In this guest blog, Roger Deeks considers how we have come to view the First World War as futile.
One of the shifting narratives of the First World War has been the explanation of why soldiers, particularly those on the Western Front endured the experience as long as they did. Scholarly work has increasingly looked at this question in the context of the British Army and also comparatively in terms of the other armies. Those keen to advocate for how well the British Army performed point out that with the collapse of German morale in late 1918, the British Army fared better than most of those who first met on the battlefields of 1914. There are various explanations for this and my own sits with the performance of the British Non Commissioned Officer, the NCOs who ran the British Army on a day to basis. The traditional idea, very much based on a belief in Noblesse Oblige, places the emphasis on the quality of officer-man relations. This idea has deservedly come under scrutiny; were the working and upper classes so closely bound by this chivalric ideal that they endured together, fought together and died together?
In the immediate aftermath of the War it was believed that the War had a purpose, an idea that was also popularly thought to have some sway with the soldiers who fought the War. However before long, and particularly after the Second World War became necessary, the War took on a sense of futility. Futility, a lack of purpose or meaning, took a stranglehold over the memory of the First World War in the late Twentieth Century, both about the purpose of the War and the perceived attitude of those who fought it. The development of the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ thesis set apart the villainous generals from the venerated dead of the battlefield but compounded an increasingly difficult question in the public mind if the mythology of the first World War was to have coherence; why were the soldiers of the First World War prepared to go ‘over the top’ if it was futile?
Blackadder was able to explain this. The finale to the TV series set it out very clearly. Firstly, it was ironic and very British to get yourself killed for no purpose. Secondly, and particularly in the case of Blackadder it was a British Officer’s duty to obey orders, however stupid, and you had a moral obligation to your soldiers to do what you were asking them to do, and get killed. The Blackadder ‘view’ took such hold that it is now how many people imagine the War was experienced by the participants. It contains some strands of what we recognise from research. British humour was important, trench newspapers tell us that irony and self-parody were common place and generated comradeship. Loyalty and obligation to comrades was a key factor in many soldiers overcoming their fear. However, there was clearly a belief in many cases that objectives on the battlefield could be achieved and that the War had a purpose, and one worth fighting for.
I heard Helen McCartney (King’s College, London) raise some of these issues recently and it reminded me of a film I had recently seen. Four Lions is described as ‘the story of a jihad satire following a group of home-grown terrorist jihadists from Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England’. This comedy has several difficult moral problems to contend with in achieving its aim of making people laugh. One of them is the idea of the suicide bomber, a concept that to the secular thinking British viewer is something difficult to grasp. In the film the question and representation of the purpose of the Jihadist mission is gently dropped as the story unfolds and the troop begin to take on the characteristics of the caricatured ‘Blackadder’ British Army section in the First World War. Outnumbered and doomed from the start they bumble forward led by Omar, their subaltern, and whose one wish is that his sacrifice is not futile. Of course in the end he has a futile death necessary because of comradely loyalty. This reflected for me the depth to which the ‘futility narrative’ emerging from Blackadder and other First World War portrayals has permeated popular culture and can be transferred to new settings.
We know that most British soldiers entered battles quite purposefully committed to what they were doing. The infantry and artillery officers in the field were increasingly well trained as the First World War progressed and most accepted their orders and saw their battlefield objectives as achievable. There were instances when orders were thought impracticable and sometimes suicidal. Stoicism was common in the face of the adversity and horror of the battlefield but one has to doubt that a sense of futility pervaded the trenches. In 1935 reflecting on these ideas F.W. Harvey, the poet, wrote: ‘The truth will permit no question of these men going sorrowfully to war, driven like sheep to slaughter. That is a false modern idea’. The motives for enlisting were varied but most British soldiers felt they were fighting for a just cause and some passionately believed that winning was important. However much we regard the outcome of the First World War as futile we should resist the portrayal of the participants as victims. Reversing this idea is one of the most difficult historians face in dealing with representations of the First World War.