All you need to know about Robert Fisk & Remembrance

appalled … those bloody poppies again … this obscene fashion appendage … demands yet further human sacrifice … sacrifice … Passchendaele … this wretched flower … butcher Haig … these sickly and fake petals … hypocrisy… “sepulchre of crime” … “Sacrifice to the fallacy that war can end” … this monstrous crime against humanity … The pity of war… the flower of youth cut short … Dead soldiers … generals, admirals or emperors worthy of entombment … soldiery were simply dumped into mass graves … remains of the dead were shipped off…to be used as manure … this preposterous poppy … fake flowers … blood-red soil of the Flanders dead … war was ultimately devoid of meaning … “just one great waste” … cast poppies aside….that terrible, almost orgiastic poem … “In Flanders fields” … our duty to kill more human beings … A bloody poppy! … Passchendaele…

The above is a distillation of an article Robert Fisk posted on the Independent’s website on 7th November 2013 – “Poppycock – or why remembrance rituals make me see red” – as part of that paper’s run up to Armistice Day.

There is really little to be said about it. The author is a respected journalist, the Middle East correspondent of The Independent for more than twenty years, but this is not the first time he has used the paper to repeat his tired and increasingly challenged views. Sadly he is not alone, there was an article the following day in the Guardian that follows a similar line – “This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time”.

As the Centenary looms, there will be an increasing need to get the message out that these hackneyed views do not portray a true picture of the Great War. But it is not going to be easy…

PS – note to Robert, you forgot to include the word futile.

PPS – the measure of how difficult it is going to be to correct this attitude is shown by the 2,400+ who either “strongly agree” or “agree” with Fisk which compares to the 991 who “strongly disagree” or “disagree” with him. But then this is the Independent.
(Results as at 12:30 Saturday 9th November.)

The Australian War Memorial & the Somme blog

How very disappointing to see this sort of commentary being posted on a respected website such as the Australian War Memorial. It almost seems like we are back in the 1960’s with “Oh! What A lovely War” and Alan Clark’s “The Donkeys” being the model for “historical” analysis.

At Saturday’s day school at the Centre For First World War Studies on the Somme 95 years one – both John Bourne & Bob Bushaway comprehensively demolished (again) the “lions led by donkeys” view of the Somme – long lines of untrained Kitchener volunteers walking slowly shoulder to shoulder and carrying 70 lb packs into No Man’s Land and accomplishing nothing.

At the end of his first lecture, John did remark on the recent publication “To End all Wars” by Adam Hochschild and last week’s Matthew Parris article in The Times – and wonder whether his academic work throughout his career had actually accomplished anything – if this was still the persistent view of the Great War held in the public imagination.

To now find the AWM repeating the same mantra is very depressing, particularly as it follows on from the recent National Army Museum’s reference to “Butcher” Haig as part of its Britain’s Greatest General “competition.” The NAM’s tacit acceptance of this unsubstantiated (unless you are Alan Clark) sobriquet has now been used to justify its promulgation by that academic powerhouse Wikipedia.

I referred to this ongoing debate in my earlier post “Who are we preaching to?” – how sad to see it spread to supposedly respectable institutions as the AWM and the NAM. I have posted a comment on the AWM blog but it is “awaiting moderation” – I wonder if it will see the light of day?

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.