Today is the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War and television has been marking the sombre occasion with some powerful but mostly predictable programmes. Just as powerful, but far less predictable, was Ian Hislop's documentary about conscientious objectors, Not Forgotten: the Men Who Wouldn't Fight.
As the editor of Private Eye and a waspish presence on Have I Got News for You, Hislop is a professional trasher of reputations that, just occasionally, don't deserve trashing. Here he stalked unfamiliar ground, attempting to persuade us that the reputations of the widely derided "conchies" deserve rehabilitation. He put forward a convincing case, too, finding poignant examples of both "alternativists", those who declined to fight but offered to help the war effort in some other way, and "absolutists", those who refused to lend even a finger to the cause. Either way, their motivation was often religious – many were Quakers – but sometimes it was the grim experience of the Western Front that turned them into pacifists, not because they wanted to save their own necks but because they could no longer bear to contribute to the slaughter. Who among us can sneer at that?
The notion of "conscientious objection" was enshrined in the 1916 Military Service Act, and more than 16,000 men took up the opportunity to exempt themselves from fighting, although some wavered on being subjected by a tribunal of local worthies to the emotive question: "What would you do if a German soldier attacked your mother? Would you stand up and protect her or would you let her be raped and killed?"
Explaining all this, Hislop asked whether the conchies "were cowards and shirkers, or were they in their own way courageous?" His own feelings on the matter were clear from the start, and were supported by every example, including that of the soldier who, after seeing the grotesque reality of a corpse-strewn battlefield, carried out his own quiet form of conscientious objection by deliberately missing targets with his first salvo of shells to give the enemy an opportunity to retreat.
The ethics of this decision, which he kept even from his wife until he wrote his memoirs 50 years later, could be debated endlessly, but Hislop didn't have time. He needed to move on to the case of the triplets from Derbyshire, all of whom fought but two of whom, appalled by what they had seen, resigned their commissions and were promptly court-martialled. One was sentenced to a year's hard labour. Their father, a lieutenant-colonel, didn't speak to either of them again for the rest of his long life: he died in 1946.
This was heart-rending, thought-provoking stuff, although I don't doubt that there were also some genuine cowards among the conchies, quite happy to dress their cowardice as religious principle or moral high-mindedness. Hislop didn't find any examples of these, and probably didn't look. But on the whole he was surely right to agree with the MP who suggested in Parliament towards the end of the war that on the whole the conscientious objectors had actually exhibited the purest brand of courage, "the courage of the individual against the crowd".
It is understandable, however, that history should judge them more kindly than they were judged at the time. Looking back, we can all conscientiously object to the First World War, not least because it carried the seeds that would give rise, scarcely more than 20 years later, to another terrible global conflict.
WWII: Behind Closed Doors, a six-part series, began last night. It boasts of shedding previously unseen light on the Second World War by way of personal reminiscence, grainy old film and the dreaded dramatic reconstruction, all kindled by relatively recent access to the archives of countries behind the Iron Curtain. The man behind the project is Laurence Rees, the grand panjandrum of factual programming about the Second World War, and true to form, he has unearthed some remarkable material, showing that the Soviet Union collaborated with the Nazi war machine to a far greater extent than had been supposed during the non-aggression pact that I knew in my O-level years as the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement.
I'm still not sure about dramatic reconstruction, though, not when it relates to a period of history of which there is plenty of newsreel footage, albeit not of meetings behind closed doors. Maybe it doesn't have the same effect on anyone else, but I always find that I get distracted wondering about the actors (in this case, is the bloke playing Stalin a professional lookalike, who also gets the odd singing telegram gig?) instead of paying attention to the subtitles.
I got distracted, too, during Indian Food Made Easy, wondering whetherthere has ever been a more oxymoronically titled TV series. I'm sorry, but Indian food is not easy practically by definition, and once the fragrant presenter, Anjum Anand, had reached for the tapioca and the fenugreek, my wife and I decided that we'd stick to plan A for tomorrow night's curry, and use a bottle of Patak's paste.Reuse content