World War 1, Historical Revisionism & the Distortion of the Horrors of War

The 28th of July, 2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1. I was born 35 years after the end of WW1 and 8 years after the end of WW2, so both major world conflicts, along with the Korean War and the Vietnam War have figured significantly in my education and personal history. My father, a WW2 veteran, suffered from a number of illnesses associated with returning serviceman today- depression and post traumatic stress disorder-but was not diagnosed in 1945, or thereafter, as these were not accepted as medical conditions developed as a consequence of war for WW 2 veterans at that time. My cousin, an officer in the Vietnam War, also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and eventually took his own life many years after that conflict-despite being happily married with a number of children and grand children.

As an Historian and teacher of history I take a keen interest in how the history of war is written, remembered and the kinds of narratives, social discourse and debates which emerge overtime around and on these major conflicts. Recently the BBC online new service published in its magazine an article by Dan Snow titled ‘Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War 1 debunked’ (Snow, 2014). In it Snow argues that most of what we know today about World War 1 is wrong-quite an extraordinary assertion to make, and I’d go further and say it is an erroneous claim too given the diverse amount of informative historical literature available about the Great War. He argues that no other war in human history has “attracted more controversy and myth” (Snow, 2014) than World War 1. The basis for these contentions is unclear, nonetheless this doesn’t stop Snow from proclaiming that by studying and examining WW1 as a separate conflict we are “blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1, but war in general” (Snow, 2014). To support this unorthodox and historical revisionist view, he offers a comparative analysis with the 14 year Taiping rebellion in China from 1850-1864 in which 20-30 million people were known to have died. He casually ignores the morality and ethics associated with war to argue that the casualties of any conflict are only relative to the historical period they are fought in, and infers that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about the number of deaths in WW1. Moreover he downplays the number of dead from the conflict by arguing that given the ratio of men from the UK who enlisted and those who died, the UK got off lightly with as little as “ 11.5% killed” (Snow, 2014).
His account of trench warfare is heavily romanticized too and suffers from the same kind of historical revisionism as his previous claims. He is untruthful when it comes to describing the conditions in the trenches and mentions how “cold and wet” they could be, but fails to explain anything about the freezing weather, rats, lice, shell shock, unsanitary conditions, regular illnesses and the overall effects on the morale of the troops and the psychological stress of the individual soldiers. Moreover, a majority of the trenches were little more than ditches and dug out made hastily during a war-there were no architectural ‘trench designers’ as his account would lead us to believe. Trenches only provided a measure of protection. Even the more ‘sophisticated’ dug outs were subject to regular flooding, and mud slides, and many soldiers became trapped in mud and some died through drowning. His claim that “during moments of crisis, such as big offensives, the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line, but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two” is simply wrong and a distortion of the historical truth. One soldier recounts the horror of it all:
“It was 9 a.m. and the so-called trench was full of corpses and all sorts of equipment. We stood and sat on bodies as if they were stones or logs of wood. Nobody worried if one had its head stuck through or torn off, or a third had gory bones sticking out through its torn coat. And outside the trench one could see them lying in every kind of position. There was one quite young little chap, a Frenchman, sitting in a shell-hole, with his rifle on his arm and his head bent forward, but he was holding his hands as if to protect himself, in front of his chest in which there was a deep bayonet wound. And so they lay, in all their different positions, mostly Frenchman, with their heads battered in by blows from mallets and even spades, and all around rifles, equipment of all kinds and any number of kepis. The 154th had fought like furies in their attack, to revenge themselves for the shellfire.” (Trueman, 2013). Soldiers were often deployed for up to two weeks and longer in the trenches during WW1. His assertion that the upper-class military did their fair share may work for the rank below Lt. Col, but not many above this rank suffered a similar fate to their underlings. (Daniels, 2013)
But, his most offensive interpretation of the Great War is his mis-interpretation and deliberate omission of the facts about the role the ANZACS played at Gallipoli. It is an historical fact that both the UK and France lost more men at Gallipoli than the ANZACS; however he fails to mention how the ANZACS were ambushed by the Turks after landing two miles north of the original planned landing, because Churchill and his Generals in charge of the campaign failed to take into account the changing tides and a command in disarray. (Atkinson, 2012) They mismanaged the campaign through environmental and geographical ignorance. The ANZACS faced steep almost unnavigable terrain and an encamped Turkish army simply gunned them down. The ANZACS went like lambs to the slaughter.
Snow’s glorification of the technology of war is as equally as disturbing as his re-writing of the conflict. His claim about an overabundance of weaponry when juxtaposed to Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth” is a chilling reminder of the horrors and travesties which occurs when technologies are used to kill and maim rather than to heal and grow:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
–Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds. (Owen, 1917)

Snow goes on to assert that “in a narrow military sense” the allies won the war, denying any aspect of the moral culpability which comes with waging war. But the most perfidious account of his rewriting of the history of The Great War is his declaration that “most soldiers enjoyed WW1” (Snow, 2014). This is simply wrong and projects an almost deluded romantic view of war at the front, through claiming that “for the British there was meat everyday -a rare luxury back home-cigarettes, tea and rum…and much greater sexual freedom than in peace time Britain” (Snow, 2014). These assertions run counter to all the historical evidence available to any historian with a sense of integrity about their craft. In addition they run counter to the first hand experience of the many fallen soldiers who served in ‘The War to end all Wars:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (Owen, 1917)

References:

Atkinson, N. (2012, December 20). 25th April 1915 The Gallipoli Campaign. Retrieved January 23, 2014, from New Zealand History Online: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/the-gallipoli-campaign/25-april-1915
Daniels, P. (2013). Trenches in World War 1. Retrieved January 23, 2014, from About. Com 20th Century History: http://history1900s.about.com/od/worldwari/a/Trenches-In-World-War-I.htm
Owen, W. (1917). Modern History Sourcebook: World War 1 Poetry. Retrieved January 21, 2014, from Modern History Sourcebook: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1914warpoets.html
Snow, D. (2014). Lions and Donkeys: 10 Big Myths about World War One debunked. BBC news online Magazine, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25776836.
Trueman, C. (2013). Life in the Trenches. Retrieved January 23, 2014, from History Learning Site: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/life_trenches.htm

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