Tuesday, 21 January 2014

WW1 - Myths or Not? A response to Dan Snow

[*EDIT* - I highly recommend Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast series Blueprint For Armageddon for more information on the causes, ambitions, suffering and circumstances of WW1. Several edits have been added below since I listened to the series so far.]

Recently, British politician, ex-journalist and English Graduate Michael Gove caused controversy by claiming the history of World War 1 had been unpatriotically “white-washed” by “left-wing academics”. Worryingly, Gove is still the Conservative Secretary of State for Education.

Responses to his outburst have been fairly damning.

This one by the historian Gove singled out in his attack is quite interesting.

On January 20th 2014 this article by history graduate and television presenter Dan Snow appeared on the BBC website claiming to debunk “10 common myths” about World War 1. The timing is interesting and although the facts quoted are for all I know entirely true (and an historian friend tells me they are) I was unhappy with the way the article was presented, the 'myths' lined up to knock down, and the methods used to do so.

I'm not an historian, but I felt the need to address myth 1 as soon as I began reading it. Myth 1 isn’t a matter of history, it’s a position reached by cherry-picking statistics.

As a psychology graduate who’s studied statistics as applied to populations, and as an art graduate aware of how easily and effectively perspectives and feelings can be manipulated, I’m qualified enough to challenge the article. Then after myth 1 I thought I should complete the set.

Myth 1. It was the bloodiest war in history to that point

Debunked? Snow says no because 20-30 million were killed in the Taiping Rebellion in China 50 years earlier and, expressed as a percentage of the population, the British death toll of WW1 was half that of the English Civil War in the mid-17th Century.

Not mentioned: In the 13th Century Genghis Khan’s forces killed perhaps 40 million people, while the transition from the Yuan Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty in 14th Century China caused 30 million deaths. China has a history of extremely bloody conflicts, yet these have mostly not affected Europe in any direct way (luckily for us Genghis Khan died before he could ransack the entire old world). While not detracting from the suffering and horror of those conflicts, ‘The Great War’ was so shocking to Europeans because we hadn’t seen it’s like before.

“In history” is a phrase uttered by English speaking nations generally to refer in a rather arrogant way exclusively to the history of Europe and its colonies. Despite the size and duration of the dynastic empires and technology centuries in advance of ours we habitually omit China from historical accounts. Introducing Chinese history to this argument is somewhat beside the point because the issue here is the European concept of history and its effect on our culture.

During the English Civil war the population of Britain was approx. 5 million and 4% of that equals about 200,000 deaths (causes not mentioned). In 1914 the population was over 46 million and 2% of that is about 920,000. Mr Snow is telling us here to view the number of British deaths as a percentage of the number of people alive in Britain at the time so that we can see the impact of WW1 wasn’t as bad as the impact of the Civil War. Remember this for later when we get to myth 6.

17 million in total were killed in WW1 and 20 million were wounded. There’s no discussion about the wounded or the causes of such a high number. This is something that requires further information if the comparisons are to be of any use. And numbers of wounded from the Taiping rebellion and the English Civil War ought to be included as measuring the ‘bloodiness’ of a war shouldn’t be limited to number of deaths.

Of the 6.5 million civilians who died in WW1, the causes include malnutrition and disease. The Taiping death toll mentioned includes those who died from plague and starvation. If we add those who died in the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic to the WW1 casualties the number rises to at least 65 million deaths. The much deadlier second wave of the flu in 1918 has been attributed to the circumstances of WW1, making the secondary effects of that war global. It’s believed Spanish Flu killed in total 50 to 100 million people worldwide.

WW1 lasted just 4 years, not 15 years like the Taiping Rebellion or 9 years like the English Civil War. If WW1 had continued for more than twice its duration who can estimate what levels of starvation and sickness would have occurred, what advances in technology or how many would have been killed in action? To express the number of dead as a percentage of the population without then comparing duration is misleading and counter-productive if one’s goal is to inform and provide context.

Result: Not really a myth. The attempt at debunking is clumsy and inappropriate. Put this information in a proper, complete context and then see if any other European conflict up to that point had effects as far reaching with as many casualties over such a short period of time, and include the lives ruined and the suffering of the wounded in any attempt to quantify how ‘bloody’ a war was.

Myth 2. Most soldiers died

Debunked? Not a myth I was aware of. Having seen many examples of footage showing the wounded, including blind soldiers walking in line with hands on each others’ shoulders, and judging from the 20 million wounded mentioned above, I’m unsure where this myth comes from.

Not mentioned: Surviving a war does not mean the effects of it have ended, nor the suffering. The blind, shell-shocked and mutilated survivors returning to Britain after the war were a continuation of it’s horrors, not a peaceful end to them.

Result: Not a myth I had heard of.

Myth 3. Men lived in the trenches for years on end

Debunked? Frontline troops were rotated and few spent more than 3 days at the front.

Result: I lack the knowledge to engage with this point, but I was surprised to hear it. If Mr Snow is telling the unclouded truth here then I would agree that the myth is in contrast to the facts – if they are facts and not out of context statistics that neglect pertinent data.

[EDIT - from Blueprint For Armageddon, it sounds like the three days at the front claim is incorrect. Troops were rotated once it was realised 'shell shock' was a real condition, but contemporary accounts and military strategies discussed in the podcast suggest weeks rather than days were the norm. Even so, and even if the rotations were speeded up later in the war, the conditions these men were under would have been Hellish for just half an hour. Shells fell in what became known as 'drum-roll fire', exploding so frequently the blasts were like the barely indistinguishable beats of a drum-roll. An account by a Russian soldier described how when his unit was issued with their rifles they had to pick off the pieces of bloody flesh of the previous owner. 

If the 3 day rotations Mr Snow is referring to are from the last part of the war or from specific battlefields, then he has neglected pertinent information, cherry-picked statistics to fit his claim, and the claim is wrong. I doubt anyone lived in the trenches for years on end, nor have I heard that said. It is more likely people would believe the soldiers were killed at the front. 

Challenging a 'myth' about trenches with a claim about the front line also neglects the fact that trenches ran back several miles from the front lines, connected by perpendicular trenches. Troops at the front might be rotated and replaced, but that doesn't mean they were sent off to pleasant locations to relax. Many were merely moved to the trenches further back, risking life and limb to get there as artillery often shot deep into enemy territory and the communication trenches could be reduced to mere tracks. Craters along the routes in some battlefields could be so polluted by toxic chemicals they were bright green and so deep soldiers who fell in usually drowned, weighed down by their kit. Anyone trying to help them out risked slipping in the mud and drowning with them so they could expect to be left to die horribly in their own territory miles from the front on their way to relieve the troops there. The troops heading back from the front line ran the exact same risks and would then be ordered back again when it was once more their turn. If they refused they were shot and their widows were denied a war pension.]

4. The upper class got off lightly

Debunked? Anyone familiar with Blackadder Goes Forth (a programme Michael Gove quoted as being a source of left-wing myths about WW1) would be under the impression the upper class were just as badly off as everyone else unless they were a senior officer or stationed safely back in HQ.

Expressed as percentages, the statistics are that 12% of ordinary soldiers died compared to 17% of officers. 20% of Etonians who served died.

Not mentioned: Yes, the sons of Prime Ministers were among those killed, but it’s important to remember the culture around warfare at the time. Combat was thought to be the making of men of the upper classes, while for the working class it was all about sending in large numbers.

British junior officers were deployed in high numbers, roughly 1 to every 30 men. In terms of casualties, officers accounted for roughly 1 in 20 men. So although many officers died, far more working class soldiers died.

The Western Front, July to December of 1917 saw 22,316 British officer casualties and 426,298 other ranks.

Result: This myth fell out of fashion a long time ago, but assuring us lots of toffs were killed too doesn’t lessen how shocking the war was. In fact it demonstrates it. That shock became part of our culture and is still being felt today.

Comparing the percentage of upper class casualties to the number in the population then contrasting it with the number of lower class casualties compared to the total lower class population would give a very different statistic to simply comparing the percentage of war dead who were upper class.

Myth 5. 'Lions led by donkeys'

Debunked? More than 200 generals killed, wounded or captured and were considerably closer to the action today.

Not mentioned: Even the worst generals need to be in contact with the front. WW1’s cables, carrier pigeons and man with a note communications technology meant officers had to be nearby compared to modern warfare with satellites and drones that allow generals to be in another country to the conflict they oversee. Had the article compared the number of generals at the front in WW1 to those in, say, ancient times where they needed to see the action for themselves so would be at the top of a nearby hill then WW1 commanders would come off badly.

The quote was quite possibly invented by Alan Clark long after the war, but has complex origins. Like any generalisation of this kind, it should be seen as a subjective viewpoint expressing an opinion. It’s an insult, for goodness’ sake, so of course it’s going to divide opinion. The question isn’t whether it’s true but whether there is any truth in it.

When the French and British stopped the German advance at Marne they could no longer outflank the German army, so for several years they launched charge after charge across shell-cratered mud into barbed wire, trenches, machine gun posts and artillery fire in an attempt to gain ground. This tactic didn’t work, but eventually Germany was defeated. Could or should this have been done differently?

Result: Too subjective to call. Human failings, a terrible wake-up call for the military and what might seem to some a very slow response to the requirements of modern warfare. “Yes, but we won,” is not a credible argument as the point here is that millions died while we went about it. If a business model had performed as badly for a company over several years and then eventually the CEO tried something new and turned everything around we might still say that CEO was a fool for taking so long. The question is whether the necessary adaptations could have happened sooner and if deaths could have been avoided. Answers on a postcard.

[EDIT - One problem with the technological advances and the change of strategies was that no one had tried them before. Generals were reluctant to commit to a new strategy without knowing its effectiveness. Tests were needed in less vital positions first, but if they proved effective the enemy were pre-warned before they could be used for greater impact in more vital positions. 

Meanwhile, some units were steeped in historical glory and many senior officers were former cavalry; asking them to accept obsolescence was something many were reluctant to do and it was in conflict with the prevailing view of how wars should be faught. Lifetimes of experience were being swept aside and that meant the commanders of the armies had no way of being prepared for what was asked of them. 

This is Napolean's French cavalry in 1812...
Image via www.twcenter.net

This, I'm told, is a coloured image (via Reddit) of French cavalry in 1914. 

Notice anything different about the cuirassiers in the second picture from a century later? Their breeches are red.  

French cuirassiers in Paris, August 1914.
Image from Wikipedia.
Arguments have been made that by later in the war the commanders should have adapted to the situations they faced. These are arguments you would need to do a great deal of reading to join in with and I have not done nearly enough to do so.]

Myth 6. Gallipoli was fought by Australians and New Zealanders

Debunked? Fewer antipodeans fought at Gallipoli than British, and 4 or 5 times more British were killed than Anzacs. The smaller sizes of those countries’ forces and home populations have somewhat skewed the perception of their level of their involvement and their tragic losses have overshadowed the British and French who fought there.

Not mentioned: This may be true, but to argue the point Mr Snow uses the exact opposite stance to the one he used in myth 1 to demonstrate how comparatively less bloody WW1 was than the English Civil War.

Result: Myth. Mel Gibson’s early starring role in the film Gallipoli has probably added considerably to this myth. Perhaps the tragedy of the Australian and Kiwi losses has given cause to focus on them in this instance.

Gaba Tepe, Gallipoli Peninsula 
It’s worth saying that if an historian chooses to illustrate a point one way, then uses the exact opposite perspective to demonstrate a point later on, it makes it hard to agree with him. Percentages of the total national population killed or wounded are merely statistics with no weight out of context. Neither points are incorrect, but WW1 can’t be said to be less bloody than the Civil War by percentage of population if later on you switch tactics and compare total numbers of nationalities killed. It’s inconsistent.

Gallipoli has probably been remembered as an Anzac battle because so many of the total number of troops committed died there; meanwhile WW1 has been remembered on the whole as a slaughterhouse for ordinary soldiers because, despite the 1 in 20 (mostly junior) officer casualties, so very many ordinary soldiers died. A large percentage of officers were killed, but if you compare with the 20 times larger number of ordinary soldiers killed the 12% vs. 17% statistics mentioned in myth 4 above become meaningless.

What this tells us is that we view the information emotionally, not in a detached, book-keeping manner where we enter the numbers of the dead into columns and total them up at the end. And if we have decided to put the numbers in columns we had better make sure we work consistently if we want our arguments to be convincing.

Myth 7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure

Debunked? In the four years of WW1 tactics and technology radically changed.

Not mentioned: When they changed. How long did the old-fashioned attrition and slaughter keep going before they tried something new?

German cavalry patrol, 1918
Image source: museumsyndicate.com

Result: Subjective and requiring further information. Only automatons would fail to perceive the need to alter tactics while so many men were being gunned down. The question is the same as for myth 5: Could the changes have come quicker? Back then the British military wasn’t known for adapting quickly. What made them change when they did? Did something stop the necessary changes happening immediately after the first disastrous encounter and if so was it a failing on the part of the commanders? 

[EDIT - see above edit to Myth 5. Tactics for many began like any other war up until that point. They quickly changed, but some things, some attitudes were less quick to change. Cavalry charges were obsolete, but horses were still the fastest transport available. Artillery became so devastating entire fortresses were abandoned as they were shown to be useless, torn open like fresh bread and from miles away. Some tactics did change, some did not, some were changed cautiously.]

Myth 8. No-one won

Debunked? Mr Snow says “in a narrow military sense, the UK and her allies convincingly won”. 

Not mentioned: What the war was being fought over in the first place.

[EDIT - Germany had no plan for what they would do if they won the war. My limited understanding is that, to oversimplify, Germany was a new, large and very powerful country. During escalating hostilities they marched an army through Belgium to fight France before France and Russia could mobilise and surround them. The Belgians did not stand aside and let the Germans through unmolested, they defended their territory and the British stepped up to assist. Germany was not building an empire, they were most likely acting out of the fear of being invaded and becoming part of someone else's empire. The fear of superior military might led to aggression on all sides. Various treaties sealed the deal.]  

Result: It was a military victory in the “narrow sense” (translation: there wasn’t much to celebrate about it, all things considered, except that it was over) that it was a miserable, technical and perhaps pyrrhic victory, but the families, loved ones and whole villages that were never to see the return of their men must surely have felt no kind of victory at all. That's why WW1 is remembered by many as a tragedy and a failure.

Michael Gove would have us believe WW1 was a triumph over an empire-building aggressor who challenged our way of life, but he seems to have forgotten that at that time Britain had an empire of its own and was not yet a full democracy, whereas Germany had given the vote to all German men (at least) by that time. I know too little of the complex politics of the day to make a judgement, but saying we defeated an evil foreign power is over-simplifying matters considerably and seems to conflate WW1 with WW2. Comparing those wars, I don’t believe anyone is confused over what our purpose was between 1939 and 1945 nor what we averted by winning. Retroactively casting the Kaiser as a proto-Hitler is misdirection. History is complex, but becomes remarkably simple if you remove the details until few facts remain. This is how we end up with myths and Gove is trying to supplant one set with another, while the truth is harder to fit into a political speech.

Ask most British people what WW2 was about and they’ll probably say it was to stop Hitler.

Ask Google Images and you get a straightforward graph. 

Ask even the educated what WW1 was about and I’d be surprised if most of them can give you much of an answer at all beyond muttering about treaties and the Arch-Duke Ferdinand.

And the graph is a bit harder to understand. 

If you’re talking about who won a war you have to consider what the aims of each side were. Strange as it sounds, beating the enemy into submission may not be your objective and in some cases can cause big problems. Claiming a victory when the objectives are far from clear is the school playground version of war. Only a complete understanding of the circumstances prior to, during and after the war will tell you who won. If anyone.

Myth 9. The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh

Debunked? I leave this one to the experts as it’s rather technical. It’s likely things were distorted by some in the following years in order to promote the Nazi cause and rally the German people. There will be those who felt they had a genuine grievance, just as (hopefully not to insult the memory of such colossal suffering with such an inane analogy) many smokers today will talk at length about their freedom and rights to smoke where they want. My point is that whether something is fair or harsh is entirely subjective and even relatively small things can become the cause of great dissatisfaction. 

Result: Unknown.

Myth 10. Everyone hated it

Debunked? Not everyone had a bad war.

Not mentioned: As seen in most post-1970s war films, there’s a persistent idea that opportunists took advantage of war for their own personal gain and had a good time going about it. Whether rich investors, governments acquiring land and resources, quartermasters over-charging for supplies or Clint Eastwood stealing Nazi gold, this trope has become a familiar aspect of fictional war stories.

Result: Not a common myth. The common myth is more likely that the officers thoroughly enjoyed themselves while the other ranks under their command died.

For centuries a foundation of war was that combat made boys into men, both psychologically and, more commonly for the elite, financially; that it made nations greater, both in size and resources. WW1 began while that view was still widespread, but by the end of the war attitudes had changed.


Whether WW1 in its 4 years was less bloody than an earlier 15 year war in China, whether the wounded outnumbered the fatalities, whether an unusual proportion of the upper classes was killed in action, whether the generals were decent men facing difficult decisions and adapting to new circumstances or entrenched old fools resisting change at the cost of people’s lives; none of that, 100 years on, is what really matters.

Celebrating Armistice 

In the last few decades there has been a trend among some historians to re-think the circumstances of WW1 and re-frame it as a fight for British values against an aggressive enemy. This is no more accurate than the view it was an accidental and mismanaged disaster from beginning to end. Any historian, politician or television presenter casting WW1 in a simple light either has an agenda they wish you to comply to or hasn’t done enough homework. It was complicated, it was horrible, it was the cause of much suffering and has entered popular culture as a preventable tragic mistake. Any argument popularising a view that a war, any war, was a good idea needs to be examined very closely.

Vaux, France 1918 

Dan Snow’s article contains factual information wrapped in meaningless statistics in a poorly executed attempt to contextualise WW1, at times relying on contradictory arguments and inconsistent perspectives. I question the sense and the purpose of writing an article on the subject so soon after Michael Gove made his controversial speech and attempting to reduce so much of the information to hard quantifiable ‘facts’. Statistics aren’t facts, they’re tools and like any tool they can be used badly.

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