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"lions Led By Donkeys" - Topic Close To Billb's Heart


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The otherwise execrable UK government's Education Secretary Michael Gove has called the lie on the gospel according to Blackadder and declared that it has no place in history lessons, pointing the finger at "lefties" and their revisionist approach to WWI.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jan/04/labour-gove-first-world-war-comments

 

It's amusing, of course, because BillB (and many others here) have been saying much the same thing for years and the title trope has been looking pretty ragged in the face of actual, you know, evidence.

 

Whether one can point the finger at "lefties" or not is, for me, the interesting question. I believe that Lloyd-George has been pointed at by some as being responsible for the donkey spin (as it were), and thus not so much a leftie as the US interpretation of "Liberal" might suggest.

 

regardless of the political capital being made, it's about time this appalling misrepresentation of history was exposed to the light. I wonder if anything will actually change in schools.

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If it's not replaced by "Donkeys led by lions" it would be fine. It interesting that the French, who suffered as much the "marching-into-machine-gun-fire" syndrome never went as far.

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Read C.S. Forester's fiction book, "The General" sometime. In it, he explains the mindset and the phenomena of the British army leadership in WWI. Similar to the US Civil War when officers used to leading companies are now commanding divisions and corps.

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I'm rather more interested in overturning the Blackadder narrative rather than in the details of the current political spin.

 

It is easy for the war poets, sat on the front line and seeing people die horribly to be critical. And it is a soldier's lot to believe that everything asked of him is stupid.

 

The important point is that there were reasons for the war being conducted as it was, and whilst saying they were "valid" might be a stretch, they were certainly not entered into with a complete disregard for the human costs - but those costs were considered necessary.

 

I am also at a loss to understand how you can consider the "only mistakes" being to pick bad allies and to invade Belgium. What just cause did Germany have for invading anyone?

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I am also at a loss to understand how you can consider the "only mistakes" being to pick bad allies and to invade Belgium. What just cause did Germany have for invading anyone?

The same cause as France & Russia had, both of which invaded Germany in the summer of 1914.

 

While one can justly criticise German enthusiasm for war, & egging on Austria-Hungary, the French & Russians were equally up for it. Russia assumed that war with Austria meant war with Germany, & planned to counter German plans by invading Germany, & France assumed that any war between Austria & Russia also had to be a war of Russia & France against Germany, & planned to invade Germany. Basically, everyone intended to join in any war, & their war plans were all "Attack!".

 

There was plenty of guilt all round. The Serbian military intelligence service had recruited, armed & trained terrorists to assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian thrones, which indubitably put Serbia in the wrong. The Austro-Hungarians saw this as an opportunity to crush Serbia, & were so intent on war that when the Serbs meekly accepted their deliberately excessive demands almost entirely, they rejected the near-total Serbian surrender as inadequate - & so on . . .

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Regarding specifically British leadership in WW1, John Terraine's essays on the subject are most definitely worth reading.

 

 

http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-on-land/john-terraine-essays-on-leadership-and-war-1914-18.html

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Good read indeed, I liked this paragraph:

 

On 21 March 1918, General Sir Julian Byng and General Sir Hubert Gough were attacked by 50 identified German divisions on that single day. No British general of the Second World War ever saw 50 German divisions or anything like that number. The only one who ever even glimpsed the main body of the German Army during that war was Lord Gort, in May and June 1940. Even my beloved 'Bill' Slim won his famous Burma victory over only about nine Japanese divisions - out of an Order of Battle of 174. So comparisons are useless, unless you can compare like with like; but there is nothing in our history like the role of the British Army on the Western Front in the Great War.

I

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With all due respect Stuart, I think you have the wrong end of the stick on a number of points. The current "lions led by donkeys & futile & needless slaughter" meme was a pacifist thing that began in a very small scale in the late 1920s when some of the war poets were picked up by the Bloomsbury Group et al; the same intellectual "elite" were also behind the similarly narrowly supported Oxford Peace Pledge Union business in the 1930s. They and the supposedly universal perspective they represent was never more than a very small intellectual clique which gained very little traction at that time because there were lots and lots of people about who had served in the Great War and who held a very different (and majority) view. The very common historical problem you have is that the latter didn't bother to set their view down as it was so blindingly obvious they didn't think there was any need, which has left a gap in the historical record ripe for folk with axes to grind to exploit for their own purposes. Despite the current "popular" perception the evidence shows that the majority view up until c.1939 was that the First World War had been a heavy but necessary sacrifice in order to stop Prussian/German militarism and put it back in its box. For proof take a look at how many First World War veterans turned out for Haig's funeral in 1928, a decade after it was all over, both the official ceremony in London and arguably more importantly the 30,000 at his actual funeral out in the middle of nowhere at Alnwick. They'd have hardly done that if they thought they'd been gulled into a needless and futile slaughter. Regarding the literary perspective, I'd suggest you look at one of the very few Other Rank memoirs based on a diary kept against regs at the time, Private 12768 by John Jackson; he was a Kitchener volunteer who served right through the War and he gives a diametrically opposite view to that of the War Poets including a retrospective conclusion he wrote ten years after to see if he felt the same then (he did). Another contemporary account, albeit in novel form but in the same vein is Frederic Manning's Her Privates We, and consider the mass market popular fiction published in Britain between the wars. There was shedloads of stuff about the Great War aimed at young males ranging from comics like Chums, Boy's Own and Champion to full on novels like those by Frederick Sadlier Brereton and W.E. Johns of RFC scout pilot and Biggles fame. Just about all of it flew in the face of the War Poet & pacifist stance and much of it remained in print right through the 1920s and 30s. Then as now only stuff that sells gets published, and I cannot see why the public would consistently purchase stuff for getting on for two decades & through the depression if they didn't agree with what it was saying.

 

The lefty bit arguably came in with the second wave of revisionism which appeared in the late 1950s/early 1960s with Clark's The Donkeys which IIRC Clark admitted years later was deliberately provocative tosh, and more importantly Joan Littlewood's 1963 pacifist stage play Oh! What A Lovely War which was turned into a film at the end of the 1960s. The latter tells you all about what 1960s left-wing pacifists and their assorted political fellow travellers thought of the conflict but very little about what actually happened between 1914-18 or more importantly what the people involved actually at the timethought about it. Despite this the Littlewood narrative has set the tone for the popular perceptions of that conflict (and indeed every other - consider the blond squaddy in Zulu asking "Why?") ever since. Blackadder Goes Forth is merely a 1980s update, the same narrative can be clearly identified at least up to a point in the ground-breaking 1964 BBC documentary series The Great War (there were shedloads of veterans about then - watch it & compare the number of interviews with the extracts from the war poets) and it has shaped the way the First World War is taught in schools ever since. I've seen it for myself in the c.40 secondary schools I've worked in over the last decade - the futile & needless slaughter line is peddled across the board in history teaching and is presented unquestioningly as context when looking at the War Poets in English Literature (not history note), not least because the vast majority of the teachers simply don't really know much about the topic. Indeed, having been exposed to the same stuff at schools themselves many simply don't realise that there is any differing perspective, and the recent focus on exam results and league tables has exacerbated the problem and encouraged such lazy teaching. The end result is half a century of deliberate misrepresentation being presented as verifiable historical fact, and not just in schools. The same view held sway until around the mid-1970s in universities and still does despite the work of folk like John Terraine, Peter Liddle, Richard Holmes, Hew Strachan & Gary Sheffield et al; have a look at Richard Evans view in the second link below - I've had to link articles from the Daily Heil as that is where Gove originally put out his piece with a response from Evans & Sheffield the following day. Personally I think it amusing that the folk who are trying to correct the 1960s revisionists are now accused of revisionism themselves. I think the old saw by Lenin or Stalin (IIRC) about repeating a lie often enough has rarely been so apt... :unsure:

 

BillB

 

Linkies:

 

Goves original article in the Wail (scroll down past the title piece) :http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2532923/Michael-Gove-blasts-Blackadder-myths-First-World-War-spread-television-sit-coms-left-wing-academics.html

 

The response from Evans & Sheffield: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2533619/History-dons-Gove-ban-Blackadder-Great-War-comedy-not-documentary-schools-argue.html

 

And an entirely predictable contribution from that ardent communist Knight of the Realm Comrade Tony Robinson: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/05/tony-robinson-michael-gove-blackadder-first-world-war

 

Thought this might be of interest too from 2006: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/5130386.stm

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There was an interesting article by a social historian in the RUSI Journal about a dozen years ago. The point made was that conscription resulted in all sorts of people who were never going to volunteer finding themselves on the W Front, including a fair number of what today would be called 'luvvies'. For these people it was a total and utter culture shock, and hence much of the 1920s writing. For the industrial working class it wasn't that bad, they got three meals a day, sudden death wasn't a stranger (industrial OH&S was unheard of) and their immediate managers (ie company level officers) shared the risks, took an interest in them and looked out for them.

 

As for the generals, they were forever riding/driving around visiting their troops (not lurking in chateaus) and were open to novel ideas (who first used tanks? ah the 'donkeys'). The reality was there was no simple bloodless solution to the situation on the W Front.

 

There was no linear road of events in mid 1914, its best to think of these events as a set of interlocking mechanisms each with its own logic. However, my own view is that the root cause was the failure of the revolution in 1848 (and the ensuing survival of the three autoracies until 1917/8), and its consequences were not really closed until 1989.

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There was no linear road of events in mid 1914, its best to think of these events as a set of interlocking mechanisms each with its own logic. However, my own view is that the root cause was the failure of the revolution in 1848 (and the ensuing survival of the three autoracies until 1917/8), and its consequences were not really closed until 1989.

It makes you wonder as a "what if" the possibility that the US didn't fall prey to British disinformation and propaganda and had only offered their "good offices" to negotiate a peace. Would the Allies and Central power have been able to negotiate a peace in 1917 on a status quo pro ante basis and saved

Europe and the world a lot of anguish 1920-1989?

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Not a bad brushup comparison in the article. On generalizing, I wonder if the quality of leaders and diplomats and their greater responsibility to elected parliaments today would be counted on to prevent blunders such as the backing of the coming Sick man of Europe (Austria-Hungary) by imperial decree. The militarism of the day might now be resident only in the Chinese and North Korean setups, and the second one has little value.

 

"Not worth the bones of a Pommeranian grenadier" was aptly applied to the Balkans in the 1880s, and proved prescient. The same could have been said of Iraq and Afghanistan in recent times, the latter once relearned in the 19th C. The recent experiences of conventional warfare and doubtful results should stick around for awhile: anybody note the taking of Al Fallujah by alleged Al Qaeda groups the other day? Israel's wars of expansion and contraction also read that way.

 

So, maybe it just comes down to nuc proliferation, which still seems to work, not that some jump for glory types already wanted to settle the hash with Iran .. a most 1914 attitude.

 

We also need to remain wary but also aware that two-bit demagogues and seeming totalitarians of the Near and Middle East have little in common with those of the early 20th C: Hitler, Stalin, Hirohito and even Mussolini. Except for [possibly] China and [inscrutable] Russia, the combination of industrial might with totalitarian rule is just not around in this century.

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For the industrial working class it wasn't that bad, they got three meals a day, sudden death wasn't a stranger (industrial OH&S was unheard of) and their immediate managers (ie company level officers) shared the risks, took an interest in them and looked out for them.

 

 

 

And probably it went beyond that as Army life would be comparatively easygoing compared to working 6.5 days a week on a factory. As there was not an offensive every month, "quiet" periods and/or troops on inactive fronts would find it as close to a vacation as many would have ever enjoyed. I have read the same feeling on the WW1 like Spanish Civil War OR's.

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There was no linear road of events in mid 1914, its best to think of these events as a set of interlocking mechanisms each with its own logic. However, my own view is that the root cause was the failure of the revolution in 1848 (and the ensuing survival of the three autoracies until 1917/8), and its consequences were not really closed until 1989.

It makes you wonder as a "what if" the possibility that the US didn't fall prey to British disinformation and propaganda and had only offered their "good offices" to negotiate a peace. Would the Allies and Central power have been able to negotiate a peace in 1917 on a status quo pro ante basis and saved

Europe and the world a lot of anguish 1920-1989?

 

 

I don't think a compromise solution would have worked for any side after the slaughter of 1914/15, which were a shock to all and made both sides want the other to pay for it.

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There was no linear road of events in mid 1914, its best to think of these events as a set of interlocking mechanisms each with its own logic. However, my own view is that the root cause was the failure of the revolution in 1848 (and the ensuing survival of the three autoracies until 1917/8), and its consequences were not really closed until 1989.

It makes you wonder as a "what if" the possibility that the US didn't fall prey to British disinformation and propaganda and had only offered their "good offices" to negotiate a peace. Would the Allies and Central power have been able to negotiate a peace in 1917 on a status quo pro ante basis and saved

Europe and the world a lot of anguish 1920-1989?

 

Well leaving aside that I'm not sure what you mean by "British disinformation and propaganda" Richard, I'd say the answer is no. I don't really see why the protagonists would have wanted to negotiate on that basis in 1917 any more than they did for real, and IMO it was that line of thinking as pushed by Wilson that actually caused Europe a lot of anguish 1920-1989. The reason Round 2 came in 1939 was not because the Allies were beastly to the Hun, it was because US idealistic interference prevented the Allies from being beastly enough to the Hun by preventing the conflict from reaching its proper conclusion as it did in 1945. As we've seen in numerous places across the globe since 1945, half-measures and wishful thinking merely allow bad situations to drag on and store up trouble for the future, and I'd argue that Wilson's involvement in the "ending" of the First World War was the beginning of that tendency.

 

BillB

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With all due respect to our British and Commonwealth friends, I think the "lions" end of things is just as much of an exaggeration as "donkeys". Not that British and Commonwealth troops weren't courageous or even enthusiastic at times -- but they weren't the dominant predators that the epithet "lions" evokes. They were just working class and lower middle class men, most of them relatively young, who just wanted to get on with it. And they certainly weren't noble men, most of them. If they had any emotional connection with their enemies, it was a mutual hatred. Harassing fires, for example, weren't called "hates" for comic effect. Even when the men on the line and in the immediate rear areas understood the necessity, they didn't see such things, including trench raids, sniping, and the like, as anything other than the enemy and themselves putting on as a good a show of dastardliness as could be mounted in the name of killing people who deserved killing.

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There was an interesting article by a social historian in the RUSI Journal about a dozen years ago. The point made was that conscription resulted in all sorts of people who were never going to volunteer finding themselves on the W Front, including a fair number of what today would be called 'luvvies'. For these people it was a total and utter culture shock, and hence much of the 1920s writing. For the industrial working class it wasn't that bad, they got three meals a day, sudden death wasn't a stranger (industrial OH&S was unheard of) and their immediate managers (ie company level officers) shared the risks, took an interest in them and looked out for them.

 

As for the generals, they were forever riding/driving around visiting their troops (not lurking in chateaus) and were open to novel ideas (who first used tanks? ah the 'donkeys'). The reality was there was no simple bloodless solution to the situation on the W Front.

 

There was no linear road of events in mid 1914, its best to think of these events as a set of interlocking mechanisms each with its own logic. However, my own view is that the root cause was the failure of the revolution in 1848 (and the ensuing survival of the three autoracies until 1917/8), and its consequences were not really closed until 1989.

Fair one ref the last two paras and especially the last, but the first bit is looking at the past through modern glasses I think and more importantly it totally misses arguably the most significant development of that era. The BA didn't leap from BEF to conscription, there was also the New Army raised by Kitchener, and the fact that the latter reflected every facet of British society from top to bottom blows a bit of a hole in that theory I think.

 

BillB

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I'm rather more interested in overturning the Blackadder narrative rather than in the details of the current political spin.

 

It is easy for the war poets, sat on the front line and seeing people die horribly to be critical. And it is a soldier's lot to believe that everything asked of him is stupid.

 

The important point is that there were reasons for the war being conducted as it was, and whilst saying they were "valid" might be a stretch, they were certainly not entered into with a complete disregard for the human costs - but those costs were considered necessary.

 

I am also at a loss to understand how you can consider the "only mistakes" being to pick bad allies and to invade Belgium. What just cause did Germany have for invading anyone?

When Russia mobilised against Austria, what option did they have? Yes we can say 'Germany should not have been aggressive'. But in reality were they? It only started from supporting an Ally with some not entirely unreasonable demands. Even Britain thought those demands were reasonable, contrary to later myth making that suggested the demands were the toughest on record. Looked at from the German perspective, if you were going to fight a war on 2 (more than 2 actually) fronts, then the only alternative was to take one enemy out first. And it was from that view logical to take out the most fearsome enemy, France, first.

Was Germany in the moral right to invade France? No of course not. Did it have an alternative at that point faced by the alliance system that was lined up against it? Short of stopping Austro Hungary going to war probably not, but who could have predicted the results THAT would have. Even that action only became critical when Russia decided to (over)react to it.

 

There was an interesting lecture on over Christmas on the Parliamentary Channel featuring an apparently eminent British historian (whom im ashamed I can remember the name) who suggested that Asquith was sympathetic to Germany's fear of encirclement, and that Britain was actually drawing away from France in the months before war (which explains perhaps British reluctance to commit troops to defend France). Which highlights Germanys real mistake, invading Belgium inevitably would drag Britain into the war and could actually have been avoided, whereas war with France (as in 1870) would not. So we should be more concerned over the infringement of Belgian neutrality, rather than the invasion of France. From a moral point of view it may be indefensible and I wouldnt try, but that's not the same as saying it was cold practical sense. After all, it WAS Frances choice to ally with Russia, a country lead by one of the last absolute monarchs in the world, and a man with all the intellectual capacity of pickled herring.

 

The main criticism you can level at Germany is they over reacted. But that's exactly the same as you could say about Russia, and few if anyone levels that charge at them, largely because it implies Britain and France were unwise to support them in the years leading up to war.

 

Good came from the war, primarily the removal of the Kaiser and the introduction of Democratic Governance to the German Empire, albeit briefly. Looked at like that we can hardly claim it was a waste. But that's not the same as saying the cause of the war clear cut and honourable. Britain had the cleanest hands of all in standing up for Belgium, but we surely have to expect some of the blame for the multiple pileup that was world war 1 by allying with an ally (Russia) that was just as aggressive as we accused Germany of being, and thereby emboldened it. Indeed, perhaps it was a suspicion that Russia was not a safe pair of hands that lead us to slowly draw away from the Entente in the months leading up to war?

 

 

Bill, Ill address your points later, I hope you can forgive me for being tardy I REALLY ought to start doing some work this morning. :)

 

Ref the last bit, that makes two of us. :(

 

Ref the rest & regarding German aggression being no worse that anyone elses, how many of the Great Powers planning subordinated diplomacy and a legally binding treaty to military pragmatism and deliberately factored in the violation of a neutral state's integrity as the first step in its strategy? And how many inextricably linked mobilisation and attack? :)

 

BillB

 

BillB

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Well, it could be said that the Treaties of Trianon and Saint-Germain were beastly enough to Hungary and Austria.

Indeed, but I don't think the label Hun was attached to Hungary and Austria either. :)

 

BillB

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Given the German plans for 1917, I don't think any negotiated peace would have been found agreeable. Once Brest-Litovsk is signed in 1918, there will be no agreed peace with restoration of pre-war frontiers, either.

 

Bill, the shining example of militarism is the Dual Alliance, but Sazanov knew that their mobilization meant war. A partial mobilization in just the southern districts might have meant containing the conflict to Serbia, but the Tsar's military advisors would not take that risk. Of course, risk was in everybody's mind and none seemed bearable.

 

DB, the only German war plan active is a modified Schlieffen Plan. War with anybody means attacking France, through Belgium. This is what is meant by militarism. William actually faltered at one point in his mobilization and asked if they could only move against Russia. The GS said it was not possible, but Gen Groener, who headed the RR office of the GS in 1914, wrote postwar that they could have done it. There are more mistakes.

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Major problem of military history of Western Front, or WW1 in general, is that English-speaking world concentrates only on British war literature: what the Germans and French have written about the war is almost entirely untranslated and almost all casual - and many serious - history buffs are completely ignorant about them. And if their conclusions are mentioned somewhere, they tend to be ignored or discredited because of their 'foreigness', apparently only British military historians can be unbiased and neutral. For example, very extensive Wikipedia article about Battle of Somme contains 32 references from English-speaking world, zero from elsewhere.

If someone today would write a history on WW2 Eastern Front based only on German sources, he would be laughed off the stage. Yet for some reason, WW1 history runs around in circles recycling same primary sources, arguments and viewpoints, all of which are British.

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