Wednesday, March 31, 2021

“Lions led by donkeys”


Circling back.

Steve Sailer
This is certainly true when we look at the image of the British Army in World War One: Stupid callous, pompous officers blithely ordering men to slaughter from the comfort of their chateaus.

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'Twas not always so. As Professor Stephen Badsey reminds us, WWI “was also, for Britain, one of the most popular and widely supported wars the country has ever fought, from its beginning to its end. It was also one of the most successful.”





FM Douglas Haig was celebrated as a hero when he died in 1928. It was only later that his reputation fell into decline.

A strong case can be made that it is teachers of English, not history, that have had the greatest impact on the shaping of views on the First World War through the teaching of war poetry. It is not generals and politicians but the ‘War Poets’, a small and unrepresentative group of junior officers, who are the most frequently quoted British figures of 1914-18, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg (who actually served in the ranks), Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden are still remembered, while the very names of most British generals of the First World War have slipped from public consciousness.
Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory
The “war poets” were consequential, but their influence was slow to take hold. In the 1920s popular culture still was more likely to have heroes who were bored by the peace rather than disillusioned by the war. (Bulldog Drummond, for example, or Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford).

Agatha Christie, however, was not taught in universities. The War Poets and Paris expatriates were. Over time, this led to a complete reversal of the image of the war, the generals, and the experience of the soldiers.

A half-century after his death, the revision was complete.
One doesn't want to be too hard on Haig, who doubtless did all he could and who has been wll calumniated already. But it must be said that it now appears that the one thing the war was testing was the usefulness of the earnest Scottish character in a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention. Haig had none. He was stubborn, self-righteous, inflexible, intolerant –especially of the French-- and quite humorless. And he was provincial: at his French headquarters he insisted on attending a Church of Scotland service every Sunday. Bullheaded as he was, he was the perfect commander for an enterprise committed to endless abortive assaulting.

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory )
Fussell, a professor of English, sounds uncomfortably like Bill Haydon here. His verdict substitutes an aesthetic sensibility for strategic analysis. It also manages to combine snobbery with moralizing. (Never a good look for a historian.)

A few years after Fussell published his book the tide began to turn. Historians who studied the war (as opposed to reading poets and novelists) made it quite clear that the Western Front generals rarely had good options in 1915-1917. The correlation of forces was such that if the war was going to continue then it would have to be a war of frontal assaults and strategic attrition. Contra Fussel, “wit and invention” could not provide any path to bloodless victory.






Related:

Rational actors choosing self-destruction


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