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