significant historian of early medieval Europe under the age of 60 thinks about WWI.

If you can't teach, blog?
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:16 AM on February 23


Damn that is one hell of a get-off-my-lawn. He may not be over sixty yet but he is well-equipped to become a paragon of seniority.
posted by XMLicious at 2:04 AM on February 23


Because we should all pay close attention to what probably the most significant historian of early medieval Europe under the age of 60 thinks about WWI.

We all have opinions. We should care more about whether they're good ones than who said them.

Why should we care what Metafilter user #23306 says about him? Or #36112 for that matter? I thought what he said was interesting and cogent, certainly more than the people he's responding to, many of whom are less qualified judges of history than he.

Anyway, it is his own blog; he's allowed to post what he likes. We're only listening to him because someone linked to him.
posted by JHarris at 2:49 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


We all have opinions. We should care more about whether they're good ones than who said them [...]
I thought what he said was interesting and cogent, certainly more than the people he's responding to, many of whom are less qualified judges of history than he.


I'm confused about your position. Is it that everyone's opinion is equally valid or that some people are more qualified judges of history than others?
posted by GeorgeBickham at 3:01 AM on February 23


Caring about the quality and integrity of arguments and opinions themselves as most important, independently from the source, is not the same thing as saying "everyone's opinion is equally valid". And isn't contradictory to examining a speaker's credentials as well, come to think of it... I'm sure that the NSA has some rule about metadata for that.
posted by XMLicious at 3:10 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


If any of you guys come to Belgium I'd be happy to show you around to where the good fries and the good beer are, but I could also show you the church bells, the natural history collections, the cultural treasures, and the significant art pieces that were carted off as war trophies in a grand act of theft that showed the real purpose of the Kaiser's war in the west. If it didn't drive the point home I could show you the priceless libraries torched out of sheer malicious spite, the questions you never ask women of a certain age or their children, and the the architecture that is still to this day built in such a way as to never be knocked down. While it can't be said that French goals were much different except in how much power they could apply to enforcing them, there were incredibly good reasons for both the US and the UK to get involved.

The reasons for fighting in the Great War are largely forgotten, but they were very real, halting German Imperialism was very much not pointless. For a taste of what that really meant to people in the small countries of Europe check out the remarkably gripping Judicial Report on the Sacking of Louvain by the Flemish Professor Leon van der Essen, which is written with remarkable neutrality for what that man had to have seen. The report is euphemistically circumspect about the fate of women in Leuven, and what exactly the Germans did to priests, in the style of the time but don't be fooled. For the 'other side' of the story, this is the official German statement on what happened and a telegram to Wilson by the Kaiser that mentions it.

Also, check out this documentary,
Under the Eagle (50:03) The German invasion of Belgium and France was brutal and fanned the flames of war
posted by Blasdelb at 3:31 AM on February 23 [7 favorites]


I didn't see it here so here's the Blackadder view in a nutshell:


[Blackadder is informed that a German spy is stealing battle plans]
General Melchett: You look surprised, Blackadder.

Captain Blackadder: I certainly am, sir. I didn't realise we had any battle plans.

General Melchett: Well, of course we have! How else do you think the battles are directed?

Captain Blackadder: Our battles are directed, sir?

General Melchett: Well, of course they are, Blackadder, directed according to the Grand Plan.

Captain Blackadder: Would that be the plan to continue with total slaughter until everyone's dead except Field Marshal Haig, Lady Haig and their tortoise, Alan?

General Melchett: Great Scott! Even you know it!


and a personal favorite:

If you mean, "Are we all going to get killed?" Yes.
Clearly, Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.
posted by MikeMc at 6:25 AM on February 23 [6 favorites]


I'll be honest. I have no idea what he is really talking about.

Really? In what way? Did you just not parse his statements?


He's all over the lot. Its obvious this isn't his subject area--he's a medivalist as noted above. Its very poorly written. This is my former subject are of graduate study. The statements aren't backed up by evidence. He's basically having a political/cultural fight with the Tories. Not history.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:09 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]



Why should we care what Metafilter user #23306 says about him? Or #36112 for that matter? I thought what he said was interesting and cogent, certainly more than the people he's responding to, many of whom are less qualified judges of history than he.


Because this was my area of graduate specialization. He's a medivalist.

If you really want to understand the First World War and its origins, read German historian Fritz Fischer in translation.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:16 AM on February 23


It seems the great wars did for integration what civil rights leaders couldn't.

For example, in fiction, the Downtown Abbey friendship between the gentleman and the servant was based on wartime camaraderie.
posted by sieve a bull at 8:29 AM on February 23


For example, in fiction, the Downtown Abbey friendship between the gentleman and the servant was based on wartime camaraderie.

And if it wasn't for either WW2, Korea or 'Nam, the word “motherfucker” (originally used to denote a sadistic, rapacious slave-master) would be, if not unknown to white America, certainly not widely used.
posted by acb at 8:42 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


It seems the great wars did for integration what civil rights leaders couldn't.

For example, in fiction, the Downtown Abbey friendship between the gentleman and the servant was based on wartime camaraderie.


My entire M.A. project was based on that. In Germany the perception of the working class amongst the officer class went from total distrust to accepting them as allies--with political consequences for post-war Weimar.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:49 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


and since this is the centennial and all, I'm inclined to recall the words of actual WWI veteran and poet Wilfred Owen

Anyone who has Netflix and is interested in WWI might want to consider watching "Behind the Lines" about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon being treated at a British Army mental hospital. I find this poem of Owen's to be particularly touching:

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and strops,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
posted by MikeMc at 9:34 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]


The statements aren't backed up by evidence. He's basically having a political/cultural fight with the Tories. Not history.

Ah, okay. Well, to that I'd say, it's not a scholarly paper, but a blog post, and the criteria are different; if he was writing the former, I expect it'd have more sources, but also would be in a journal instead of the internet. And he admits early on he's responding to the Tories; that is allowed. There are different levels of discourse, and it's not true that only the most academic and exhaustively cited material is of interest, nor that anything short of that is TV talk show fodder. It's not like the Tories' opinions are all that well-substantiated, and they're likely to be basing policy on them.

Because this was my area of graduate specialization. He's a medivalist.

Well then, give us something substantive to chew on, that will better advance your position, by allowing us to engage with it. Telling us to read Fritz Fischer isn't too helpful, because we're not historians, and I'm sure plenty of people thought the blog post was tl;dr enough without having to hunt up and pay for a whole book. The opportunity cost of becoming expert in the causes and motives of World War I is quite high. Not that it isn't worth paying sometimes, but attention and energy are limited resources, and no one's giving me a diploma for it.

Presumably you've read it, what does he say? I went to Wikipedia and turned up this, which says that he states Germany had grandiose plans for grabbing territory through the war. Well, so did Britain. The criticisms section on that page seems interesting. At this point I have not looked any further into it than that. Maybe later.
posted by JHarris at 10:36 AM on February 23


I'm no student of the so-called Great War, yet I feel comfortable in positing that it was, in nature, somewhere between the Black Adder stuff quoted above, and a grand and noble effort by the Brit-French (etc) allies to hold the Kaiser in check -- probably leaning more toward the Black Adder.

Also, The Rites of Spring is a fascinating and horrifying read.

So it was with Nazism, Mr. Eksteins insists. Like those who produced ''Le Sacre,'' Germany on the eve of World War I was in revolt against the bourgeois rationalism it saw England and France as representing. Alternately, those two countries saw Germany as a threat to the order of Europe. But the experience of trench warfare changed everything. For both sides, the very meaning of meaning was destroyed. ''The burden of having been in the eye of the storm and yet, in the end, of having resolved nothing, was excruciating.'' Modernism became the prevailing sensibility.
posted by philip-random at 10:43 AM on February 23


A while ago I read an interesting book on the subject: The Smoke and the Fire: Myths and Anti-myths of War, 1861-1945 by John Terraine.

I think as with any historical event, there are a number of popular myths about the First World War. The problem with Gove's original article is that he's conflating several different things together: actual myths, serious historical interpretations he doesn't like, pop-culture exaggerations like Blackadder, and teaching in schools.

Gove seems to me to be one of the most intensely ideological members of the present government. He doesn't just casually accept right-wing Thatcherite ideas, or find them useful to promote certain interests: he's a true believer. As such, anything that doesn't fit his ideology he regards as simply factually incorrect. In this kind of worldview myths are myths, differing opinions are "myths", and even the idea that there can be multiple interpretations rather than one truth can be a "myth".

One popular myth I think is that you were relatively safe in the trenches, that most of the deaths came from going "over the top", and therefore the generals could have kept their men safer by going over the top less often. In fact, 59% of casualties were from mortars and artillery, 39% from rifles and machines. Keeping the men in the trenches wouldn't keep them safe, they'd still be being killed by artillery. They needed to advance to eventually end the slaughter.

Another thing Terraine points out is that after the war there was a blame game between the politicians and the military. The politicians' line was basically "hey, don't blame us for starting this war, it's all the stupid generals' fault for being too incompetent to finish it quickly". Terraine argues (quite convincingly) that given the technology of the time there was no way to finish the war quickly, and reckons the military leaders of WW1 were not exceptionally incompetent. In part, the "lions led by donkeys" line seems to be a reflection of this old political argument
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:23 AM on February 24 [3 favorites]


According to a recent Pat Mills interview, Charley's War has been optioned for a TV Series. This would be an amazing thing to see and I hope it goes ahead.
posted by longbaugh at 4:34 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


The objections about casualty rates are odd — he gives a better rebuttal in the article, noting that higher casualty rates indicate courage without competence.

And he's pretty clear that the idea of WWI as a war that only affected the lower classes is a straw man caricature.
posted by klangklangston at 8:14 AM on February 24


Who Needs World War I?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:43 AM on February 24


Germany had grandiose plans for grabbing territory through the war. Well, so did Britain.

Really? What countries, specifically were part of this grandiose plan? I don't remember a British plan to rewrite the boundaries of the major combatants in the war. That's exactly what the Germans had.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:35 PM on February 24


You know, there's this deep desire of late to rewrite history as making some pretty easy calls--the Nazis and Imperial Germany, as not being really that bad, in some bizarre way to win political battles now. Well, the facts don't back that up. No matter how some guy who doesn't even work in the field thinks.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:39 PM on February 24


"Really? What countries, specifically were part of this grandiose plan? I don't remember a British plan to rewrite the boundaries of the major combatants in the war. That's exactly what the Germans had."

Uh, Mozambique, Northern Rhodesia, British East Africa, Uganda and the Belgian Congo…
posted by klangklangston at 8:46 PM on February 24


Let alone Togo, Ghana, Cameroon, Namibia, Angola…

Since the 1880s, Bismark had come around on colonies and Germany was growing them rapidly (iirc, it was a partial justification for Wilhelm II's hardon for rapid naval expansion, combined with the fear that England would "Copenhagenize" a smaller German fleet).

A significant portion of the "German cruelty" myth comes from British anti-Germany colonial propaganda.

World War I was mostly a needless war, and you've studied it enough to know that. There was a lot of idiocy from Wilhelm II that Bismark tried to disarm, but there was plenty of vainglory, idiocy and hubris in England too. WWI didn't have to happen, except in the most limited, mechanistic meaning.
posted by klangklangston at 9:31 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


klangklangston: "A significant portion of the "German cruelty" myth comes from British anti-Germany colonial propaganda."

What a truly offensive thing to say. The Herero and Namaqua genocide under Bismarck, which was executed with a brutality, efficiency, and scale that was unprecedented since Classical times, was not a myth.

It is also wrong, British propaganda largely focused on the plight of Belgians when trying to show Imperial German cruelty. While the factories for making soap out of the fat of dead Belgians and most of presumptions of centralized planning for destruction turned out to be bullshit, the systematic plunder of church bells, natural history collections, cultural treasures, and significant art pieces was very real. The zoos in every major German city for displaying people randomly picked up in the streets of Belgian cities deemed insufficiently passive for passerby to throw fruit and worse at were very real. The taking of hostages to be summarily executed in the inevitable event of perceived resistance, the summary executions of random people without any real inquiry, and the orders to 'live off the land and take what you need' were also very real along with the starvation and rape on an epic scale that inevitably resulted.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:39 AM on February 25


"Uh, Mozambique, Northern Rhodesia, British East Africa, Uganda and the Belgian Congo…

Let alone Togo, Ghana, Cameroon, Namibia, Angola…
"
You've left out the only example that actually supports your point, the Kiautschou Bay concession, which enticed Japan to enter the war as easy plunder. By the time WWI rolled around the German African colonies were as much administrative and strategic liabilities as they were lucrative opportunities.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:50 AM on February 25


Dan Carlin's Hardcore History is in the middle of a series on the First World War called Blueprint for Armageddon. It's excellent and very in depth. It takes almost the entire first episode purely to set up the political context, which I found very useful as even being the terrible lefty that I am, I didn't have a much more nuanced view of it than 'large powers got into a slugging match for no real reason other than a load of treaties'. Highly recommended podcast.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:42 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


"What a truly offensive thing to say. The Herero and Namaqua genocide under Bismarck, which was executed with a brutality, efficiency, and scale that was unprecedented since Classical times, was not a myth. "

What a clueless and sanctimonious reply. The official reasoning for the redistribution of German colonies after WWI relied on the myth of exceptional German cruelty in administrating their colonies — the Blue Book was focused on Herero, not the Congo, which Belgium kept as a colony until 1960. That's why the colonies were held "in sacred trust" rather than liberated, because the putative problem wasn't colonialism itself but rather the German character.

But it ignored that the British engaged in a campaign of intentional genocide in Australia, particularly Tasmania, and the Americans engaged in multiple genocides of Native Americans, as two quick examples.

So, no, it's not offensive to note that a significant portion of the German cruelty myth came from British propaganda. That doesn't diminish the genocide in Namibia at all — it recognizes that racism and murder pervaded the majority of European colonial holdings, and that the redistribution of German colonies didn't prevent more genocides from the new masters.
posted by klangklangston at 9:11 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


I recently read an unspectacular yet entirely concise and brutal short history of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453, so more like 116 years), from which I learned, contrary to anything I'd ever managed to pick up previously, that the English were the aggressors in all of that, in pretty much every way. They kept sending armies across the channel, kept rampaging, besieging, raping, pillaging etc through the countryside (and yup, Henry V and all his rousing Band of Brothers calls to glory was part of it). Not that I was terribly surprised to learn all of this. I'd just never though of it that way.

Which isn't to say the English were the only villains of that (or any) fragment of European history. Far from it. Just that I grew up getting most of my relevant history from English sources, and most of that funneled through various popular media (books, comics, TV shows, movies etc). So I imagine that if you grew up French or Italian or Austrian or whatever (German even), you likely got your own version of a particularly skewered tale.

Which satisfies me in my conclusion that come the beginning of the 20th Century, every player in European power politics was a villain at least in part and thus the best short explanation for how WW1 happened is, "Well, what do you expect from a bunch of pompous inbred villains?" Maybe the Germans were stooping to the deepest villainy come 1914. Maybe the English were somehow going through a enlightened phase. But you don't get that level of "rolling clown show" cum clusterfuck without all sides having thrown in at some point (in the lead-up if not in the actual conflagration).

Which doesn't mean we shouldn't be endeavoring to discuss all this rationally via application of good, solid history. But please let's not bring to the table even a hint of a notion that our side was somehow closer to the angels.
posted by philip-random at 9:44 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


Here's a historian for whom it is his period tackling Gove

Germany before 1914: social reform and British emulation, History and Policy Working Paper No. 12 by Dr Conor Mulvagh (UCD).Dr Conor Mulvagh .

Haven't had time to absorb in depth but interesting to note that he says:

"Fritz Fischer’s mid-century hypothesis which appeared to cement the German war guilt thesis has lost its supposed irrefutability in the decades since it first set historians astir. Most recently, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 has given a far more nuanced view of the origins of the conflict."
posted by Flitcraft at 4:21 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


Nearly 4,000 first world war diaries made available online: First-hand accounts of trench warfare, gas attacks and horseback battles digitised by National Archive and Imperial War Museum
posted by homunculus at 12:15 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


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