Tuesday, January 21, 2014

World War One Revisited

In the centenary year of the start of World War One we have already not been wanting in commentary, controversy and analysis of this watershed catastrophe.  Education Secretary Michael Gove kicked it off with a typically broad-brush and poorly researched article in the Daily Mail.  Gove is no historian, and has no historical credentials, but he did at least put the war on the front page for a while, even if his methodology was roundly criticised by Cambridge Regius Professor of History Richard Evans.  It is also true that there are plenty of myths surrounding the war which could do with a bit of bulldozing, a process that has been going on now for over a decade.

Television historian Dan Snow has written a useful and illuminating guide to ten of the most egregious World War One myths, and why they should be consigned to Tortsky's dustbin of history, on the BBC News site.

The debunking was given popular impetus some years ago with the publication of Gordon Corrigan's book, "Mud, Blood and Poppycock", which that admirable educator and historian John D Clare summarises in a series of well chosen extracts from the book here.

The inventor of the phrase "Lions Led by Donkeys", intended to raise up the British soldier over his incompetent leaders, was historian (and later Tory MP) Alan Clark.  No stranger to controversy, Clark originally attributed the phrase to German general von Falkenhayn, but never produced his evidence and later - apparently - admitted he had made it up for his book, "The Donkeys".  His trenchant view of the generals, however, didn't waver and he wrote a further article condemning Haig in particular, in 1998, which can be found here.

There are plenty of other links - pro and anti Haig and the generals - on John D Clare's website here, while the causes of the war have been subject to just as close a scrutiny as its consequences and conduct.  Max Hastings, Christopher Clark and Margaret MacMillan are three well known historians who waded into print on the subject of causes in their different, and each very readable, books.  It is probably Clark's which achieved most praise from the historical community, but Hastings and MacMillan were also well received.  For those who perhaps don't have time - doubtless because of other reading commitments - to wade through all three of these books, a useful summary article from the History Today blog about the different approaches to understanding the causes of World War One is here.

All in all, 2014 is clearly going to mark a tidal wave of views, articles and books on its notable centenary.  But this is just a taster of 2015, which is after all the centenary of some of World War 1's most notable battles, the bicentenary of Waterloo (which never properly received a centenary commemoration owing to the little matter of World War 1), the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, and the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.  Oh, and the Sutton Grammar School CCF is 100 years old, and I'm 50.  I can hardly wait.

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