Friday, January 03, 2014

Michael Gove makes cheap political points over the tragedy of the Great War

For some reason Michael Gove chose to sound off in the Daily Mail yesterday about the First World War. His message (I paraphrase) was that Lefties are wrong to characterise the war as really being as portrayed in fiction like “Blackadder” or “Oh What a Lovely War”. It was, Gove says, “plainly a just war”.

Gove is not the first prominent person to try a revisionism on the Great War, although he might be the most ignorant. He cites the genuine historian Gary Sheffield as being in support of his view. Mr Sheffield is indeed eager to present the facts about the War and correct some misunderstandings. But he has confirmed to me that he does not use the term “Just War” – although it was used as a headline in an article of his in “History Today” – without his approval.

The great historian AJP Taylor dedicated his seminal book on the War to Joan Littlewood – the producer/director of “Oh What a Lovely War” so he is the sort of Leftie who might be in Gove’s sights. But Taylor, whilst condemning the blundering of Generals and Statesmen alike in his book also said that the war “postponed the domination of Europe by Germany, or perhaps prevented it”. That is also the view of Mr Sheffield so it is not a Leftist view or a Rightist view but the considered view of distinguished and very different historians. Taylor refers to German General Ludendorff calling the British soldiers “lions led by donkeys” and it was this phrase that Conservative maverick Alan Clark used in his book about the war “The Donkeys”. Clark was no sort of Lefty at all and was not really concerned with the goals of the war, more with how incompetently it was pursued – on the British side anyway. Gove seeks to rehabilitate General Douglas Haig who was criticised in some detail in Clark’s book.

According to Clark Haig ordered that a disastrous action be pursued at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 “regardless of loss of life”. There were 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian casualties in the action which led General  John Charteris to say presciently that,

"... England will have to accustom herself to far greater losses than those of Neuve Chappelle before we finally crush the German army."

War is always hell and there was no more hellish war that the Great War. Over the next four years we will have every opportunity to study the war, its origins, actions and outcomes. Most of us will, I hope, do this without trying to make cheap political points. I personally have a small shelf of reading or re-reading including some fine recent books like Max Hastings’s “Catastrophe”  and Niall Ferguson’s “The Pity of War”. It is perhaps useful to quote Ferguson – seen as a Conservative historian and therefore presumably to Mr Gove’s liking. Ferguson says:

“The victors’ stated objective of curbing German power was not achieved. Indeed the war ultimately made Germany a far more formidable threat…”

Quite how a war which so catastrophically failed can be cited “Just” Mr Gove should tell us. Perhaps he should read the last sentence of Niall Ferguson’s book before he fires from the hip again:

“It was nothing less than the greatest error of modern history”


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