World War One and film

Appended is a PowerPoint presentation exploring how movies have sometimes both refleced and fed some myths about the Great War, the “war to end all wars”.

The cause of peace is not helped by bad history. This applies especially to World War One. A crop of anniversaries is reviving interest in the events of 1914-1918 and any ‘lessons’ it might teach.  Care must be taken to avoid the crude stereotypes that circulate about it.

One obvious danger is historical anachronism, projecting back onto the Great War period, not least the political leaders and generals of the time, knowledge and values of the here and now that were not current then. The realities of the war took nearly everyone by surprise at the time and few knew how to respond strategically or tactically. Most things worked out very differently to what key decision-makers intended. There was much miscalculation about the responses others might make. A lot of writing on the Great War makes insufficient allowance for accident and contingency, relying too much on overly deterministic theories about the inevitability of imperialist war.

But we cannot duck the difficult issues of what to do when faced with a brutal and expansionist power as Imperial Germany certainly was. German war crimes in Belgium were not myth while Austria committed terrible atrocities in Serbia, though, for some reason, these are usually overlooked. German ‘scorched earth’ policy during the retreat to the Hindenburg Line was also extraordinarily destructive.

Britain in particular was faced with terrible choices, not least hostile occupation of Belgium and German seizure of large (and economically vital) chunks of France. It is wrong to simplify the options available. It seemed that victory on the western front was the only way forward (the Dardanelles option had proved a disaster) and that defensive operations would leave Germany sitting on her conquests.

Ultimately, of course, it was the sea blockade that broke that back of Germany and Austria on the home front, though it must be said that death by starvation is not much better than death in battle. Indeed, by winter 1917 there were mass strikes in Germany due to the effects of the blockade. But there was not obvious at the time that the blockage alone would suffice. So land campaigns continued.

In a narrow sense the war was not ‘futile’ since the allied side, leaving aside its motivations and goals, scored a resounding victory. Thus in the seocnd half of 1918  the German army suffered a crushing defeat, a reality later shrouded in the self-serving mythology of the ‘stab-in-the-back’ spread by the Nazis and other reactionary forces. Similarly the Versailles Peace Treaty was not especially punitive as such settlements go, though it fatefully failed to translate the big talk about self-determination into consistent practice. In doing so, it created a whole series of powder kegs waiting to explode.

Contrary to another common stereotype, the death rate at the front, though certainly terrible, was no worse than in most wars (it is camouflaged in World War 2 by the far higher % of non-combat troops – that war was sometimes far more lethal than WW1 for those at the ‘cutting edge’). Indeed, the most lethal of all wars were (in comparative population terms) in the hunter-gatherer societies, as Steven Pinker and others have shown, though much of the killing took place not in big battles but in murderous raids and ambushes.

Things must be put in proper perspective. It is not surprising that the first day of the 1916 Somme offensive gets so much attention. Yet the ‘frontier’ battles of autumn 1914 were more lethal while the death rate in 1918 was higher than in 1916, something commonly ignored.

Another stereotype is ‘lions led by donkeys’. A handful of British generals were incompetent, most were average and some were brilliant. It is remarkable than, within two years of the Somme disaster, British generals had fashioned a war-winning machine. Germany was decisively defeated. That could not have been done by ‘donkeys’.

Furthermore, the Somme campaign did break the German army. It never really recovered and only fought on because of the influx of troops released by the Bolshevik withdrawal from the war.  Meanwhile, most British prisoners apparently thought that Britain had won the battle, according to German source material.

Interestingly in the dark days of early 1918, despite all the war-weariness, recruitment and industrial production went up in Britain while the strike rate went down. It might also be remembered that it was the working class poor who most benefited from the war. Many were actually not fit enough to fight but they were able to get what for them were really well paid jobs in the munitions factories. There was, at the same time, strong oppostion in some quarters to the whole war drive, though at time it was intertwined with other issues such as the ‘dilution’ of skilled labour and high rents. In other words there was more diversity of experience and opinion that is sometimes recognised in broad brush pictures of the ‘working class’ or the ‘labour movement’.

In terms of the fighting  itself, the key problem for the generals was lack of direct communication with the front line and their unfamiliarity with new technologies such as the tank and the aeroplane. The high death rate amongst senior officers undermines the stereotype of armchair generals sipping wine back at the chateau and callously sacrificing their troops. The average life expectancy of a British lieutenant was in fact around 6 weeks, far shorter than that of any other social group (most of these officers were ex-public school boys). In any case, other armies had far more ‘donkeys’. Look at the ‘kindermord’ at Ypres in 1914. However few ‘excelled’ the disastrous Italian campaigns on the Isonzo front. Yet a lot of ‘pop’ history seems to slag off only British generals (‘Oh What a Lovely War’, etc)

It might also be remembered that pro-war poetry quantitatively exceeded that from anti-war poets (Owen etc). Indeed such famous critics of the war as Owen and Sassoon voluntarily went back to the front, the latter well known for his enthusiasm for killing Germans (“mad Jack” was his nickname). Censored letters overwhelmingly reveal an attitude of ‘we’ve got to see it through’. Deep disllusionment really spread when hopes for the post-war period turned to dust.

In terms of films themselves, pro-war ones, and not just straight propaganda products, outnumber anti-war ones, most of which came later when the disappointments and frustrations of the 1920s decisively turned opinion against the war (futile sacrifice etc.). Until then, now reviled figures such as General Haig had actually been very popular public figures. There are plenty of other stereotypes e.g. the ones in the film ‘Gallipoli’ which ignores the role of UK troops and treats ANZAC soldiers as the same (New Zealander soldiers were quite different to Australian ones).

Similarly the ‘German’ army was very diverse. Allied troops were keenly aware that units from some parts of the then comparatively new Germany were far less combative than others. The Italian army was so diverse that many soldiers went to their deaths not knowing what orders had just been given such were the language barriers within ‘Italy’.

Overall, we need to avoid the crude (if very funny) stereotypes of, say, ‘Blackadder’.

The real lessons of WW1 are

  1. do not create tinder boxes,
  2. do not throw around matches and
  3. build institutions for conflict-resolution and peace-building

It might also be argued that though ‘Balkanisation’ has its risks and that small wars can be very vicious, it is the existence of big political units that really threatens the common good whern they start threatening each other. It is not so much that small is inevitably beautiful but, rather, than big will be a lot worse when it turns ugly.

WW1 in film


Ten tips for talks

Activists frequently get invitation to deliver talks. With a bit of forethought, it can go really well and take Green ideas to new audiences. So here are some ground rules.

First check and recheck when and especially where the event is to take place. For example, I’ve had letters giving the address of a college’s main site but the contact person forgot to point out the actual room was at another annexe. It does not help to arrive feeling flustered: far better to be too early than late.

Second, do not make apologies. It sells yourself short. If something goes wrong, do not blame yourself or anyone else. Make a joke of it. But beware humour, however. It can backfire. Certainly don’t be too intense. On the other hand, do not trivialise important matters by being too jokey. Your audience may just think you are a fool.

Third, do not rely on technology. I do use Powerpoint but I never depend on it. Promises that there will be a projector ready may not necessarily produce the equipment on the day. Sometimes it is indeed there but it has not set up properly. You could always ask beforehand whether a technician will be setting up a projector and screen. I often take an extension cable. The lead provided may not allow for the projector to be sited in a position to create a big enough image. Beware Mac-PC incompatibilities. Also check whether there are dark curtains. I’ve had everything provided as requested but found myself in a room filled with bright sunshine, thereby making it impossible to see the images properly.

In any case, remember Murphy’s Law and be prepared to just rely on your good self.Tools such as Powerpoint can become a bore. But, if nothing else, they help to direct the attention of the audience away from you. If used carefully, they can powerfully reinforce what you are saying. A search around websites such as Slideshare ( might provide some inspiration as well as some indication of what does not work. Really prune what you prepare and run through the show a number of times so you are really familiar with the running order. Don’t go overboard with fancy backgrounds, boxes and other effects. They become tedious very quickly: be sparing

Fourth, always stand and frequently change position. Speak clearly and loud enough so the most distant person can hear you. Beware little things like trailing cables. Youngsters in particular will really enjoy watching you trip up and drop things.

Fifth, challenge people playing with mobile phones or chatting to neighbours. By just going silent and waiting, whilst looking straight at the ‘offender’, you can usually restore due attention. If not, don’t get too heavy but point out that you’ve bothered to prepare the session and so it is only fair that they join in.

Sixth, in the case of schools and colleges, don’t assume that every teacher will help you out with classroom management. I’ve had some teachers just lounge around at the back, (understandably!) enjoying a free lesson. But you could try to involve star members by asking them directly what they think at certain points. Their students will probably like that.

Seventh, It is usually best to start with a ‘bang’, perhaps some controversial statement or a startling statistic. Think of your presentation as a narrative, just like a joke. It needs a punch line (perhaps a suggestion what people might do next if they agree with you). But you’ve got to build to that finale via clear signposts and with sufficient internal evidence and argument to validate your conclusion.

Every now and again, summarise what you’ve said. Do not give them the whole plot however. Saying that you’ve got 10 points to cover might encourage the audience to start thinking at, say, point 3, “oh no, another seven to go!”. Cue cards, with your main points in a big typeface, will help you keep on track. There is nothing wrong with reading out a set of difficult statistics but, as much as you can, look at all sections off your audience (not just one or two people), not at your notes.

End on a high note. At the very least, make it clear that you’ve finished. Summarise what’ve said and invite comments.

Eight, If things are flagging, pose a question and ask for a show of hands to test opinion. You can even ask members of the audience at any point to say why they agree or disagree with what you’ve just said. But do not get distracted from the thread of what you want to say. If you do forget what comes next, have a drink from a glass of water or blow your nose in tower yo buy yourself time to gather your thoughts. You are in charge of the show but be flexible rather than stick to the script, come what may. The aim is to win support, not unnecessarily alienate potential sympathisers.

Ninth, if being properly introduced by the event organiser, take that as an opportunity to assess your audience. You may get some clues about who might need watching. You can quickly spot cliques. If people are all sitting in a back row, you must ask them to come to the front. Do it pleasantly, just saying that you want them to be able to join in or “do me a favour and…” Most members of an audience are, deep down, cooperative and would prefer the event to be a success than a flop.

But often there may be silence when you finish. People can be reluctant to speak out. Do not assume you’ll get a flood of questions and comments. Be prepared to direct questions to certain members of the audience who look as if, when prompted, might say something. Try to finish the whole event on a high note, if only an expression of thanks for listening.

Finally, remember that you are a fresh face. You possess a certain curiosity value. You are a break from routine. So some things are already on your side. You may even be pleasantly surprised. A couple of years ago I was invited to lead an assembly of an entire primary school (5-11) on the subject of climate change. After I’d shown a picture of a car exhaust and said something about “bad gases” that they emit (a very technical talk!), I asked if anyone could guess what the next slide would show. Seven youngsters put their hands up and said “a cow”. My next slide was indeed a picture of a cow with, seemingly, fire belching forth from its posterior.

When that kind of thing happens, be sure to give due praise. But do not be afraid to say that you disagree if members of the audience say demonstrably false things. Otherwise there is not much point doing the talk. We want support but not at the price of selling short our ideas.

Ridley wrong on GMOs

There is a good essay here refuting one of the more vociferous and public advocates of GMOs, Viscount Matt Ridley, the self-styled ‘rational optimist’ whose wealth rests on ruinous open cast coal mining and who also helped to bring about the Northern Rock financial fisaco.


So far so good-Matt Ridley


Backing urban wildlife in Bristol

This was featured on BBC 2’s ‘Springwatch’ (broadcast June 16, 2016) and very welcome it was too:

Together we can create a nature-rich city that puts wildlife right on our doorsteps, giving everyone the opportunity to experience the joy of wildlife every day. My Wild City’s vision is for anyone living and working in the Greater Bristol area to help…

EU and big business

The EU’s benefits have to be measured against the influence of big business on its decision-making. Still we can best challenge the sway of corporate empires over the EU by working with others inside the EU, not by setting up some Little England Inc., where their stranglehold would probably ber even greater.

For examples of corporate influence, see:

The lessons of Philip Green and BHS

Phrases such as ‘greedy parasite’, ‘bloated plutocrat’ and ‘psychotic greedhead’ can be the stuff of cheap political rhetoric but they are the only way to describe the likes of Philip Green, as Owen Jones compellingly shows in today’s ‘Guardian’:

The problem with the politics of Jones and his co-thinkers is that blaming the rich (or for that matter, ‘capitalist system’) is simply not good enough. The biggest driver of today’s multiple and growing crises lies in mass culture, the lifestyles ‘enjoyed’ or sought by the majority of people, not just the super-rich. Beneath the individualism and materialism that run through all levels of society, not just its elites, lies the anthropocentrism that ultimately is the biggest ill of all.
Without the development of an Earth-centred ethic, more ‘efficient’ technology, ‘better’ management and ‘smart’ planning will not contribute to the long-term common good of all. Indeed they might only oil the wheels of destruction.
Furthermore, the combined impact of all consumption choices and preferences, both of rich, poor and in global terms, the growing ‘middle class’ (, is multiplied by the sheer number of consumers. But, for people such as Jones, that remains the elephant in the room.
Instead, they only see things in terms of redistribution. Yet it does not reduce the size of the total ecological footprint down to sustainable levels. It only shifts the ‘weight’ around. Philip Green’s luxury yacht, spotlighted by Jones, clocks up the same ecological costs as public ferry. The Earth only ‘experiences’ the impacts of production and consumption. It does not distinguish between, say, private greed and public utility.
Such matters notwithstanding, Owen Jones is all too right to call for Philip Green and his ilk to be brought to justice.

2016: May 30 – rally at Druridge Bay

At today’s protest at Druridge Bay the main speaker was Bill Oddie of BBC ‘Springwatch’ fame and of course from the ‘Goodies’ comedy series of many years ago. He is pictured in the middle. He made a very good speech arguing that the land targeted by Banks for open cast coal mining should instead to be used to link up the various nature reserves on the Bay to create one big protected area (a bit like the North Norfolk coast). Basically one landowner is selling out to Banks when it should be acquired for the sustainable common good.
Andrew Cooper (on the right) from the Yorkshire and Humberside region of the Green Party also spoke from the platform. He pointed out that a proper national planning policy framework would make it impossible for such ruinous applications even to come forward.
On the left is NE Green Party regional organiser Shirley Ford and next to her is Dave Herbert, a very knowledgeable campaigner in the field of fossil fuels. Shirley made a speech that drew attention to another threat, that from offshore underground coal gasification.
Bill Oddie has a reputation for being somewhat grumpy. To be fair, he let lots of people have their photographs taken with him. It must be a bit tedious but he did in in good spirit, though not always smiling.
From left: Shirley Ford, David Herbert. Bill Oddie, me and Andrew Cooper