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"lions Led By Donkeys" - Topic Close To Billb's Heart


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#1 DB

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 0740 AM

The otherwise execrable UK government's Education Secretary Michael Gove has called the lie on the gospel according to Blackadder and declared that it has no place in history lessons, pointing the finger at "lefties" and their revisionist approach to WWI.

 

http://www.theguardi...ld-war-comments

 

It's amusing, of course, because BillB (and many others here) have been saying much the same thing for years and the title trope has been looking pretty ragged in the face of actual, you know, evidence.

 

Whether one can point the finger at "lefties" or not is, for me, the interesting question. I believe that Lloyd-George has been pointed at by some as being responsible for the donkey spin (as it were), and thus not so much a leftie as the US interpretation of "Liberal" might suggest.

 

regardless of the political capital being made, it's about time this appalling misrepresentation of history was exposed to the light. I wonder if anything will actually change in schools.



#2 RETAC21

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 0753 AM

If it's not replaced by "Donkeys led by lions" it would be fine. It interesting that the French, who suffered as much the "marching-into-machine-gun-fire" syndrome never went as far. 



#3 Richard Lindquist

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 0943 AM

Read C.S. Forester's fiction book, "The General" sometime. In it, he explains the mindset and the phenomena of the British army leadership in WWI. Similar to the US Civil War when officers used to leading companies are now commanding divisions and corps.

#4 DB

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 1250 PM

I'm rather more interested in overturning the Blackadder narrative rather than in the details of the current political spin.

 

It is easy for the war poets, sat on the front line and seeing people die horribly to be critical. And it is a soldier's lot to believe that everything asked of him is stupid.

 

The important point is that there were reasons for the war being conducted as it was, and whilst saying they were "valid" might be a stretch, they were certainly not entered into with a complete disregard for the human costs - but those costs were considered necessary.

 

I am also at a loss to understand how you can consider the "only mistakes" being to pick bad allies and to invade Belgium. What just cause did Germany have for invading anyone?



#5 swerve

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 1303 PM

Excellent post, Stuart.



#6 swerve

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 1325 PM

I am also at a loss to understand how you can consider the "only mistakes" being to pick bad allies and to invade Belgium. What just cause did Germany have for invading anyone?

The same cause as France & Russia had, both of which invaded Germany in the summer of 1914.

 

While one can justly criticise German enthusiasm for war, & egging on Austria-Hungary, the French & Russians were equally up for it. Russia assumed that war with Austria meant war with Germany, & planned to counter German plans by invading Germany, & France assumed that any war between Austria & Russia also had to be a war of Russia & France against Germany, & planned to invade Germany. Basically, everyone intended to join in any war, & their war plans were all "Attack!".

 

There was plenty of guilt all round. The Serbian military intelligence service had recruited, armed & trained terrorists to assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian thrones, which indubitably put Serbia in the wrong. The Austro-Hungarians saw this as an opportunity to crush Serbia, & were so intent on war that when the Serbs meekly accepted their deliberately excessive demands almost entirely, they rejected the near-total Serbian surrender as inadequate - & so on . . . 



#7 baboon6

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 1540 PM

Regarding specifically British leadership in WW1, John Terraine's essays on the subject are most definitely worth reading.


http://www.westernfr...ar-1914-18.html

#8 RETAC21

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 1607 PM

Good read indeed, I liked this paragraph:

 

On 21 March 1918, General Sir Julian Byng and General Sir Hubert Gough were attacked by 50 identified German divisions on that single day. No British general of the Second World War ever saw 50 German divisions or anything like that number. The only one who ever even glimpsed the main body of the German Army during that war was Lord Gort, in May and June 1940. Even my beloved 'Bill' Slim won his famous Burma victory over only about nine Japanese divisions - out of an Order of Battle of 174. So comparisons are useless, unless you can compare like with like; but there is nothing in our history like the role of the British Army on the Western Front in the Great War.

I



#9 BillB

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 1655 PM

With all due respect Stuart, I think you have the wrong end of the stick on a number of points. The current "lions led by donkeys & futile & needless slaughter" meme was a pacifist thing that began in a very small scale in the late 1920s when some of the war poets were picked up by the Bloomsbury Group et al; the same intellectual "elite" were also behind the similarly narrowly supported Oxford Peace Pledge Union business in the 1930s. They and the supposedly universal perspective they represent was never more than a very small intellectual clique which gained very little traction at that time because there were lots and lots of people about who had served in the Great War and who held a very different (and majority) view. The very common historical problem you have is that the latter didn't bother to set their view down as it was so blindingly obvious they didn't think there was any need, which has left a gap in the historical record ripe for folk with axes to grind to exploit for their own purposes. Despite the current "popular" perception the evidence shows that the majority view up until c.1939 was that the First World War had been a heavy but necessary sacrifice in order to stop Prussian/German militarism and put it back in its box. For proof take a look at how many First World War veterans turned out for Haig's funeral in 1928, a decade after it was all over, both the official ceremony in London and arguably more importantly the 30,000 at his actual funeral out in the middle of nowhere at Alnwick. They'd have hardly done that if they thought they'd been gulled into a needless and futile slaughter. Regarding the literary perspective, I'd suggest you look at one of the very few Other Rank memoirs based on a diary kept against regs at the time, Private 12768 by John Jackson; he was a Kitchener volunteer who served right through the War and he gives a diametrically opposite view to that of the War Poets including a retrospective conclusion he wrote ten years after to see if he felt the same then (he did). Another contemporary account, albeit in novel form but in the same vein is Frederic Manning's Her Privates We, and consider the mass market popular fiction published in Britain between the wars.  There was shedloads of stuff about the Great War aimed at young males ranging from comics like Chums, Boy's Own and Champion to full on novels like those by Frederick Sadlier Brereton and W.E. Johns of RFC scout pilot and Biggles fame. Just about all of it flew in the face of the War Poet & pacifist stance and much of it remained in print right through the 1920s and 30s. Then as now only stuff that sells gets published, and I cannot see why the public would consistently purchase stuff for getting on for two decades & through the depression if they didn't agree with what it was saying.  

 

The lefty bit arguably came in with the second wave of revisionism which appeared in the late 1950s/early 1960s with Clark's The Donkeys which IIRC Clark admitted years later was deliberately provocative tosh, and more importantly Joan Littlewood's 1963 pacifist stage play Oh! What A Lovely War which was turned into a film at the end of the 1960s.  The latter tells you all about what 1960s left-wing pacifists and their assorted political fellow travellers thought of the conflict but very little about what actually happened between 1914-18 or more importantly what the people involved actually at the timethought about it. Despite this the Littlewood narrative has set the tone for the popular perceptions of that conflict (and indeed every other - consider the blond squaddy in Zulu asking "Why?") ever since. Blackadder Goes Forth is merely a 1980s update, the same narrative can be clearly identified at least up to a point in the ground-breaking 1964 BBC documentary series The Great War (there were shedloads of veterans about then - watch it & compare the number of interviews with the extracts from the war poets) and it has shaped the way the First World War is taught in schools ever since. I've seen it for myself in the c.40 secondary schools I've worked in over the last decade - the futile & needless slaughter line is peddled across the board in history teaching and is presented unquestioningly as context when looking at the War Poets in English Literature (not history note), not least because the vast majority of the teachers simply don't really know much about the topic.  Indeed, having been exposed to the same stuff at schools themselves many simply don't realise that there is any differing perspective, and the recent focus on exam results and league tables has exacerbated the problem and encouraged such lazy teaching.  The end result is half a century of deliberate misrepresentation being presented as verifiable historical fact, and not just in schools. The same view held sway until around the mid-1970s in universities and still does despite the work of folk like John Terraine, Peter Liddle, Richard Holmes, Hew Strachan & Gary Sheffield et al; have a look at Richard Evans view in the second link below - I've had to link articles from the Daily Heil as that is where Gove originally put out his piece with a response from Evans & Sheffield the following day. Personally I think it amusing that the folk who are trying to correct the 1960s revisionists are now accused of revisionism themselves. I think the old saw by Lenin or Stalin (IIRC) about repeating a lie often enough has rarely been so apt...   :unsure:    

 

BillB

 

Linkies:

 

Goves original article in the Wail (scroll down past the title piece) :http://www.dailymail...-academics.html

 

The response from Evans & Sheffield: http://www.dailymail...ools-argue.html

 

And an entirely predictable contribution from that ardent communist Knight of the Realm Comrade Tony Robinson:  http://www.theguardi...first-world-war

 

Thought this might be of interest too from 2006: http://news.bbc.co.u...ine/5130386.stm



#10 nigelfe

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 2117 PM

There was an interesting article by a social historian in the RUSI Journal about a dozen years ago.  The point made was that conscription resulted in all sorts of people who were never going to volunteer finding themselves on the W Front, including a fair number of what today would be called 'luvvies'.  For these people it was a total and utter culture shock, and hence much of the 1920s writing.  For the industrial working class it wasn't that bad, they got three meals a day, sudden death wasn't a stranger (industrial OH&S was unheard of) and their immediate managers (ie company level officers) shared the risks, took an interest in them and looked out for them.

 

As for the generals, they were forever riding/driving around visiting their troops (not lurking in chateaus) and were open to novel ideas (who first used tanks? ah the 'donkeys').  The reality was there was no simple bloodless solution to the situation on the W Front. 

 

There was no linear road of events in mid 1914, its best to think of these events as a set of interlocking mechanisms each with its own logic.  However, my own view is that the root cause was the failure of the revolution in 1848 (and the ensuing survival of the three autoracies until 1917/8), and its consequences were not really closed until 1989.



#11 Richard Lindquist

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 2128 PM

There was no linear road of events in mid 1914, its best to think of these events as a set of interlocking mechanisms each with its own logic.  However, my own view is that the root cause was the failure of the revolution in 1848 (and the ensuing survival of the three autoracies until 1917/8), and its consequences were not really closed until 1989.


It makes you wonder as a "what if" the possibility that the US didn't fall prey to British disinformation and propaganda and had only offered their "good offices" to negotiate a peace. Would the Allies and Central power have been able to negotiate a peace in 1917 on a status quo pro ante basis and saved
Europe and the world a lot of anguish 1920-1989?

#12 Murph

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Posted 05 January 2014 - 2206 PM

The Times of India has a very good article on that very subject as applied to the modern world.

 

http://timesofindia....ow/28443262.cms



#13 Ken Estes

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Posted 06 January 2014 - 0436 AM

Not a bad brushup comparison in the article. On generalizing, I wonder if the quality of leaders and diplomats and their greater responsibility to elected parliaments today would be counted on to prevent blunders such as the backing of the coming Sick man of Europe (Austria-Hungary) by imperial decree. The militarism of the day might now be resident only in the Chinese and North Korean setups, and the second one has little value.

 

"Not worth the bones of a Pommeranian grenadier" was aptly applied to the Balkans in the 1880s, and proved prescient. The same could have been said of Iraq and Afghanistan in recent times, the latter once relearned in the 19th C. The recent experiences of conventional warfare and doubtful results should stick around for awhile: anybody note the taking of Al Fallujah by alleged Al Qaeda groups the other day? Israel's wars of expansion and contraction also read that way.

 

So, maybe it just comes down to nuc proliferation, which still seems to work, not that some jump for glory types already wanted to settle the hash with Iran .. a most 1914 attitude.

 

We also need to remain wary but also aware that two-bit demagogues and seeming totalitarians of the Near and Middle East have little in common with those of the early 20th C: Hitler, Stalin, Hirohito and even Mussolini. Except for [possibly] China and [inscrutable] Russia, the combination of industrial might with totalitarian rule is just not around in this century.



#14 RETAC21

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Posted 06 January 2014 - 0521 AM

 For the industrial working class it wasn't that bad, they got three meals a day, sudden death wasn't a stranger (industrial OH&S was unheard of) and their immediate managers (ie company level officers) shared the risks, took an interest in them and looked out for them.

 

 

 

And probably it went beyond that as Army life would be comparatively easygoing compared to working 6.5 days a week on a factory. As there was not an offensive every month, "quiet" periods and/or troops on inactive fronts would find it as close to a vacation as many would have ever enjoyed. I have read the same feeling on the WW1 like Spanish Civil War OR's.



#15 RETAC21

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Posted 06 January 2014 - 0522 AM

 

There was no linear road of events in mid 1914, its best to think of these events as a set of interlocking mechanisms each with its own logic.  However, my own view is that the root cause was the failure of the revolution in 1848 (and the ensuing survival of the three autoracies until 1917/8), and its consequences were not really closed until 1989.


It makes you wonder as a "what if" the possibility that the US didn't fall prey to British disinformation and propaganda and had only offered their "good offices" to negotiate a peace. Would the Allies and Central power have been able to negotiate a peace in 1917 on a status quo pro ante basis and saved
Europe and the world a lot of anguish 1920-1989?

 

 

I don't think a compromise solution would have worked for any side after the slaughter of 1914/15, which were a shock to all and made both sides want the other to pay for it. 



#16 BillB

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Posted 06 January 2014 - 0540 AM

 

There was no linear road of events in mid 1914, its best to think of these events as a set of interlocking mechanisms each with its own logic.  However, my own view is that the root cause was the failure of the revolution in 1848 (and the ensuing survival of the three autoracies until 1917/8), and its consequences were not really closed until 1989.


It makes you wonder as a "what if" the possibility that the US didn't fall prey to British disinformation and propaganda and had only offered their "good offices" to negotiate a peace. Would the Allies and Central power have been able to negotiate a peace in 1917 on a status quo pro ante basis and saved
Europe and the world a lot of anguish 1920-1989?

 

Well leaving aside that I'm not sure what you mean by "British disinformation and propaganda" Richard, I'd say the answer is no. I don't really see why the protagonists would have wanted to negotiate on that basis in 1917 any more than they did for real, and IMO it was that line of thinking as pushed by Wilson that actually caused Europe a lot of anguish 1920-1989. The reason Round 2 came in 1939 was not because the Allies were beastly to the Hun, it was because US idealistic interference prevented the Allies from being beastly enough to the Hun by preventing the conflict from reaching its proper conclusion as it did in 1945. As we've seen in numerous places across the globe since 1945, half-measures and wishful thinking merely allow bad situations to drag on and store up trouble for the future, and I'd argue that Wilson's involvement in the "ending" of the First World War was the beginning of that tendency.  

 

BillB



#17 Tony Evans

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Posted 06 January 2014 - 0549 AM

With all due respect to our British and Commonwealth friends, I think the "lions" end of things is just as much of an exaggeration as "donkeys". Not that British and Commonwealth troops weren't courageous or even enthusiastic at times -- but they weren't the dominant predators that the epithet "lions" evokes. They were just working class and lower middle class men, most of them relatively young, who just wanted to get on with it. And they certainly weren't noble men, most of them. If they had any emotional connection with their enemies, it was a mutual hatred. Harassing fires, for example, weren't called "hates" for comic effect. Even when the men on the line and in the immediate rear areas understood the necessity, they didn't see such things, including trench raids, sniping, and the like, as anything other than the enemy and themselves putting on as a good a show of dastardliness as could be mounted in the name of killing people who deserved killing.



#18 BillB

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Posted 06 January 2014 - 0549 AM

There was an interesting article by a social historian in the RUSI Journal about a dozen years ago.  The point made was that conscription resulted in all sorts of people who were never going to volunteer finding themselves on the W Front, including a fair number of what today would be called 'luvvies'.  For these people it was a total and utter culture shock, and hence much of the 1920s writing.  For the industrial working class it wasn't that bad, they got three meals a day, sudden death wasn't a stranger (industrial OH&S was unheard of) and their immediate managers (ie company level officers) shared the risks, took an interest in them and looked out for them.

 

As for the generals, they were forever riding/driving around visiting their troops (not lurking in chateaus) and were open to novel ideas (who first used tanks? ah the 'donkeys').  The reality was there was no simple bloodless solution to the situation on the W Front. 

 

There was no linear road of events in mid 1914, its best to think of these events as a set of interlocking mechanisms each with its own logic.  However, my own view is that the root cause was the failure of the revolution in 1848 (and the ensuing survival of the three autoracies until 1917/8), and its consequences were not really closed until 1989.

Fair one ref the last two paras and especially the last, but the first bit is looking at the past through modern glasses I think and more importantly it totally misses arguably the most significant development of that era. The BA didn't leap from BEF to conscription, there was also the New Army raised by Kitchener, and the fact that the latter reflected every facet of British society from top to bottom blows a bit of a hole in that theory I think.

 

BillB



#19 sunday

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Posted 06 January 2014 - 0550 AM

Well, it could be said that the Treaties of Trianon and Saint-Germain were beastly enough to Hungary and Austria.



#20 RETAC21

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Posted 06 January 2014 - 0603 AM

And look what happened when they joined the Germans in bombing Pearl Harbor! :D






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