The Use of Britain’s War Dead as a Political Tool. Post from History at Teesside

Teesside University History MA student Gary Daly discusses the recent political arguments over how to commemorate WWI in their historical context

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On the second of January of this year, Minister for Education, Michael Gove wrote an article for the Daily Mail that ‘challenged the left-wing myths about the First World War’.[i] In it he claimed that these leftist myths thrived in the national psyche because, they had been ‘peddled through fictional dramas such as, Oh, What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder. All of which, in his opinion portray the First World War as, a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite’.[ii] Gove also claimed that, this negative narrative of the conflict was being promoted by academics such as Richard Evans who, his in opinion, has interpreted the historiography in the manner of, ‘an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery…rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate’.[iii] Gove then went on to argue that the conflict had not been anything other than a ‘just war’ against, ‘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’, and that the narrative used in these fictional dramas was a deliberate misrepresentation of these facts by left-wingers with an agenda to portray the conflict in a manner that ‘denigrated virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage’.[iv] He concluded by stating that, the view that honouring the sacrifice of the soldiers during the First World War was an exercise in narrow tub-thumping jingoism’ was wrong and unpatriotic that had no place in the teaching of the First World War in Schools.[v]

It goes without saying that Mr Gove’s comments have been refuted by those he criticised, and that they have also sparked a heavily politicised debate about how we represent and remember the conflict. Blackadder actor Tony Robinson has criticised Gove for ‘[categorising] teachers who would introduce something like Blackadder as left-wing and introducing left-wing propaganda [as] very, very unhelpful…particularly unhelpful and irresponsible for a minister in charge of education’.[vi] While, Labour MP Tristan Hunt responded to Gove’s comments by stating that, ‘the reality is clear: the government is using what should be a moment for national reflection and respectful debate to rewrite the historical record and sow political division’.[vii]

So what is so contentious about the historiography of the events of 1914-1918, and the use of Blackadder Goes Forth in secondary school history classes?[viii] The answer to this lies in the generally accepted British metanarrative that, the Great War was the ‘quintessence of futility’.[ix] This narrative that the Great War was, ‘worse than a tragedy… nothing less than the greatest error of modern history’, has been used as a vehicle to teach the history of it in Great Britain for the last century.[x] This has resulted in the creation of an established, ‘semi-official’, British narrative of the First World War that has been used to shape British national identity, which defines who we are, and how we represent ourselves as a nation.[xi] This has resulted in the creation of a modern myth of regret, betrayal, and failure that, has its origins in the events and emotions of the time. It is a distortion rather than a fabrication, of these events which have, Daniel Todman has argued, ‘over the last century become a legend, which [has] its basis in fact [and] has [taken] on a life of its own’.[xii] (I feel that, here I must stress that in using the term myth, that I mean an emotionalising of the narrative of the First World War, which is based upon fact, rather than the creation of a fictional narrative of it that is not perfect). Those who disagree with, or dispute the accuracy of this narrative of the Great War are generally considered to be committing cultural heresy, as any challenge to this narrative is seen as unpatriotic, almost an act of treason which defiles the memory of the glorious dead and is disrespectful to our shared glorious imperial martial past.

 

This myth established in the 1920s, has influenced how British society has constructed, and revised its narrative of the Great War in order to create its sense of national identity, in the post-imperial period. It established what the nation stood for and through the ritual of remembrance this myth has been used to re-affirm these values.[xiii] This use of the Britain’s military history, is born of the nation’s need to maintain its perception of itself as, a major world power, capable of acting unilaterally as a world policeman, and a need in the latter part of the twentieth century to ‘pull the nation together again and restore national will… to arrest [an] escalating [social] crisis’.[xiv] However, any act that rejects or criticises this myth, and the beatification of the fallen martyrs of Britain’s armed forces, such as Assed Baig’s questioning of the poppy’s status as a symbol of peace, is viewed almost universally as being an heretical act of disloyalty to the nation.[xv]

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This has been evident in how this ‘myth’ has been used by British politicians to create, and successfully plant in the national consciousness the ideological construct of ‘“the just” war as paradigm for action’.[xvi] This model has become as important to Britain’s national identity, as the narrative of futility and sacrifice of the ‘lost generation’, that manifested itself in the literature devoted to the history of the Great War’.[xvii] This portrayal of the myth of a futile war, and its use as a justification for, and construction of the ‘just war paradigm’, has to an extent retarded cultural consideration of the Great War in Britain and been almost universally accepted by, the political mainstream, and dissenters on the periphery of the political nation.[xviii] Since the end of the Great War Britain’s political leaders have invoked the ‘traditional’ values that, are enshrined in the British narrative of it, to mobilise and galvanise the nation not only in times when the nation has faced a direct military threat, but also in times of socio-economic adversity and political instability.

Clement Attlee utilised this idea of the ‘just war’, in his justification for British involvement in the Korean War when he stated that, ‘Here is a case of aggression. If the aggressor gets away with it, aggressors all over the world will be encouraged…and another world war may result’.[xix] These comments echoed those made a few days earlier by Churchill who said that, ‘[a] sense of unity dominates…when questions of this gravity seem to touch principles for freedom and law for which we stand’.[xx] This idea of the engaging ‘just wars’ has also been used by Eden and Gaitskell, when faced with the perceived threat of Nasser’s Arab Nationalism during Suez Crisis in 1956.[xxi] Furthermore, it was also recycled by Thatcher, in her response to the invasion of the Falkland Islands by an authoritarian military junta.[xxii] Thatcher also used the idea of the fight against tyranny in her attempts to gather domestic support for sanctions against the U.S.S.R. after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, in her adoption of the stance, ‘that ‘a strong stand was necessary…to mitigate damage to political interests in the free world’ and deter future aggression’.[xxiii]  This idea of the ‘just war’ was also utilised by the Blair government to justify Britain’s involvement in Iraq in 2003 in stating that its aim was, ‘to show that we will confront the tyrannies and dictatorships and terrorists who put our way of life at risk, to show…that we have the courage to do the right thing’.[xxiv] Similar rhetoric has also been used to justify Britain’s intervention and involvement in other conflicts, such as Kosovo, Bosnia, and Libya.[xxv] This constant invocation of the memory, the sacrifice and heroism of those that fell in ‘just wars’ in the service of the nation, has resulted in almost homogeneous support in Britain for its military.

This myth of the sacrifice of the heroes of the Great War, and the paradigm of the ‘just war’ have taken hold in British society partly ‘because there have not been any large political movements that stand outside and against the dominant definition of British nationalism, and partly because anti-militarism in Britain has always being weak’.[xxvi] It has also been due to the desire of the majority to view Britain as still being a great world power, which is still capable of acting proactively against major threats to global and national security. In the immediate post-war period this manifested itself in a battle against the threat of communism, and the formation of the western military alliance. It has also been at the forefront of the post-Cold War fight against radical Islamic terrorism. This almost homogeneous identification of British society with its military has also been exploited by successive British governments in their use of the imagery of both world wars, to maintain national unity to justify unilateral action in conflicts in the Falklands and Suez.

In doing this British politicians of all parties, have exploited the national narratives of the world wars in order maintain support for its military engagements. They have done this by using the deeply rooted traditional Western European ‘cult of the fallen [soldier]’.[xxvii] This has been at the core of Britain’s Great War narrative of heroism and sacrifice. It has been used by the British state throughout the twentieth century, at times of perceived adversity to perpetuate the idea that collectivism and personal sacrifice and were necessary in times of adversity, which have included, the civil and industrial unrest of the 1920s and 1970s, the immediate post war Bolshevik threat, the threat of fascism and radical nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s, the Cold War or the Post-Cold War threat of terrorism, and radical Islam. This myth of the collective national sacrifice of the Great War has been used many times over the last century, and its historical narrative has evolved through a series of interpretations, to suit the military, socio-economic and political threats that Britain has faced over the last hundred years, although, it has never lost the core theme of the nations, ‘indebtedness to the fallen that can never be discharged’.[xxviii] This has had the result of elevating the status of the military in post-imperial British society, as an institution of integrity, that stands for the values of the ‘lost generation’ and which, engages in ‘good wars’ on behalf of a nation that perceives itself, as peace loving and ‘opposed to the idea of war’.[xxix]

This has also had an effect upon how, British society engages with the historiography of its past conflicts, and how it remembers it’s fallen, in using moments of national crisis as vehicles to recycle the Great War myths of the ‘lost generation’, and the ‘futile war’ to establish a new myth of a crusader soldier engaged in ‘just wars’, who is universally acclaimed and supported by society in the form of charities such as Help for Heroes and Army of Angels.[xxx] Those who reject this new version of the national narrative are cast in the role of unpatriotic and traitorous heretics, who are publically vilified by both mainstream politicians and news media, who portray them as, ‘howling dissidents…who care nothing for their own kith and kin’.[xxxi] Over the course of the last century the national narrative of the Great War has been ‘dismantled and reconstructed several times in order fit the moral values of contemporary society at the time, and re-legitimise, both them and the actions of the British State, by propagating… myths … to create a solid national identity’.[xxxii] This process has been exploited by British politicians to create their own model of post-colonial ‘Britishness’, based upon the national narrative of the Great war, which has at its core the values of service to others and to national interest, values that were also at the core of colonial ‘Britishness’.[xxxiii]

The concerning thing for me here is the readiness by some to use the memory of those who, fell in this conflict for political ends, and to distort the Britain’s national narrative of the First War to fit in with their own ideological perspective. Mr Gove’s history of the First World War would have us believe that, the British nation and its Empire were a united homogenous entity embroiled in a ‘just war’ against the expansionist, aggressive and militaristic baby killing Prussian Empire that unilaterally attacked poor little Belgium, while editing out the domestic strife that occurred in Britain between 1914 and 1918, omitting the strikes in the munitions factories of England and the shipyards of the Clyde.[xxxiv]  Yet he states that:

‘The changes we’ve made to the history curriculum …give all children a proper rounded understanding of our country’s past and its place in the world.  That understanding has never been needed more. Because the challenges we face today – great power rivalry, migrant populations on the move, rapid social upheaval, growing global economic interdependence, massive technological change and fragile confidence in political elites – are all challenges our forebears faced.  Indeed, these particular forces were especially powerful one hundred years ago – on the eve of the First World War. Which is why it is so important that we commemorate, and learn from that conflict in the right way in the next four years. The Government wants to give young people from every community the chance to learn about the heroism, and sacrifice of our great-grandparents’.[xxxv]

If this were truly the case then, he would be seeking to tell the whole story of the war and not an abridgement of it that, retains the elements which portray Britain in a good light, and that fit in with a militaristic patriotic ‘Britishness’, of Waterloo and Agincourt, while editing out those elements that do not. It also concerns me that, Gove’s preferred general historical narrative of the development of the British nation downplays the roles that, the Chartists, Levellers and Tolpuddle martyrs played in the evolution of it. Surely teaching and learning from history in the right way should allow people to engage with the facts and draw their own conclusions, rather than indoctrinate them with a set of values that are taught by rote. In my view Gove’s polemic in the Daily Mail is just as dangerous as the myths created by the subversive left-wing conspirators that he lambasts. However, what he fails to acknowledge and understand is that, these myths are actually interpretations of factual statistics and personal testimony, and part of a debate that aims to enhance our understanding of the conflict and the sacrifices of those who fought in it. If he truly believes in a need to ‘commemorate, and learn from [world war one] in the right way the necessary lesson for the Education Secretary is to realise that other nations have history too, and in [these] lie repositories of facts that even the world’s most wilful ideologues can’t politicise away’


[i] ‘Michael Gove Blasts “Blackadder Myths” about the First World War spread by television sit-coms and academics’, The Daily Mail, 02 January 2014.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] ‘Blackadder Star Tony Robinson in Michael Gove WW1 row’, [BBC Online, http://ift.tt/1d4oqlz.

[vii] Ibid

[viii]‘Paxman: teaching history through Blackadder is stupid’, The Daily Telegraph, [http://ift.tt/1hIaGdI], accessed 01 November 2013; ‘OCR GCSE in History B, (Modern World). Teacher Support: Coursework Guidance Booklet, incorporating Coursework Administration Pack’, Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations, (2001), p.18. State in section 5.1.2. ‘Setting Questions on Interpretations and Representations’, that: ‘The distinction between sources, and interpretations and representations, is very small. Many sources will be interpretations and representations of the past. However, there are some points which can be made about interpretations and representations that add to the range of issues and questions that can be addressed in this assignment. Coursework does present Centres with opportunities to use a wide range of different interpretations through a range of different media, for example, historical fiction, drama, TV (including popular programmes like Blackadder), film (including cartoons), museum displays and exhibitions, historical sites and their presentation in guide books, and web sites’.

[ix] Jay Winter and Antoine Prost, The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies 1914 to the Present, (Cambridge, 2005), p.196 &p.206.

[x] Naill Ferguson, The Pity of War, (Harmondsworth, 1998), p.462.

[xi] Stuart Hall, ‘Who Needs Identity’, in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds.), Questions of Cultural Identity, (London, 1996), p.4.

[xii] Dan Todman, The Great War, Myth and Memory, (London, 2005), p.220.

[xiii] Todman, p.220.

[xiv] Tom Nairn, ‘Britain’s Living Legacy’, in Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (eds.), The Politics of Thatcherism, (London, 1983), p. 286.

[xv] Ibid; ‘Why I Choose Not to Wear a Poppy’, http://ift.tt/zP5LE8, [http://ift.tt/1hIaE5B], accessed, 22 November 2013.

[xvi] Jeffery Welsh, ‘Remembering Desert Storm: Popular Culture and the Gulf War’, in Martin Evans and Ken Lunn (eds.), War and Memory in the Twentieth Century, (Oxford, 1997), p. 207.

[xvii] Barry M. Doyle, ‘Religion, Politics and Remembrance: A Free Church and Community and its Great War Dead’, in, Martin Evans and Ken Lunn (eds.), War and Memory in the Twentieth Century, (Oxford, 1997), p.223.

[xviii] ‘Teesside Humanists to Lay Wreath at Stockton Cenotaph’, The Evening Gazette, 10 October 2012, [http://ift.tt/1hIaEm4], accessed 17 November 2013. ‘Young Fabians Lay a Wreath at the Cenotaph’; Left Foot Forward, 4 November 2013. [http://ift.tt/1d4oqBX], accessed 17 November 2012.

[xix] ‘Mr Attlee’s Call to the Nation: Let Us Arm Ourselves Against Evil’, The Times, 31 July 1950; Kenneth Harris, Attlee, (London, 1982), p.456.

[xx] ‘Prime Minister’s Statement, Naked Aggression’, The Times, 28 June 1950.

[xxi] Anthony Eden, Full Circle, (London, 1960), p. 425.

[xxii] John Arquella and Maria Moyano Rasmussen, ‘The Origins of the South Atlantic War’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 33:4, (2001), pp. 767-768.

[xxiii]   Daniel James Lahey, ‘The Thatcher government’s response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 1979–1980’, Cold War History, 13:1,(2013), p. 26.

[xxiv]   Tony Blair, 18 March 2002, quoted in; Peter Lee, Blair’s Just War: Iraq and the Illusion of Morality, (Basingstoke, 2012), p. 115.

[xxv] ‘Genocidal lust of the man called Freedom’, The Daily Mirror, 13 October 1998; ‘Fascist successors herald death knell for Bosnia’, The Times, 30 October, 1992; ‘Britons are ordered to escape anarchy’, The Daily Express, 08 May 2000; ‘Britain must do the right thing and oust Gaddafi, says Cameron’, The Daily Telegraph, 19 March 2011.

[xxvi] Dennis Kavanagh and Peter Morris, Consensus Politics from Attlee to Thatcher, (Oxford, 1989), pp. 90-91.

[xxvii] George L. Mosse, ‘National Cemeteries and National Revival: The Cult of the Fallen Soldiers in Germany’, Journal of Contemporary History, 14:1 (1979), p.2.

[xxviii]Belinda Davis, ‘Experience, Identity and Memory: The Legacy of World War I’, The Journal of Modern History, 75:1 (2003), p.128; Shirley Williams, observed that, a cult of hero worship and militarism was prevalent among conservative party activists after the Falklands, in Shirley Williams, Climbing the Bookshelves, (St. Ives, 2009), p. 160; ‘Britain’s firm stand on Suez’, The Times, 03 August 1956; ‘In defence of the British Empire’, The Times, 06 April 1972; ‘Exit Enoch Powell, lonely fighter’, The Times, 08 February 1974; ‘Pym: Britain does not appease dictators’, The Times, 08 April 1982.

[xxix] ‘We don’t need another Churchill’, The Guardian, 19 January 1991.

[xxx] ‘Army of Angels homepage’, http://ift.tt/1hIaGu7, [http://ift.tt/1hIaGu7], accessed, 18 November 2013; ‘Help for Heroes homepage’, http://ift.tt/yIWBNB, [http://ift.tt/yIWBNB], accessed, 02 January 2014.

[xxxi] G.K. Peatling, ‘Globalism, Hegemonism and British Power: J. A. Hobson and Alfred Zimmern Reconsidered’, History, 89:295 (2004), p. 398.

[xxxii]. Richard J. Evans in, ‘Michael Gove’s History Wars’, The Guardian, 13 July 2013

[xxxiii] An example of this perpetual redefinition and reinforcement of the State’s use and defence of the ‘just war paradigm’, was Michael Gove’s attack upon, ‘left wing academics [that], are too happy to feed those [anti-British] myths, by attacking Britain’s role in the conflict’. Who represent the Great war as, ‘a misbegotten shambles’. ‘Michael Gove Blasts “Blackadder Myths” about the First World War spread by television sit-coms and left-wing academics’, The Daily Mail, 03 January 2014. The response by the on the left was to accuse the government of ‘using what should be a moment for national reflection and respectful debate to rewrite the historical record and sow political division’. Tristan Hunt M.P. in, ‘Michael Gove, using history for politicking is tawdry’, The Observer, 04 January 2014.

[xxxiv] One example of the unrest on Clydeside was the jailing of ex-schoolteacher John Maclean in Glasgow for inciting munitions workers to down tools. Maclean stated that war was one of capitalism and if one belligerent downed tools then the others would follow. ‘Clydeside Sedition: Agitator Sent to Penal Servitude’, The Times, 13 April 1916. For a fuller analysis of  industrial unrest on Clydeside between 1914 and 1919 see, John Foster, ‘Strike Action and Working Class Politics on Clydeside 1914-1919’, International Review of Social History, 35:1, (1990), pp. 33-70; Joseph Melling, ‘Whatever Happened to Red Clydeside? Industrial Conflict and the Politics of Skill in the First World War’, International Review of Social History, 35:1, (1990), pp. 3-32. For examples of industrial unrest in England and Wales see the following: [xxxiv] ‘Shipyard Unions’ Demands Refused’ The Times, 27 February 1915; ‘Coalfield Dispute’ The Times, 02 February 1915; ‘London Omnibus Trouble’, The Times, 02 February 1915; ‘The Threatened Strike at Walsall’ The Times, 6 April 1915; ‘The Root of the Trouble at Birkenhead’ The Times, 06 April 1915; ‘Government’s Call to Munitions Workers’, The Daily Mirror, 22 July 1918; ‘The Labour Situation: Report from the ministry of Labour for the week ending the 16th January, 1918’, Public Records Office Cabinet Papers:24/39, 16 January 1918; ‘Trade Unionism on Trial’, The Times, 18 May 1917.

[xxxv] ‘Michael Gove Blasts “Blackadder Myths” about the First World War spread by television sit-coms and academics’, The Daily Mail, 02 January 2014.

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