Debunking the debunking of myths about the First World War

We are now in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War. No doubt some events will be incorporated into the ongoing commemorations, while others will be forgotten despite their seeming relevance at the time, like the trial of Madame Cailloux that enthralled the public in July 1914 just as the crisis in the Balkans unfolded. Memory – the combination of history that is remembered and forgotten – is hard to distinguish from history for non-historians. This is precisely why, as we've discussed before, it's important that the memory of the war be reasonably and clearly debated in the public forum. Though we might accept that the government has some license to instil a patriotic narrative about the war, it's equally vital that this narrative not overpower some of the basic historical facts put forward by historians. Outing “myths” about the war is especially useful for remembering what happened one hundred years ago and what has been forgotten.

The BBC article by Dan Snow published last week is not a step in the right direction. Snow offers a serial list of “10 big myths about World War One” and debunks them. The enumerated style presents itself as a serious effort to correct “myths” about the war, but in its presentation suffers from an over-simplification, and even conflation, of facts and myths.

Some myths seem to offer a platform for Snow to write some interesting detail or get to a large round number for the headline. The first myth, that the Great War was the “bloodiest war in history to that point,” is not one we have ever heard. “One of the bloodiest” is a more common turn of phrase. The second, that “most soldiers died,” is justified with an absurd statistic that a British soldier was more likely to die during the Crimean War than the First World War. Surely the likelihood of the average conscripted Briton dying is a more important number. Though we are more familiar with the Canadian side of myth-making, neither of these “myths” are prevalent. While Snow might be refuting a general public perception about the war's lethality, the absence of knowledge about the war is not the same as the affirmation of a myth as fact. His fourth myth, “the upper class got off lightly,” might be better phrased as “the common man got the sharp end,” and again, we have not heard any myths about the aristocratic officer corps avoiding casualties. His final myth, that “everyone hated it,” is probably the most ridiculous. Snow offers a meagre correction that some enjoyed it. Adjusting it to “the majority of soldiers hated it but some liked it” seems of little importance. Snow would be hard-pressed to find soldiers who enjoyed their time in the trenches. Censorship meant that most positive letters are somewhat suspect: few soldiers were allowed to write about the terrible circumstances of trench warfare.

Another selection of Snow's listing simplifies complex historical ideas – less offensive to historians but worrisome nonetheless. His third myth, that men lived in the trenches for years on end, is worth correcting. Unfortunately, his correction is not accurate either. Soldiers did not necessarily follow the rotation cycle of 10 days in trenches a month and being out of line for a month at a time that he outlines. His fifth point about incompetent British Generals is correct, as there was much innovation on and off the battlefield, but that does not absolve British commanders of failure. There is still intense historical debate over the quality of top British General Douglas Haig, but we accept J.P. Harris' convincing portrait of a man deluded enough to believe a cavalry charge would break the trench lines even into the final years of the conflict. Even the most successful generals like Canadian Arthur Currie were forced to confront increasingly bloody casualties. Their “success” is often dependant on throwing out one of the most common measures of success for war: the number of casualties incurred. It's easy to say generals were successful when you change the yardstick for measuring successful operations. The dichotomy of these two “myths” is problematic. Many regiments had different trench rotations, just as some generals were incompetent and others were not. It is not a case of one notion being wrong and the other right, but rather examples of both.

Snow is closer to accuracy on other points. Number Six, that Gallipoli was fought by Australians and New Zealanders, is most certainly not true, though might skirt closer to public perception rather than a myth again. Snow also fails to mention that Newfoundlanders were at Gallipoli as well, though in a BBC article this is perhaps an easy omission. Myth Seven about the unchanging nature of tactics of the Western Front “despite repeated failure” has been convincingly disproved by historians for decades. But his claim that “huge artillery pieces fired with pinpoint accuracy” simply slips in another stubborn falsehood about artillery fire that is still mythological even today. Operational researchers from the Second World War proved that artillery fire was often completely inaccurate – so the First World War gunners were unlikely to have been hitting targets on the first shot as Snow claims. Implied but unmentioned is the greatest tactical innovation of the war: the combination of aerial, armoured and infantry warfare. While the Allies pioneered the war of the air and the tank, the success of the German stormtroopers during Operation Michael in the spring of 1918 (and coming close to winning the war for Germany) was copied with stunning results during the last Hundred Days that ultimately ended it in the Allies' favour.

The eighth point, that “no-one won,” is perhaps the strongest refutation of the whole piece. That the German Army was decisively beaten on the battlefield and close to utter collapse in October and November 1918 is clear. Any suggestion to the contrary hints at the atrocious “stab-in-the-back” myth of the 1920s and 30s that helped convince Germans to support Adolf Hitler's twisted brand of nationalism. The German government may have signed the peace, but it’s beyond doubt that its army had lost the war. Like Snow writes, this false belief sadly led the Nazis to continue fighting to the very end of the Second World War in 1945 and the Allies, heedful of the lingering memory of 1918, had to keep fighting to the bitter end as well. Many more people died as a result.

Such a detailed criticism of a piece clearly meant for a general audience might be pedantic. Yet as we have written in this very forum, historians have some obligation to be involved in the public discussion of history. Often this takes the form of correction, so it's all the more irritating when an article tries to correct incorrectly. Perhaps the most grievous part of Snow's list is that he so obviously wrote the piece for a general audience. Phrases like, “steel-helmeted combat teams dashed forward protected by a curtain of artillery shells” or “You may witness unimaginable horrors that leave you mentally and physically incapacitated for life, or you might get away without a scrape. It could be the best of times, or the worst of times” evoke a neutral or at least unambiguous memory of the war. Myths are problematic not only because they simplify complex events, but because they conflate interpretation of history with the fact of history.  So even as Snow introduces his piece with the admonishment that “we are blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1 but war in general” through these myths, his dichotomous true/false list paints a simplified picture of the war that belies its atrociousness. The war was not a simple event, neither for those who survived it nor those who remember it.