The recent furore over how the First World War should be interpreted has, directly and indirectly, raised questions about how the period should be taught in schools. It is worth noting, first, that the First World War is one of the most commonly taught periods of history in school: there is probably not a single pupil in the country who has not studied it. The First World War battlefields – particularly those of Flanders and the Somme – are visited by vast numbers of pupils each year. We can, therefore, be quite confident in stating that schools – for once – probably do play an important role in determining the historical consciousness of the country.
The debate about the First World War, at least within the UK, centres on three key questions.
- Why did it begin?
- How bad were the generals?
- What role was played by non-English troops?
I want in this post to focus on question (2), though the points I make here will apply equally well to (1) and (3).
A recent political spat broke out between Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Tristram Hunt over how the British generals from the First World War were portrayed. Gove and Johnson were keen to rescue the image of the generals who, in common culture, are portrayed as ‘donkeys’ sending brave British ‘lions’ into battle. One of the most famous modern depictions of this is Blackadder Goes Forth.
I wish to be clear here: any history teacher who thinks that sticking Blackadder on the screen constitutes an education about the First World War should not be in the job. I have never met a single history teacher who does this, though I am sure that examples can be found. It is, however, certainly true that many history teachers do use Blackadder in their lessons: I am one of them. What matters, of course, is how it is used. Margaret MacMillan rather hit the nail on the head in today’s Guardian.
Can I suggest that we start by keeping in mind that there is a key difference between myths, which can be disproved by looking at the evidence, and interpretations, which take the evidence into account?
All of the history teachers with whom I have had the pleasure of working have no interest in teaching a single interpretation of the past. Indeed, the National Curriculum, since 1991, has maintained a strong focus on teaching children that the past can be interpreted in different ways. The new curriculum – produced by Mr Gove’s department – states that children should be able to
discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed.
I taught a scheme of work on First World War leadership a number of times and I always found it ideal for teaching children this important piece of knowledge: that the past can be interpreted in different ways. Here’s a brief summary of one, relatively simple, way to do it with Year 9.
Enquiry Question: ‘Lions led by donkeys’? How have historians disagreed about the quality of First World War leadership?
This lesson begins with a short clip from Blackadder. There are numerous options, but this one works well. After watching the clip I ask pupils to write a quick summary of the image of the generals in popular culture. The point here is that pupils recognise that there is a popular interpretation, and it is one which is critical of generals.
Next, I get pupils to read this extract from AJP Taylor’s English History (Taylor). Pupils write a list of arguments that Taylor makes and the examples that support these. This is followed by some teacher-led discussion about Taylor’s argument, which pupils then have to write a summary of in their books.
I finish the lesson by gradually revealing the following image. I ask pupils to speculate as to what kind of person would receive this kind of funeral, and what the attitude of the crowd is to the procession. I finish the lesson by revealing that this was Field Marshall Haig’s funeral in 1928, a classic history teacher ‘curved ball’ to set up the next lesson.
I begin this lesson by recapping the interpretations that pupils encountered in the previous lesson, testing to see if they can remember three criticisms that Taylor made of the generals. I then bring back the image of Haig’s funeral, and use this to pose the question as to whether they might be other interpretations of First World War leadership.
Next I ask pupils to read this extract from Gordon Corrigan’s book Mud, Blood and Poppycock (Corrigan). Again, they have to note down the main arguments that Corrigan makes, and the specific examples he gives to support these. I follow this by putting up the points from the previous lesson from Taylor’s book, and then ask pupils to contrast Taylor’s and Corrigan’s interpretations.
There are various outcome tasks that might be used to end this short scheme of work, and I have tried several. The emphasis here is on how historians disagree and not why, though with a few additional lessons the scheme could be developed in this direction. I might get pupils, at this point, to write a short essay contrasting the arguments of Taylor and Corrigan. Alternatively, pupils could be asked to write a critique of Blackadder, or some other popular interpretation (such as Gove’s Daily Mail article).
I do not think it is possible or even desirable to approach every period of history through the lens of different interpretations: I do think, however, that periods which attract a great deal of popular comment are ideal for meeting this requirement of the National Curriculum. This is not about teaching some postmodern account whereby anything goes. It is, however, about showing that multiple interpretations of the past are possible. Any pupil who leaves school without this knowledge has not, to my mind, had a sufficiently rigorous education in history.
Haig, though a fellow Celt, could not have been less like his old friend. French, like Gallic counterparts Joseph Joffre and Ferdinand Foch, was in his mid-sixties when the war began, Haig a decade younger. A dour, taciturn, lowland Scot from a family of wealthy whisky distillers, Haig was as careful and calculating as French was changeable and excitable.
It was not that Haig did not feel or express strong emotions, he just chiefly confided them to his loving wife Dorothy, a lady-in-waiting at Buckingham Palace ready to murmur admiring words about the fine qualities of her husband into receptive royal ears. It may have been Haig’s skills as an intriguer and his influence in royal circles that finally brought him the top job rather than his military ability.
Certainly, he did not shine in the initial clash of arms in France in 1914 but then neither did French. Told to liaise closely with the BEF’s nearest French military neighbour, General Charles Lanrezac’s Fifth Army, Sir John was hampered by his failure to understand French and meetings with Lanrezac ended in mutual misunderstanding. He also bore a grudge against Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, commander of one of the two corps making up the BEF, and had strenuously opposed his appointment.
It did not help French’s authority, therefore, that it was Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps that fought the two opening battles of Britain’s war, at Mons and Le Cateau, and distinguished itself in doing so. Smith-Dorrien had in effect disobeyed French in making a stand at Le Cateau rather than continuing a retreat that threatened to become a rout. Haig contented himself with sniping from the sidelines.
Given his quarrels with the two generals above and below him, it is astonishing that French managed to keep the BEF more or less intact for the fortnight that its retreat before the German juggernaut lasted — let alone rallying it to join the French counter-attack on the Marne that turned the tide of war.
The Marne ensured Allied survival by foiling the German plan to win the war in six weeks but made inevitable the four-year nightmare of trench warfare. Credit for defeating Germany’s ambitions for a swift victory belongs not to the squabbling generals but to the superb professionalism of the BEF — the old sweats whose ranks would suffer heavy losses in the war’s opening year.
But what of the French? It was their country and Belgium that had been invaded and occupied, and for whose liberation the war was being fought. Did their commanders, veterans of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, when their territory had been overrun by invading Germans, better grasp the realities of modern warfare? The two elderly French generals who bore the brunt of the 1914 fighting, stoical commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre and fire-eating Ferdinand Foch, were characters as sharply contrasting as those of Haig and French.
Joffre — portly, white-moustachioed, ponderous — owed his supreme command more to the fraught politics of Republican France than to being a new Napoleon. In the radical, anti-militarist mood that swept France following the Dreyfus affair, Joffre was seen as secular, anti-clerical, loyal to the Republic.
Foch, by contrast, whose brother was a Jesuit priest, was regarded with suspicion as a general whose only thought was to attack the enemy regard- less of losses. “My centre is in retreat, my right is giving way. Situation excellent. I am attacking” — though probably apocryphal — gives a fair idea of the fiery southerner’s pugnacious attitude to war.
Joffre came into his own on the Marne, when his calm stolidity and refusal to panic helped rally the ranks and stem the German tide at the very gates of Paris. Foch would have to await another crisis and another German breakthrough, in 1918, to achieve his hour of glory. Appointed generalissimo of all the Allied armies — French, British Empire and American — his offensive “everyone to battle” spirit brought final victory, and with it the honour of dictating the 1918 armistice terms to the Germans.
In 1914, with the establishment of the 400-mile trench lines from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border by Christmas, the war settled into its pattern of attrition punctuated by bloodbath battles caused by frequent and fruitless Allied attempts to break through stubborn German defences: Loos, 1915; the Somme, 1916; Arras, Passchendaele and Cambrai 1917; and the climactic German offensives and Allied counter-strokes that brought the 1918 armistice.
Through these four terrible years, the generals settled into a seemingly comfortable and complacent way of life that a century on is horribly easy for TV screenwriters to mock. The image goes like this: ensconced in clean beds in rambling châteaux, safely miles behind the front lines, the generals led a leisurely life planning battles in which they sent thousands of men to their deaths. They frequently paused to schmooze visiting VIPs and make sure that supplies of quails’ eggs and champagne kept coming.
It is true that the generals exercised their commands from châteaux rather than squalid dugouts but the rest is manifestly unfair. My father, who served on Haig’s staff and wouldn’t hear a word against him, told me that he had never worked so hard in his life as in his years serving “the chief”.
During 1918’s German offensives, when Haig issued his “backs to the wall” order of the day, my father and the staff spent four consecutive nights without sleep. “Fighting the battle until the situation stabilised and the crisis passed,” as he put it. That was the truth, though Edmund Blackadder might never believe it.
* Nigel Jones is author of The War Walk: A Journey Along the Western Front and directs www.historicaltrips.com. His new book, 1914: Britain in War and Peace, will be published by Head of Zeus.
Also in Inside the First World War, part two:
Inside the First World War: a complete timeline >>
We have had no rest from the war: one soldier's last battle >>
How the bloodshed of Verdun First World War battlefield left a lasting scar on the French psyche >>
Battle of the Somme: lesson in how to win wars or pointless slaughter >>
Noel Chavasse: the First World War doctor who braved hell for others >>
Battle of the Marne: end of the beginning >>
First World War: Art – Youth Mourning (1916) >>
Battle of the Somme: the 'animal horror' that inspired JRR Tolkien >>
Digging for victory: the Gardeners of Salonika end the First World War >>