Radio gaga

End-of-term-itis and family bereavement means the blog is suffering at the moment. But just to celebrate my moment of glory while it’s there – for the next week you can hear me and others talking about the memory of the First World War on the BBC Radio 4 programme Things We Forgot To Remember.

Immediate reactions from two friends number 1) a pedantic economist who pointed out that I said munitions of atomic proportions when what I probably meant was munitions the blast of which could be measured in the same way as an atomic explosion, not really really small weapons.

Immediate reactions from two friends number 2) ‘Came in just at the bit where you finished a sentence “…ideal of masculinity.” and Michael Portillo started telling the audience who you were “Dan Todman,…” Got a bit confused.’


11 Responses to Radio gaga

  1. Jack says:

    With my limited knowledge of the subject, I thought this was a very good piece of radio with a good variety of voices (literally and metaphorically). For what it’s worth, it made sense to me and I wanted to keep listening.

    On the show-biz front, I’m delighted you got so much air-time. And if you hadn’t done some humming and a few niminy-piminies beforehand you certainly sound like you had. Very clear, but very natural. You make it sound easy. But then, I’ve always thought radio would suit you (and no ‘perfect face for radio’ gags).


  2. Paul says:

    You probably don’t need this right now – but Julian Putkowski contributed an ill-tempered, hatchet job of a review of this on one of the (too many) WWI discussion lists (Kansas?) I subscribe to. Let me know if you haven’t seen this and want to – not really worth bothering with much, I would have thought. Shall try to ‘listen again’ tonight, as I’m sure it bears little resemblence to the real thing.

  3. Chris Williams says:

    Hey Paul – can you forward it? It’s me that Julian should be arguing with, not Dan. It’s a topic that I’d like to take up with him – ideally over a pint, but other forms of communication would do. Actually, I wasn’t entirely happy with the last couple of minutes, but that’s my fault and no-one else’s: I got to edit the script.

    Overall, though, I’m still proud of it as a bit of radio and a bit of history, even if as political statement, I’m happier with all the other programmes from series two. Especially next Monday’s, which is another corker from the ‘war and society’ point of view.

    Alas for me and Julian, lots of things in the past turned out the way they did, not the way we’d have wanted them to. The attitude of the vast majority of the BEF to the Great War is one of those things.

  4. Alan Allport says:

    Especially next Monday’s, which is another corker from the ‘war and society’ point of view.

    This is the Attlee government program, right? Can you give us a taster? (This is bang in the middle of my research interests).

  5. Chris Williams says:

    It’s the gospel according to Jose Harris, Martin Gorsky and David Edgerton. Pretty obvious stuff to anyone who knows the first thing about it, but still rather at odds with the view that the educated public appear to hold.

    “Welfare State built on wartime foundations, largely a product of necessity shock. Attlee’s government not a bunch of ideologues. etc”

    Now I’ve given away the punchline. Damn. On the other hand, it’s got 4 ex-cabinet members in it, and I’ll give a fiver to the charity of Dan’s choice if anyone can guess all four before it’s plugged.

  6. Chris Williams says:

    Drat: the answer to the question that I posted above has already been leaked on the website.

    All you Dan fans out there have yet to hear the last of him: an out-take clip from the programme found its way into one of the podcasts that we did on the back of it, also available via the open2 website.

  7. Paul says:

    No problem, Chris, drop me an email on and I’ll forward it to you.

  8. Alan Allport says:

    Aww, don’t we all get to see it?

  9. Dan says:

    Yeah, I can take it: share the wealth.

  10. Paul says:

    Well… you asked for it…

    Posted on the Kansas (WWI-L@LISTSERV.KSU.EDU) WWI discussion email group, date as stated. Reaction from people on it mixed as you might expect!

    Assume I am fine cutting and pasting here as it is available free on t’internet (via and selecting December 2006, thread no. 22)

    Date: Tue, 5 Dec 2006 00:16:49 +0000 From: Julian Putkowski, Subject: Radio 4:
    Things we forgot to remember 3 December 2006


    I heard presenter Michael Portillo’s recent,
    cringingly bad contribution to Ripperology and rather hoped that this evening’s offering, about the First World War, simply could not have been worse. Waaaal – I wuz wrong.

    The programme was a bit of a cut and paste effort,
    derived in great measure from ‘The Great War; Myth and Memory’ – and in addition to the author, Dan Todman, it featured a trio of conservative military historians: Hew Strachan; John Bourne and the self-styled WW1 ‘revisionist’, Gary Sheffield.

    The thesis advanced by the programme rested on the premise that the British public’s perspectives about the First World War have failed to take due account of the tactics, military genius of the generals; native British technical innovation and ingenuity, and the victories achieved in 1918 by the British and American forces.

    It maintained that the war was justified because of
    German autocracy, which was alleged to be proto-Nazi and the atrocious behaviour inflicted by German troops during the invasion and occupation of Belgium and Northern France.

    The soldiers, it was argued did not see themselves as ‘victims’ but as victors and regarded Field Marshal Haig as a great leader – exemplified by the crowds that attended the rituals accompanying the latter’s burial.

    It was explained that the public impression about the First World War is mistaken and misguided, principally because the speedy German surrender after the British victories of 1918 had pre-empted contemporary recognition in the UK of the scale of the military achievement. A combination of ‘Disillusionment’ during the 1930’s; George Orwell’s notional contempt for soldiers; undue attention paid to Conscientious Objectors and the prominence attached to sentiments expressed in Wilfred Owen’s critical poetry about the
    war in British school syllabi were also claimed to
    have played a part. Then, in the 1960’s Joan
    Littlewood’s musical, ‘Oh! What a Lovely War!’ and
    John Terraine’s ‘Great War’ TV series cemented the
    generally negative impression of the First World War.

    There was little attempt at balance in this programme and many of the claims were ill-supported and basically consisted of a sustained collective whine about the British public view of the First World War being pre-occupied with the losses sustained during the battles of 1916 and 1916 and not the advances of Summer 1918. Yet the programme’s perspectives were no
    less selective, for it wholly failed to include any
    reference to the military debacles and slaughter of
    1914 and 1915, when the British Expeditionary Force suffered under the indifferent military stewardship of Field Marshal French. Nor was there any reference whatsoever to the activities of generals other than Field Marshal Haig or any other theatre of war, other than the Western Front.

    It was rather surprising that the programme did not openly acknowledge Todman, Sheffield and Bourne’s established reputations for celebrating the ‘rehabilitation’ Field Marshal Haig. However, in their eulogy of the (sic) much misunderstood and maligned ‘perfect Knight’ (pace Chaucer’s “parfait gentil knight”?), nary a reference was made to Haig’s primary critic, the wartime Prime Minister Lloyd George. Moreover, the size of the crowds attending the rituals after Haig died is frankly insufficient evidence of anything more than a big turnout for the burial of a famous figure, albeit (rightly) to be compared with the burial of the Queen Mother and Diana, Princess of Wales. As for the critics of Haig, crudely lumping together George Orwell, Joan Littlewood and John
    Terraine is ludicrous for it takes little account of
    their very different ideological perspectives, the
    media they used, and the size and scale of public
    response to the criticisms they advanced. Was the
    programme suggesting that this disparate trio of
    critics successfully bamboozled the British public: a soi-disant Trotskitye cum informer; a Cockney
    Communist and a dyed-in-the-wool Tory? May it equally have been the case that their audiences were already of the opinion that British generalship during the First World War was less than satisfactory? If not, may not Todman et al also engaged in seeking to impose their own, albeit contrary stamp, on what they regard as a malleable British public?

    Advancing the proposition that the Second World War was a ‘just war’ and that the First World War has wrongly been regarded as an ‘unjust’ war is frankly, nonsense. Leaving aside interpretation of the Second World War as a just war, the thesis advanced during the programme was, with reference to the First World, decidedly partial. Thus, Germany was damned as an
    autocratic, imperialistic and a notionally proto-nazi regime, exemplified by the killing of 5000 Belgian non-combatants in 1914 and the oppression and deportations from German-occupied Belgium and Northern France. All well recognised – but measured against what criteria? King Leopold’s treatment of the Belgians? British pre-war oppression of all who actively resisted British imperialism? In terms of the articulation and exercise of racial superiority, what were the key differences between British, Belgian and
    German imperial attitudes and policies? A brief
    interrogation of British military activities in India
    or Ireland would yield an appreciation of the
    bankruptcy of identifying autocracy solely with
    Wilhelmine Germany.

    Turning now to the programme’s interpretation of
    Wilfred Owen’s poetry, which was acknowledged to be of literary worth. Interpretation of the content of Owen’s poetry and condemnation of the ‘old lie’ was reckoned to be contradicted by the poet being decorated for gallantry, and being killed in action. The programme inferred that school syllabi paid too much attention Owen’s declared intention to write about the ‘pity of war’ purportedly contradicted by his military career. This is nonsense – as anyone engaged in teaching Owen’s poetry invariably refers to the actuality of the poet’s military career. If the programme is suggesting that school syllabi lack balance in teaching the poetry of the First World War then they failed to produce evidence to support their
    implication that school students have been
    indoctrinated by anti-war teachers – and it is hard
    not to conclude that Todman et al, qua Owen,
    protesteth too much.

    The case being advanced by the programme hinged on the sound bite that ‘we won the war and we won it well’, due in great part to technological genius (SMLE rifle, Lewis guns, tanks, artillery and air power – but not poison gas?); improved tactics and domestic industrial output in 1918. All of which states the obvious but omits any reference to the weakening of the German forward effort by the Allies sustained naval blockade or the changing war aims of the Allies – which
    latterly included territorial aggrandisement as
    opposed to coming to the aid of Belgium.

    No reference was made to the coercion employed by the British and other armies – including conscription. Britain was transformed into a police state during the First World War and almost half of the soldiers under Haig’s command were conscripts – whose views about the First World War are ill acknowledged in work produced
    by Todman et al, and for that matter, John Terraine.

    All in all, this programme boiled down to a
    Conservative politician presenting a conservative
    review of conservative historians’ interpretation of
    the First World War. This was not only because it was avowedly patriarchal, politically narrow and a general apologia for British militarism circa 1914-1919. It is also because it reflected an uncompromisingly realist neo-Whiggish view of history: war toys and tactics, big men and big battles, and (no argument about it) the victors were all stout chaps – and woe betide anyone who sez they ain’t – for Todman and chums, such critics are either gutless, gormless or plain



  11. Alan Allport says:

    There is much to chew over there. and much that I disagree with. But one small point I would agree with Putkowski on is that the program didn’t handle Orwell very well; the reference to him ‘despising’ WWI soldiers (presumably from My Country Right or Left) was clumsily phrased and somewhat misleading.

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