Using the war

In response to Chris’s comment on the post below, I thought I might post up another chunk of my draft chapter. Again, I think that this needs some more work- particularly, I think there is a valid point to be made about the use of some aspects of ‘revisionism’ to justify a neo-con agenda. But my basic argument stands.

Particularly with regard to long-running arguments about British generalship, what should be stressed is the degree to which public opinion has become locked in an ‘oppositional discourse’. This is one of those historical fields – like appeasement – where the even moderately informed layperson automatically attaches the word debate. It is assumed that controversy and argument will arise, and indeed some members both of the academy and the general public have responded to such challenges by repeating the ‘Donkeys’ myth with more vehemence – strengthened in their conviction by the fact that such incompetence is being covered up by that murky figure, the Establishment. Those who would seek to popularise the still developing military history of the war face the problem that engaging with these debates – as they must do if their voices are to be heard at all – tends to confirm both sides in the views they already hold, rather than moving on the subject as a whole. To give an example, the National Army Museum’s 2006 Somme exhibition – which in itself sought to present a wide variety of different interpretations and experiences of the battle – was advertised with a leaflet setting it in the context of debates about generalship, with the strapline: ‘Where over 300,000 lie dead, where do you stand?’[1]

This oppositional discourse is significant in the relationship between the depiction of the First World War and contemporary events. Looking back at previous representations of the war, it is sometimes possible to see a strong connection between creative intention and contemporary geopolitical context. Famously, the emphasis in the work of A.J.P. Taylor and Joan Littlewood on the supposedly accidental way in which the war began grew out of a conviction that this was a relevant story in the nuclear era. If incompetent posturing had produced war in 1914, it could do so again, with even more devastating consequences, in 1963.[2] Despite the interesting times in which we have lived since 2001, and the potentially tempting parallels – British troops again in Basra and Baghdad, another seemingly futile conflict – there is little evidence of the First World War being mobilised by journalists, writers or producers to inform modern Britons about the international situation. This may be because both the unconventional nature of these modern wars makes a comparison with total war seem inappropriate: Vietnam has proved a much more natural reference point to most commentators. It may also be because the First World War is not now popularly perceived in terms of ideological conflict, whereas much of the rhetoric, official and unofficial, of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is phrased in such terms.

Where the First World War is referenced in relation to modern battles, it is predominantly in superficial or passing terms: a note that British troops are again at war, or a reminder of the need not to forget combatants each Remembrance Day. That key international event, the World Cup of 2006, provoked remarkably few references to the First World War, despite its coincidence with the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Neither the Sun front page with Wayne Rooney as Lord Kitchener (‘Your Country Needs Roo’) or a TalkSport Radio presenter’s question to Nigel Steel of the Imperial War Museum (‘Was Billy Nevill any relative of Gary Neville, I wonder?’)[3] seem to have been serious references to the Great War. In cliché or drunken song, both English press and fans were much more likely to make use of imagery relating to the Second World War. The exception, perhaps, was Martin Rowson’s Guardian cartoon of a distraught England fan crying on the steps of a memorial listing the missing from the Somme, with a sign at the bottom pointing to the ‘Annex’ for the War on Terror and Afghanistan.[4]

This should not be taken as indicators that the First World War has disappeared altogether as a point of public reference. If commentators have been reluctant to mobilise it with regard to more modern conflicts, military and civil, individual reaction to representations of the First World War will often draws such parallels once the subject has been raised. This has been particularly apparent during recent discussion of pardons for those British soldiers shot at dawn. For some readers, wartime executions clearly stand for official callousness and incompetence through the ages. As one wrote on the Times website:

Perhaps a determined and concerted offensive to ensure so called authority figures are never allowed to make such ‘illegitimate’ and incomprehensibly absurd decisions ever again is called for. It may be an idea for our wretched leaders and their well-trained, functional henchmen, wherever they are in the world, to simply stop fighting pointless wars.[5]

Bearing in mind the history of the popular reputation of the First World War, such symbolism is perhaps to be expected, as was the suggestion that all army commanders should be labelled ‘mass murderers’. We might, however, juxtapose these with another comment from the same site: ‘New Labour is becoming more Orwellian by the day. This is an attempt at re-writing the past. No doubt it is easier to emotively meddle with the past than to take decisive action within the present.’[6] In these cases, attitudes towards the war often seem a function of political viewpoint: it has become an illustration rather than a central concern. The Ministry of Defence may have sought to mobilise the war as a means to bolster its reputation at a moment when its duty of care for modern soldiers was a matter of discussion, but popular reaction concentrated on contemporary concerns.

What is important for this discussion, however, is less the rights and wrongs of the pardons debate and more the form that it took in practice. The moral issues of pardoning the past were debated, but the actual phrasing of the amendment was not. Similarly, phrases such as ‘shell shock’ and ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ were bandied around with no attempt to unpack their meanings. The mythic First World War is sufficiently well known to require no further explanation, with the result that even when the quantity of public discussion increases, the degree of interaction and interrogation remains low.


[1] Somme 90th Anniversary exhibition leaflet, National Army Museum Chelsea, London (2006).

[2] Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory, 104-5, 138-39.

[3] Sun, 1 July 2006, 1. Billy Nevill was the officer of the East Surreys who famously gave his men footballs to kick over the top into No-Man’s Land on 1 July. I am grateful to Dr Nigel Steel (who was being interviewed) for this example.

[4] Guardian, 3 July 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/cartoons/martinrowson/0,,1811464,00.html, accessed 21 October 2006, 9.52 am.

[5] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,1068-2318007.html, accessed 21 October 2006, 9.56 am.

[6] Ibid.

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