wfa guards chapel 2013I am honoured to be invited to give this address on the day when we commemorate Britain's war dead in all modern conflicts.

I served for two years in the Army but did not witness combat, so I can only try to imagine what it was like, and pay tribute to those who gave their lives or suffered wounds and disabilities. I have, however, spent my working life (more than fifty years) teaching military history at university (mainly at King's College, London) and writing about it.

I assume that most of you, whether ex-servicemen or not, are also deeply interested in this subject, several of you as authors or keen amateur researchers. Since its inauguration, thirty-three years ago to the day, the WFA has done a wonderful job, not only in publishing new information about the war, but also in bringing like-minded people together and broadening the general public's understanding of this great and still divisive conflict.

On the eve of the hundredth anniversary of the Great War's outbreak, on which a spate of books has already poured forth, I propose to offer a few suggestions on the positions we should adopt as historians towards the controversies which will surely arise.

It is important to stress that, despite the endless debate about its origins and the responsibility to be assigned to the belligerents, the war was about great issues: essentially the need to resist Germany's drive for dominance in Europe and her blatant threat to Britain and the Empire. The great political and strategic issues should not be obscured by the unexpected duration and cost of the fighting, or underplayed because they now seem less significant than the menace of Nazism. Britain entered both wars reluctantly and with many false assumptions, in 1914 for example, expecting a short and limited conflict; but in both wars under no illusions that the nation's independence, liberties and way of life were at stake.

In 1914 Britain was the dominant naval power but a relatively small land power. Consequently her armies struggled in all the main aspects of what soon became a mass, industrial war: in trained manpower, weapons, munitions, staff work, logistics and command at all levels.

Historians should therefore be more understanding towards the shortfalls of 1914-1916 and not write glibly of 'the Donkeys' and 'Butchers and Bunglers'. They should also avoid hindsight in transferring 21st century attitudes to war to those who had to make agonising decisions in 1914. The world then was indeed a 'foreign country' where very different beliefs and standards prevailed.

As WFA members know very well, but the general public may need reminding, the BEF expanded from about 200,000 (mostly regulars) in 1914 to more than two million (mostly conscripts) by 1918. As the late John Terraine first stressed, and others have emphasised since, this was a remarkable achievement by a liberal democracy deeply opposed to conscription, state control and 'militarism'.

The notion of a 'learning curve' is now a popular but inadequate term to describe the transformation that occurred in virtually every aspect of war on the Western Front, especially between 1916 and 1918. Although there was not a consistent upward surge in the graph, lessons were learnt and put into practice. Essentially the challenge was to secure co-operation between all arms of the ground forces in battle through improved training, planning, logistics and leadership; and furthermore in developing very impressive co-ordination with the vastly expanded air forces.

Of course British and Dominions forces were not alone in pioneering this 'revolution in warfare', and did not lead in every aspect, but their record in technical and tactical achievement was one to be proud of. Much of this hard-won advancement, for example in Army-RAF co-operation, was tragically neglected, or even forgotten after 1918.

The over-worked term 'the hell of the trenches' is sure to be endlessly repeated in the next few years. Of course the soldiers' experience was sometimes hellish, but not on all sectors or all the time. A high proportion of the troops never served in the frontline, and boredom was a more pervasive experience than terror. The media has focused too obsessively on the disastrous first day of the Somme offensive as though it was the norm. In reality the Somme sector was relatively quiet in 1915 and 1917 and, what is seldom mentioned, provided the 'launch pad' for the advance to victory in 1918. Even Ypres, the more truly 'hellish sector' had its calmer periods, but now it tends to be only the final 'Passchendaele' phase in the autumn of 1917 that attracts media attention.

A recent press notice (Daily Telegraph, 23 September 2013) informs us that as well as a great variety of sports and entertainments, soldiers created allotments in the combat zone and held flower and vegetable competitions. Photos of these allotments and the actual prizes awarded will be shown at the Garden Museum of London next year. This is not meant to trivialise the awful conditions and hardships experienced by soldiers on all fronts, but we do history a great disservice if we neglect to discuss the time spend out of combat.

Furthermore, as this audience knows well, fighting 'at the sharp end' is always harsh and ultimately unbearable for the individual: in the Second World War just consider conditions in Italy and North-West Europe, not to speak of Burma with its terrible terrain and climate, and the extra ingredients of disease, extreme hardships and lack of comforts against an enemy who ignored humanitarian laws and restraints.

I hope I detect an encouraging note of moderation in the customary savage and usually ill-informed criticism of Haig and 'the generals'. Haig was not a military genius but he was an outstanding product of the British military system and at least as able as most other national commanders. He also had to cope with severe political and strategic difficulties, serving a government which did not afford him anywhere near full support. In reality Haig has often been made a scapegoat for critics who want to pillory someone (but seldom the Prime Minister) for the very heavy losses.

As for 'the generals', such easy targets in 'Oh! What a Lovely War' and 'Biackadder', we now know a great deal more about their numbers (more than 1,200 on the Western Front), careers, appointments and performance thanks to the work of John Bourne, Peter Simkins and others. This new documentation, which dispels many myths and caricatures, deserves to be more widely disseminated. Critics who pontificate about 'lions led by donkeys' should be challenged to name a dozen or more of these supposedly stubborn and stupid animals. One doubts if they could even name some of the Army Commanders.

It is appropriate that today we reflect on the tragedies, losses and suffering inseparable from all conflicts. But, as regards the First World War, we should also remember that British and Dominions' forces won (in Gary Sheffield's words) 'by far the greatest victory in our history'.

In some crucial respects the post-war benefits appeared inadequate in relation to the hopes and sacrifices but it is unhistorical to blame those who secured the victory which had seemed so far off even as late as August 1918. Allowing for all the disappointments, however, a moment's reflection should convince us that even an imperfect and transient victory was infinitely preferable to defeat.

In conclusion, then, while paying a profound tribute to the generation which suffered such heavy losses, we should also commemorate an outstanding achievement, not only by the British and Allied forces, but also by the people at home who shared many of the hardships and provided such indispensable support.

 

Professor Brian Bond 11 November 2013

 

[Editor's note: over 8.5 million servicemen and women from Britain and the - then - Empire served in the British Army during the course of Great War]

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