Sunday, May 8, 2011

The British Perception of WW1 - Pt 4

Back to Part 3

The Great War Series (BBC 1964)

The best example of this hijacking process was The Great War, a 26 part BBC documentary series produced in 1964.  Despite a predominately revisionist script, with positive interpretations from John Terraine and Correlli Barnet, the selective use of images and music, combined with poignant extracts of war poetry, much of it Owens, ensured that the themes of waste and futility dominated.  It should be noted that it was never the producers intention to change the publics perception of the Great War:

‘Despite its impressive scale, importance and popularity with viewers, The Great War did not change the way that the majority of the nation thought about the war. This is because its creator, Tony Essex, did not intend it to be so: The Great War was his memorial to the dead of the First World War.’  Emma Hanna, ‘A small screen alternative to stone and bronze: The Great War series and British television’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (1) ( 2007), p. 105

This process also extended to the education system in 1960 when Owens poetry appeared on A-Level English literature syllabuses.  The way this poetry was taught was ahistorical.  Using themed rather than chronological anthologies, distorted the poetries meaning reflecting the editors bias and perceptions.  Owens poems taught in a vacuum, against the backdrop of Taylors The First World War: An Illustrated History, the various iterations of Oh! What a Lovely War, and the powerful but skewed message from the BBC series The Great War became, for many students, the defacto representation of the Great War.  By the end of the 1960s the themes of horror, futility, and incompetence had entered the status of folklore firmly established in the nations collective memory.

Opening the Archives

By 1968, following a change to the 50 year official archive rules, most official documents associated with the First World War were made available for research.  Before this the only Official source had been the Official Histories.  Brigadier General James E. Edmunds was the individual picked by the Committee of Imperial Defence to edit the Official History of the Great War.  He remained the official historian from the time the first volume was completed in 1920 until the final volumes were published in 1948.  Edmunds has been accused protecting the reputations of individual senior commanders by not writing what actually happened.  With the opening of the archives there was no immediate rush to re examine the established perceptions of the war and for a long time John Terraine with his books; Mons: The Retreat to Victory (1960), Douglas Haig:The Educated Soldier (1963), The Road to Passchendaele (1977), and To Win A War: 1918, the Year of Victory (1978), stood practically alone challenging the collective memory.  During the late 1970's the 'politico-military' school of historical research began to examine the war from directions other than the usual polemic critiques of the high command.  This was accompanied by a growing public interest in personal history, the first hand account, epitomised by the books of Lyn Macdonald.  Works in both of these areas gathered momentum in the 1980's, which, by the turn of the century had resulted in a significant body of academic work, based on robust historical research, debunking the folklore of the 1960's.  Much of this revisionist thinking was published and made available outside the academic domain.  Arguably the text that did most to move the historical debate away from the failings of the High Command and focused on the British Army as an institution was Fire Power: The British Army - Weapons and Theories of War, 1904-1945 by Bidwell and Graham, published in 1982.

What impact if any has this body of research had on the nation's collective memory?  A glance at reviews for some of the more recent publications suggests that the revisionist works have generally been well received:

'Forgotten Victory' (Gary Sheffield) – ‘What this book does offer is a reappraisal of WW1, comparing the realities of the Great War with the tired stereotypes and myths that are served up regularly (and unquestioningly) in WW1 films, books and documentaries.’

'The Somme' (Prior & Wilson) – ‘First Class Dispassionate Analysis.’

The most recent reviews of Clark's The Donkeys, Taylor's The First World War, and even the more recent polemic work on Haig by Winter Haig's Command, have, in contrast, been particularly damning.

'The Donkeys' (Alan Clark) – ‘It's "Use By Date" has clearly been reached!’

'The First World War' (A.J.P. Taylor) – ‘The book itself covers the war in a short but concise manner.  However it is both dry and biased and sadly has been the main source of WW1 history for many school children.’

'Haig's Command' (Denis Winter) - The quality of Mr. Winter's research can be best explained by the selective (mis)use of sources.

The interested amateur historians appear to have altered their perceptions, what about the mainstream public?  To gauge the impact on the mainstream public I intend focus on three elements; a brief examination of the current education system in the context of the way the Great War is currently taught, a review of the personal perceptions of the Great War provided by four of my work colleagues, and an appraisal of the media response to the 90th anniversary of the Armistice.

Teaching the Great War

The Great War became an element of the national curriculum from 1988; it was not mandated but was subject to the preferences and specialisations within individual schools.  Where the Great War has been taught as part of the syllabus the message imparted to the pupils has depended on the bias of the individual teacher (Rob Hatch, Teaching the Great War, Journal of the Centre for First World War Studies, 1 (1), (July 2004), p. 25-26).  During an open evening I attended with my son, when he was choosing his GCSE subjects, the history department greeted prospective pupils with a looped showing of the last scenes from the film Gallipoli with a teacher stating openly 'they were all lions being led by donkeys'.  My daughter, after being shown extracts from the BBC television series Blackadder Goes Forth during a Great War history lesson at the same school, took part in a class debate on the validity of Blackadder as a true representation of the War.  This type of mixed message being portrayed within the school's history department is pervasive and not unique to the comprehensive education system (Hatch, ‘Teaching the Great War’ p 28).

Personal Perceptions of the Great War

I asked four of my work colleagues to answer a single question Who won the First World War?, and to provide, in note or bullet point form, their perceptions of the First World War.  All four stated that Britain and her allies had won the First World War.  Their perceptions provided a mixed response ranging from; horrific images, poor leadership, and suicidal advances to a conflict that had a huge psychological effect on the psyche of Western Europe:

Horrific images
Mental effects (shell shock) viewed as cowardice
Unrelenting noise
Poor leadership
Pals moral
Living with death - bodies/corpses rotting in trenches
Suicidal advances - over the top into walls of lead
Long periods of inactivity
War poets
Lord Flashard (Blackadder)

Period of massive technological advance.
Impact/potential of new technology not understood by Generals.
Reliance on outdated strategy led to inflexibility and immobility of forces.
Massive squandering of live for small gains.
Large scale call-up of male part of population.
Relied on British sense of duty.
Led to widespread poverty at home among families with a breadwinner either lost or at war.
Caused loss of a large proportion of 2 or more generations.
Little widespread discussion/reading material of the effects on the Germans.
Little discussion/widespread knowledge of other involved nations who else was at war to call it WW1.
I have scant knowledge of why WW1 kicked off. Contrast with the relatively well taught build up of Nazism and its expansion in Europe prior to WW2.
Popular belief seems to be that WW1 was fought in the fields of France between Britain and Germany.
Air warfare developed from virtually non-existence to fielding of large squadrons carrying out ground attack, escort, recce missions on a large scale in only 4 years.

‘Class differences.
Frustrating conflict
Massive loss of life.
Ineffectual leadership.
Technological impact.
Horrific conditions.
War on a global scale for the first time.
Airforces introduction.
Wilfred Owen.’

‘A conflict that had a huge psychological effect on the psyche of Western Europe.  Political landscape was changed irrevocably and the seeds for the rise of fascism were sown.  In Britain much was made of the huge loss of life which was exacerbated by the 'friends' battalions - recruiting entire units from one geographic area.  This practice exaggerated the perceived loss of life.  Economically led to the collapse of the 'British Empire' although much was also due to changes in national aspirations.’

These perceptions illustrate a sense of confusion over how to interpret the Great War, a clash between sentimentality and fresh reality.

Media Response to the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice

As part of the Armistice 90th anniversary remembrance programmes the BBC re-ran the 1914 - 1918 documentary series. This series was discredited when it was first broadcast in 1997 for repeating the 1960's folklore.  Corelli Barnett was particularly critical over its 'Britainnocentric bias' (Correlli Barnett, Oh what a whingeing war!, The Spectator, 18 Jan 1997).  The World War One section of the BBC website, in contrast, carried a predominantly revisionist theme with lead articles from the likes of Dan Todman and Gary Sheffield.  This theme of mixed messages was also evident in the Remembrance editions of the Observer (9 Nov 08) and The Times (11 Nov 08).  The Observer contained the first, in a series, of seven booklets covering the First World War; each of the booklets contained an introductory section written by a current revisionist Great War historian.  Gary Sheffield wrote the leading article ‘This war was no accident’ in the DAY ONE booklet.  The main cover of the paper carried, as a banner, the powerfully moving painting Gassed by John Singer Sargent which depicts a line of soldiers suffering the after effects of a mustard gas attack leading each other to a dressing station.  The Times carried a picture of a smiling 'Tommy' as a banner.  Inside, as a leading article, is a review by the arts reporter Ben Hoyle of Douglas Haig and the First World War written by J.P. Harris.  The review focused almost exclusively on the discovery that Haig was pushing for a compromise peace in 1918.  It does not appear to be the same book reviewed by Ian Beckett:

Here, then, is an informed and thoroughly modern re-assessment, balancing Haigs undoubted qualities against his manifold weaknesses.

These mixed messages and the sense of confusion evident illustrates underlying, mainstream public, uncertainties over how to understand and represent the Great War.  We have now reached what Dan Todman describes as, a split in historical understanding (Dan Todman, How we remember them: the 1914-18 war today, openDemocracy website).  The academic community, through robust historical research, has successfully debunked the folklore of the 1960's. The mainstream public is in a confused state of transition, unsure whether to retain the sentimental attachment to the 1960's folklore, or to embrace the new revisionist interpretations.

 Download 'The British Perception of WW1' .pdf version


Primary Sources

Broadcast Media

The Great War
DVD, Episodes 12 & 13, BBC 1964, (Daily Mail, 2007)
1914 - 1918
TV Recording, Episode 4 Slaughter, BBC4 (Broadcast November 2008)
TV Recording, BBC4 (Broadcast November 2008)


Clark, Alan
The Donkeys (London: Pimlico, 1991)
Glover, Jon & Silkin, Jon (eds)
Tuchman, Barbara. W
The Guns of August (Presidio Press, 2004)


The Guardian
Weekend Edition Saturday 8 November 2008
The Times
Tuesday 11 November 2008


World War One, BBC History website:
Book Reviews - Various, Amazon website:


Year 9 Scheme of Work
St Ivo School History Department World War 1 (2008)

Secondary Sources

Broadcast Media

Wilfred Owen: A Remembrance Tale
TV Recording, BBC4 (Broadcast November 2008)


Beckett, Ian
Facing Armageddon: a selected bibliography, in Hugh Cecil & Peter Liddle (eds), Facing Armageddon (Barnsley Pen & Sword, 2003)
Bond, Brian
British Anti-War writers and their Critics, in Hugh Cecil & Peter Liddle (eds), Facing Armageddon (Barnsley Pen & Sword, 2003)
Fussell, Paul
The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University Press, 1977)
Sheffield, Gary
Forgotten Victory (London, Headline, 2002)
Stallworthy, John
Wilfred Owen (Oxford University Press, 1993)
Todman, Dan
The Great War Myth and Memory (London, Comtinuum, 2005)
Winter, Jay
Sites of Memory Sites of Mourning (Cambridge Press Syndicate, 1995)

Journals and Periodicals

Beckett, Ian
Revisiting the old Front Line: The historiography of the Great War Since 1984, The Journal of the Western Front Association, 43 (April 1995)
Batten, Sonia
Forgetting the First World War, , Journal of the Centre for First World War Studies, 2 (2) (July 2005)
Bourke, Joanna
Introduction Remembering War, Journal of Contemporary History, 39 (4) (October 2004)
Darby, Robert
Oscillations on the Hotspur-Falstaff Spectrum: Paul Fussell and the Ironies of War, War in History, 9 (2) (2002)
Egerton, George W.
The Lloyd George War Memoirs: A Study in the Politics of Memory, The Journal of Modern History, 60, (1), (March 1988)
French, David
‘”Official but not History? Sir James Edmonds and the Official History of the Great War, RUSI Journal, 131 (1) (March 1996)
Gullace, Nicoletta F.
Memory, Memorials, and the Postwar Literary Experience: Traditional Values and the Legacy of World War I, Twentieth Century British History, 10 (2) (1999)
Hanna, Emma
A small screen alternative to stone and bronze: The Great War series and British television, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (1) (2007)
Hatch, Rob
Teaching the Great War, Journal of the Centre for First World War Studies, 1 (1) (July 2004)
Luvaas, Jay
The First British Official Historians, Military Affairs, 26 (2) (Summer, 1962)
Neiberg, Michael S.
Revisiting the Myths: New Approaches to the Great War, Contemporary European History, 13 (4) (2004)
Taylor, David
Blood, Mud and Futility? Patrick MacGill and the Experience of the Great War, European Review of History, 13 (2), (June 2006)


Barnett, Correlli
Oh what a whingeing war!, The Spectator, (18 January 1997),
Bond, Brian
A Victory worse than a Defeat? British Interpretations of the First World War, Annual Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives Lecture, (20 November 1997),
Bourne. John
Introduction to Historiography, Lecture Birmingham University, (6 December 2008)
Craig , Leon H.
Rhetoric in a Noble Cause: Churchill's World Crisis as Apologia, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, (September 2005),
Howard, Michael
Review of The Donkeys, The Listener, (3 August 1961)
Holmes, Richard
War of Words: The British Army and the Western Front, CRF Prize Lecture, (26&28 May 2003),
Leader, Mike
How best to remember? The Great War, Siegfried Sassoon and Social Memory,
Lessenich, Rolf P.
"Where death becomes absurd and life absurder": Literary Views of the Great War 1914-1918, University of Bonn,
Paxman, Jeremy
Wilfred Owen: The soldiers poet, The Telegraph website, (3 November 2007),
Pearce, Edward
Alan Clark, Tory maverick whose indulgences frustrated his ambition, but produced fine history and the most incisive political diaries of a generation,, (8 September 1999),
Todman, Dan
How we remember them: the 1914-18 war today, OpenDemocracy Website, (11 November 2008),
Todman Dan
World War One: Misrepresentations of a Conflict, BBC Website,


War Poetry as Historical Fact, The First World War Poetry Digital Archive website:
'The Great War and the making of the Twentieth Century' PBS Television Series:

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