In the centenary year of the start of the First World War we didn’t have to wait until August for the opening shots, as Education Secretary Michael Gove took to the media to start the debate on the origins, aims and conduct of the war. Mr Gove is essentially right in his analysis of how the previous decades have sought to paint the First World War as the brave Tommy being ordered to his slaughter by an out of touch elite. The left has indeed pushed this view, with Blackadder being used in some areas as a study tool: the foolish officers back at the château, hiding from the front line and resplendent in their incompetence. However Blackadder is a satire, not a documentary, and that representation is certainly not true.
Field Marshal Haig is viewed as a “butcher”. It is true that he was a hard-headed “Westerner” who believed that only on the Western Front, ghastly though it was, could the war be won. For this he needed men and machines and he had countless battles with Lloyd George to get the next draft of 18-year-olds to the front. It may be fashionable to knock Haig, but from 9 August 1914 to 11 November 1918 he led what is arguably the most successful feat of arms in the history of the British Army. The Allies won the Second World War, but it was Britain that defeated the Germans in 1918.
During the war, 47 British divisional commanders were killed (compared to two in the Second World War). They were not all behind the lines, pretending they’d rather be “going over the top” than drinking Château Lafite and eating filet mignon with Béarnaise sauce.
This is the most ignored part of the debate on the war, which I hope we can correct. What has been forgotten was that Haig was highly respected by veterans after the war and he in turn showed them great concern. The Poppy Appeal was originally the Earl Haig Fund, established in 1921; Haig Homes in 1928; and the Royal British Legion’s new headquarters are at Haig House – hardly the memorial the British armed forces would provide for “a butcher”.
Instead we must look to the postwar consensus after 1945 to understand the revisionist view we are still seeing today, and which Mr Gove attributes to the left. But it was the Tory politician, Alan Clark MP, who wrote one of the defining revisionist books, The Donkeys. The title drew on propaganda from the German Army at the time, that the British were “Lions led by donkeys”.
Was it all pointless slaughter? Were the British especially bad? Was Haig a harsh man? Compared to the French, probably not. The French showed little innovation and made repeated and costly mistakes that resulted in mass mutinies in April 1917, after the Nivelle offensive. To quell disorder it has been alleged that they literally decimated battalions, while Haig commuted nearly 2,000 death penalties. With hindsight it is easy to criticise the military tactics on the first day of the Somme, and it is fair to be critical of Haig for pursuing the Passchendaele offensive longer than he should with a slightly obsessive zeal.
But he led forces that were innovators in warfare, with tanks, creeping barrages and, from August 1918, the beginning of the tactics later known as Blitzkrieg and employed to astonishing effect by Hitler until 1941. He also oversaw the massive underground mining operations leading to the spectacular success on the Messines Ridge in the summer of 1917.
I have visited the Western Front at least 100 times and in no way do I want to glorify the conflict, which saw huge suffering and loss of life. But I do want British children to learn and understand what we and others fought for in this war.
The origins of the First World War are contested and certainly not simple. But we cannot deny German empire-building and militarisation as a key reason for Britain and her Treaty allies taking up arms. We were rather better at this than people give us credit for, and this view of failure should be aimed not at the military, but at the politicians who negotiated the Treaty of Versailles – which left the Germans feeling the rest of the world was against them, creating an inward-looking view.
In two weeks’ time I am off to Strasbourg and I think I will drive so I can stop off at Cambrai, where the first ever mass use of tanks took place: a short victory in 1917 which led to church bells ringing out across the country. Joy was brief and premature, but it did show that our generals were on the right track.
A forgotten election?
On Sunday, the Prime Minister told Andrew Marr the next election was in 16 months’ time. Does that mean that the Tories won’t be fighting the European elections this May, or that Mr Cameron has forgotten about them? I am not making any decisions about where I might stand until after this year’s elections. I have previously said I will stand, that I will most likely do so in Kent and that while everyone in Westminster assumed it would be Thanet, I was personally looking at Folkestone. I have not made a decision and I shan’t until after 22 May. But readers of this column will be among the first to know when I have.