The changing history of the First World War

Issue: 143

Megan Trudell

The anniversary of the First World War has already made clear the extent to which the history of the war is contested. For David Cameron, the planned commemoration costing £50 million will be a: “commemoration that captures our national spirit in every corner of the country, from our schools and workplaces, to our town halls and local communities. A commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations this year, says something about who we are as a people”.1

Remembering the conflict that caused almost a million deaths among soldiers and civilians from Britain and its colonies and wounded over a million and a half more—not to mention the 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded worldwide, losses which have continued to echo down the generations—in the same way as a wedding anniversary for one immensely privileged royal family is an obscenity. But it is one that fits with the narrative about the war that the Tories are pushing.

Michael Gove, in a now infamous attack in the Daily Mail (where else?), stated this agenda explicitly:

It is important that we commemorate, and learn from, that conflict in the right way [my italics] in the next four years… The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles—a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out of touch elite.

Gove used the article to attack historians of the “left”, like Richard Evans, for denigrating the sacrifice of British soldiers, and argues that “many of the new analyses emerging challenge existing left wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.” He points to the work of two “revisionist” military historians in particular to make his case:

Douglas Haig, held up as a crude butcher, has been seen in a new light thanks to Professor Gary Sheffield, of Wolverhampton University, who depicts him as a patriotic leader grappling honestly with the new complexities of industrial warfare. Even the battle of the Somme, once considered the epitome of military futility, has now been analysed in depth by the military historian William Philpott and recast as a precursor of allied victory.2

However, there has been opposition to the dominant anniversary narrative. Jonathan Jones demolished the government’s cultural events in the Guardian:

The First World War, it was just like the Olympics. It brought so many people together. Admittedly, they came together to die “like cattle”, as the poet Wilfred Owen put it—a bit grumpily—but what a moving occasion nonetheless. It deserves to be marked by another Cultural Olympiad. Perhaps I am exaggerating the happy-clappy banality of the cultural events planned to mark this year’s centenary of the First World War’s outbreak, but a remark actually made by Maria Miller, [then] secretary of state for culture, media and sport, at the launch is not far off: “The First World War had such a great deal of culture associated with it from the poets to visual artists.” Yes, I suppose the war of 1914-18 had culture “associated with it”. A generation of artistic talent was decimated, for a start. The outstanding modern artists Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Franz Marc and Umberto Boccioni were among those who died. These famous names are just the tip of the iceberg. What about the talents destroyed before they had a chance? As Robert Hughes commented in The Shock of the New, if you wonder why there was no British Picasso, the answer probably lies among the First World War graveyards.3

On the substance of historical interpretations of the war, Richard Evans has been in the forefront of rubbishing Gove’s views—on the war and on history in general, hence his singling out for special vitriol from the education secretary. Evans makes the point that many of those “versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders” are peddled not by the left, but by right wingers like Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson. He is right, but therein lies a problem. Much of the television coverage of the anniversary so far has failed to present alternative viewpoints other, that is, than differences with the new “official” histories from within the ranks of conservative historians.

The debate between Hastings and Ferguson, for example, was a debate about responsibility for the war between two conservatives: The arch-Thatcherite Hastings insists, in line with Gary Sheffield, on German culpability for the war and the necessity of war to stop German expansionism. But he is highly critical of British generals, subscribing to the late Tory MP Alan Clark’s view (and that of Blackadder) that British troops were “lions led by donkeys”. Ferguson holds the British government of the time responsible for not staying out of the war, a view that clearly differs from Gove’s, but that comes from a historian known for his celebrations of capitalism and unapologetic defence of imperialism and for whom the “pity of war” (the title of his 1998 book), lies more in the loss of the British Empire and the decline of British economic power than in the loss of life.

Jeremy Paxman who, to his credit, denounced Gove as a charlatan and called Cameron “a complete idiot” for his view of the “celebrations”, in his series Britain’s Great War (a pale shadow of 1964’s The Great War) also accepts the argument of German military expansionism and promotes patriotism of a different shade. Paxman’s remembrance is one of the war as a calamity, but also one of nostalgia for times when men were men and everyone knuckled down and fought to prevent Britain from becoming an “enormous German colony”. This is war as redemptive, in which ordinary people proved what patriotism really meant in the face of an out of touch elite and in so doing “forged the nation”; those who objected, or resisted, Paxman regards as “cranks”.4

The arguments over the war and how to commemorate the anniversary are part of a wider debate, in which Tory politicians are attempting to force through a right wing, nationalist reading of history, especially in schools. Michael Gove’s proposed history curriculum—now substantially improved, thanks to a vigorous and broad campaign by historians, teachers and activists—was about reimposing a Victorian form of history teaching based on the rote learning of facts, in which national history, and it is overwhelmingly British, was to be taught as a chronological development without teaching methods of interpretation or analysis. Richard Evans referred to it as a “pub quiz” curriculum, while Dan Jones in the Telegraph called it the “Tory-story chronicle of British history”.5 It is partisan history that seeks to present British history as one national story without reference to the wider world, or any sense of weaving together local, national and international histories in ways that would be relevant and engaging.

Labour MP and shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt was right to say: “History is where the great battles of public life are now being fought” and that “the historical right has Britain in its grip”.6 Right wing, nationalist historians are increasingly part of contemporary political debate. David Starkey has repeatedly shown his bigoted colours on television in recent years, notably after the riots in 2011 when he said: “The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion and black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together… This is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.”

Starkey has attacked the “feminisation” of British history and has argued that pensioners should be taxed on benefits and lose their bus passes. Meanwhile, Niall Ferguson, who defended Gove’s initial history curriculum, has followed his paeans to British imperialism and global capitalism with a declaration that the economist John Maynard Keynes’s homosexuality meant he wasn’t concerned about future generations.7 These are ludicrous positions, but are pushed by populist historians into the country’s living rooms and in right wing papers and are a crucial part of the web of ruling ideology.

Richard Evans is scathing about Labour’s response to the history curriculum: “Adrift on the sea of ideas, it has weakly been pulled along in the wake of the Tory English nationalists”.8 On the question of teaching the First World War, John Blake, chair of Labour teachers, makes Evans’s case:

Teachers often complain about market ideology being poured into their classrooms, but it is equally as dogmatic to maintain that the only possible lesson to be learned from the 1914-18 hostilities is about the horrors of war. In fact, if the centenary is to be truly historical, the First World War needs to be considered in far greater depth, and the myths that have grown up around it challenged. I would like to take aim at three here: first, that it was, without question, an unjust and imperialist war; second, that war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen provide a representative response of soldiers to the conflict; and third, that the generals of the First World War were ignorant and callous butchers who had no regard for their men. All three of these myths appear to be deeply embedded in too many of our schools and in too much of our culture.

What’s more, Blake asserts that it is an insult to see those who fought as cannon fodder. Many were proud to have fought, and the experience wasn’t all bad: “80 percent of enlisted men came home again, and although most communities in the country bore some loss, there are villages in England where there is no war memorial because every man returned”.9 So that’s all right, then.

Tristram Hunt has responded to Gove, pointing to Christopher Clark’s recent book The Sleepwalkers, which rejects the notion of the culpability of any one nation in causing the war—and has consequently become a bestseller in Germany—pointing instead to the instability of the world system before 1914, the contingency of events and the role of individual mentalities and decisions in leading the world to war. But, faced with attacks on the “left” from Gove, Hunt’s answer is to denounce the “fascism” of the Kaiser and trumpet the “patriotism” of British workers, led by a Labour Party and trade unions whose leaders had collapsed into support for the war:

The British left responded to such fascism by largely supporting the war effort. Appeals by trade union leaders to oppose German aggression, particularly against Belgium, led more than 250,000 of their members to enlist by Christmas 1914, with 25 percent of miners volunteering before conscription. Typical was John Ward, one of my predecessors as MP for Stoke-on-Trent and the leader of the Navvies’ Union. To “fight Prussianism”, he raised three pioneer battalions from his members and, commissioned as a colonel by Lord Kitchener, led them to battle in France, Italy and Russia. Contrary to the assertions of Michael Gove and the Daily Mail, the left needs no lessons on “the virtues of patriotism, honour and courage”.10

New battle lines: military versus cultural history

Part of Labour’s spinelessness on the question of history in general and of the war in particular comes from its own history as a split party during the First World War between those opposed to the war and those who supported the Liberal and coalition governments that waged it.

Part also has to do with the more general context in which history writing is taking place, a context that has seen the social history writing of, roughly, the 1940s to the 1980s swallowed up with barely a whimper by the implications of the “linguistic turn” that has reduced social reality to discourse and the dominance of the notion of culture as the driving force in history where there once were social classes.

For many social historians, the “Marxist paradigm” in which much excellent social history was written was a variant of soft Stalinism, since most regarded Stalin’s Russia as being the (however distorted) inheritor of the revolution. So the collapse of the Soviet Union and its exposure as a class-ridden, capitalist society led to a widespread throwing of the baby out with the bathwater. This was most obvious among those historians who wrote on Russia, but extended to a defensiveness on the part of social historians more generally in the face of a revisionist onslaught that regarded revolution as the root of the evils of the 20th century, equated Communism with Nazism, and claimed the “end of history”.11

The acceptance by many who had been social historians of the need to abandon any “meta-narrative” or “grand explanatory idea” in history writing after the fall of the Berlin Wall has given space to revisionist, reactionary historians. Specifically on First World War history, it has made it considerably easier for the “revisionism” of the new military historians to dominate.

The return of the military

The central argument from the new military historians is that of the “learning curve”. Generals were not simply callous butchers, but leaders fighting a just war who made mistakes along the way to mastering the new parameters of battle in an age of industrialised war. Gary Sheffield, formerly a lecturer at Sandhurst, has made it his personal mission over the last decade to rescue the war from the common sense perception of it as futile bloodletting and to rehabilitate the reputation of Douglas Haig, commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force between 1915 and 1918.12 According to Sheffield, Haig “learned” during the course of 1916 that attrition was the name of the game and understood that the Germans couldn’t stand as many losses as the British. He was also, apparently, a good husband and father.

The attempt to rehabilitate Haig is tied up with the history of the Battle of the Somme, the first day of which (1 July 1916) saw 60,000 British soldiers killed or wounded and still stands as the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. Across all the contending armies on the Somme in the four months of the battle, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded. Total British casualties were 420,000, French dead and wounded amounted to around 200,000 and German casualties were between 465,000 and 630,000. When the battle ended in November, “the British line had moved forward six miles, but was still three miles short of Bapaume, the first day’s objective”.13

Rather than being the site of senseless slaughter on a vast scale, for Sheffield: “On balance, the Somme did more damage to the Germans than to the Allies, and in spite of the heavy losses, the British army emerged from the battle as a much improved effective fighting force”.14 Another military historian, William Philpott, professor in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, has supported this view that, however terrible the price, the Somme was part of Haig’s learning curve and was ultimately key to grasping the method of attritional warfare and therefore exhausting the enemy and winning the war.15

These views haven’t gone unchallenged on their own terms. Other historians have pointed to the Third Battle of Ypres, which took place between July and November 1917. Ordered by Haig, sanctioned by prime minister Lloyd George, the battle of Passchendaele, as it became known, repeated the mistakes of a year earlier—frontal assaults on heavily fortified German positions. Passchendaele village lay less than five miles beyond the starting point of Haig’s offensive, which he predicted would be decisively successful: over three months and around 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties to achieve a distance of five miles. Rather than a learning curve, “the history of British strategy is that of the displacement of responsibility for failure”.16 Blackadder’s line in the first episode of the series that the order to advance meant “Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin” may be satire, but it is pretty close to the mark.

Sheffield’s and Philpott’s justification of the horrifying attritional trench war in terms of British victory at whatever cost is objectionable and jingoistic. But it is also an example of history writing on the war coming full circle. The first official histories of the war, written in the ten years or so following the armistice, were military and diplomatic memoirs from the generals and politicians involved, mainly lengthy descriptions of the campaigns and diplomacy. The central political question was that of war guilt. The 1919 Versailles treaty held Germany solely responsible for causing the war, forcing huge reparations from the battered and economically exhausted country, and few of the accounts veered from this interpretation. German war guilt, Germany’s drive for expansion and its incipient “fascism” are what still lies at the root of the seemingly varying arguments of Sheffield, Hastings, Paxman and even Hunt.

The best recent response to this thesis is that of Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers. Clark’s book is shaped by the present. The set of contingent decisions and the mentalities and backgrounds of key actors that mediate between a random act of terrorism in 1914—in this case the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Serbia by Gavrilo Princip—and the outbreak of war has obvious parallels with 9/11 and the Iraq war. And some of the book’s power comes precisely from considering, in great detail, the complex and contingent nature of events leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914 and conveying through an examination of the way in which events were not consciously driven by this or that power the sense that major war is by no means an impossibility in today’s world.

The great strength of Clark’s argument is that it suggests a much wider collective “culpability” for the First World War on the part of world leaders whose shared interests conflicted with their national or separate interests, conditioned by the shifting relationships between the Great Powers in the early 20th century. In particular he refers to Germany and Russia’s economic growth and increasing military weight, the emergence of particular forms of irredentist nationalism in Serbia and Italy, and the social, cultural and political histories of politicians, diplomats and generals—the “mental maps” they envisaged that bore little relation to political realities and made them more often than not incapable of grasping the implications of their responses and actions. Clark rubbishes the idea of “blame” for the war, drawing attention instead to the way in which “short range, contingent realignments” continually shaped the conditions leading up to the war:

The outbreak of war is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character.17

He makes the centrally important point that “blame” inevitably focuses on the actions and ideas in one particular state “rather than on multilateral processes of interaction”. For Sheffield et al, Germany drove the world to war in isolation. There is little, if any, consideration of the enmeshment of states with one another, or the relationships between and the influences on actors.

Moreover, in Germany, the inversion of the “war guilt” thesis was that of the nation “stabbed in the back”; in Italy, Versailles represented the “mutilated victory”. The machinations of the peace conference, the conflicts of interest and the realignments of defeat, irredentism and betrayal became keystones of the national myth spun by the state, the conservative right and fascism. As Keynes pointed out at the time, Versailles made recovery from the economic disaster of war—and therefore peace—impossible. The German war guilt thesis did much to propel the world towards another war.

Social and “popular” history

The first official histories were history from above, the history of “mere events” and the history of self-justification on the part of those who had overseen the slaughter of millions, in which that massacre itself was miraculously erased. Soldiers were pawns in war rooms, but were almost completely absent from detailed dissections of battle plans and diplomatic meetings. Though the new “great men” histories have to take some account of the experience of soldiers, their conclusions are always that the death and destruction were a price worth paying.

It should be said that there were two exceptions to the dominance of official history from above in the post-war period: the works in 1930 of Élie Halévy, a liberal anti-socialist historian of 19th century England, who argued that the war had strengthened the national control of the state in all the combatant countries, opening up an “era of tyrannies”; and Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky’s magisterial history treated Tsarist Russia as part of a global system and presented a “total” history of all classes in Russia in order to explain the impulse for the revolution as meshed with the experience of war as it was shaped by the specificities of Russian economic, social and political development and the imperialist stage of capitalism. Trotsky’s work remains entirely ignored by historians of the First World War, although it offers by far the most fruitful example of how history writing can break out of the twin dead ends of hagiography and apology on the one hand, and individualist micro-history on the other, a question we will return to.

There were, unsurprisingly, relatively few readers for the reams of memoir and retelling of battles from the political and military elite of the time. This didn’t mean there was no popular interest in the war itself—quite the contrary. The war had a seismic and traumatic effect on individuals, families and communities. Working class people who had lived through the crisis, the sacrifice and deprivation clearly had a drive to understand what had happened and to see the places where loved ones had suffered and died. During the war the propaganda film The Battle of the Somme was seen by 20 million people on its release in London; it is a sanitised and staged version of the real battle, but nonetheless had a new immediacy and was the first time pictures of dead and wounded soldiers had been seen. After the war there was a huge appetite for stories, soldiers’ memoirs, film, photographs and pilgrimage tours to the battlefields.

This remains true. The online project Europeana 19141918 has held numerous “family roadshows” across Europe, encouraging people to bring letters, cards, memorabilia and artefacts from the war period; hundreds of thousands more have been scanned and uploaded to its database.18 It is one of several similar projects that have attracted huge public interest. The sheer number of items and the individual stories tied up with them speaks volumes about the war’s continued resonance and the space it still occupies in millions of family histories.

There was a huge increase in historical interest in the First World War during the 1960s, fed into by public interest. The way the war’s history was told was reshaped by an interplay between changes within academia as well as the changing nature of working class life and the experiences of struggle. In part this was due to social changes and in part to a related change in perspective. The Second World War had destroyed the notion that the first had been the war to end wars, or that a lasting peace was its legacy. The expansion of higher education in the period following the Second World War also meant an associated expansion in the number of historians, many influenced by the emergence of the writing of “history from below” and social history, associated with the members of the Marxist Historians Group (MHG) in the 1940s and 1950s, and especially with E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.

Although Communist Party affiliation, the heavy hand of Stalinism and the polarisation of the Cold War led the MHG members themselves to avoid the history of the war and the revolutionary wave that ended it, their influence was felt across historical disciplines. The huge growth in students from working class backgrounds with a history and understanding of trade unionism and labour politics; the expansion of welfare on the back of working class revolt after the Second World War; the realities of the Korean and Vietnam wars and the upsurge in class struggle in the late 1960s and 1970s fed into and enriched the history being written—both inside and outside the academy.

The key question on the war shifted to discussions about the war and revolution, the collapse of the Second International parties into support for the war and the revolutionary wave across Europe that ended it. Many historians of the war came from labour history: Jay Winter and John Horne in Britain, Jean-Jacques and Annette Becker and Antoine Prost in France. All have since made the shift (the “smooth transition” as Winter puts it) to cultural history.

Marc Ferro, associated with the Annales group in France, wrote an outstanding book, The Great War, in 1969 that considers the impact of the war on popular consciousness and the dynamics of the mass movements, mutinies and revolutions, that shaped the second half of the conflict;19 later work on the experience of trench warfare and its effect on soldiers’ psychology, on the British army mutiny at Etaples training camp in 1917 and histories of the war that drew on first-hand accounts and images from soldiers who had fought were all encouraged and influenced by the history from below approach.20 The new context also affected diplomatic history. Arno Mayer’s two books on diplomacy and the conference at Versailles stress the primacy of domestic politics as a consideration for the politicians and generals and the need to contain “Bolshevism” at home on the part of the participants at the conference.21

Writing the war’s history became conditioned by the need to reflect the experience of the war’s participants. This process was, partly, also cultural. The television series The Great War made for the 50th anniversary of the conflict in 1964 reached huge audiences and, using original footage and photographs, was seen by an estimated 8 million people over 26 weeks. It covered the revolutions in Russia, the realities of the blockade of Germany, the experience of trench warfare and the psychological toll on soldiers. Broadcaster A J P Taylor’s bestselling illustrated history of the First World War, which was scathing about the “donkeys” in the British establishment, fits this enlarged “popularisation” of the war’s history. Other accounts challenged the historical preconceptions on the war—Norman Stone, whose history of the war on the Eastern Front was one of the first considerations of the war outside France, made the case that generals decided strategy and the politicians generally did as they were told;22 John Keegan’s excellent The Face of Battle questioned the capacity of soldiers to continue to endure ever more industrialised warfare and considered them as a collective. For Keegan the study of battle “is always a study of solidarity and usually also of disintegration—for it is towards the disintegration of human groups that battle is directed”.23

At the same time in Germany, Fritz Fischer, a right wing historian, developed the thesis on German war guilt that many historians and commentators, from Hastings to Hunt, accept. In history context is everything, and the crisis of the Second World War, fascism and the Holocaust generated pressure to understand the origins of the Nazis. Fischer’s controversial argument was essentially that Nazi expansionism was an extension of Kaiser Wilhelm’s strategy in the First World War, that Hitler’s terror was therefore not a parenthesis, a foreign body, but had its roots in German past development. For Fischer, the First World War had also been a product of this intrinsically German “special path” of development from the Reformation onwards.

It should be borne in mind that for German historians, and indeed the left, this represented a step forward in grasping the dynamics of both wars that had contemporary political ramifications—it provided an opportunity to re-examine the painful past in the teeth of the continued rejection of the “war guilt” notion by conservative historians. However, the central problem with denoting the Kaiser’s Germany as “fascist” is that Germany wasn’t so very different to other European states at the time. The “norm” of European bourgeois society at the time of the outbreak of the First World War was one of industrial capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, modern science and technology, eugenics and national chauvinism and a political tradition in which parliamentary democracy had “shallow roots”.24

As David Blackbourn has written:

The German experience constituted a heightened version of what occurred elsewhere. This is true of Germany’s dynamic capitalism, and of the social and political consequences it generated. It is true of the complex mesh of private and public virtues and vices which were characteristic of German bourgeois society. It is true of a widespread sentiment like cultural despair, and of the crude materialism which unwittingly reinforced it.25

Blackbourn argues that the particular combination of elements, the uneven way in which similar economic, social and political developments come together, allows us to trace the emergence of fascism more accurately. This matters in part for an understanding of the specificity of fascism as a political development that emerged initially in Italy following the First World War, and in part for how that history assists socialists in accurately analysing contemporary political developments like those in Ukraine or Syria.

Reading backwards from Nazi Germany to locate the germ of fascism as responsible for the First World War absolves the rest of Europe and fails to see how the interrelated system of economies and states conditioned the particular elements in individual countries. In reality, dictatorship was not foreign to European traditions, and parliamentary democracies like Britain and France considered fascism to be much less of a problem than the growth of communism after the war.

As well as the questions of revolution and Germany’s development, important books in the late 1960s and early 1970s looked at the complex ways in which industrialisation and the changing world system affected the ideas in people’s heads and class structure. James Joll argued that the “minds of men” involved in the processes of making war and constructing the “peace” were central. For Joll, the war was not a huge break with what had come before—rapid industrialisation, the growth of imperialism and the experience of liberalism in Europe were changes that were both embraced and resisted. The “unspoken assumptions”—the political, social and mental worlds that politicians and generals embodied were changing. And there were complex, indirect mediations and linkages between mentalities, culture and policy-making against the background of a set of circumstances changing at a dizzying rate.26 Clark’s more recent work is probably influenced by this nuanced view.

The war accelerated the transformation in size, composition and organisation of the working class, as well as establishing technological changes including assembly line production. The aforementioned labour historian John Horne and Leopold Haimson and Giovanna Procacci—historians of the Russian Revolution and Italian labour respectively—wrote on wartime strikes and mobilisations and the conflicts between changing, more powerful working classes and militarised states overseeing war economies. All of these, certainly taken together, provided a much richer and more kaleidoscopic view of the complexities of the war, the ways in which states waged it and the ways in which workers and soldiers resisted its brutality and hardships. The roots of the revolutions and protests at the end of the war were laced into the massive social transformations and daily realities of the war and the ways in which the increasingly international world generalised both the slaughter and the resistance to it.

The cultural turn

Jay Winter—himself now a leading cultural historian of the First World War—is admirably clear about what happened to history from around the 1990s onwards. The decline of the Marxist paradigm” and the corresponding shift towards giving primacy to culture have entailed a “dematerialisation of historical study, a turn towards ideas and representations as independent of material conditions… We see here a new kind of historical idealism.” As a result, “historians no longer try to provide global explanations for historical events or to study an entire society in all its dimensions”.27 Instead the subjective memory of actors has become inseparable from the objective identity of events and their consequences; the importance of the social conditions from which historical actions emerge is relegated to the background.

This cultural shift raises more problems than it answers. If individual or micro-history is studied through its forms of language, memory, symbolism and ideas without reference to the wider world in which it is situated, it requires an acceptance that what was written or spoken should be taken at face value, rather than questioned or examined in its context. Not only does this hinder an understanding of that wider context; it also weakens the power of the cultural approach by severing the area under study from its potential connections to others.

It can also, and often does, lead to an emphasis on the continuity of cultural forms over moments of rupture or change in other areas of society. Social historians of the First World War have, in the words of Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, a “long-standing, complacent preference for opposition over consent”.28 This, they argue, led to an over-emphasis on mutiny, desertions and revolution in the historiography of the conflict and the stress on discontinuity rather than continuity has ignored the fact that the majority experience was of “spontaneous support for the war”29 and “defensive patriotism”.30 For Niall Ferguson also, social historians have put too much emphasis on the truces, fraternisations, the “live and let live” system31 and desertion. Mutinies were “few and far between”, representing the “exception which proves the rule”.32

In First World War studies the emphasis on cultural, rather than military, history since the 1990s has been—in English, at least—on the myriad physical and emotional experiences of soldiers and civilians during the war. Over the last decade historians have considered how soldiers endured the trenches; the psychological responses of those who fought; the experience of occupation—little discussed, but affecting a widespread area that included Warsaw, Belgrade, Brussels, Lille, and Bucharest, Serbia, Ukraine and Veneto in Italy; refugee populations; the myth of “war enthusiasm”; the role of religion and mourning; brutalisation and violence; and the effect of war and physical trauma on constructions of masculinity.33 Much of this work is very interesting and fruitful. For example, the complex interconnection between soldiers in the trenches and the “home front” is of great importance in any consideration of how war and class struggle are connected; studies of how the war experience was internalised and expressed are vital to understanding mass consciousness; questions of violence and national memory are productive for considerations of the development of fascism, and so forth.

However, when some of these concerns are taken in isolation as explanatory factors, they lead to dead ends of inevitability. So it is with the question of the brutalisation of war. George Mosse developed the idea of the normalising or “domesticating” of violence as contributing to a brutalisation of European society, politics and culture, and leading to fascism.34 Others have picked up on a supposed masculine “celebration of violence”,35 arguing that the war legitimised the fact that “many men simply took pleasure in killing”.36 Even Clark falls into this argument about the culpability of “masculinity”. But this is to divorce violence from a wider context of industrialisation and the pressure on pre-existing class structure.

The war crystallised technological changes that had been developing since the industrial revolution.37 The machine gun was used in mass combat, causing slaughter on a vast scale; artillery barrages hurled tons of metal at armies of millions. For the first time men faced mechanised, industrial killing that rendered: “concepts of heroism, glory and fair play between gentlemen” irrelevant.38 The German officer Ernst Jünger, despite his famous exultation of war, was aware of the reality:

Countries were transformed into gigantic factories for the mass production of armies in order that, 24 hours out of 24, it would be possible to send them to the front, where a bloody consumer-process, likewise completely mechanised, played the role of the market.39

This replication of the factory system reduced all soldiers to the level of industrial workers, and mixed men of all classes together in the miserable conditions of battle. According to Eric Leed, the disillusionment many officers felt, which contributed to their bitterness after the war, was a function of this industrialisation of war and their own “proletarianisation”.40

The problems with the cultural turn lie not in the emphasis on the experiences of ordinary people—this continued form of history from below is to be welcomed, especially in the argument against the dominant Tory history—but in the privileging of the most common experiences, those of different forms of consent, and taking them in isolation from moments of rupture, dissent and protest; and in the replacement of class struggle as an explanatory category with “culture” as the driving force of history. This “new historical idealism” gives ground to the apologism and nationalism of Sheffield et al, who continually emphasise soldiers’ stoicism, quiet patriotism, ironic humour and preparedness to fight and dismiss moments of mutiny or revolt. In line with this, John Blake cites a study carried out by Martin Stephen, a former high master at St Paul’s private school in London, who interviewed hundreds of First World War veterans in the 1970s:

Many young men serving on the Western Front were happy with their lot. [Stephen] found records of a Norfolk farmhand, gone to Flanders from an area of England that had suffered famines before the war, who was amazed at the endless supply of hard tack—army rations of dry bread. More days were spent behind the line than in the trenches; days spent in French villages where young, brave men in uniforms were feted, well-fed and popular with the ladies. Many of the men Stephen interviewed were outraged by the patronising attitude of later generations that they had been mere cannon fodder, ignorant of the causes of the war and maltreated. They were clear why they had fought and satisfied that the war had been worthwhile.41

But the majority experience most of the time under capitalism is one of consent, or at least acquiescence, in the sense that for long, or very long, periods strikes and revolutions are the exception to “normal” life. Part of the difficulty with the cultural approach is that memory and consciousness are not the driving forces of history but are themselves shaped by material reality. Our individual experience is constituted by scores of interrelating mediated contingencies within a vastly complex social and material world. In class society the dominant ideas in that social and material world are those of the powerful and are constituted in accordance with the needs and interests of those who rule, lead and govern. In the world ravaged by war, the social and material world was in great flux, and very many ideas about the transformations in people’s lives circulated.

This way of looking at the world helps to makes sense of the variety of mystical and psychological responses to the war, as well as the evolving notions of how the war could usher in a new social reality. Revolutionary ideas, extreme nationalist ideas, the “embryonic socialist” consciousness that the Italian revolutionary Angelo Tasca described among soldiers, were all different attempts at ideological adaptation to new circumstances that changes in the real world made possible.

Concentrating on the words and language of the majority will, under most circumstances, even those of war, indicate support for the dominant ideas (patriotism, nationhood, loyalty, justice, in various degrees) but, in the case of widespread upheaval of the previous social reality, as in the war, this will coexist alongside other ideas of pacifism, solidarity, peace, equality and so on. And events that puncture the dominant ideas and interrupt the “continuity” can have a weight and power beyond their numerical strength. So it is true that mutiny, desertion and anti-war protests involved a minority—but it is also true that their impact was disproportionate to their size. Soldiers, workers and peasants were not all anti-war demonstrators and deserters, nor were they all united behind the national flag. Individuals’ self-identification in the different spheres of their lives, whether political, economic or cultural, fluctuated, often dramatically, in a relatively short period of intense social and political crisis. In all the belligerent countries strikes, desertions and mutinies, and the widespread support for them, were new elements that dramatically punctuated the continuity and “constituted the real, uncontrollable novelty provoked by the war”.42

Without a framework for understanding where ideas come from, or how different and contradictory ideas can coexist in individual and “mass consciousness”, their relative weight and importance cannot be judged in any way apart from on their individual validity. Individual experiences tell us very little about the material world without considering the ways in which they interrelate with the complex and fluid material situation.

For many cultural historians, the rejection of Marxism as a method for understanding history has led them away from any notion of the material basis for ideas and into an idealist sense of language and memory as creating the world, which shrinks ever inwards. It should be said that what was being rejected was the distorted determinist form of “Marxism” associated with Stalinism, though many of these same historians tended to treat Stalinism as “an aberration on some socialist base”.43 but the evacuation of the social from history writing has left a gaping hole through which the military historians, sometimes paying lip service to “cultural” concerns, can attempt to reassert history from above in which the masses of people, workers and soldiers are once more pawns to be moved around.

This does not mean that subjective memory of events has no part in historical enquiry, or that the attitudes and beliefs that—crucially—impel the actions of ordinary soldiers, men and women are of less importance than those of kings, heads of state and generals. The opposite is the case: the vast and powerful movements of the “masses” across Europe, that is the collective, subjective action of millions of individuals, and the ideas that were generated and that propelled them, are of the utmost importance in any understanding of the period. Any investigation of history from below is a welcome antidote to the “great men” versions. But we also need a method for sifting evidence and for understanding how cumulative small changes can burst through into quantitative social transformation.

For example, the Italian historian Bruna Bianchi, in an exhaustive study of desertion in the Italian army during the war, complicates the image of generalised consent among the mainly peasant infantry. Bianchi’s study looks at 600 individual desertion records within the material context of military repression, the social reality of peasant life and the contact with different classes that the war generated. She describes soldiers on leave being confronted with “the dramatic conditions of the civilian population”, the inefficient distribution of food and aid, the irregularity or lack of subsidies and the arbitrary exonerations from service for the privileged. Seeing abandoned fields and families reduced by hunger, mourning and fatigue, soldiers often felt “anger and resentment against the state that was not providing for their families, and understood that as their duties and suffering increased, the margins of liberty and personal dignity were decreased”.44

There were few incidences of politically motivated desertion. Most desertions took place at harvest time and most peasant soldiers who deserted to help their families subsequently returned to the army. This fact has led some historians to downplay the extent to which such actions constituted revolt. However, Bianchi shows how social conditions exerted a pressure that pushed many to revolt—in the face of the most dire punishment—and, taken together, those individual acts of subversion form part of a wider political process, regardless of the intentions of the individuals concerned:

The internal relationships of the peasant community, based on subordination to familial authority for the satisfaction of the collective need, favoured an adaptation to discipline. It was the lack of respect for these moral values that provoked the rebellion, the rupture of the links of subjection to authority. A rebellion that expressed itself in individual gestures of intolerance of discipline that would explode in open and collective forms in the post-war period.45

Consciousness is materially formed and it is important to investigate how ideas are constructed and how they change; how, for example, dominant ideological explanations were processed and filtered through their experiences to soldiers and the working class more widely—in part through cultural (in the narrower sense) media like film, photography, letters and postcards and propaganda. Here cultural history can be invaluable and enrich our understanding, but reducing consciousness to the forms it takes, people’s intentions, or the cultural artefacts circulating in society at the time, severing it from its class and material roots, hinders our ability to grasp how change, especially revolutionary change, happens.

Winter and Prost make a plea to “accept the irreducible pluralities of histories”.46 So each narrative is as valid as any other—Michael Gove and Blackadder are both “right”. This is, at the very least, an abdication of responsibility at a time when it matters. It is no accident that Gove’s attacks on a particular view of the war start from popular references. Gove singles out “elite” historians (Cambridge professors being more cut off from the general population than Sandhurst professors, presumably) as a way of pandering to Daily Mail right wing populism; but he is also attacking popular cultural references through which generations have absorbed and reworked the “sense” of war as a futile “misbegotten shambles”. Earlier historians were part of that mosaic of influence and their approaches were in part drawn from that wider “cultural” sense and changing attitudes about the war as a result of subsequent world events and reinterpretation—they did not invent the narrative. It is the history of our class that Gove is focusing his fire on and attempting to undermine; a “forgetting” that he is aiming at so we remember “in the right way”.

The fight for interpretation is about reinserting class, revolt and revolution into the story of the war. Attacks on social history, from different political directions—including from many attacking their own pasts—have not been met with any robust defence of the insertion of workers and soldiers into their own history at a collective, as well as on an individual level. Instead, as we’ve seen, former social historians on the whole excluded from their later work any notion of collective working class experience and the dynamics of social change and revolution:

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the implosion of popular democracies [ie the east European Stalinist states], the retreat and crisis of the Communist Party, the political context became dominated by the eclipse of the great hopes born in 1917. At the same time, the social context was characterised by an economic crisis, unemployment, de-industrialisation euphemistically known as downsizing…the development of subcontracting, temporary labour, and casual or part-time white-collar work. Scholars turned away from a group which no longer carried the fate of the future and whose existence was problematic.47

What is left out is the history of revolution that is entwined with that of the war; the effect is to flatten out and make two-dimensional our understanding of the crisis—to make it about great men and women, or about ordinary individual experience, but not to grasp the wider driving forces of the contradictions in capitalism. In history writing on the war, it means that—for the last 25 years at least—considerations of the economic changes, the nature and consequences of imperialism, changes in the composition and weight of social classes, and the revolutionary possibilities that existed have been marginalised. There are views of history as written by the victors, or by those who have suffered at their hands, but little in the way of collective resistance and social transformation. Histories of the war—which have primarily been national by definition—erase the reality that there was a collective, international answer to war, and to the system that spawned it.

This is why moving “beyond the Marxist paradigm” is not progress. We need to go beyond countering “ruling class history” with “working class history” (though we certainly need to provide and fight for the latter) to assert a different method of thinking about the world and its past that can grasp the interconnected relationships between context and events. Cultural history, in privileging social consent over conflict, continuity over rupture, stoicism over revolt, smooths out the antagonisms in society, and the sharp revolutionary breaks within historical continuity. This is not an argument for a “return to the social” in the sense that we should only study revolution and ignore everything else, but is about insisting on the dialectical relationship between “social peace” and revolution and on the continual, ever-present dynamic of the struggle between classes whose interaction is the real driving force of history.

Because downplay it, ignore it, dismiss it as many historians will, the war did lead to the greatest wave of revolutionary struggles internationally that has been seen before or since. The only successful workers’ revolution in history, the Russian Revolution, was forged in the course of the conflict. Across Europe in 1917 the strong class or social component of identification and growing political consciousness was enhanced by the impact of the Russian Revolution. To soldiers and workers—who did not know what the outcome of the Russian Revolution would be—it was a symbol of freedom from oppression and hated rulers and an end to a war that was increasingly seen to benefit only the employing and governing classes.

Socialists must insist on a history of the war that reinserts the great rupture of revolution into the narrative. Such an endeavour does not mean dismissing the individual responses of soldiers or the examination of changing “culture” and consciousness. In his History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky described the process of shifting consciousness in (often painful) response to the changing realities of life in the trenches, to the wealthy who profited from the war, to the daily privations:

The Russian army lost in the whole war more men than any army which ever participated in a national war—approximately two and a half million killed, or 40 percent of all the losses of the Entente. In the first months the soldiers fell under shell fire unthinkingly or thinking little; but from day to day they gathered experience—bitter experience of the lower ranks who are ignorantly commanded. They measured the confusion of the generals by the number of purposeless manoeuvres on soleless shoes, the number of dinners not eaten. From the bloody mash of people and things emerged a generalised word: “the mess”, which in the soldiers’ jargon was replaced by a still juicier term.

He goes on to discuss the way individual experiences can be knitted together to form a skein of changing mentalities—in a way that any cultural historian could relate to—but draws wider conclusions:

An observant woman, Feodorchenko, serving as sister of mercy, listened to the conversations of the soldiers, almost to their thoughts, and cleverly wrote them down on scattered slips of paper. The little book thus produced, The People at War, permits us to look in that laboratory where bombs, barbed-wire entanglements, suffocating gases, and the baseness of those in power, had been fashioning for long months the consciousness of several million Russian peasants, and where along with human bones age-old prejudices were cracking. In many of the self-made aphorisms of the soldiers appear already the slogans of the coming civil war.48

Geoff Eley argues that with the end of the war in 1918, “the scale of societal mobilisation, the radicalism of the institutional changes and the turbulence of popular hopes all fractured the stability of existing allegiances and ripped the fabric of social conformity wide enough for big democratic changes to break through”.49 The Russian Revolution was such a democratic change, making real the hopes of transformation after so much sacrifice; creating—however briefly—the possibility of a world without war and the resolution of class struggle in the interests of the majority.

The war the Tories and their favourite historians would like to spin is one where nationalism was triumphant and where workers and soldiers did their duty for their country. For other historians, the war is a patchwork of fragmented experiences and stories with no “grand” explanation. The fact that the social history they once adhered to was ideologically tied to the failure and distortion of the revolution in Russia is a tragedy.

A truly historical materialist understanding of the war must be able to encompass and learn from the detail—whether of battles or strikes, psychological trauma or the assassination of royalty—and weave it into a world in which the development of capitalism brought about the bleakest and most horrifying catastrophe; not in a determinist sense, but through all the contingencies and accidents, shaped by pre-existing ideas and assumptions and new ones thrown up by the rapid and dislocating changes of imperialism. And it must be able to explain, and to triumph, how the material experience of that catastrophe drove millions to question and to revolt and to present the system as a whole with the most profound threat of its existence.


1: Huffington Post, 2012.

2: Gove, 2014.

3: Jones, 2014.

4: Meredith, 2014.

5: Dan Jones, 2013.

6: Hunt, 2013.

7: Ferguson issued an “unqualified apology” for his remarks about Keynes, made at a conference of financial analysts in California, after they provoked widespread criticism from other conference participants.

8: Evans, 2013.

9: Blake, 2014.

10: Hunt, 2014.

11: Notably among the latter Renzo De Felice in Italy from the late 1970s, Ernst Nolte in the German Historians’ Debate of 1986-7 and François Furet in the mid-1990s, see Haynes and Wolfreys, 2007.

12: Sheffield, 2001, 2004 and 2011.

13: Gilbert, 1995, p299.

14: Hodgman, 2011.

15: Philpott, 2010.

16: Winter and Prost, 2005, p79.

17: Clark, 2012, Kindle location 10575.


19: Ferro, 1989; Taylor, 1966; Horne, 1964.

20: Ashworth, 1980; Dallas and Gill, 1991.

21: Mayer, 1959 and 1968.

22: Stone, 1976.

23: Keegan, 1976, p298.

24: Mazower, 1999, p25.

25: Blackbourn and Eley, 1984, pp291-292.

26: Joll, 1976.

27: Winter and Prost, 2005, pp26-27.

28: Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker, 2002, p106.

29: Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker, 2002, p111.

30: Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker, 2002, p107.

31: As described in Ashworth, 1980.

32: Ferguson, 1998, p345.

33: Heather Jones, 2013.

34: Mosse, 1986.

35: Bourke, 1999, p2.

36: Ferguson, 1998, p363.

37: Traverso, 2003, p79.

38: Ellis, 1993, p142.

39: Ernst Jünger, quoted in Traverso, 2003, p82.

40: Leed, 1979, p75.

41: Blake, 2014.

42: Corner and Procacci, 1997, p240.

43: Haynes, 1998. For a full and wide-ranging discussion of the crisis in social history, see Rees, 1998.

44: Bianchi, 1992, pp16-17.

45: Bianchi, 1992, pp18-19.

46: Winter and Prost, 2005, p211.

47: Winter and Prost, 2005, p127.

48: Trotsky, 2008 [1930].

49: Eley, 2007, p193.


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