Spartacus Blog

Should history teachers use Blackadder in the classroom?

Wednesday, 15th January 2014

John Simkin

In an article on the teaching of the First World War in The Daily Mail on 2nd January, 2014, Michael Gove wrote: “Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage. 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, 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.”

Gove then goes on to argue: "The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war. The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.”

The Education Secretary says it is time to listen to historians such as Margaret Macmillan who has “demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order”.

Gove then goes on to attack Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian by claiming that he has argued that “the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong”. Just to make sure that The Daily Mail readers will support his argument about Evans, he points out that he also writes for The Guardian.

Of course it is possible to agree with both Richard Evans and Margaret Macmillan (although Macmillan was quick to point out that she does not agree with Gove’s analysis of the First World War). There is no doubt that most of the men who joined the British armed forces in the weeks following the outbreak of war were “believers in king and country”. This idea is reinforced by reading the letters that they wrote to their loved ones during the early stages of the war. There is also some evidence that junior officers who had come straight from public school thought they were “defending the western liberal order” if Gove means by that our system of parliamentary democracy.

However, that does not make Richard Evans wrong by claiming that “the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong”. Despite what the politicians told them at the time, it was clearly not “a war to end all wars”. It is Gove who is trying to perpetuate a myth by claiming this was a war between “militarism and democracy”.

If Michael Gove took time to read some history books that deal with this issue he would discover that Germany had a more comprehensive democracy than Britain in 1914. All adult men in Germany had the vote whereas after the 1884 Reform Act about 40% of adult men in the UK were still without the vote. All adult men in the UK did not get the vote till 1918. It was one of the rewards given to them for fighting in the war.

Nor was Germany any more militaristic than the UK. The root cause of the conflict was Germany’s desire to have an empire as large as the one enjoyed by the British. The left in Germany opposed this objective. The Social Democratic Party in Germany, like the Labour Party in Britain, were opposed to imperialist wars.

In 1907 Karl Liebknecht published Militarism and Anti-Militarism. In the book he argued: "Capitalism, of course, like every other class-divided social order, develops its own special variety of militarism; for militarism is by its very essence a means to an end, or to several ends, which differ according to the kind of social order in question and which can be attained according to this difference in different ways. This comes out not only in military organization, but also in the other features of militarism which manifest themselves when it carries out its tasks. The capitalist stage of development is best met with an army based on universal military service, an army which, though it is based on the people, is not a people’s army but an army hostile to the people, or at least one which is being built up in that direction."

Liebknecht then went on to argue why the socialist movement should concentrate on persuading young people to adopt the philosophy of anti-militarism: "Here is a great field full of the best hopes of the working-class, almost incalculable in its potential, whose cultivation must not at any cost wait upon the conversion of the backward sections of the adult proletariat. It is of course easier to influence the children of politically educated parents, but this does not mean that it is not possible, indeed a duty, to set to work also on the more difficult section of the proletarian youth. The need for agitation among young people is therefore beyond doubt. And since this agitation must operate with fundamentally different methods – in accordance with its object, that is, with the different conditions of life, the different level of understanding, the different interests and the different character of young people – it follows that it must be of a special character, that it must take a special place alongside the general work of agitation, and that it would be sensible to put it, at least to a certain degree, in the hands of special organizations."

Karl Liebknecht, the leader of the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party had a significant following until the wave of patriotism that spread across Germany in 1914 and was the only member of the Reichstag who voted against Germany's participation in the First World War. He argued: "This war, which none of the peoples involved desired, was not started for the benefit of the German or of any other people. It is an Imperialist war, a war for capitalist domination of the world markets and for the political domination of the important countries in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism. Arising out of the armament race, it is a preventative war provoked by the German and Austrian war parties in the obscurity of semi-absolutism and of secret diplomacy." (Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the two leaders of the anti-war movement in Germany were imprisoned during the war and then murdered by the Freikorps soon after their release.)

Yet according to Gove, Germany was not fighting for an increase in the size of an empire as that would make them look like us. His interpretation is slightly different: “The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.”

To support his argument that Britain was defending the “western liberal order” Gove stresses that the country went to war against Germany after the invasion of Belgium on 4th August 1914. In reality, we entered the conflict because Germany declared war on Russia on 1st August 1914. This was as a result of the 1907 agreement where Britain joined France and Russia to form the Triple Entente. Of course, it is not convenient for those who wish to portray the war as a “defence of the western liberal order” to acknowledge that our chief ally in the war, Russia, was a despotic dictatorship.

Gove attacks left-wing historians and popular television programmes for developing the myth that the war was fought by “lions led by donkeys”. This is of course not just a left-wing interpretation. The phrase was first popularised by Alan Clark in his 1961 book on the First World War, The Donkeys. Clark was later to become a Conservative MP and a minister under Margaret Thatcher.

Gove argues in his Daily Mail article: “Other historians have gone even further in challenging some prevailing myths. Generals who were excoriated for their bloody folly have now, after proper study, been re-assessed. Douglas Haig, held up as a crude butcher, has been seen in a new light thanks to Professor Gary Sheffield, of Wolverhampton University, who depicts him as a patriotic leader grappling honestly with the new complexities of industrial warfare.”

I would not object to Gove’s description of Haig “as a patriotic leader grappling honestly with the new complexities of industrial warfare.” However, Gary Sheffield is saying much more than this. As he said in an interview in the Military History Magazine (January 2011): “I am not claiming he (Haig) was a military genius, but the nature of the Western Front meant that every attack by either side had to be frontal - there were no flanks to turn. Haig actively promoted the methods and technologies that eventually helped break the deadlock - new tactics, machine guns, effective training, airpower, artillery, tanks and the like. In my book I argue that Haig's role in the transformation of the British army from the clumsy amateur force of 1916 to a superb instrument of war in 1918 was his greatest achievement.” Sheffield then goes on to say: “He was too profligate with lives and prolonged some battles, but there were political or operational/tactical imperatives for doing so, certainly at the Somme and Passchendaele. Ultimately, he was a winner.”

Sheffield therefore agrees with the critics of General Douglas Haig that he “was too profligate with lives” but as far as he is concerned it was justifiable because ultimately we won the war. His comments about the reason for victory is debateable (I would say it had a lot more to do with the arrival of the Americans in 1917) but it is clear that Sheffield is unwilling to consider the morality of the tactics used by Haig.

There is nothing new about Sheffield’s arguments. The Haig family commissioned Duff Cooper, the Tory MP, to write his biography. The book made an attempt to defend the tactics employed by Haig on the Western Front. As Cooper's biographer, Philip Ziegler, points out: "The executors of Earl Haig's estate were inspired by it (his biography of Talleyrand) to invite Cooper to take on the official biography of the field marshal. The assignment was financially rewarding but not suited to Cooper's talents; when it appeared in two volumes in 1935 and 1936 it was widely criticized for being inadequately considered and being biased in favour of its subject."

One of Haig’s staunchest critics was David Lloyd George, who was prime minister during the war. In his War Memoirs (1938) he argued: "It is not too much to say that when the Great War broke out our Generals had the most important lessons of their art to learn. Before they began they had much to unlearn. Their brains were cluttered with useless lumber, packed in every niche and corner. Some of it was never cleared out to the end of the War. They knew nothing except by hearsay about the actual fighting of a battle under modern conditions. Haig ordered many bloody battles in this War. He only took part in two. He never even saw the ground on which his greatest battles were fought, either before or during the fight. The tale of these battles constitutes a trilogy, illustrating the unquestionable heroism that will never accept defeat and the inexhaustible vanity that will never admit a mistake."

Captain Charles Hudson was one of those officers who took part in the Battle of the Somme. He later wrote: "It is difficult to see how Haig, as Commander-in-Chief living in the atmosphere he did, so divorced from the fighting troops, could fulfil the tremendous task that was laid upon him effectively. I did not believe then, and I do not believe now that the enormous casualties were justified. Throughout the war huge bombardments failed again and again yet we persisted in employing the same hopeless method of attack. Many other methods were possible, some were in fact used but only half-heartedly."

This was the view of most junior officers. Lieutenant Bernard Montgomery, served on the Western Front in the First World War. He later recorded his views on the generals who ran the war: “The higher staffs were out of touch with the regimental officers and with the troops. The former lived in comfort, which became greater as the distance of their headquarters behind the lines increased. There was no harm in this provided there was touch and sympathy between the staff and the troops. This was often lacking. The frightful casualties appalled me. The so-called ‘good fighting generals’ of the war appeared to me to be those who had a complete disregard for human life.”

Montgomery points out: “There is a story of Sir Douglas Haig's Chief of Staff who was to return to England after the heavy fighting during the winter of 1917-18 on the Passchendaele front. Before leaving he said he would like to visit the Passchendaele Ridge and see the country. When he saw the mud and the ghastly conditions under which the soldiers had fought and died, he was horrified and said: ‘Do you mean to tell me that the soldiers had to fight under such conditions?’ And when he was told that it was so, he said: ‘Why was I never told about this before?’”.

The historian Sir Llewellyn Woodward wrote about the tactics of Sir Douglas Haig in his book Great Britain and the War of 1914-1918 (1967). “His knowledge of his profession was sound and solid; he was a man of strong nerve, resolute, patient, somewhat cold and reserved in temper, unlikely to be thrown off his balance either by calamity or success. He reached opinions slowly, and held to them. He made up his mind in 1915 that the war could be won on the Western Front, and only on the Western Front. He acted on this view, and, at the last, he was right, though it is open to argument not only that victory could have been won sooner elsewhere but that Haig's method of winning it was clumsy, tragically expensive of life, and based for too long on a misreading of the facts.”

Woodward does not question the morality of his tactics that only became possible by the introduction of conscription but did question the wisdom of attrition warfare: “Haig failed to comprehend that the policy of ‘attrition’ or in plain English, ‘killing Germans’ until the German army was worn down and exhausted, was not only wasteful and, intellectually, a confession of impotence; it was also extremely dangerous. The Germans might counter Haig's plan by allowing him to wear down his own army in a series of unsuccessful attacks against a skilful defence. Fortunately the enemy generals were of much the same ‘textbook’ type of mind as Haig.”

During the Somme Offensive, the British has suffered 420,000 casualties. The French lost nearly 200,000 and it is estimated that German casualties were in the region of 500,000. Allied forces gained some land but it reached only 12km at its deepest points. Haig wrote at the time: "The results of the Somme fully justify confidence in our ability to master the enemy's power of resistance."

The historian Norman Stone has claimed that Haig was the greatest Scottish general ever, since he killed more Englishmen than any other. However, as Nigel H. Jones, who reviewed the book in The Daily Telegraph, suggested: “Professor Sheffield’s response is that Haig killed even more Germans – and in the cold statistics of attrition lies his acquittal…. For all Sheffield’s solid scholarship and admirable advocacy, the nagging thought remains: what a terrible shame it was that Haig’s progress along his learning curve had to be greased by such deep floods of blood.”

Gary Sheffield claims that “Haig actively promoted the methods and technologies that eventually helped break the deadlock - new tactics, machine guns, effective training, airpower, artillery, tanks and the like. In my book I argue that Haig's role in the transformation of the British army from the clumsy amateur force of 1916 to a superb instrument of war in 1918 was his greatest achievement.” However, an article written by Haig in 1926 suggested that he never fully grasped the lessons of the First World War: “I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse - the well-bred horse - as you have ever done in the past."

There is no doubt that Blackadder has reinforced the idea of a war where “lions were led by donkeys”. It is part of a tradition that dates back to the statement entitled, Finished With War: A Soldier's Declaration, made by Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon on 15th June 1917: "I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation."

Considered to be recklessly brave, Siegfried Sassoon acquired the nickname "Mad Jack" during his two years serving on the Western Front. In June 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for bringing a wounded lance-corporal back to the British lines while under heavy fire. Later he was unsuccessfully recommended for the VC for capturing a German trench single-handedly. After being wounded in April 1917, Sassoon was sent back to England and while recuperating in hospital decided to write this statement.

With the help of his friend Bertrand Russell, Sassoon arranged for a sympathetic Labour Party MP to read out the statement in the House of Commons in July 1917. It was also published by Sylvia Pankhurst in her newspaper, The Woman's Dreadnought. Instead of the expected court martial, the under-secretary for war declared him to be suffering from shell-shock, and he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh. During his three months there he became friends with the young poet Wilfred Owen, whom he encouraged and helped to write poetry. Sassoon also resumed his friendship with Robert Graves, who was also suffering from shell-shock at the time. The two men had been lovers while serving in the trenches together and planned to live together after the war.

When it was clear that the Finished With War: A Soldier's Declaration was being ignored by the general public, the three men decided to concentrate on writing poetry. Robert Graves's Fairies and Fusiliers (1917) and Siegfried Sassoon’s The Old Huntsman (1917) and Counter-Attack (1918) were largely ignored by both critics and the general public. In the final stages of the war it was considered unpatriotic to discuss the reality of war.

The same was true of the years following the war. Publishing was dominated by generals writing about the good job they had been doing over the last four years. Corporal George Coppard, who fought at the Battle of the Somme, wrote in his book, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969): “I was demobbed a few days after my 21st birthday, after four and a half years of service. My leg had shrunk a bit and I was given a pension of twenty-five shillings per week for six months. Dropping to nine shillings per week for a year, the pension ceased altogether. During this time the government, in the flush of victory, were busily engaged in fixing the enormous sums to be voted as gratuities to the high-ranking officers who had won the war for them. Heading the formidable list were Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and Admiral Sir David Beatty. For doing the jobs for which they were paid, each received a tax-free golden handshake of £100,000 (a colossal sum then), an earldom and, I believe, an estate to go with it.”

Wilfred Owen, who had been killed by machine-gun fire while leading his men across the Sambre Canal on 4th November 1918, had only had five poems published while he was alive. In 1920, Siegfried Sassoon, who was now working as the literary editor of The Daily Herald, arranged for the publication of Owen’s Collected Poems in 1920. Isaac Rosenberg, who had also been killed during the war, had his poems published in 1922. However, like those books of poems by Sassoon and Graves, they were received in almost complete silence. No one wanted to be told about the futility of war. Instead they were waiting for David Lloyd George to build a “country fit for heroes”.

Charles Montague, a journalist working for the Manchester Guardian, was 47 years old in 1914. Like his editor C. P. Scott, Montague argued in the summer of 1914 against Britain becoming involved in a war with Germany. However, once war had been declared, Montague believed that it was important to give full support to the British government in its attempts to achieve victory. Montague wrote to Scott: "I have felt for some time, and especially since I have been writing leaders urging people to enlist, a strong wish to do the same myself. I wrote last week to the War Office to ask if there was any chance of getting over the difficulty of my few years over the limit of age, and I was told that although the War Office could not directly break the rule itself, it did not veto exceptions made by those responsible for the raising of new battalions locally."

Montague spent two years in the trenches but in 1916 he was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant and transferred to Military Intelligence. For the next two years he had the task of writing propaganda for the British Army and censoring articles written by the five authorized English journalists on the Western Front (Perry Robinson, Philip Gibbs, Percival Phillips, Herbert Russell and Bleach Thomas). He also took important visitors for tours of the trenches.

In 1922 he published his book on the war, entitled Disenchantment (1922). This passage should be sent to Michael Gove: "The freedom of Europe, the war to end war, the overthrow of militarism, the cause of civilization - most people believe so little now in anything or anyone that they would find it hard to understand the simplicity and intensity of faith with which these phrases were once taken among our troops, or the certitude felt by hundreds of thousands of men who are now dead that if they were killed their monument would be a new Europe not soured or soiled with the hates and greeds of the old. So we had failed - had won the fight and lost the prize; the garland of war was withered before it was gained. The lost years, the broken youth, the dead friends, the women's overshadowed lives at home, the agony and bloody sweat - all had gone to darken the stains which most of us had thought to scour out of the world that our children would live in. Many men felt, and said to each other, that they had been fooled."

The reception of Montague’s book was little different from that of the war poets. The change in consciousness towards the war began in December 1928 with the first production of Journey's End. The play had been written by Captain R. C. Sherriff, who had been severely wounded at Ypres in 1917. It had been turned down by most of the theatres in London and only appeared after the intervention of George Bernard Shaw. As his biographer, John Courtenay Trewin, points out: “Journey's End, a play based upon his letters home from the trenches, in the new year of 1929 he became one of the most discussed English dramatists of the day…. The play is set entirely in a claustrophobic dugout before St Quentin on the eve of the March offensive of 1918. Sherriff, who always favoured naturalism in theatre, had sought to give no more than a straight, simple impression of the terrors of the western front in a play written with so much honesty - no heroics, no pretence - that its characters stamped themselves upon the English theatre of their time.” The play was a great success and there were 594 performances in London. It was also translated and performed in every European language.

The success of Sherriff's play opened up the way for other soldiers to write about their experiences in the First World War. Publishers now became interested in publishing books on the subject of trench life. In 1929 saw the publication of Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves. It immediately became a best-seller and along with the publication of Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), Frank P. Crozier's, A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930), Frank Richards's Old Soldiers Never Die (1933) and Guy Chapman's, A Passionate Prodigality (1933), helped to change the public consciousness of war and popularised the notion of “lions led by donkeys”.

I remember reading Goodbye to All That in the 1960s. The thing that struck me was the contrast in the portrayal of the junior officers in the front-line and the senior officers at headquarters. One passage that still has an emotional impact on me concerns the death of Sampson: “Sampson lay groaning about twenty yards beyond the front trench. Several attempts were made to rescue him. He was badly hit. Three men got killed in these attempts: two officers and two men, wounded. In the end his own orderly managed to crawl out to him. Sampson waved him back, saying he was riddled through and not worth rescuing; he sent his apologies to the company for making such a noise. At dusk we all went out to get the wounded, leaving only sentries in the line. The first dead body I came across was Sampson. He had been hit in seventeen places. I found that he had forced his knuckles into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting any more men to their death.”

Compare that to this passage concerning an attack where the battalion suffered very heavy casualties. Only three junior officers, Choate, Henry and Hill survived.

Hill told me the story. The Colonel and Adjutant were sitting down to a meat pie when Hill arrived. Henry said: "Come to report, sir. Ourselves and about ninety men of all companies."

They looked up. "So you have survived, have you?" the Colonel said. "Well all the rest are dead. I suppose Mr. Choate had better command what's left of 'A'. The bombing officer (he had not gone over, but remained at headquarters) will command what's left of 'B'. Mr. Henry goes to 'C' Company. Mr. Hill to 'D'. Let me know where to find you if you are needed. Good night."

Not having being offered a piece of meat pie or a drink of whisky, they saluted and went miserably out. The Adjutant called them back, Mr. Hill, Mr. Henry."

Hill said he expected a change of mind of mind as to the propriety with which hospitality could be offered by a regular Colonel and Adjutant to a temporary second lieutenant in distress. But it was only: "Mr. Hill, Mr. Henry, I saw some men in the trench just now with their shoulder-straps unbuttoned. See that this does not occur in future."

Although the writers that have promoted the idea that the First World War was a case of “lions led by donkeys” such as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Guy Chapman, and the writers of Blackadder (Richard Curtis, Rowan Atkinson and Ben Elton), all went to public schools, their intention was to show the war from the point of view of the “Tommy”.

That has not always been the case. When I first started teaching in 1977 this point of view was not used in the history textbooks that were in my school. That is why the first teaching booklet I produced was Contemporary Accounts of the First World War that included the two passages from Goodbye to All That quoted above. This approach only became the norm after the introduction of the GCSE history curriculum in 1986 and reinforced by the History National Curriculum in 1988. Both reforms introduced by a Conservative Party government. However, as Robert Phillips pointed out in his book, History Teaching, Nationhood and the State (1998), that this was not what they wanted to happen.

Michael Gove is clearly unwise to tell history teachers not to use Blackadder in the classroom. Teachers will clearly not take any notice of these instructions. What is more, they might think more deeply about this and other subjects they teach. I agree that what goes on in the classroom has political consequences. Has the showing of Blackadder had an impact on recruitment into the armed forces? If so, is that a good or bad thing? What I do know, is that a fully informed citizen, is better prepared to deal with government propaganda. If those young men, like my grandfather, John Edward Simkin, who joined the British Army on the outbreak of the war and killed the following year on the Western Front, had been educated in the classroom to question those in authority, would they have volunteered their services to protect the nation from “German militarism”?

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