From Michael Gove to Michael Morpurgo, everybody seems to be commenting on the Great War of 1914-1918, as the press begins its countdown to the first day of the centenary of this world event – 28th July 2014. Gove’s most recent claim that the media, the government, the education system and the public’s opinion of WWI as a ridiculous and futile war is an opinion that has been tirelessly shaped by left-wingers is hot news on the press at this time, with Tony Robinson aka Baldrick in Blackadder hitting back.
I studied First World War literature, and inevitably the war, during my A-Levels, and at 27 have already twice visited the trenches and battle sites of Belgium and France in my life. I’m guessing Gove has also studied the same literature to some degree. Whatever your opinion is of pig-headed generals, men being used as machine gun fodder, court martials etc, it can’t be denied that it’s not just post-war media, like Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War that has built this impression of the war, but the first-hand literature and accounts that came directly from the days of the war itself – on which these iconic titles have been based. And which Gove himself probably studied at some point during his education.
Still, I’m open to alternative interpretations about the war, and aim to read some books on this subject in the future, such as Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities by Gary Sheffield, though I find it hard to see how the statistics can prove anything but futility; with 60,000 British casualties, 20,000 of whom died, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the British army obviously appreciates its soldiers more today, with what seems like every individual British death from modern wars reported in the British news.
But there’s something else I’ve noticed that seems to be cropping up in the press and that’s the apparent, idyllic ignorance of Britain before 1914.
Yes, this time 100 years ago, Britain was unaware of the atrocities that war could and would bring in the very near future, having been accustomed only to guerilla warfare in the Boer and Crimean Wars – way before the birth of Weapons of Mass Destruction during WWI. Yes. Britain was ignorant – but it definitely wasn’t idyllic. In 1913, it seems that 25% of Britons were living in poverty, which would explain why so many men initially rushed to sign up for the army when war broke out – they’d get an income, clothing and a regular meal. And it wasn’t just these men who were excited about war, nor just the rest of the country: in fact, it seemed as though the whole of Europe was ready for a war and a revolution, which may be a reason why many countries jumped on the bandwagon. Though the Suffrage Movement was put on hold until the end of the war to the dismay of many, most of Britain welcomed this apparent path to a political revolution in their country which a war would surely bring about.
Whilst the Russians got theirs in 1917, and bailed out of the war, the end of the war for Germany – 11th November 1918 – was a little less like the overhaul they’d had in mind. The impossible terms of the Treaty of Versailles signed on that day would continue to haunt Germany for the remainder of the 20th century – along with the rest of the world.