Beyond the slaughter and loss of the First World War

Michael Portillo asks why we only think of slaughter and loss when we recall the Great War.

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Reconstruction of the First World War Copyrighted image Copyright: BBC

Michael
It’s the beginning of the academic year at Queen Mary, University of London

Dan
What I’d like you to do is come up with three words to describe the First World War, Britain’s First World War. What was it like? What did it mean? What did it achieve?

Michael
Dr Dan Todman asks a group of new undergraduates what images are conjured in their minds by World War I.

Student
Muddy.

Dan
Muddy.

Student
Pointless.

Dan
Pointless. It was muddy, it was bloody, it was futile. And what about how it was fought? Did we do a good job of fighting it? No, no, people shaking their heads. So how is it that we formed these ideas about war?

Record: Oh, What A Lovely War
The prospects for 1916 are excellent.
Permission to speak sir?
Of course.
If we continue in this way, the line of trenches will extend from Switzerland to the sea. Neither we nor the Germans will be able to break through. The war will end in complete stalemate.
Nonsense, we need only one more big offensive to break through and win.

Reading - Verse from ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen
What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns,
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

Michael
Close to a hundred years after the conflict began, the popular memory of the First World War is now dominated by a few stock characters and images, the incompetent generals of ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’, the doomed youth of the war poets, fields of poppies, futility… but as Professor Hew Strachan showed me, there is evidence of rather different memories of the war.

Michael
The Scottish National War Memorial commemorates the hundred and fifty thousand Scottish servicemen who died in World War One, and those who have died in subsequent conflicts. It stands at the very heart of Edinburgh Castle, on top of the Castle Mount. The whole thing is dominated by an image of the Archangel Michael triumphing over evil. This is not perhaps what many of us think of in terms of World War One. Yes of course there is the grief, there is the sorrow, there is the sense of sacrifice, but also there is clearly the sense of victory, of triumph, and of righteousness.

Hew
There’s a frieze which shows the many varieties of combatants in this war, and non-combatants too, and behind it is a panel which combines two wreaths – one of thorn and one of bay – one representing sacrifice, and the other victory.

Michael
And my feeling is then that over the years we focus more on the thorns than we do on the bay.

Hew
Indeed we do. The war memorial comes at a point in the history of the memory of the war when it’s not clear whether this is to be remembered as a war that ended victoriously, and triumphantly, a war that had to be fought, a just war, or whether it’s a war to be remembered as one of loss, grieving, mourning and waste.

Michael
The latter vision has prevailed - the First World War seen as hell on earth, four years of trench warfare, callous leadership and carnage. Over the decades, we’ve focused more and more on one day, July 1st 1916, the first day of the Somme. And indeed it’s impossible not to be shocked when you hear the numbers or read the names. Almost 20,000 British dead in a single day. Men such as those of the 46th North Midland Division, who took part in a disastrous diversionary attack at Gommecourt. And yet, two years later, in 1918, the fortunes of the Allies, the British Army and the 46th Division, had been transformed.

Dan
We’re looking at a picture of Brigadier John Campbell, VC, addressing the men of the 46th Division. He’s talking to them in the first days of October 1918, and he’s congratulating them because they’ve just broken up the Hindenberg line, which is the main German defensive position on the Western Front.

Gary
And they’re celebrating their own victory. The fighting has now moved on. Actually they are now out of immediate threat of the Germans, and that in itself speaks volumes, because whereas in 1916 or ‘17 you might gain a couple of hundred yards, or if you’re really lucky a couple of thousand yards, a particular battle, here the battle line has moved.

Michael
So you’re describing spectacular victories, and yet I think these are battles that scarcely anybody could name. How do you account for that?

Gary
I think the problem is, the British have become fixated with the Somme, and Paschendaele, and these battles which are seen as, as disasters. There hasn’t been a great deal of interest until very recently in examining the victorious battles. We have got the First World War firmly stamped on our collective memory as being a disaster.

Michael
But there’s another story which I believe we should also remember – that we won the war, and we won it well. How did the Allies triumph in the so-called Hundred Days Campaign, the battles fought in the final months of the war? How was the impasse of the trenches finally broken? John Bourne is the Director of the Centre for First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham.

John
The British infantry in 1916 or the image the public has is it was cut down by machine guns. And on some parts of the front that was true. But mainly it’s the total inability or failure of the British artillery in the build-up to the 1st July 1916 to destroy the German guns that sealed the fate of the British infantry. In 1918 the power of, of the British artillery is just in a completely different league.

Michael
In the Small Heath area of Birmingham I’m standing with Professor Gary Sheffield opposite a red brick factory building which was an extension built in 1915 to the Birmingham small arms factory, and this represents, does it not, part of that war effort? This, this expansion showed that more arms were needed faster.

Gary
Absolutely. The BSA, the Birmingham Small Arms factory, is an excellent example of the improvisation which came in the course of total war.

Michael
And what was the weapon made here?

Gary
The short magazine Lee Enfield Mark 3, the standard infantry rifle, and more importantly the Lewis gun, a light machine gun, of an American design originally, which equipped the British army by the end of the war, and in my view revolutionised tactics on the Western Front.

Michael
Germany also had a powerful industrial base, and in early 1918 appeared to be winning the struggle for supremacy. When the German Spring Offensive began it seemed for a few weeks that Britain might lose the war. Morale was low, but production continued to rise.

Archive - The Great War BBC TV series
The King has learned from the military authorities, that practically all the losses and expenditure of munitions during the battle have already been made good without any undue depletion of normal reserves. There are now actually more serviceable guns, machine guns and aeroplanes, with the British armies in the field than there were on the eve of the German attack.

John
To use a modern expression it was the just in time system, so by the time you needed the shells you turned round and there they were, which is very different from 1916 when you were having to create these enormous shell dumps which could virtually be seen from outer space, and was a sort of indication to the Germans that there might be something happening on the British side of the line.

Dan
The quantities of explosive which the British can put onto German positions by this point, it is appropriate to measure in, in the kiloton range. So we’re talking about atomic levels of explosion spread over a day or two or three days.

John
The ability of the guns that they now had and the, and the munitions they had to identify German targets, especially German guns, and to neutralise them, was transformed by a massive intellectual effort on the part of some two hundred engineers and physicists of the British Empire which has been compared, with some slight exaggeration, as the Manhattan Project of the First World War. But this was developing state of the art technologies, developing new instruments, particularly the hot wire microphone or tuckerphone, so that you could identify German guns by the sound that they made when the shells were fired, and this was an extremely accurate way of firing back at them.

Michael
By the summer of 1918, the German Offensive had run into the ground. The Kaiser’s forces were nearing exhaustion, while the Allies had never been better equipped.

Hew
And I’d highlight in particular the impact of air power, because in the second half of 1918 the Allies have air superiority and are attacking troops on the ground, so we’re looking at combined arms warfare – aircraft, tanks, infantry, and above all artillery, integrated.

Michael
And when airmen looked down on the battlefield – they no longer saw stalemate in the trenches, but a war of movement.

Reading
The whole plateau seen from the air was dotted with parties of infantry, field artillery and tanks moving forward, staff officers were galloping about, many of them riding horses into battle for the first time. No enemy guns appeared to be firing and no co-ordinated defence was apparent

Michael
On 8 August 1918 the Allies mounted an attack at Amiens. In contrast to the early years of the war, infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft were launched against the German lines simultaneously, in a devastating surprise attack…German Supreme Commander Field Marshall Ludendorff called this the Black Day of the German Army. The Allies were now fighting a ‘three-dimensional’ battle.

Dan
It looks much more like the Second World War than it looks like our popular conception of Battle of the Somme. It’s a battle which has got a lot deeper. Tanks and aircraft allow much greater mobility to the battlefield.

Michael
And mistakes that the Germans had made during their spring offensive were not repeated by the Allied armies.

Gary
They didn’t outrun their supplies. They would advance a set number of miles, stop, bring up the supplies, and then start all over again.

Michael
How big were these battles? How important were these battles? How significant were the victories?

Gary
The battles were enormous. I mean they were the largest battles in, in British military history. They were extremely bloody, some of the, the heaviest casualties of the war were being sustained in the advance, but they were decisive.

Hew
This is coalition warfare, and the Americans as big a part in that alliance as the British and the French – indeed bigger by the, by the last week or so of the war. And that is a tremendous morale boost for the rest. I mean there is numerical superiority here. It also means that the way in which pressure can be put on the Western Front, on the Germans, can go up and down the whole length of the, of the Front, all the way from Belgium to Lorraine.

Michael
The high morale and initiative displayed by soldiers on the ground also played a critical role. To win the war the Allies had to break through the Hindenburg Line, the formidable defences which the Germans had built through France. Gary Sheffield again.

Gary
Well it consisted of a series of fortified outposts, a canal, the St Quentin Canal, and fortified villages. This is a dense belt of defences with barbed wire, machine gun posts, and the Germans had thought it was impregnable.

Michael
At the end of September 1918, the British attempted to break the line.

Gary
If there’s any one moment you can say that the Germans lost the First World War on the Western Front, it’s at that moment when the Staffordshire Brigade captured the Hindenberg Line.

Michael
A battle that changed the course of the war – and yet few of us remember it or could name it. To cross the St Quentin canal, a formidable obstacle cut deep between steep banks, required a tactically brilliant operation.

Reading
The troops had to be got across the canal somehow, and if all else failed it was suggested they should swim it.

Michael
One tactic was described by Royal Engineer Officer, Major H.J.C, Marshall of the 46th North Midland Division.

Reading
Some genius thought of the lifebelts on the leave boats, and a lorryload was brought in from Boulogne. Experiments had been tried to convince the battalions participating in the attack that a fully armed man, with no knowledge of swimming, was safe from drowning while wearing one of these belts.

Dan
Most of the officers can swim, and so they go across with lines, and then the men who can’t swim put these life jackets on and they’re hauled across.

Michael
So clearly some of them went through the water. Was the bridge itself usable?

John
The great weakness was the, the bridge at Rikval which was captured by a brilliant coup de main by Captain A.H. Charlton.

Dan
Captain Charlton charges across with his men, they cut the wires just as the Germans were about to blow this bridge up, throw the wires over the edge, bayonet the Germans who are trying to defend it, and this is a bridge that will allow the British to cross the St Quentin canal and to exploit sort of further beyond that position, the British who were advancing continually.

Gary
This attack is part of an enormous offensive which takes place all along the Front Line, and this really is the point at which the Germans suddenly realise they’ve lost their major hope of holding the Allies up, that’s it. Now is time to get out of the war.

Michael
So it really is a substantial Allied victory?

Gary
It’s been described by the historian John Terraine as one of the most significant feats of arms in the history of the British army, which I think is absolutely right. I guess one could argue it should be remembered in Britain as the Battle of Britain is or the Battle of Trafalgar is. It is a pivotal point in British military history.

Michael
Why then are the names of those key victories now forgotten? Partly, because the German collapse was so rapid and unexpected that there was no time to celebrate. The war ended suddenly, and with so many dead – a million from the British Empire, 700,000 from the British Isles alone - jubilation was bound to be tempered by mourning.

A decade after the armistice, those who had fought were still remembered as heroic figures. Their courage and determination had secured an honourable victory in a war that needed to be won.

Dan
This really is a national outpouring of emotion.

Michael
We’re standing in the central nave of the magnificent Westminster Abbey, we’re just a few yards away from the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, but we’re here to discuss another great funerary occasion, from the 3rd February 1928, when Field Marshal Earl Haig, was brought to Westminster Abbey. What was that day like?

Dan
It’s a day of mourning throughout Britain.

Michael
Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief, is now firmly entrenched in the popular memory as incompetent and unfeeling – as a donkey leading lions. But in the aftermath of the war, he was remembered more positively.

Dan
The streets are filled with people who’ve come from really quite far afield to watch Haig’s coffin being borne through the streets of London. It’s on the gun carriage which had been used to carry the coffin of the Unknown Warrior. Haig’s body comes here to Westminster Abbey as a, a memorial service which is broadcast to the nation by the BBC. The body goes north to Edinburgh where it lies in state again. All the way along that rail route each level crossing there are groups of mourners raising their hats, watching this coffin go by. This happens on the Friday. On the Saturday football matches across Britain are delayed by periods of silence and memorial services. On the Sunday services across Britain, parades by the British Legion. It’s not unsuitable to think of this as being in the same league as the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, or even that of Princess Diana or the Queen Mother.

Michael
I think what you’ve described is very different from what I would have imagined, that Haig would be regarded in that way just ten years after the war ended. Why do you think our perception has changed so much since then?

Dan
Well Haig at the time isn’t viewed as an uncontroversial figure. But this is also I think a moment of symbolic mourning for all the dead who haven’t had a funeral. Haig becomes symbolic of many of the sort of idealised aspects that people would have, would have wanted their dead soldiers to embody. He’s a perfect gentle knight, he’s honourable, he’s silent, he’s determined against adversity – all these things which are really ideal versions of masculinity in Britain in the 1920s.

Michael
Dan Todman. But very different memories of the war were about to gain prominence. In the 1930s, during the great economic depression, poems, plays and novels which expressed disillusionment with the war became more popular. Today we’re less likely to remember the war dead and the victors of 1918 as perfect gentle knights. Instead we see them as the helpless victims of unimaginable horror such as the gas attack described by Wilfred Owen.

Reading - Extract from ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ by Wilfred Owen
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Michael
And that was written here?

Catherine
Yes.

Michael
I’ve come to the edge of Edinburgh, close by the Pentland Hills, to Craiglockhart, which during the First World War was used as a hostel for officers suffering from what was called neurosthenia, and is now part of Napier University, and we’re in a little museum which has been established to the war poets, because it was here at Craiglockhart that Wilfred Own came in 1917 and where he had a most important encounter with Siegfried Sassoon, the older poet, encouraging Owen in his work. Hew, taking the panoply of poets, because there were many, are we being very selective now in focusing on Sassoon, on Owen, on Robert Graves?

Hew
We’ve established a canon haven’t we, I mean, and that’s partly the consequently of school syllabuses, and partly because Owen I think especially is a great poet, and he, of course he speaks with a very modern voice.

Michael
But there were other views of the war as well?

Hew
Absolutely.

Michael
Generations of school children have been introduced to the First World War through the war poets. But we no longer read those poems, of which there are many, that celebrated victories. And we forget that even Wilfred Owen felt motivated to return to the war and to die a hero’s death.

Dan
Owen of course goes back to the front, and takes part in this last hundred days campaign. He wins the Military Cross for seizing a German machine gun and turning it on its owners at very close range, and he’s killed in the, the last great battle on the Sambre and Oise canal which sees the Germans, forced off their final defensive position. Of course we don’t remember that. What we remember is a, is a limited selection of his poetry.

Michael
And why do you think that it is that in the popular memory these victories of the British and the Allies in 1918 have been so downplayed?

John
I think that’s a really difficult question, to answer.

Michael
John Bourne again.

John
I think partly it’s because the, the outcomes of the war, in the inter-war period, are disappointing - the homes fit for heroes were not built, you had the Depression – but I think partly it comes from the generation that didn’t fight the war. I was always struck by George Orwell’s contempt for the people who fought the war, and admiration for conscientious objectors, but at the time conscientious objectors were totally despised by most people, and it’s the sort of the generation that didn’t fight the war, looked back on the war and thought that the people who fought it were foolish. I don’t think they felt that about themselves.

The other thing is of course it’s, it’s a commonplace of history that it depends how you look at the past where you’re viewing it from. And sometimes this changes within people’s lives. I was told once by a man whose father was a veteran of the war that he completely believed in the justice of Britain’s cause, of the rightness of the war, of the outcome of the war, of the role of himself and his friends in it, and he believed it until the moment when Neville Chamberlain made a speech on the 3rd September 1939, and he said he – this was a Staffordshire man as well - his father burst into tears when Neville Chamberlain completed his broadcast to the British people saying that we were now at war with Germany, because then he felt that the war had been somehow pointless.

Gary
Compared to the First World War, the Second World War the issues were clearcut, and I think we tend to see the First World War through the lens of the Second. There is this good war, which is preceded by this bad, pointless war.

Michael
That sense of pointlessness, of futility, has I think transformed our memory of World War One. During the conflict itself, some questioned the point of the war, but it was only in the second half of the twentieth century that that view came to dominate the popular recollection of the war.

Archive ‘The Great War’: Mr. Taylor
When I crawled out of the shell hole, I started crawling towards our lines, and I’ve never seen so many dead men, clumped together, as what I saw then. And I thought to myself, oh the world’s dead, they’re all dead. And I crawled along, everywhere I passed, left and right, were men laying out on the ground.

Michael
In the 1960s the musical and film ‘Oh What a lovely War’ and the BBC television series ‘The Great War’ reinforced an image of helpless combatants led to slaughter. The historian John Terraine who was adviser to the television series, intended to present a balanced picture of victories as well as stalemate and massacre, but the footage of the carnage, seen by viewers at home for the first time, overwhelmed all other impressions.

Archive ‘The Great War’: Mr. Bray
…And then a sergeant just in front of me jumped up and said, ‘Come on men, be British’. We jumped up and followed him, and he, he ran about six yards and he went down. Well we ran on about another twenty yards toward the German trenches, the German trenches were literally… literally packed. They were standing about four deep firing machine guns, rifles, straight at us.

Michael
People have no difficulty I think even now in telling you what were the causes, the good causes, the rightful causes of World War Two.

Hew
Yep.

Michael
But they couldn’t do the same for World War One.

Hew
No absolutely right. The Kaiser’s just a silly man with a funny helmet and an idiotic moustache, and a withered arm.

Michael
That was not the perception then?

Hew
Absolutely not.

Michael
Professor Hew Strachan of All Souls College Oxford. If the victories of 1918 were futile then it’s not surprising that we don’t remember them. But what if that futility is another myth?

Dan
In 1914 an element of the German government makes a deliberate choice to risk war, and takes aggressive action, aggressive militaristic action, to try and dominate the continent of Europe.

Michael
Under the Kaiser, German society was autocratic and authoritarian. The British increasingly saw Prussian militarism as a threat.

Hew
German intellectuals actually wrote a manifesto saying we’re happy to associate ourselves with German militarism. This is a force for good in the world and we will make a better world. I mean there is here a pre-figuring of, of the Nazis, and the intellectual roots of, of much of the rhetoric of, of national socialism, you can find it in what seemed to be perfectly sensible responses about a managed economy, or about the need to integrate the best of socialism with a society that has a powerful leader, in order to produce a, a more dynamic and focused nation.

Dan
German forces march into Belgium and France, and while they’re there, it’s worth noting, that commit a series of atrocities.

Hew
German troops shot Belgian civilians, they justified it by saying these were guerrillas. There is no direct evidence that Belgian civilians did take part in the fighting. And about five thousand were killed. But in many ways the real suffering of Belgium came later, when Germany used Belgium as an economic resource, taking industrial plant out of Belgium back to Germany, taking raw materials out of Belgium back to Germany, and also taking labour. About a hundred and twenty thousand Belgians are deported during the course of the war to work for the German war effort.

Michael
Did the same thing happen in France?

Hew
Northern France under occupation, it’s the same story.

John
The British soldier of the First World War now is generally allotted only one position, and that is of passive victim.

Michael
Perhaps above all what we’ve forgotten to remember is how British soldiers saw the war, their own role in it, and their remarkable victory over Germany.

John
I grew up as a teenager talking to veterans of the war when they were only in their sixties, and they did not see themselves as passive victims. Many of them were volunteers who chose to go, they did believe that the war was about something. They the ordinary soldier in 1918 had brought about the victory. And I think it’s that sense of pride of ordinary soldiers in their achievements which is almost entirely not reflected in the media. What’s reflected is the suffering of ordinary soldiers, which is fair enough, but their own sense of themselves and their role in it I think has been underwritten and understated.

Michael
We’re looking together at a photograph of British troops entering Lille on the 17th October 1918, an image that perhaps one would associate more with World War Two than World War One, but an enormous crowd out to greet the soldiers, mainly made up of children.

Hew
They will have spent most of their lives under German occupation, and many of them will have had their fathers taken away if not by military service then by the need to, to work in Germany for German industry.

Michael
There’s no doubting the joy on the faces of the children, and indeed on the faces of the soldiers.

Hew
Yep I think the soldiers’ sense that this has been worthwhile comes through very strongly here. We associate liberation with 1944, 45 – why not associate it with 1918 too?

This programme was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in November 2006

This is a transcript of an episode of The Things We Forgot To Remember.

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