For the First World War historian, the approach of 11 November in a year ending ‘8 is always slightly tinged with an empathy for grouse on the 7 August or turkeys in the run up to Christmas. ‘Maybe this time round it will be okay… hold on, what’s that chap in the tweed with the gun doing?’ How will the war be remembered this time round, and will the remarkable boom in First World War studies (inside and outside the academy) have registered on the popular consciousness?
This is also the first major anniversary in which I have played a part as a supposed voice of authority. I was interviewed for the BBC Timewatch programme about the last day of the war, and I’ve been asked to do other media work and turned it down from pressure of work.
My initial reaction was rather pessimistic. I was, frankly, disappointed with Timewatch. I really enjoyed the process of being interviewed for it, I have always been hugely impressed with the historical knowledge and understanding of those involved in making these programmes, and I had really high hopes for what it might be. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at dissociating my interest in the war from my devotion to television, and I recognise that a documentary on the war which would please me as a historian would probably be pretty unwatchable by anyone else. There were all sorts of things right and wrong with the programme as history, but I also thought it fell a bit short as entertainment.
Presented by Michael Palin, The Last Day of World War One sought to examine the end of the war and particularly the stories of the men who died on the last morning of fighting before the armistice came into effect. There were several good things about it: partly because it focused on the last day it got across the point that there were armies other than the BEF on the Western Front; it did get across that the battlescape in late 1918 wasn’t made up of static trench lines; and some of the individual stories offered a means into what might other be rather blank statistics.
Historically, however, I felt it missed out an awful lot of context and analysis. The numbers of men who died on the last day of the war weren’t related to the rest of the war – was this a bad day or a good day for the grim reaper? The relationship between the different Allied armies wasn’t explored – we were left to assume that the Americans (who suffered the worst casualties) attacked on that day because their leaders were stupid or politically ambitious, but there was no sense of the Allies trying to keep up the pressure on the Germans and sequencing their attacks along the front. The basic question of how you stop a war wasn’t entered into: the need to get a message out to soldiers on both sides and persuade them to all stop at the same time, the fear of deception or error. And above all, despite the programme’s focus on individuals, there was no exploration of the motivation that kept men fighting to the end. There was a heavy reliance on Joe Persico as a talking head – because he had a strong point to make, and good stories to tell, about the American army (where, in fairness, there was a post-war controversy about 11 November). But it is abundantly clear from Persico’s book that he sees generals as villains and soldiers as victims. A far more interesting, and dangerous, question is not ‘Why did generals keep ordering attacks until the ceasefire?’, but ‘Why did men on both sides keep fighting?’ Blaming an elite for the tragedy of the First World War is a cop out – it is vital to explore popular motiation (and its decline) as well.
Televisually, Timewatch suffered from two things. The first was that it didn’t have a strong enough thesis to get its teeth into. Presenter driven history programming needs a quest. But, particularly for Britain, there isn’t much of a scandal or a revelation to be entered into about the fighting between the signing and the implementation of the armistice. So it turned into a quest to track down the last men to die. Which was interesting once, but repeated again and again became a bit antiquarian.
The second, and biggest problem was having a celebrity presenter. This was much more the case, I thought, than with the Richard Hammond presented episode on Omaha earlier in the year. If you’ve spent a lot of money on a presenter, you’ve got to have him doing things. So we had Palin in a cemetery, Palin wandering through a field still littered with live ammunition (for one moment, I thought he was going to blow his foot off, which might have been a cracking way to persuade celebrities to leave history well alone), Palin taking the relatives of the last British soldier killed to see his grave, then waiting… and waiting… until they finally started crying, and finally Palin seeking his relative’s name on a memorial wall. Palin’s post-Python career has been based around travel programmes. And that’s largely what Timewatch became: except this time his itinerary carried him along the Western Front. Maybe it’s inevitable that this is what the BBC’s premier history strand now is: Holiday 1918. But the problem is that whilst the presenter is emoting over relics, they’re not telling us more about historical events.
Given there was an hour of space to fill, I could have done with a lot less ‘Gosh, that is so moving’, and a lot more ‘Why?’. I’m not one to decry the use of the celebrity mock everyman in mainstream history programming too much. If they mean more people watch, fine. But the performance of the celebrity can have a big impact on the quality of the programme. Did Palin write his own script, I wondered, or was he told what to say? Because his words seemed often to confound both the questions the programme did try to raise and the ‘experts’ who had been interviewed. Above all, at the very end, when it did finally creep in that maybe there was an interesting tension between the desire to end the war and stop more men dying, and the need to ‘finish the job’ and not leave the Germans to start up again in twenty years time, Palin totally drowned it with an effort at syrupy, if heart felt, gravitas. What was his closing thought? That 11 November 1918 summed up the whole war because it was a colossal, futile tragedy. True enough, at one level. But no development at all on the start of the programme.
All that, and my appearance was so cut down that my hours of interview ended up with about 60 seconds of screen time. To be a media whore is bad enough, but to be a media whore who only gets to act as a fluffer… oh, the shame In seriousness, it was a useful learning experience in the degree to which you can get asked loads of really good questions, give lots of what you think are pretty good answers, but still end up having very little influence on the shape of the final programme.
My grumpiness only increased when I saw the Guardian’s banner advertising on its main page throughout last week, foreshadowing its series of booklets on the war from this Saturday on, and based around the idea that the war wiped out a generation of British men, but left a generation of women empowered. Where to start with what’s wrong with that?
The result was that, when I was asked to write a piece about the commemoration of the war for the website OpenDemocracy, I was rather pessimistic.
But perhaps I was wrong. There is certainly evidence that different versions of the war are making it through the media. I’m not sure how far I agree with Gary Sheffield’s placing of long, as well as short term blame on Germany for starting the war, but to have this put forward in a major national newspaper is at least a start. And look, even if they killed people, the First World War generals were trying to do a hard job: it must be true, Dan Snow says it (although that didn’t really come across as much as it might have done in the television programme that spawned the article).
Maybe the web is the answer. The defence that I suspect television producers would put up is that their job is now to make people interested, and that if 1% of the audience explores more, and 1% of them reads an article that makes them think, you’ve still reached more people than you would by teaching for half a career, or than will ever buy your academic book. And if you were interested to find out more and clicked through the Open University’s website, there were routes to find better programmes. I’d be fascinated to be told the statistics on how many people actually do this: the OU’s forum seems to have been taken over by trolling about how the programme was made. My entirely anecdotal impression is that lots of people have caught one or other bits of the BBC’s programming and been interested to discover things they haven’t known before. And the web is making some of the business of access to primary sources much easier. It grieves me that television makes historical research look simple, or suggests that family history is the only appropriate way in, but if audiences are engaged by that, they will discover the complications and varieties for themselves.
In principle, this represents a democratisation of history which I think would be a good thing. But television hasn’t exactly abandoned a Reithian ideal of the enlightened expert educating the masses – providing that expert has a screen persona like Simon Schama or David Reynolds, and they can be stuck somewhere they won’t interfere with the voting for Strictly Come Dancing.
Part of me still thinks, however, that the idea of television history as an entry point is a cop out. With a subject as mythologically set as the First World War, if you leave it up to people to draw their own conclusions, they’ll use the received wisdom to reinforce what they already believe. That’s not to say you have to tell them what to think: but I do think that there is a social responsibility to encourage audiences to question their assumptions. I don’t want everyone to agree with my interpretation of the First World War. I do think it would be quite a good idea if they thought about how they acquire and use their beliefs about it. (Okay, if you’re Eastender Natalie Cassidy, and you need to ask ‘what did a graves exhumation unit do?’, it is probably necessary for you to acquire some beliefs first. And I don’t mean that nastily – Cassidy was a good reminder that lots of people just don’t know anything about the war at all).
A more positive approach – rather than withdrawing from the whole process of public history in a humph – would be to explore ways to make best use of the opportunities it offers. If it does serve to inspire interest, what are the ways to allow people to follow that up as quickly as possible? If I think it’s patronising its audience are there ways to work round the gatekeepers and engage people directly? Or should I accept that television executives know their job better than me, and maybe audiences want to be patronised? There are very complex issues about the nature of history, the task of historians and the responsibility of academics here: ones that deserve more detailed discussion than simply bashing the media.