Saturday, 13 October 2012

Commemoration of World War One and the future understanding of our past.

In a week dominated by defence matters, both business and personal, one story caught the authors eye as particularly thought provoking. It was announced that over £50 million of public funding will be provided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War in 2014. This high profile event will include commemoration, remembrance, and a chance for every school in the country to send students to the battlefields of the Western Front in order to see first-hand ‘Flanders Fields’.
Rarely do wars have such a dramatic impact on a national psyche, but the First world War continues to occupy a place in the heart of the British consciousness which will take generations to reduce. It is sobering to contemplate that across the whole of the UK, there were fewer than 50 ‘Thankful villages’ (locations where everyone who served came back alive). Even today, as a nation we have only just seen the last veterans of the conflict pass on, and there are still plenty of people alive who were born in this time. In Government, it is often forgotten that Lord Astor, who acts as the spokesman for Defence in the House of Lords, is the grandchild of Field Marshal Haig.  Even now, almost a century on, our current links to the war remain tangible.
Humphrey has long been a ‘revisionist’ when it comes to WW1, and believes that what should be remembered as not only a violent and bloody war, also represented many of the finest feats of arms in British history. While the conventional view of the 1960s and beyond was of a war that comprised senseless slaughter, where legions of troops were thrown into battle by an uncaring General Staff, the reality is far different. Arguably WW1 represented a supreme accomplishment by the General Staff, who had to take a tiny professional army, expend it and buy time using the TA to mould a new citizen based force, which within five years became the world’s most accomplished fighting force. They did this in a backdrop of expanding the military far beyond what any would have thought possible, while adapting to technological changes at a vast rate. By the start of the One Hundred Days campaign in 1918, there is no doubt that the British Army was probably the best trained equipped and operationally effective army in the world.
This is not to diminish the slaughter or the losses felt, but it often feels that the emphasis is too greatly placed on the hellish experiences of the trenches, and not that of understanding the war, nor decision making as a whole. It is perhaps telling that the most popular public memory of WW1 comes not from primary sources, but from the comedy ‘Blackadder Goes Fourth’, clips of which to this day brighten up innumerable MOD presentations.
As a nation we have found ourselves in a position where our public understanding and concept of the war is built primarily through either secondary media, or relying on accounts of individuals fighting in the trenches. We rightly seek to learn from what has happened, and try to appreciate the horror of the surroundings, but we seem to shy away from suggesting that the war was a success. It is a victory that we are almost ashamed of, and rather than seeking to project the losses in a construct of a hugely successful General Staff and national effort to support the front, instead seek to portray the senior leadership as senseless murders. It is only in recent years, through the likes of outstanding authors such as the late Richard Holmes, and the superlative Gary Sheffield, that there has been an effort to try to even the score. Even now though, efforts to suggest that commanders such as Douglas Haig were actually outstanding leaders and officers attract national scorn, and an almost guaranteed pasting on the Today show.
The Menin Gate (Copyright Author)
 This is to be set against the explosion of interest in the war by many young people. Humphrey remembers a trip to the First World War battlefields in the 1990s when he was a student, travelling with family to trace the battlefields where his own Great Grandfather served. Paying respects at the Menin Gate was a moving experience, but one that felt small and intimate. Returning last year on a staff ride, the whole experience felt almost diminished as legions of students, tourists and staff riders came together to pay their respects. Travelling to Ypres, one sees huge numbers of students who come to learn of where their Great-Great Grandparents served.
The issue though is one of understanding the context of the war – too many student parties seem to focus on why the war started, then assume that the troops marched into trenches and stayed there for the next four years. There are tales of young, well-meaning teachers making out that due to the relative lack of officers in graveyards, there was some conspiracy against the most junior troops, when in reality junior officers proportionately speaking suffered the highest casualty rates. In other words, as a nation we fixate too much on the low level, tactical experience, and teach our people that the war was a failure, and ignore the many good things that occurred. Humphrey worries that we teach tactical history, without the strategic context to back up and understand why things happened the way that they did.
What then is the relevance to the current generation? In the authors mind there is an interesting challenge emerging over the next 10-20 years which is going to impact on our understanding of conflicts that the UK has fought in.
Firstly, there is an issue of understanding – WW1 remains a key area of interest due to the way in which it touched the lives of millions of British families. For the first time ever, the UK as a whole mobilised to fight an industrial age war where vast societal and military changes occurred. In many ways the reason why the UK has the current societal structure it does is in no small way due to the changes that occurred during WW1 (e.g. women taking on new roles in industry, opening the way to winning the vote and true equality). Today though, if one reviews the sort of wars that have been fought since 1945, there is no sign of a citizenry which has engaged with conflict in the same way. Although there have been large sustained deployments, it has only impacted a much smaller group of people who have served in the military. At best maybe some 150,000 – 200,000 TELIC Medals were awarded for service in Iraq. This is just 0.03% of the population as a whole.
As time passes, and the military becomes ever smaller, the ability for the public to engage with and understand the military experience of war will change. A future military of barely 150,000 regular personnel is going to mean that few members of the public will ever know someone in the Armed Forces. How then is it possible to build an understanding of not only the experiences that people have been through, but also understand the context in which they operated. Future generations reviewing emails or letters may not get the subtleties, or the humour or the nuances in the same way. As a nation, our ability to understand what Defence does will become more difficult to achieve over time as we have less contact with those who defend us.
The next challenge is one of building an accurate historical record which serves as testimony to the operations. We have reached with multi-media a curious situation. As the ability to meet members of the armed forces reduces, the ability to share parts of their experiences grows. One only has to look on YouTube or other social media to find ‘Helmet Cam’ footage, showing the experiences of personnel on patrol or in action. It is possible for any member of the public to view this and see what it is like to be contacted, or to dodge bullets. It can never replicate the feelings of nervousness, or the desire to want to get low and the hope that the incoming rounds don’t hit you, all of which the author has experienced. But it does show to those who haven’t been there the sense of chaos and confusion that exists when contacts are underway. In one sense this is a great step forward, as a means of showing the experiences of the military and trying to give a snapshot of what life was like in TELIC or HERRICK.
The future record of conflict? - Helmet cam shots (Copyright unknown)
But on the other hand it is only a snapshot, and over time multi-media is likely to be the only public archive of footage about the war. The problem is that the likelihood of securing a coherent narrative of records from Government is likely to reduce.
Humphrey has a guilty secret. He loves going to the National Archives to research his area of interest, which is the planning for continuity of Government in the event of WW3. He has spent many happy hours wading through thick files of paperwork, often dating back to the 1950s and showing in chilling and minute detail how the British Government intended for some measure of control to survive, even after the unthinkable happened. There is an undeniable excitement in reading files marked ‘Top Secret’ which have handwritten notes annotated by Winston Churchill or Harold MacMillan, and seeing documents unseen to the public for nearly 60 years. He has particularly huge admiration for Sir Norman Brook, who as Cabinet Secretary oversaw the planning for this most unthinkable of contingencies.
This though occurred due to the meticulous use of paper filing; anyone who has served in the civil service is doubtless familiar with the old coloured files used to put paperwork away as a legacy document. The authors’ first job as a student was to spend a summer working as an E2 filing paperwork at the local MOD site, and archiving these files. It was possible on slow days to sit and read through an entire folder of material, showing why decisions had been reached, ranging from the initial proposals and staff work, through to the finished document. One was left with an abiding sense of understanding as to how a policy was formulated, and created.
Over the last few years though, there has been a move away from the use of these files, and instead a desire to use electronic filing systems. Theoretically documents should be saved and filed as before, only in electronic areas. In reality though, changes in IT systems, constantly changing ways of storing data, and most critically differing perceptions by individuals as to what is actually worth saving.
The finest repository of information in the world - the National Archives (copyright unknown)
In the past, documents could be filed by administration staff and kept as a record for posterity. Now it is very much the place of the individual to decide whether or not a document should be kept, or uploaded. Putting a document on the wrong location could make the difference between it being shared for posterity, or only being read by one person. Similarly, the move to creating single versions of documents means that it is much harder to see information as it evolves – whereas before one could see the different drafts and understand the thought processes and views, now at best it is common to see ‘track changes’ being used, or at worst, a single ‘polished’ product available without the underpinning drafts.
While over time people will adapt to the new systems and develop a means of ensuring documents are recorded for posterity, this author cannot help but worry that many of the documents from the late 1990s to the latter part of the 2000s may have been lost or overwritten in various IT upgrades. In 30 years’ time, what documents will be released as part of the annual Public Records Office release? Is there going to be swathes of files, which set out how the UK chose to agree on a specific policy or course of action, or will the files be much sparser, and reliant on diligent, but isolated, staff officers and civil servants uploading information to become a permanent record. If the latter then there is a real possibility that our national understanding of what we have done as a nation will be weakened – no longer will historians be able to go through extensive files and see the trials and arguments between Ministers or civil servants, and understand why some decisions ended up being taken. Instead our future historical narrative is very much in the hands of people who had the time and technological understanding to save information for the future. One cannot help but wonder whether in our rush to embrace the great IT future; we may have sacrificed a great deal of our future understanding of the past.
In one hundred years’ time, what will the historical record look like for Afghanistan or Iraq? Humphrey suspects it will be taught (if it is taught) through the medium of diaries and recollections of those who have served at the front. It will be difficult to teach the policy understanding, or to set out the rationale for why some courses of action occurred, because these files may well be sketchy in some places. What impact will this have on our consciousness – although the number of deaths is mercifully small compared to previous wars, the ability to see and experience the war through multimedia is much greater than before. It is possible that the future UK understanding of Afghanistan will not come through a concise collection of factual documents and policy papers, lovingly assessed by historians, but by people watching intimate YouTube footage of very young men fighting for their lives, but without being able to understand from official records why this situation occurred.
There is no easy solution to this issue. In time people will come to embrace electronic filing and it is likely that record keeping will (hopefully!) improve. But there is always a danger that there will be something of a black hole in the records for some time. It is essential that people try to store recollections of material, both officially and unofficially. For instance, the author has followed in his Grandfathers footsteps and placed his ‘war story’ emails from his time on HERRICK with the Imperial War Museum, and been interviewed for his recollections as a young mid ranking staff officer serving in an HQ. The recollections are not particularly interesting, but they serve as a counterpoint to the immensely front line focused collection of material one often sees on the net, or published in books. In time this collection of emails will show what life was like in an HQ, although whether they are seen as a statement of fact, or a subjective account of someone being very tired, frustrated and keen to see loved ones again is not clear. In a small way, his experiences will help build our national narrative and understanding of how events and policies unfolded. Much as today, Humphrey can open a number of books by well-known authors which draw on his grandfather’s wartime accounts as a very normal Private soldier, he too hopes to see his experiences preserved for our national memory. If you as a reader know of people who have served in HERRICK, then do encourage them to talk to the Imperial War Museum. They are doing an excellent job at storing these recollections, and it is vital that all who served there, and not just those who were on the front lines, try to offer up memories, as without them our future generations ability to understand what happened there is reduced.
The future holds many challenges for the MOD, but it is vital that whatever happens, a legacy is preserved for the nation so as to set out why the UK became the nation it did. Without this understanding of the past, we run the risk of being unable to comprehend our course for the future.


  1. Thank you for this. I think you hit the record keeping nail bang on, both for operations and the business decisions. It's not necessarily quite as bleak as you paint for the latter - I know from personal experience that efforts are made at least to track major decisions making processes, such as for example the SDSR and Levene Defence Reform study, both to inform the next time round, whenever that is, and with a view to posterity. And I know that at least one top level defence body's records run back comprehensively to the end of the paper file series in about 2000. There may be others. But it will be patchy at best, especially as you say for the thinking/drafting stage.

    I also agree with you about the warped popular and political understanding of the British experience in the First World War. For me it was John Terraine who got me into this. But it has always seemed a travesty that the generals who led the British Army to the greatest victories in its history are routinely reviled for it. If you're going to fight and defeat the main enemy army in an industrial continental-scale war, then casualties in the millions will follow. The difference for the UK was that the Russians did this in the WW2. And no-one seems to remember that Haig was respected - almost revered - by many of those who served under him. The crowds at his funeral show that.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly.
      An excellent article, Humph. I do have to admit a thrill whenever I've read something previously classified as secret. :-)

  2. Interesting read.
    The WW1 commemorations will also take in the RAF's anniversary...or more the "formal formation of British military air power in action".

    However, there is somewhere you do falter;

    "In one hundred years’ time, what will the historical record look like for Afghanistan or Iraq? Humphrey suspects it will be taught (if it is taught) through the medium of diaries and recollections of those who have served at the front"

    We're not teachers, but I have discussed this with a friend who is a History teacher, I asked him similar about '50 years time' units that could be taught...undoubtedly the Iraq and Afghan wars will form a module for future generations of Britons to learn (because in many ways it has affected Britain; socially and internationally)...what you missed in your opinion was that there is a vast track of media open for teaching of it compared to WW1.

    There is also difficulty - as there is simply no time and room for all to be taught about the real WW1, to expand away from the usual feelings you sum up (Though I'd argue that the "Victory" we achieved is still something to bring distaste... WW1 was the revelation to the public as much as Crimea was to the Victorians...and should remain so...not something to be 'celebrated', more quietly acknowledged of the triumphs your eager to be widely recognized).

    Really, its something that should be included in the National Curriculum for teachers to follow - that and so few of the total of History Teachers who had degrees/were actually lectured on military history at university are usually swallowed up by the Army/Navy/RAF.

    But I still believe that there was some leadership incompetence... especially come the Somme, that "Officer class" attitude was still alive to an extent at the top, but I would argue that WW1 marked the mid point of the death of that. But also I, We, everyone, should be aware - as the first commentator said; it was an event totally new to everyone, and with war you learn by severe losses and gains, those reviled generals and staff were treading new ground and through it achieved what they did. And its that feeling for which I agree with your mood that often too much blame/focus is placed onto them. Issue is, how do we convey that beyond to the wider public? Education.

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  4. Imperial War Museum North recently had an exhibition called Diary Room which involved the war artist going out to some PBs and FOBs in Helmand and getting the lads and now lasses to write their thoughts down. Moving and funny as you'd expect from the blokes. It's closed now but I do believe he intends for it to tour.

  5. My view, worthless as it is, is that computers have pretty much killed MOD. Those computers on your desk used to be people. Now, a lot of the things you become frustrated about not being able to achieve are because you are constrained by having no people.

    The e-mails, which spread like viruses, used to require printing and posting, which in itself was an impediment to over distribution or precipitate response - or even to raising pointless correspondence in the first place. Our lives have been filled with shit we do not need to see.

    Lastly, ask yourself how much public money has been spent on Powerpoint. And then ask yourself, if you still had print acetates and OHP them to do a presentation, would there be less pointless presentations? Let alone all the branding....

    Mind you, I am a Luddite. I also have started only opening and prioritising e-mails three times a day, just like the good old days.... even had some people moan about not being included on a brief last week....

    1. I am with you on this. I was at the Home Office when email was just being introduced and the glee with which was greeted by the weaker managers was a wonder to behold. They could now copy everyone into everything spend their days reading correspondence that they didn't actually need to see rather than actually making decisions and doing their real work. It also made it so much easier to push decisions upwards (a habit Sir H. bemoaned in his last article).

      As for Powerpoint. Of all the time-wasting tom foolery that has been invented in the history of mankind that has to take the top spot. The number of presentations I have sat through while some bloody fool showed me a series of slides and at the same time read the bullet points on them to me are legion. I heard the other day that a big private corporation now has a house rule that copies of all slides are sent to people due to attend a presentation in advance. The poor buggers are now expected to read the slides, then go along and see the slides on a big screen whilst the presenter reads them. One well written report would communicate the information much more effectively and take up less time.

      When economic historians come to examine our age I think they will be able to point to the collapse of productivity and quality of decision making in our public and private sectors to the invention of the Personal Computer and that spawn of Satan Bill Gates.

  6. Oh, by the way, WW1:

    Why did we sacrifice our blood and treasure for what was an irrelevance compared to the rise of the States, which was happening anyway?

    So what if Germany had defeated the French like the Prussians had in 1871? Sometimes it is better to be an interested bystander.

    It sounds gauche, but the French and Russians did not run out of people - if we could have sold the materiel....

    1. I rather doubt it would have worked. The Russians made peace in 1917 because their Army wouldn't fight any more. The French Army collapsed in mutiny in 1917 because the poilus wouldn't fight after the Nivelles offensives (which put a lot of pressure on Haig to press hard in Flanders in order to prevent the Germans realising how bad a state the French were in).

  7. Military, political and industrial leaders in 1914 were all constrained by their upbringing and the mores of that background. One cannot judge their actions on a later date anymore than we can be certain about who killed the Princes in the Tower and why. But the evidence is dark and disturbing and the reading of it is the stuff of horror films.
    My children have found it odd that I weep on Remembrance Day, but my grandchildren do not. Indeed, they stood and wept with all their school friends at the Menin Gate whilst on a school trip. I don't care what the curriculum states that they should learn, that's bound by historians and their prejudices, but I rejoice in letting the facts speak for themselves at the Menin Gate.

  8. Coming back after a couple of days I am surprised that there are so few comments to this thoughtful and interesting article. Sir H. maybe you should have broken this one up into two or even three separate pieces.

  9. We entered the war because Asquith and Lloyd George wanted to dish the tories. Or so some author (Ferguson?) argued recently.

  10. ...very young men fighting for their lives, but without being able to understand ... why this situation occurred

    There is something timeless about this, isn't there? Do you think it would be easier for us to offer a convincing argument of the necessity of WWI, or the wars of the last decade in terms that would really satisfy an objective mind, let alone weigh in the balance against what those who did the fighting and their loved ones lost.