Baldrick goes forth

One Christmas story I missed was a bit of a row between education minster Micheal Gove and Tony Robinson (of time team and Blackadder fame). Micheal Gove accused “left wing academics” of using programmes like Blackadder Goes Forth to “feed myths” about World War I, notably slagging off the British Generals, many of whom were of course members of the upper class. Tony Robinson has defended the Blackadder series, and questioned what the education minster was doing slagging off his own teachers.

This mini-row comes on the back of similar criticism from Jeremy Paxman (who when he’s not being an annoying arse on Newsnight or presenting University challenge is actually something of a historian who has published books on WW1) about the use of Blackadder to support history lessons in schools.

My response would be to point out that Blackadder was satire. And the best satire tends to be based on fact, but over the top exaggeration, e.g. in one scene Melchett (Stephen Fry) has a map brought out of all the territory they’ve gained (a sod of earth, scale 1:1)! Or Rick Mayall’s over the top cameo as a wolf whistling pilot. Outside of Blackadder the infamous Father Ted is another good example of satire at its best.

So teachers using Blackadder as a teaching aid sounds okay to me, so long as they make it clear to the students, that this is satire…although I’m pretty sure the students will figure that out for themselves!

And we can’t really blame “leftie academics” for a less than flattering portrayal of the generals of WW1, notably Field Marshal Haig. Even back at the time of the war or in its immediate aftermath many questioned the senseless slaughter and the generals who had sent so many to their death. Gove seems to be unfamiliar with the works of WW1 war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen, or the post war German novel, “all quiet on the western front”. Which leads one to question, why is this guy education secretary?

As for the actual history, in fairness to Haig, Foch and Ludenorff, they were facing a very difficult situation. Military history is a story of an arms race in which any new technology or tactic giving an attacker an edge (e.g. a spear or cavalry tactics) is countered by another advance to the benefit of the defender (e.g. a shield or Schiltron’s of pikemen) and visa versa. However over the latter half of the 19th century and the first few years of the 20th century, a number of new technologies (e.g. machine guns, rapid fire field mortars & field guns, barbed wire, etc.) and tactics (e.g. trench warfare) had emerged that handed a massive tactical advantage to the defender.

Thus, with the right tactics and equipment, a small force of defenders could hold off against a much larger force, even if massively outnumbered. And just to make matters worse, mass production techniques allowed vast amounts of munitions to be produced relatively quickly. Thus while the battle of Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest battles of the 19th century, led to about 8,000 being killed (out of a total casualty list of 46,000), by 1914 this level of casualties were being experienced in a single attack. In the battle of Marne for example in 1914 (before the horrors of Ypres, the Somme or Verdun) resulted in over half a million casualties.

So it would perhaps be unfair to blame these men for all the horrors of WW1. But that said they were certainly slow learners and failed to adapt quickly enough. I mean how many times do you need to march men into machine gun fire before you figure out that’s it’s a really bad idea!

WW1 for example, wasn’t the first outing for the machine gun. They had been used here and there since the American civil war inflicting terrible casualties…at least when they worked! (early such guns were expensive and unreliable). However during the British campaign in Sudan (of which Haig was involved in), machine guns were very effectively used to defend against the mass infantry and cavalry attacks of the Mahdi.

Unfortunately, the British never paused to think what would happen if they were the ones attacking the army with the machine guns! And the Russia-Japan war of 1905 had demonstrated the equally lethal nature of recent advances in field artillery and naval gunnery. And trench warfare wasn’t anything new, it had played a key role in the American civil war 50 years prior to WW1.

Thus the generals failed to learn the lessons of these conflicts, nor develop any form of countermeasures against them, until they were bogged down in trench warfare.

In another example, in 1917 General Byng and a number of other officers put forward an innovate plan to attack the Germans at Cambrai. Their plan, based on past experiments (both by the French and British), envisioned using tanks en-mass over a relatively small front. Supported by infantry, they would advance behind a creeping barrage aided by air support from fighters. In essence what was being toyed with was what we would later come to describe as “blitzkrieg” twenty years later.

However Haig, and many other officers, initially opposed the plan. Although Haig did eventually give his grudging approval, after the plan was re-branded as “tanks supporting infantry” rather than “infantry supporting tanks”, he failed to provide sufficient reserves to exploit any breakthrough at Cambrai. Consequently even though the attack pushed deeper into German lines than any attack had previously, the British lacked the manpower to consolidate these gains. The Germans quickly counter-attacked and retook nearly all the territory gained.

And in another example, the German’s successful counter-attack at Cambrai was based in no small part to their “stormtrooper” tactics which they had being toying with for the best part of three years. The British were aware of this but again Haig and others resisted any British attempts to copy these tactics. Probably because one of the key elements of such tactics is the delegation of battlefield control down to officers on the front line (as only a commander on the front itself can make the sort of minute by minute adjustments and decisions to allow such tactics to succeed). One has to wonder whether the resistance of Haig to such tactics was borne out of military logic…or an unwillingness to find himself up to his knees in the mud and exposed to daily hostile fire, like the rest of the British army.

It was only after the German’s last mass offensive in 1918 and near victory, that the British began adopting these tactics.

So while Paxman do perhaps have a point here, it’s also fair to say that such criticisms of the ruling classes and their shortcomings during World War 1 are not anything new, and predate the show Blackadder by many decades. Nevermind criticism that could be levelled at the aristocracy in the lead up to WW1.

i.e. Everyone does know that the British Royal family still called themselves “the house of Sax-Coburg, Gotha” up until 1917…when it occurred to them that being German, sort of didn’t quite fit in with the whole Daily Mail-esque propaganda of the time (fight for king and country against the Kaiser and his huns…on behalf of another German king!).

And as Robert Newman points out in his “alternative” history of the world’s oil use, the idea that World War 1 started because some upper class Fleisch-klop got himself shot in Sarajevo, isn’t entirely satisfying. Nobody is that popular! A more realistic explanation was that World War 1 was just another front in the massive chess game that the aristocracy of Europe we’re playing with one another.

But before Gove starts attacking teachers or “leftie academics” it might be useful for him to read a few history books!


3 thoughts on “Baldrick goes forth

  1. i’m sure ww1 commemeration will also be used by tories as their misplaced rational reason for scotland not to be an independent nation also.

    it is sad there have been so many wars since ww1 and ww2 and we should be discussing why this happened and how to avoid it in the future… although that would be a leftie view too i suppose acc. to some


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