There is no “right way” to intemperate complex historical events which stem from tidal movements in social mobility and advances in technology – as did the First World War. Therefore the Home Secretary, Michael Gove’s comments can be considered crass, designed to promote political mischief and in the end denigrate the sacrifices made by all those officers, enlisted soldiers and civilians of the protaganist nations. Fictitious programmes and plays such as “Blackadder“, “Oh, What a Lovely War!” and recently the publication of the trench newspaper “The Wipers Times” not only express legitimate and poignant depictions of real suffering, the stoic courage of soldiers of all ranks and the horror at such loss of young life, but also serve to make history interesting and accessible to generations of school children and adults. They are also a legitimate counterweight to the easy patriotism of the early works of poets such as Rupert Brookes – a patriotism which had died decisively in all countries with the battle of the Somme.
It is true that over the past 10 – 15 years, the view that the sacrifice in human life was caused by the incompetence of a small political and military elite has been amended by historical research, particularly by the re-appraisal of Haig’s strategy on the Western Front. More emphasis is now given to the part played by problems of logistics and the deployment of military technology (gas, barbed-wire, tanks, artillery and aircraft) during the first phase of the war; the generals (British, French and German)were forced to adopt a defensive strategy with the direct result of appalling casualties in all theatres of war. Defence via trenches was not envisaged by any senior planner before the conflict (e.g. the Schiffer Plan). “Events” on the battlefield forced this on all sides.
It is also true that German foreign policy during the last decade before the First World War was bellicose and agressively imperialist (as argued by the military historian Max Hastings), but so was British foreign policy during much of the nineteenth century. It is also historical fact that the Kaiser resented Britain’s naval superiority and conceived the program of naval rearmament both to counter Britain and satisfy working class social and economic aspirations rather than grant internal reform and parliamentary democracy. But Gove’s view of the war does not take into account the Kaiser’s doubts and vacillation on the eve of German mobilisation. Nor is any weight given to the disastrous consequences of Russia’s prompt mobilisation.
A more considered, less adolescent view of the causes of the first world war would have examined the crucial part played by Serbian nationalists and the Russian support for this movement, as well as German foreign policy in 1914. Due weight should also be given to the sheer stupidity of both the Kaiser and the Russian Tsar (see their private letters and diaries of the period for more details on this) and the system of interlocking alliances which proved to be catistrophic in that first year.
No statesman of the period had learned the lessons of the American Civil War with its terrible casualty figures. Even more astonishing was the failure of Nicholas II to draw the right conclusions from Russia’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905.
Further, nor is any allowance made for learning about the difficulties of diplomatic communications between nations in 1914, or the unsatisfactory decision-making processes shared by all the participants in those nations governed by Ruritanian monarchical families.
In conclusion, Gove’s remarks are an ill-considered, low level appreciation of the interlocking complexity of both causes and consequences of the first world war, as well as portraying an unsophisticated appreciation of actual political and military developments during the years of conflict.