Saturday, 8 November 2014

To remember you need to know what you're remembering

When I was very young I watched what must have been a repeat of the extraordinary 1964 television series The Great War. I always remembered the haunting music that accompanied the opening credits, the face of a soldier staring at the camera and a skeleton dressed in a uniform. I watched the whole thing again relatively recently. There were twenty six parts, with archival footage and photographs, but mainly with men talking about their experiences fifty years earlier. I’ve been reading about the First World War on and off since I was a teenager, but here was television that could still tell me things I didn’t know and give a perspective I’d never thought of. Where is the equivalent of this today?  I remember a newsreader dashing through the First World War in three or four episodes, which was so "accessible", it assumed the viewer knew absolutely nothing about modern European history. I realised then Television was not for me.

By one of those generational quirks, both my grandfathers were born in the 1880s, one near Dublin, the other near Aberdeen. They both fought in the First World War and both survived, which is lucky for me not least because I had the chance to know them while I was a very little girl. For this reason the Great War has always been very close to me. I take it very personally as do many other British people whether or not they met those who fought in Flanders. It’s not as if I were told wartime stories as a child. That generation was very quiet about what it had experienced. Still there were those few occasions when something was let slip. It was sometimes only twenty years after a grandparent had died that I understood a chance remark that had been told to me.

I’m not a First World War obsessive, nor am I an expert, but I believe that if we are to remember we have to know what we are remembering. There is a distorted view of 1914-1918.  What is it that everybody knows? What are the famous battles? Most people know a little bit about the Somme and they know a little bit about Passchendaele. There’s the idea of brave men charging against barbed wire and being mown down by machine guns. There’s the idea of vast expanses of mud and futile attacks ordered by generals safely behind the lines who were fools or worse. Above all, there’s the idea that the First World War was wrong, stupid and unnecessary. 

A view that is partly true is far more insidious than one that is wholly false.  There was mud, there were trenches, there were attacks that cost thousands for little gain. It’s easy to point to the futility of it all. But this way of looking at the events of 100 years ago is not remembering, it is distorting. Almost everything most people think they know about the First World War is false in the sense that it misses the whole picture that is the truth.

Who started it? The Germans. No. Read, Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers to find that everyone was in some ways to blame. Some of what he writes is, of course controversial, other writers disagree with him, but at least you should realise that there are two sides to this argument and that it is complex.

The generals were stupid. Can you come up with a plausible strategy that would have broken the deadlock of the Western Front? I can't. At least I can't without hindsight. The fundamental problem was that due to the nature of the weaponry, especially machine guns, the defenders had a massive advantage, and breakthroughs could be contained. The defensive side could always reinforce more quickly than the attacking, for they weren't reinforcing across a no-man's land all churned up and fought over. It took until 1918 for both sides to learn how to break the line. The Germans did so in March 1918, the allies in August 1918. This happened because of developments in tactics and technology. Above all, it required lessons to be learned.

The Somme and Passchendaele show that General Haig was a buffoon. Not so. The British and the French won The Battle of the SommeIt lead to a massive retreat on the part of the Germans and crushed the German army. Without these battles there could have been no victory in 1918. It was precisely because the German Army was being put in such a desperate position in 1917, that in  March 1918 it launched the Kaiserschlacht offensive that eventually led to short-term success but long-term self-destruction.

Nobody won the First World War. Not so. The British Army won the First World War. We defeated the German Army and by 1918 were the dominant army in the field. We broke the Hindenburg line and did what had seemed impossible two years earlier. But it only became possible because of what we’d learned on the Somme. The greatest victory in British Army history occurred in 1918. It's usually known as the Hundred days. Hardly anyone remembers how we won, only the tough times getting there. It's as if the Russians only remembered the desperate days of 1941 and forgot Berlin 1945. I assure you they don't, quite the reverse. 

Was the war worth fighting? If we had not fought the First World War, it is probable that the French would have lost in 1914 or a little later. This would have led to a Europe dominated by Germany. We can speculate about counterfactuals as much as we like, but Britain did not think this was something we could allow to happen. To suggest that we could have avoided fighting just does not fit in with how people, both the public and the politicians, thought in 1914. Given that we were going to fight, there was no real alternative to fighting the way we did. Mistakes were made, but there is no possible general who could have fought the First World War much better than the ones who did. Ferdinand Foch in my view is second only to Napoleon as the greatest general in French history. Haig had his faults, but was a much greater general than Montgomery.

Now that we’ve got those myths out of the way, we might briefly look at some others. Some Scottish nationalists are pointing to the supposed fact that more Scots died in the First World War proportionally than people from other parts of the UK. Firstly, I would question whether this is true. It’s always possible to manipulate statistics, especially given that many Scottish regiments contained non-Scots and many Scots fought in non-Scottish regiments. Secondly, so what? Must we always hunt for grievances in our history? Does anyone seriously think that wicked English generals deliberately used Scots as cannon fodder? The best regiments always suffered the highest casualty rates. This was certainly true of the Anzacs, Canadians and South Africans, let alone the Newfoundlanders who suffered 80% casualties in twenty minutes on July 1st 1916 .  Scotland has one of the best military traditions in the British Army. Our regiments are famous because they have always contained some of the bravest soldiers. Tragically, the brave have a greater chance of being killed. This is something we should all be proud of, rather than turn into just one more moan at the injustice of history to the Scots.

I deplore the growing tendency to view everything in terms of Scotland and to attribute the adjective 'Scottish' to everything. Viewing the First World War through a nationalist lens is disgraceful, not least because if there is one thing that caused the First World War, it is Serbian nationalism. If the Serbs had not drunk at the poisonous well called nationalism, we would not have had the assassination at Sarajevo and we might just have escaped the whole thing. The First World War was not inevitable. If we’d got through just one more year, we might have avoided it altogether.


We voted against nationalism in September. What I remember most about my grandfathers is that they unquestioningly thought they were British. They were also Scottish and Irish, but first of all, they were Brits who had fought for their country. Every single one of their friends also considered themselves to be British, both those who survived and those who died. It will take time for us in Scotland to get back to that time, but we must begin by using the adjective 'British' about things in Scotland. I want to see the word 'Scottish' used less and the word 'British' used more. This is not because I don’t like the word 'Scottish', it’s because I see it as another way of expressing my British identity and I want some balance in the words we use to describe ourself. It is for this reason above all that the Royal British Legion have betrayed the Scottish soldiers who fought for Britain by rebranding themselves as Legion Scotland. This is not what they fought for; this is not what we remember. We remember how soldiers from all over Britain and overseas fought together for the sake of democracy and freedom in Europe. These people fought for Britain. That memory should unite everyone in Britain wherever our grandparents came from. Particularly this weekend I have absolutely no time for, nor any respect for people who would divide Britain. Having shown themselves to be the enemies of democracy, they have also shown that it is they who their grandfathers were fighting against. 



If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.

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