Sunday, 5 January 2014

Michael Gove's "History" and the First World War

I was very interested in Michael Gove's comments on the First World War over the weekend.

History is very much subjective and interpretive but there in his description of the First World War he has missed some very glaring facts.

Firstly, the Liberal paradise that every one was fighting to defend was deeply flawed and it took the War, and the preceding Liberal Government of Asquith, to bring in the reforms. Simple things like pensions for the elderly. The Rowntree commission had found that most urban areas were in need of sanitation and that the working poor were in an exceptionally bad way. 

The big problems that were causing even more civil unrest were Women's suffrage (as a whole gender wasn't allowed to vote) and the Ireland Home rule problem that the Conservatives had allowed to drag on. Britain was far from a paradise though it was home and so its' defence attracted many, my family included. Walter Sams, my Great grandfather was a Police constable but still left to fight.

I would also point out that although the German occupation of Belgium was harsh, no denials, it would be unfair to paint Britain as a saint of nations having just fourteen years previously allowed the rounding up of women and children, the burning of their property and putting them in concentration camps with small rations and poor medical and sanitation supplies causing the deaths of tens of thousands. Britain's motivations for starting the Boer war was meant to be to protect the Uitlanders but was also massively driven because of gold found in the Boer republics and greed over rode this. Also a nation which had bombarded the harbour of Zanzibar in the shortest war in history (40 minutes) because the new Sultan was anti British and the British Government would have preferred an alternate candidate.

The British Empire had been exceptionally aggressive and expansionist in the preceding century as had Russia, France and now Germany who were exceptionally late to the Imperial party. It would be wrong to paint Germany as the sole bad guy of the First World War, an attitude that went a long way to starting the Second World War, as all the Imperial powers had been at it. Russia had been given a bloody nose by the Japanese, Italy fighting in Ethiopia, Britain and the Boers, Germany and Namibia. Foreign policy of all the European Imperial powers had been very expanionistic in Asia, Africa and even in parts of Europe for many, many years.
The fighting itself was indeed tragic and the notion of industrial warfare was causing horrific casualties. However, Mr Gove is saying that the Generals were not as much to blame as some suggest. This could be true but for the simple fact that this type of warfare had been seen before and a solution had already been reached.

Much as the Spanish civil war was a test bed for Blitzkrieg so the Boer War demonstrated the horror that would befall the World in 1914. The battles of Modder river, Magersfontein and indeed Paardeberg demonstrated what an entrenched enemy with a great rate of fire and accuracy could do to advancing infantry regiments. Indeed at Magersfontein the Highland division were caught in the barbed wire and suffered heavy losses, Metheun's force suffered 948 casualties that day. At Paardeberg Kitchener ordered frontal assaults on the Boer laager despite all previous experience. After one day the British army had suffered 304 killed and 906 wounded. This was one of the heaviest losses and was named bloody Sunday.

Indeed further back in 1898 at the battle of Omdurman the British held a defencive line with rifles and Maxim machine guns against a full frontal assault of 50,000 dervishes and lost 47 men compared to the 10,000 killed 15,000 wounded of the enemy. The trenches and heavy fortifications of front lines was not a new development in warfare.

Although on a much smaller scale to the Somme it doesn't take an Oxbridge professor to spot the similarities and the warning of what was likely to come. Indeed General Buller also discovered that rolling barrages with infantry directly behind in lose formation worked well in smashing trenches.

Was any of this followed in 1914? When all those brave lads who'd signed up in a patriotic flash stepped over the top that bright morning in July 1916 advance behind rolling barrages with their senior officers with them? 

The first day of the Somme is still has the highest casualty count for the British army in one day. My nan lost her uncle on the Somme, others saw the manhood of whole boroughs and streets wiped out. It was slaughter. Who is there to blame for this? The General staff between the wars and the Field marshal at the top who repeated this same tactic even when it was seen to fail.

Yes there were break throughs at the Somme and the Germans were defeated and forced to withdraw in some sectors but the levels of loss were so high one has to wonder if the right decision was made? After the offencive the British didn't have the men to push the Germans back far enough as they were dead or wounded.

It isn't leftist or anti-establishment to recognise history from below, (a development that occurred in the study of History in the last few decades) to show the lives of soldiers and their experiences in war rather than the Generals. Nor is it leftist to point to examples and evolution of ideas and Military tactics in previous wars to show that things were ultimately heading towards the Somme some fifteen - twenty years before hand. It is the essence of the study of history not the broad sweep.

I would say I disagree with Mr Gove's comments on the First World War, yes that is his opinion and he does site some works but there is a greater body of work that points to him making a few out dated comments.

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