"You may say that I am a dreamer/But I am not the only one" John Lennon: "Imagine"

"So come brothers and sisters/For the struggle carries on" Billy Bragg: "The Internationale"

Elizannie has a reading room at 'Clarice's Book Page' http://www.villiersroad.blogspot.com/

Monday, 6 January 2014

Whose history of World War One will you believe?/ How I became a pacifist

This is the headline and photograph on the BBC news website this morning. Click on the headline to read the whole story. My blog & comments are on this page underneath.

Blackadder star Sir Tony Robinson in Michael Gove WW1 row

Blackadder Goes ForthSir Tony Robinson (centre) played Baldrick in Blackadder Goes Forth

And now for my blog!:

Its only the 6th of January 2014 and I didn't want to add so soon to the debate about how or whether the commemorations/celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One should be enacted. After all on this day alone I have many other subjects upon which I could be commenting: 
  • Should 'perks' for 'wealthy pensioners' be removed/means tested [no - they are already means tested by something called the tax system]
  • Descriptive and historical look at our trip around London yesterday
  • Doesn't the house look clean and freshly decorated now that the Christmas trimmings have been removed
Oh well, that's covered that lot then.. So on with the debate....

On reading the news item shown above, the old hackles immediately rose.

Gove should and surely does understand that 'official' histories of the First World War were challenged long before 'Oh What a Lovely War'/'Black Adder'. The War Poets like Sassoon and Owen and more explained to many what was happening at the time; the war autobiographies of Robert Graves, Vera Brittain, Sasson again and more in the years between the armistice and the outbreak of  World War Two gave poignant memoirs and the testament of all the returned military personnel from the ranks to their families convinced so many that War could never be the answer. Gove has a BA in English from Oxford Uni and depending which area he studied he may have come across some of the authors and poets previously mentioned.

I was born, admittedly a few years before Gove!, into a 1950s household where my parents had been conscientious objectors in World War Two. As I grew older I understood what this meant, my father had had to appear in front of a tribunal where his plea was rejected as he refused to condemn all wars, allowing for a just war. His brothers fought in the war as his father had fought [and been very badly injured] in World War One. My mother's brother fought in World War Two as her father and Uncles had fought in World War One. So I suppose I subconsciously absorbed their views and classed myself as a conscientious objector two. That is until I went to University and in my English studies read some of the works of the war poets and 'war authors'. And didn't stop at the works on the reading lists but kept on reading other memoirs, histories backwards and forwards in time. I realised too that I could not reconcile any Christian view of a 'Just War' and had to change my alliances to a form of Christianity which would accomodate and reinforce my own views.

So gradually, when filling in biographical forms and talking I found myself declaring my beliefs to be 'Pacifist'. Many years later I overheard one of my children saying that my pacifism was one of my most important defining features, a proud moment, but one which I wish I could completely live up to, i.e. I still have too much of a temper to feel completely pacifistic! And of course in a situation where mine or my family's lives were threatened of course I would retaliate. I am all too human and frail.

Back to World War One. Many, many years ago I watched a documentary where soldiers who had survived the first world war were  interviewed and asked how they felt prior to and at the time of enlisting. One man who had been a trade unionist before war broke out said that men such as he had never believed that working men from one country would fight against working men from another country. Sadly it would appear that he discounted the power of patriotism. Many of those who enlisted on any side did so for their 'King and Country' - not being aware of/understanding the complex set of alliances between sovereign countries which came into play once the assasination of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand happened was the cause of the need for their call to arms.

In his biography [third volume] Siegfried Sassoon also suggests that a large part of the raison d'etre for the war was financial and cites the British Forces capturing Baghdad in 1917 to ensure oil supplies. Remembering this as the Kuwait Oilfields blazed during the Gulf War over eighty years later gave one a sense of deja vue.

One of the last soldiers to die from WW1, Harry Patch, said many wise things about the war. 

Strange Meeting BY WILFRED OWEN
It seemed that out of the battle I escapedDown some profound dull tunnel, long since scoopedThrough granites which Titanic wars had groined.Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and staredWith piteous recognition in fixed eyes,Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan."Strange,friend," I said, "Here is no cause to mourn.""None," said the other, "Save the undone years,The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,Was my life also; I went hunting wildAfter the wildest beauty in the world,Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,But mocks the steady running of the hour,And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.For by my glee might many men have laughed,And of my weeping something has been left,Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,The pity of war, the pity war distilled.Now men will go content with what we spoiled.Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.Courage was mine, and I had mystery;Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;To miss the march of this retreating worldInto vain citadels that are not walled.Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheelsI would go up and wash them from sweet wells,Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.I would have poured my spirit without stintBut not through wounds; not on the cess of war.Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . ."

Suggested Booklist:

Goodbye to All That: Robert Graves
Testament of Youth: Vera Brittain
Siegfried's Journey: Siegfried Sassoon
The Last Fighting Tommy: The Life of Harry Patch, The Oldest Surviving Veteran of the Trenches :  Harry Patch and Richard Van Emden

All Quiet on the Western Front: Erich Maria Remarque
Regeneration Trilogy: Pat Barker

Great Britain's Great War: Jeremy Paxman
The First World War: An Illustrated History: A.J.P. Taylor
The Great War and Modern Memory: Paul Fussell


  1. I would like to recommend this article in today's Guardian by Richard J Evans : http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/06/richard-evans-michael-gove-history-education?commentpage=2
    I particularly enjoyed the following of the many interesting comments to the article: "Funny how nobdoy [sic] ever mentions that the leaders of 3 of the main actors - the King, the Kaiser & the Czar ware cousins. So it was basically a family feud"

  2. Here is a bit of my WWI history - http://warelane.wordpress.com/2009/09/12/arthur-ware-lane/ and http://warelane.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/remembering/

  3. Really interesting and poignant, Julian. And this is why we should still remember and commemorate - but not celebrate - for the sake of those like Arthur his descendants should thank him but not allow their leaders to convince them that war is right.

    My two grandfathers survived the war, if my maternal grandfather had not I wouldn't be here as my mother was not born until after the war. However her brother was born prior to Granfer's war service and was born with an orthopedic condition which my grandmother took him regularly to hospital whilst Granfer was away fighting so that Uncle John could eventually walk normally. Grandmother's father said she was wrong to do this because he would only become fodder for the next war and she said 'but this is the war to end wars'. Of course those hopes did not transpire and in fact Uncle John did fight in WW2 and was invalided home from Burma with such a bad case of Malaria that he was left permanently affected, I often wonder if that laid him open to the cancer which claimed him at a relatively young age.