Who are we preaching to?

At last week’s Saturday school on the MA, Pierre Purseigle, in what was almost an aside, proposed the need for a third school of Great War history.  This is required to move the historical study out of what he felt had become a fairly static and repetitive loop.

The argument is as follows: the historiography of the Great War to date falls principally into two camps – the “Lions led by donkeys” school & the Revisionists.

The “Lions led by donkeys” school – the phrase is mentioned in the 1921 memoirs of Evelyn, Princess Blücher who recalls Erich Ludendorff using it (although this has now vanished into the urban myths and legends of the war) – originated in Alan Clark’s 1961 “The Donkeys”, was reinforced by “Oh , What a lovely war!” and now manifests itself in Captain Blackadder’s comment about Field Marshal Haig’s efforts to “move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”  Despite Denis Winter’s best efforts to inadvertently derail the argument in “Haig’s Command”, it lives on in popular perceptions of the war.

The opening of the Public Record Office files in the late 1960s finally enabled a more academic programme of research into the war to get underway.  Initiated by John Terraine and continued by the likes of Bourne, Corrigan, Sheffield and Simkins, the Revisionist school has advanced the understanding of the (frequently unsmooth) “Learning Curve” that the B.E.F. went through and which led to the victorious Hundred Days Campaign in 1918, to the point that no credible historian would now seriously defend the “Donkeys” argument.  The MA degree at Birmingham is the only postgraduate course specifically on the war and is clearly immersed in the Revisionist tradition.

So it would appear that the “Donkeys” can be safely consigned to history…

And then again, possibly not.  Talking to a visiting BT broadband engineer recently, he demonstrated a reasonable level of Great War knowledge.  His grandfather had served as a Sergeant Major – and his grandfather’s half-brother had died on Gallipoli.  He had just spent the weekend visiting the “Who do you think you are” show and then looking at war diaries at Kew.  But he was leaving, he turned and said – “What a dreadful waste it all was though – and it was all down to those bloody Generals in their châteaux – donkeys the lot of them!” – and with that parting shot, he left.

So “we” know that we are right but who is listening to us?  Certainly not the chap from BT who probably still represents the popular view of the majority.  The Revisionist authors continue their academic analysis and write further books on the subject.  These are then read and welcomed by the rest of us as further confirmation that our understanding of the war is the true and correct view.  But the popular opinion remains largely unmoved by the Revisionist arguments – so Pierre has a valid point. 

The challenge for historians, as we approach the centenary, will be to break out of the current stalemate and get the message out to the wider public.  We need a third wave of histories that take the academic understanding, possibly blend it with the current interest in “what your grandfather did” and ultimately move the argument out into the wider world.  This might need to involve more social, political and economic history in addition to pure military history.

The challenge to be heard will not be an easy one as the 100th anniversary will usher in an increased number of books reminiscing on the subject – but this could be the last chance we will get.

3 thoughts on “Who are we preaching to?

  1. Brian – what an interesting piece, thank you. Like Paul Reed said on Twitter, it is something that battlefield guides have to deal with on a regular basis. I certainly don’t have Paul’s experience, but now about to start the fourth year of the ‘best job in the world’ I have already met many like your BT engineer – the answer I find is to go gently but firmly and you usually win through. I still wonder how much our so called modern history teaching up to the age of 16 is to blame. I’ll keep following you – one day I hope to do the same. Two friends have just been awarded their MA from Birmingham – David Craig and Dudley Giles. Don’t know if you are aware of either.

    • Mark – thanks for your comments and I am suitably envious at your job! My game plan is for a cottage on the Somme one day – but not until the mortgage is paid off. In the meantime, we just need to keep battering away against the damage modern teaching is still causing. I do know Dudley’s name but not sure if we’ve met – fraternisation was not encouraged on the MA for some reason…

  2. Pingback: The Australian War Memorial & the Somme blog | caught on the wire

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