The War over The Great War



This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong


This is no case of petty right or wrong
That politicians or philosophers
Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.
Beside my hate for one fat patriot
My hatred of the Kaiser is love true:-
A kind of god he is, banging a gong.
But I have not to choose between the two,
Or between justice and injustice. Dinned
With war and argument I read no more
Than in the storm smoking along the wind
Athwart the wood. Two witches’ cauldrons roar.
From one the weather shall rise clear and gay;
Out of the other an England beautiful
And like her mother that died yesterday.
Little I know or care if, being dull,
I shall miss something that historians
Can rake out of the ashes when perchance
The phoenix broods serene above their ken.
But with the best and meanest Englishmen
I am one in crying, God save England, lest
We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed.
The ages made her that made us from dust:
She is all we know and live by, and we trust
She is good and must endure, loving her so:
And as we love ourselves we hate her foe. 

Edward Thomas


Much nonsense is going to be spoken, and is already being spoken, about the old lies of the Great War and I don’t wish to be another buffoon adding to it.  But Michael Gove has already blundered in commenting on the politicisation of the commemoration of The War by the Left and citing “Oh, what a lovely War” and “Blackadder Goes Forth”.  (Oh the irony) . 


The Blackadder series owes something to popular conceptions of the 1914-18 as portrayed in Joan Littlewood’s theatrical production of “Oh, What a Lovely War”. Joan Littlewood detested militarism and the show that came out of her theatrical workshop was clearly going to reflect that – this was the 60s after all.  Using sentimental songs of the War, with words of popular songs reworked, as they had been by the Tommies at the front, to counterpoint, with grim humour, the atrocities of the conflict. A successful film followed. A series of popular books reflecting as much the time in which they were written as the time they were about were published in the late 50s and early 60s and the images we have of the 1914-18 war were set. (Alan Clark, The Donkeys 1961; Leon Wolff In Flanders Fields 1958).  Both books promoted a partisan view of the war and perpetuated the myths of the heroic Tommy making a noble sacrifice in a pointless war while the incompetent generals in their gilded chateau waged a campaign indifferent to the sacrifice and slaughter.  The language of that last sentence is not insignificant.  On my first trip to the Somme I met people who referred to General Haig as a butcher with one person saying he should be disinterred and executed as war criminal.  Such is the power of the prevailing mythologies.


It is not without significance that the two books cited above made much use of the writings of Winston Churchill who was going to make sure that he came out well in the histories of the conflict by writing them himself. 


To return to the radio; during the 90th anniversary commemorations Radio 2 broadcast a series of documentaries about different aspects of the 1914-18 war narrated by Baldrick from the Time Team, I mean Tony Robinson. One of the documentaries was about an aspect of The War I knew nothing about – the underground mining, and in particular the mining of the Messines Ridge in 1917.  This was a precursor to the better known Passchaendale campaign.  The Germans held the high ground south of Ypres creating a salient which prevented any allied movement and meant the allied trenches were exposed to artillery attack.  22 mine shafts were dug beneath the surface towards the German trenches.  This was a highly dangerous operation where the miners had to dig in silence in Belgian clay in fear of discovery as much as collapse.  One mine was discovered and subsequently abandoned.  On 7 June 1917 all but two of the remaining mines were exploded and the tremor was felt as far away as London and Dublin.  The crest of the Messines-Wytschaete ridge was blown away and some10, 000 men were killed by the explosion alone.


 (Tread carefully if you should visit this area of Belgium – not all of the bombs went off. One exploded in a storm in 1955, others remain undetonated).

That radio programme set me off on journey of discovery that would take me to literally follow in the footsteps of the allied soldiers along the route they would have taken up to the ridge.  I had, by then absorbed not only the writings of Leon Wolff and Alan Clark but more importantly those of Lynn MacDonald.  More important because she did not rely just on the dusty memoirs of career soldiers and politicians with agendas of their own but she interviewed surviving combatants and scoured the records of ordinary officers and soldiers to present a living historical account. If you want to know what it was really like for the men and women involved in The Great War you can do no better than begin with the accounts by Lynn MacDonald.


Suggested Reading

 They Called it Passchendaele: The Story of the Battle of Ypres and of the Men Who Fought in it

by Lyn Macdonald


The Roses of No Man’s Land

by Lyn Macdonald


A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front

by Winston Groom


Forgotten Victory. The First World War: Myths and Reality

by Gary Sheffield


Mud, Blood, and Poppycock: Britain and the Great War

by Gordon Corrigan




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