Think first before expounding on war
My father served at both Ypres and the Somme in the First World War, and I held a National Service commission in the same regiment (the Royal Scots) soon after the Second World War.
I have also made a fairly serious study of the many conflicting and/or revisionist accounts of the origins and conduct of the First World War, including Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and Max Hastings’ Catastrophe.
I own many such books, of both academic history and poetry, as well as contemporary sources such as Voices of Silence and the BBC’s Eyewitness.
So I agree with your leader (6 January), which claims that in 2014 no one narrative can be definitively correct.
Accordingly, I suggest that anyone who has not served in the armed forces, or made a serious academic study of the subject, should be careful what they say publicly in this year of Commemoration, other than to praise the bravery of those (on all sides) who took part in any of the theatres of armed conflict in what amounts to the 30 years of total war in the 20th century.
I frequently struggle to agree with Education Secretary Michael Gove, although I don’t suppose that worries him excessively.
But he has a point in suggesting that to teach students the history of the First World War by concentrating solely on popular revisionist portrayals such as the Blackadder series is rather one-sided.
There are better first-hand accounts which illustrate the “catastrophic shambles” view of the conflict, such as The Long Week-End by a young officer, Wilfred Bion, who used his experience of senior officers’ incompetence to develop theories of the psychology behind dysfunctional groups.
And, if you are seeking an alternative view which stresses the heroism and sense of duty of the British army, John Buchan’s history of the war is seldom read nowadays, but his fictional accounts, Greenmantle and Mr Standfast, are excellent examples of the “thinking Conservative” – I gather Greenmantle is still used in the study of Middle Eastern politics.
The fact that he stresses the positive aspects of the conflict did not make Buchan a supporter of war as a solution, and he was convinced that the botched peace treaty after the armistice held the seeds of future conflict, as proved correct.
As a journalist working for military intelligence, Buchan often worked in the thick of the conflict and in later years was a passionate advocate of the need to find peaceful solutions to international problems, an ideal which we have still not reached 100 years later.
(Dr) Mary Brown
I do not think that Education Secretary Michael Gove is seeking to “rehabilitate” or glorify the British commitment to the First World War.
I believe he is seeking to explain the catastrophe of 1914-18 in its historical perspective, something which Alan Hinnrichs (Letters, 6 February) just does not perceive.
In the blame game it is clear that Germany could have exercised rigid power over its client state of Austria-Hungary and restrained that wobbling anachronism from lighting the fatal fuse after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.
Pan Slavism was alive and well and scarcely any of Europe’s political intelligences did not realise the effect of Russian intervention in this explosive atmosphere.
Add to this the fact that Germany, though parading a growing pacifist, social-democratic front, was rigidly governed by a Kaiser whose delusions of grandeur were surpassed only by a High Command whose military might had no equal anywhere in 1914.
In the face of this, France, still smarting from the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War, having bound itself by treaty to Russia, dithered.
Britain had an Empire with all its virtues and shortcomings and continued to pursue its long-held belief in the balance of power in Europe, a “justifiable” moral imperative which Mr Hinnrichs does not seem to understand.
Britain entered the Great War, in the memorable words of the then foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, “to prevent the whole of the West opposite us from falling under the dominion of a single power”.
The tears for the dead of the Great War are long since dried: let us recollect why they were shed.