Labour condemns Michael Gove's 'crass' comments on first world war
January 4, 2014 3:39 PM   Subscribe

Grauniad: Labour has accused the government of using the centenary of the start of the first world war to "sow political division" after the education secretary, Michael Gove, tore into "leftwing academics" for peddling unpatriotic "myths" about the role of British soldiers and generals in the conflict. Gove's original article in the Daily Mail.
posted by marienbad (83 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is Gove even a person? he seems like a living embodiment of all that is crap about Tories, with the added bonus of a somewhat alien seeming evangelical element in the form of the whole Bibles thing.
posted by Artw at 3:42 PM on January 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


I have read Gove's comments on various things I do know about and thought that he appears to be either massively ill-informed or a liar. This does not fill me with confidence regarding his statements on other areas.

If Gove didn't exist Alistair Campbell would be trying hard to create the caricature. Gove just makes the process easier by repeatedly publicly talking like a half-sloshed David Starkey.
posted by jaduncan at 3:55 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


I was all ready to make a comment about history being more complicated than anybody's point of view and how it's not like German expansionism rules out problems with British military and political leadership, but then I read Gove's actual words. He sounds like the whingers here in Texas who complain when history texts don't support white supremacy hard enough. I doubt he'll be fired, but he probably should be.
posted by immlass at 3:58 PM on January 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


Mr Gove claims only undergraduate cynics would say the soldiers were foolish to fight.

And all this time, I thought Dulce et Decorum est was written by somebody who was actually there.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:58 PM on January 4, 2014 [44 favorites]



I have read Gove's comments on various things I do know about and thought that he appears to be either massively ill-informed or a liar. This does not fill me with confidence regarding his statements on other areas.

Heh, coincidentally I just saw a tweet of this cartoon about Gove which fits nicely.
posted by Flitcraft at 4:02 PM on January 4, 2014 [16 favorites]


How dare these wet, lefty, vegetarian-types try to disparage Field Marshal Haig's heroic efforts to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:03 PM on January 4, 2014 [20 favorites]


So four days in to the four-years-long remembrance and already we have Gove calling historians "unpatriotic" for telling the truth and Earl Kitchener's mug on the £2 coin. Nice.
posted by Thing at 4:05 PM on January 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


I doubt he'll be fired, but he probably should be.

I strongly suspect he's currently viewed as indispensable. There's a certain Mail/Express reader demographic that respond to pointless jingoism who are targets for both the Tories and UKIP right now.
posted by jaduncan at 4:08 PM on January 4, 2014


and Earl Kitchener's mug on the £2 coin.


Well I would have preferred Alan Turing to be the first gay historical figure to be pictured on a piece of English currency, but it's a start.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:10 PM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


If you ever read ConHome there's a significant portion who see Gove as fit to be the next Conservative leader. I rather hope they get their way.
posted by Thing at 4:10 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


War is jolly good fun. We should have more!
posted by srboisvert at 4:11 PM on January 4, 2014


Earl Kitchener's mug on the £2 coin

I did a cartoon double-take when I saw that and realized it was real. Of all the WWI related images they could have picked...
posted by Artw at 4:11 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


I doubt he'll be fired, but he probably should be.


Like...out of a cannon?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:12 PM on January 4, 2014 [21 favorites]


Dude. A daily mail link?
posted by clvrmnky at 4:12 PM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


Mr Gove claims only undergraduate cynics would say the soldiers were foolish to fight.

Those who picture themselves ordering young people to their deaths call it "cynicism." Those who picture themselves as the young people might call it "pragmatism."
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:12 PM on January 4, 2014 [26 favorites]


Little England truly is Britain's greatest enemy.
posted by pipeski at 4:17 PM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


The thing is, though, is that he has got a point. Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the, later, the US were the only liberal democracies in the world. They were fighting, particularly in Britain and France's case, for their survival and way of life. That they withstood the test, ought to be celebrated more.
posted by MrMerlot at 4:18 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


"If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied."

- Noted anti-Imperialist left winger, Rudyard Kipling.
posted by Grimgrin at 4:20 PM on January 4, 2014 [43 favorites]


More like Re-eductation Minister, amirite?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:21 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


The thing is, though, is that he has got a point. Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the, later, the US were the only liberal democracies in the world. They were fighting, particularly in Britain and France's case, for their survival and way of life. That they withstood the test, ought to be celebrated more.

What percentage of the British army had the vote?

The answer may surprise you.
posted by Thing at 4:32 PM on January 4, 2014 [28 favorites]


Thing: If you ever read ConHome there's a significant portion who see Gove as fit to be the next Conservative leader. I rather hope they get their way.

David Cameron and George Osborne are careerist opportunists out to make sure they maintain the status quo they are accustomed to being at the top of. Michael Gove is something much more dangerous. He's ambitious – there's nothing he'd like more than to usurp Cameron as leader – but more importantly he's a zealot, fully convinced of the rightness of his ideology, and he pursues his zealotry with a laser-like focus and determination. I'd write him off at your (and my) peril.
posted by Len at 4:32 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


That they withstood the test, ought to be celebrated more.

I'm glad we won, but I wouldn't celebrate as opposed to commemorate a sacrifice. I have stood in many of the Somme graveyards and I have yet to find one that made me feel celebratory and jingoistic, no matter which flags were flying over them.

It's entirely reductionist to say everyone was a hero or a villain, which is why I dislike Gove-style rah-rah we-won history. It's for idiots.
posted by jaduncan at 4:33 PM on January 4, 2014 [23 favorites]


Well I would have preferred Alan Turing to be the first gay historical figure to be pictured on a piece of English currency, but it's a start.

You're too late.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:34 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


The answer doesn't surprise me, I know exactly how many. Liberal democracy might have been far from ideal in 1914, but it was the most enlightened system the world had yet produced. It was, and remains, fragile. A loss, by the Allies in 1918, might have seen it snuffed out. Instead the West, and its enemies moved closer to universal suffrage. That should be celebrated.
posted by MrMerlot at 4:38 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


MrMerlot: "Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the, later, the US were the only liberal democracies in the world."
Sorry, what? There were a couple of other liberal democracies in existence back then.

Anyway, Germany's strategic goal wasn't to exterminate liberal democracy. It might have been killed off by Communist uprisings in France and the UK if Germany had won the war, though.
posted by brokkr at 4:41 PM on January 4, 2014


The King Gove Bible
posted by Artw at 4:48 PM on January 4, 2014


Instead the West, and its enemies moved closer to universal suffrage. That should be celebrated.

Surely it is traditionally quietly appreciated as we remember the dead. Excess nationalism when recalling things would be at best ironic. I think I just have issues with celebrating something that resulted in the death of a generation on all sides; the best one can say is that it's possibly the less horrific outcome.
posted by jaduncan at 4:49 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Pre-WWI Germany was so evil and indefensible and defeating it forced the Huns into a much more liberal democratic direction, right? Wars should always be judged by the total of their 20-30-year aftermath.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:50 PM on January 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


Sorry, what? There were a couple of other liberal democracies in existence back then.

Such as?
posted by MrMerlot at 4:53 PM on January 4, 2014


It's nice that the liberal democracies won and all that.

Shame that bastards like this are now in the process of utterly destroying them.

Fuck Gove and the horse he rode in on. Same for Cameron. And Harper. And Abbot. Rat bastard betrayers of the Commonwealth, all.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:54 PM on January 4, 2014 [17 favorites]


I don't know why there is so much fuss over such a storm in a teacup - after all it was over by Christmas, decided by a football match across no-mans' land...
posted by Monkeymoo at 5:02 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


The answer doesn't surprise me, I know exactly how many. Liberal democracy might have been far from ideal in 1914, but it was the most enlightened system the world had yet produced. It was, and remains, fragile. A loss, by the Allies in 1918, might have seen it snuffed out. Instead the West, and its enemies moved closer to universal suffrage. That should be celebrated.

*slow clap*

So in a few places--the three most fragile powerful empires in the world at the time--nothing changed. Whoop-de-do. In most places, however, things got much, much, much worse as a direct consequence of WWI. Fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism, Absolute Monarchy: That is the legacy of the Great War. That is what was accomplished.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:10 PM on January 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


Gove's original article in the Daily Mail.

Thanks, Kitten Block!
posted by JHarris at 5:11 PM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


As an American, I'd never heard of Gove until now, but having read his article and seen his picture, I love that he looks to me like someone out of the Capitol in The Hunger Games.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:16 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


WWI is ongoing it is still killing Kurds, Arabs and Jews. The imperial plans of the European houses all came to ruin. Yet their proxies fight on within lines imagined by cartographers in a grand conspiracy. American blood would be split again and again for this war. Iraq, Vietnam and all the other places on the map after torpedo hits the allegedly weapons free neutral Lusitania, the Gulf of Tonkin, the links between Saddam and 9-11. Is democracy safe yet?
posted by humanfont at 5:26 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]




The rumours I hear say that Gove is unsackable because he knows the skeletons in Cameron's and Osborne's closets.
posted by Hogshead at 5:53 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure nobody has had a strong opinion about Oh, What A Lovely War outside the Gove household for quite some time. It's kind of surprising that, given the various challenges Britain is currently facing, a cabinet minister thinks a film from 1969 is among the most urgent issues needing to be addressed.
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:01 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Gove seems to be suggesting that history is wrong both about the justifications (or lack thereof) for Britain's entry into the war and the management of the war by the generals and leadership. I remember what I was taught about the war in school (and all of that would say he was hilariously wrong); however, I suddenly have a renewed interest in studying the war.

My interest is not so much to see if Gove is on to something, but because he reminds us (quite by accident), that it was a very interesting time in human history. Among other things, he points out that the war was a first in that is was an "industrial" war, and in many ways that makes the thought processes of those organizing (to the extent war can be organized) potentially very interesting.

Can anyone recommend a good book to provide a general overview and starting point on the subject?
posted by LBJustice at 6:06 PM on January 4, 2014


come on, what's wrong with you guys? - the great war was such a rousing success that they all had to have another one 21 years later
posted by pyramid termite at 6:11 PM on January 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


Can anyone recommend a good book to provide a general overview and starting point on the subject?

Tim Travers's The Killing Ground sounds like exactly what you're looking for, although it focuses only on the British Army. It's more towards the academic end of the spectrum, but still pretty readable.
posted by asterix at 6:23 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Gove: The conflict has, for many, been seen ... as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.

So... the elite knew exactly what they were doing when they perpetrated a series of intentional catastrophes?
posted by rory at 6:58 PM on January 4, 2014 [13 favorites]


LBJustice: It's not a book, but Dan Carlin is in the midst of doing a multi-part podcast on WWI, and the episode on its beginning is up and is pretty fascinating.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:07 PM on January 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


Do tell the Irish and the Indians how great British liberal democracy was back then. And let's not forget that this war was entered into on behalf of an alliance with Tsarist Russia, just about the most illiberal and undemocratic place in Europe.
posted by moorooka at 7:09 PM on January 4, 2014 [15 favorites]


So... the elite knew exactly what they were doing when they perpetrated a series of intentional catastrophes?

No, don't you see? Their hands were tied as they were helpless to resist overwhelming social, historical and economic forces--unlike that guy on the dole over there, who is completely in control of his choices and must be punished for not being more important (unlike those very important people bravely struggling in vain against all those invisible forces for our invisible benefit).
posted by saulgoodman at 7:10 PM on January 4, 2014 [17 favorites]


Here is the essay by Prof. Richard J. Evans that so pissed off Michael Gove. The essay is rather mild, all things considered, but Evans doesn't hold back when he responds in the letter pages (letters are at the bottom of the article).
posted by Kattullus at 7:58 PM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


Mail Online: The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder...

Sorry... Blackadder was a drama?
posted by Artful Codger at 8:14 PM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


It turned into one in the last five minutes. And a damn effective one, I don't think any, of course we all knew it was coming, but I can't think of any war comedy that shifted so well from brilliantly zany to dire tragedy. It still brings tears to my eyes.
posted by JHarris at 8:47 PM on January 4, 2014 [11 favorites]


(Of course there's the other usual suspects, Catch-22, M*A*S*H, Life Is Beautiful, but those, while often great, don't have the advantage of the comic parts being made by British funnymen at the top of their game.)
posted by JHarris at 8:48 PM on January 4, 2014


(Or Baldrick's "cappuchino" OH MY GOD UGH
posted by JHarris at 8:48 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I remember reading a history of WWI and when we got to the point where battle casualties were being quoted in units of 100,000 I started thinking that it would have been better to just summarily execute every european politician and royal of the period. They all seemed to want a war for their own reasons, an excuse to have one showed up, and suddenly we're all fighting and dying for hard to understand reasons.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:40 PM on January 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


Manufactured outrage is one of the propagandist's most effective tools. It gives their critics something harmless to rage against, which ends up making us sound shrill and reactionary.

It cost Gove very little time and effort to say the things that now have all of us spending time fussing and frothing and reminding each other what a terrible person he is and how dare he have the barefaced effrontery to use "the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites" to prop up an argument for a "just war" and on and on and on and on. WHBT. HTH. HAND.

The more time we waste on lazily pouring our scorn into the receptacles provided, the less time we have available for actually getting organized enough to shift these complacent pricks and their amoral apologists out of their comfortably ensconced positions.
posted by flabdablet at 9:57 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Michael Gove contacts aliens.
posted by Artw at 10:10 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


You'd think he'd have some words for Niall Ferguson, who thinks that Britain should have stayed out of the war and let Germany win. But then Ferguson's a conservative academic.
posted by gamera at 10:47 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm going to flaunt my ignorance and ask this: wasn't WWI mostly about getting rid of a burgeoning, impoverished underclass?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:56 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm going to flaunt my ignorance and ask this: wasn't WWI mostly about getting rid of a burgeoning, impoverished underclass?

Nope. Well, it may have been the intent -- who knows -- but definitely not the effect. Sure, lots of impoverished underclass were sent to fight and die, but then so did a lot of kids from the upper crust boarding schools and universities (in Blackadder Goes Forth, that'd be Hugh Laurie). And of course, since much of Europe was left utterly obliterated, there was an awful lot more poverty after the war than before.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:17 PM on January 4, 2014


five fresh fish: I think it possible that no one involved with WWI on either side ever said that aloud. But it remains that the kinds of decision-makers who commit their nations to wars, while not actively trying to get millions of young men killed, have their own priorities and biases. They might have enough self-awareness to avoid acting on them directly, but subconsciously (and in some cases, clandestinely) they have a real effect.

(This is one of the reasons that social and economic systems always end up favoring those in power, even when those people might honestly be trying to be good people -- because those people know the importance of those things they are familiar with, and possess, and don't properly weight the importance of those things outside their knowledge. After successive decisions, the slight biases from those decisions accumulates and creates systemic injustice.)

The rulers who decided a whole generation of their nations' young men should die, they might not have been trying to kill then off explicitly, but they were able to cloak their decisions, maybe even in their own minds, beneath rhetoric of going on a grand adventure, or protecting the homeland, or of a number of other purposes that either coincidentally, or "coincidentally," had the effect of wiping out a lot of poor people. Two birds one stone, wot wot.
posted by JHarris at 11:17 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Gove: The conflict has, for many, been seen ... as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.

In reality, this is an argument within conservatism as much (or more) as between left and right, as gamera's reference to Ferguson shows: but see also the work of that notorious leftist, Alan Clark, which was allegedly the inspiration for Oh What a Lovely War.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 1:18 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ugh. UK first, the rest of us next.

Crappy hovels and overtly fascist pols just ahead. Yay.
posted by notyou at 2:05 AM on January 5, 2014


Plus, did nobody ask the French elite about this plan for getting rid of the underclass? Kinda hit the French elite pretty hard, too. Also, Germany?

But, maybe you know? Who knows?
posted by notyou at 2:11 AM on January 5, 2014


The thing is, nothing in Gove's article is new. It's essentially a lazy rehash of what's now the dominant interpretation in Anglophone First World War studies: revisionism. Historians like Gary Sheffield and Dan Todman have devoted whole book chapters to shooting down "Blackadder Goes Forth" and showing why the officer-war-poets were unrepresentative of the First World War experience. It seems like pretty much every book in Anglophone First World War studies now predictably explains why disillusionment was a myth and focusses instead on ordinary "low information fighters" who read the Daily Mail in the trenches and did what they were told. Explanations for Allied success now come down to myopic military-historian-type arguments that focus on things like better coordination between artillery and infantry leading to the victories of late 1918. Revisionist social historians meanwhile do things like pointing out that working-class Brits were used to industrial accidents and rats back home and therefore wouldn't have minded the trenches too much.

That this kind of history is politically useful for the Right should be obvious. (Indeed, as Julian Putkowski pointed out a few years ago, there was a significant cross over between revisionism and academic cheerleading for "liberal interventionism" in Iraq.) Sheffield doesn't sound too happy in that Mail article, but Gove is very much the logical result of the kind of history he's made his career peddling. I do wonder if this might be the beginning of the end for revisionism, especially if UKIP start mirroring Gove's talking points.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:17 AM on January 5, 2014 [9 favorites]


I'm going to flaunt my ignorance and ask this: wasn't WWI mostly about getting rid of a burgeoning, impoverished underclass?

No. Just as it's ridiculous for right-wingers to constantly accuse leftists of being secret communinazi gay muslim atheists, simply due to the right's inability to believe that socialists might actually have the good of humanity in mind, it's utterly absurd to attempt to explain the motivations of an event as complex as the First World War with some absurd Gnomes of Zurich/Bavarian Illuminati-type lets-all-kill-the-poors-because-my-aren't-the-peasants-revolting bit of reductionism. The reasons behind the start of the war are suitably complex to avoid one-line summation, but reasonably well-understood for all that. I realize that British fears of German domination of the continent in general and the Low Countries in particular, German fears of the impending completion of the Russian rearmament program, legacy of the Franco-Prussian War, etc etc for 300 pages is all far less compelling than "rich folk be dicks", but reality has an annoying habit of being more complicated than the average political cartoon (insert picture of a bulldog, a poodle, and a German shepherd with a pointy helmet together mauling person dressed in rags labelled "THE POOR" here).

Not only does history deserve better than such flippant politicizations, the sooner we can take opposite political viewpoints at their word - instead of assuming they must be Hydra-level villains because of an inability of each side to actually sympathize and thus believe what the other is stating - the sooner we'll leave our pleasant bubbles of righteousness and actually achieve some measure of understanding between those viewpoints.
posted by Palindromedary at 2:46 AM on January 5, 2014 [10 favorites]


GeorgeBickham

I'm completely unaware of this, is there an executive summary of the argument and why it is pertinent in such circles?
posted by lovelyzoo at 2:59 AM on January 5, 2014


Hmmmm. While it's true that "killing the poor" was not a direct goal of the war, a willingness to shovel soldiers (most of whom, as in any war, lower-class) into the grinders of trench warfare, shows a pretty stark lack of concern for the lower classes. It doesn't take a radical Leftist to notice this, especially since Falkenhayn's strategy was to hope the carnage would trigger victory-by-social-upheaval. And, in the case of Imperial Russia, the nation that showed the least concern for its soldiers (in some cases not equipping new recruits on the reasoning that there was plenty of equipment lying around at the front), this is more or less what happened.

So intent, no, but the European upper classes' willingness to "spend" the poor pointlessly and even frivolously, shows up 19th C class prejudice that is hard to ignore (although, as we see, some manage).
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:22 AM on January 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


Historians like Gary Sheffield and Dan Todman have devoted whole book chapters to shooting down "Blackadder Goes Forth" and showing why the officer-war-poets were unrepresentative of the First World War experience. It seems like pretty much every book in Anglophone First World War studies now predictably explains why disillusionment was a myth

Er, what is being shot down particularly? For 99% of it the only character at all standoffish about going over the top is Blackadder, and that's not because he's an "officer war poet" (does anyone think people like that existed?!) but because he's Blackadder, basically the same ruthless schemer as his ancestors in Blackadder II and III (I has a different personality). As he admits halfway through the episode, he had been a campaigner, perfectly happy to imperialistically shoot native peoples in the name of the Queen when he had a gun and they had spears. Then a quarter-million Germans hove into view. The thing is, the whole series he's the only one who knows if he goes over that hill he's going to die, which the others only realize five minutes before they go.

(You can except Darling, but he's never really in danger of being put in the trenches until the end. That scene where he's sent off -- if you think it's impossible for Stephen Fry to be chilling, watch him as Gen. Melchett there.)
posted by JHarris at 5:34 AM on January 5, 2014 [6 favorites]


LBJustice :

I cant recommend anything quite so basic on WW1 but Robert Graves' autobiography "Goodbye To All That" contains a stunning and fascinating account of the author's own experiences which will give you a valuable perspective onthe conflict and on attitudes in he UK at that time.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 5:38 AM on January 5, 2014


It's not a history exactly, but I just finished reading Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, which is an excellent exploration of the motifs surrounding WWI in writing and poetry, both contemporary and slightly post-war, and how they relate to reality. It was written in the 70's, but I don't think anything's significantly changed in that area, and it served as a good rough intro to the way the war has been communicated. It's pretty academic, but extremely readable.

(He write a good bit about Graves' Goodbye to All That, as well as the other major writers like Sassoon, Blunden and Owens, so might be a jumping-off point for more books to check out. Surprisingly little time is given to Ford's Parade's End though.)
posted by kalimac at 6:13 AM on January 5, 2014


GeorgeBickham

I'm completely unaware of this, is there an executive summary of the argument and why it is pertinent in such circles?


lovelyzoo: my point was to show that the Oh What a Lovely War! depiction of WW1, which Gove characterises as the opinion of 'left-wing academics' perhaps owes its origin to the work of a well-known British conservative politician (albeit an idiosyncratic one). Ferguson critiqued British involvement in the war from a different position within British conservatism, but also one that is nostalgic for Empire and regretful of the expenditure of blood and treasure on a conflict that he sees as having been against Britain's interests. Both are profoundly at odds with Gove.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 6:15 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


For 99% of it the only character at all standoffish about going over the top is Blackadder, and that's not because he's an "officer war poet" (does anyone think people like that existed?!

Apparently Siegfried Sassoon believed there was at least one.
posted by jaduncan at 6:28 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Revisionist social historians meanwhile do things like pointing out that working-class Brits were used to industrial accidents and rats back home and therefore wouldn't have minded the trenches too much.



Funny- my great-grandfather was in a highland regiment, and was not too upset about being captured at the battle of Passchendaele because it got him out of the trenches.


He was also from working-class Edinburgh and had worn trousers all his life, but at the time, it was considered the height of practical battle-dress for he and his comrades to wear kilts in the Belgian/Northern French winters.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:29 AM on January 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


The reasons behind the start of the war are suitably complex to avoid one-line summation


I'm pretty sure there was an ostrich involved, sir.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:33 AM on January 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


In fact, I'm just going to let Sassoon have my last word:

“The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still”

The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still
And I remember things I'd best forget.
For now we've marched to a green, trenchless land
Twelve miles from battering guns: along the grass
Brown lines of tents are hives for snoring men;
Wide, radiant water sways the floating sky
Below dark, shivering trees. And living-clean
Comes back with thoughts of home and hours of sleep.
To-night I smell the battle; miles away
Gun-thunder leaps and thuds along the ridge;
The spouting shells dig pits in fields of death,
And wounded men, are moaning in the woods.
If any friend be there whom I have loved,
God speed him safe to England with a gash.
It's sundown in the camp; some youngster laughs,
Lifting his mug and drinking health to all
Who come unscathed from that unpitying waste:
(Terror and ruin lurk behind his gaze.)
Another sits with tranquil, musing face,
Puffing his pipe and dreaming of the girl
Whose last scrawled letter lies upon his knee.
The sunlight falls, low-ruddy from the west,
Upon their heads. Last week they might have died
And now they stretch their limbs in tired content.
One says 'The bloody Bosche has got the knock;
'And soon they'll crumple up and chuck their games.
'We've got the beggars on the run at last!'
Then I remembered someone that I'd seen
Dead in a squalid, miserable ditch,
Heedless of toiling feet that trod him down.
He was a Prussian with a decent face,
Young, fresh, and pleasant, so I dare to say.
No doubt he loathed the war and longed for peace,
And cursed our souls because we'd killed his friends.
One night he yawned along a haIf-dug trench
Midnight; and then the British guns began
With heavy shrapnel bursting low, and 'hows'
Whistling to cut the wire with blinding din.
He didn't move; the digging still went on;
Men stooped and shovelled; someone gave a grunt,
And moaned and died with agony in the sludge.
Then the long hiss of shells lifted and stopped.
He stared into the gloom; a rocket curved,
And rifles rattled angrily on the left
Down by the wood, and there was noise of bombs.
Then the damned English loomed in scrambling haste
Out of the dark and struggled through the wire,
And there were shouts and eurses; someone screamed
And men began to blunder down the trench
Without their rifles. It was time to go:
He grabbed his coat; stood up, gulping some bread;
Then clutched his head and fell.
I found him there
In the gray morning when the place was held.
His face was in the mud; one arm flung out
As when he crumpled up; his sturdy legs
Were bent beneath his trunk; heels to the skye.

Siegfried Sassoon
posted by jaduncan at 7:57 AM on January 5, 2014 [8 favorites]


he's an "officer war poet" (does anyone think people like that existed?!)

posted by JHarris at 8:34 AM on January 5


Are you quite, quite sure you're serious here?

Wilfred Owen
Siegfried Sassoon (as previously noted by jaduncan -- I recommend Pat Barker's novel Regeneration for an account of the friendship of Sassoon and Owen at Craiglockhart)
Robert Graves
Rupert Brooke
and among the lesser-known crowd of "officer war poets"
Patrick Shaw-Stewart
Edmund Blunden
Edgell Rickword
Herbert Read
John McCrae

Consider also.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 9:20 AM on January 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


"officer war poet" (does anyone think people like that existed?!)

O level curriculums were quite keen to make sure we did back in 1986 when I had to memorise ten Wilfred Owen poems.
posted by biffa at 9:32 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Enlisted men's war poem.
posted by Artw at 9:42 AM on January 5, 2014


Well, with that evidence I'll concede with that some people might think they were a type. Blackadder certainly wasn't one though, unless his poetry consisted of the word wubble.
posted by JHarris at 10:22 AM on January 5, 2014


Not to dismiss the idea of the "war poet" -- the obviously existed and had a very outsized impact, but I wonder if some of the attention isn't due to the poets being "photogenic" -- they are articulate, often upper class (or upper middle class, at least) and, therefore, tragic in a way that the run of the mill soldier isn't. There are other reasons, of course -- the mere fact that they left records of their experience makes them more noticeable than the mute millions who left nothing more than perhaps a letter or two home and maybe a photograph -- but I expect there is the same class issues that makes us more interested in, say, Edward III than the thousands of peasants, English and French, killed on the battlefields of the 100 Years' War.

Something that I think is very difficult for Americans to grasp is the sheer level of carnage. The American involvement was late and minor on the battlefield, although I expect the new combatant, with its fresh reserves of troops and materials, had a great deal to do with Germany's decision to surrender. American troops just did not experience the level of death nor the duration of fighting that ground so many down. Often, the impact seems to be best seen on the community level -- the deaths were so great that it's easiest to see the impact on towns or counties or provinces where a huge percentage of the men between the ages of 20 and 40 just vanished into the trenches (Newfoundland lost the majority of its male population in approximately an hour*). And when you see this horror clearly, I think the only responses are to condemn the governments, political systems, and philosophies that allowed it to go on for so long to such little purpose or to try and find a way to justify WWI as a "just war" that "had to be fought" or to find some other way to make the whole thing worthwhile.

Of course, one piece of fallout from that latter approach was the incredibly harsh and unjust reparations demanded by the Allies that played a major role in creating a climate where Fascism and Nazism could thrive. An admission of collective guilt might have gone a long way toward building a more successful Europe in the mid-20th C, but, alas, no.

*As an aside, the treatment of Colonial troops by the British Generals is another class issue that could be its own FPP.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:08 PM on January 5, 2014 [9 favorites]


See also, generally
posted by Navelgazer at 2:17 PM on January 5, 2014


Yeah, it was a rather heart-sinking moment when I realized that the Lost Generation didn't mean something figurative but referred to a generation that was lost in the war.
posted by Kattullus at 6:26 PM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


The thing is, though, is that he has got a point. Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the, later, the US were the only liberal democracies in the world. They were fighting, particularly in Britain and France's case, for their survival and way of life.

The Kaiser wasn't Hitler. Neither France nor Britain were fighting for their way of life. (Germany had a more democratic franchise then Britain, by the way).

German war aims were modest. Their September Program, which was only announced after the start of the war (and after Britain's entry ensured it would be a bitter, long struggle) shouldn't be taken to indicate what Germany's objectives really were. But even if taken at face value, it certainly did not pose a threat to the survival of France or the Empire.
posted by spaltavian at 8:05 PM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Something that I think is very difficult for Americans to grasp is the sheer level of carnage. The American involvement was late and minor on the battlefield, although I expect the new combatant, with its fresh reserves of troops and materials, had a great deal to do with Germany's decision to surrender. American troops just did not experience the level of death nor the duration of fighting that ground so many down

This really isn't true for the Americans fighting, and that's largely the Americans' own fault. By 1917, the British and French were just starting to learn some valuable lessons (use of rolling artillery barrages, effective use of tanks, countering gas attacks) and the importance of theater-level strategic planning (with the British reluctantly accepting unified command under the French).

The Americans refused to enter the Allied command structure, and proceeded to wage war exactly the way the British did in 1914. The Americans took heavy losses; but it's true they didn't arrive in huge numbers until 1918, that meant they got hit with the Spring Offensive.

So, no, they didn't have to go through the Battle of the Somme, but they didn't have WWI-lite either.

Of course, one piece of fallout from that latter approach was the incredibly harsh and unjust reparations demanded by the Allies that played a major role in creating a climate where Fascism and Nazism could thrive.

The reparations really weren't that harsh (France had harsher terms in 1871) and the Germans could have paid them. Wiemar leaders are on record has having encouraged hyperinflation to force the Allies to renegotiate the terms, as it was crushing their exports.

In any case, the reparations were effectively over by 1932, and the Nazi's major electoral successes came after the German economy had started to rebound. Contrary to popular myth, the Treaty of Versailles didn't hand Germany to Hitler.
posted by spaltavian at 8:16 PM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


(It's not quite true that Newfoundland lost a majority of its male population, but erasing 1600 young men from an isolated island of 250,000 does leave a huge mark that persists for generations. Joan Sullivan's In The Field is a great documentary look at how, in a community small enough, the loss of even a single life can break the chain that keeps the community together and functional, dooming it).
posted by erlking at 9:51 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]




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