Tourists planning to visit the battlefields of World War I for the upcoming centenary probably have their own idea of what that war was like. The conventional image is of mud and trenches, and generals sending men to die in waves. Some would even characterize those generals as lazy or clueless.
That's the sort of image presented in the 1989 BBC comedy series, "Blackadder Goes Forth." But it seems the British government is unhappy with that image and is even calling it a myth.
In fact, Britain's Education Secretary Michael Gove has gone so far as to tell teachers to stop using Blackadder as a teaching aide. Apparently, it's very popular with teachers of British high school-age students. Some use it without any follow-up discussion of the show's merits and faults.
"Blackadder" follows the adventures, in different time periods, of an acerbic gentleman, called Blackadder, played by Rowan Atkinson of "Mr Bean" fame. He's assisted by a servant called Baldrick, played by Tony Robinson, who is always keen to suggest "a cunning plan" to get out of whatever scrape they get into. Robinson just received a knighthood from the Queen for his "services to history." Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry also play supporting roles.
The final series is set in the trenches of the Western Front in World War I and follows Blackadder's attempts to cope with the horrendous conditions, and to avoid being sent "over the top" in the next "big push." He's a professional soldier whose military experience before the war consisted in fighting natives who, the story says, were only two feet tall and armed with sharpened mangoes.
The show has long annoyed professional historians. Stephen Badsey said the series "consciously traded on every cliche and mis-remembered piece of history about the Western Front." Richard Holmes wrote in his book The Western Front that "a well turned line of script can sometimes carry more weight than all the scholarly footnotes in the world." (Coincidentally, Holmes was my first commanding officer in the British Territorial Army.)
Several modern historians have attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of British generals in World War I. But they haven't been able to dent the "lions led by donkeys" image that pervades British memory. And it's not hard to see why.
Maybe as many as a million soldiers died on behalf of the British Empire, most of them on the Western Front in France and Belgium. Two million more were wounded. And that's just the Brits. After a couple of months of mobile operations in 1914, the Western Front became stalemated and a system of trenches scarred the landscape all the way from neutral Switzerland to the North Sea. The stalemate lasted more than three years.
One of the facts that Blackadder exploits is the constant failure of attacks. Defensive technology was stronger than offensive technology at this time in history. Barbed wire was used to slow attackers or channel them into killing zones, where machine guns and trench-mortars would cut the men down with scientific precision.
This happened to one my relatives at Loos in 1915, where his battalion lost 300 men — more than one-third of its strength — in just 30 minutes. (My relative survived that and the rest of the war with only a couple of minor wounds). Massed artillery could obliterate reserves moving up. And if you broke through the enemy's first line, you then had to face their second and third lines.
The generals would not accept failure and persisted in attacks, sometimes for months. Battles could consume hundreds of thousands of lives, with no gain. With no movement, there was a perpetual problem with corpses that nobody would or could bury. Since the 1920s, poems and books have highlighted the astonishing horror and futility of some of these battles.
Another feature of the war exploited by Blackadder was the apparent lack of awareness by the generals of conditions at the front. One popular quote came from a British staff officer sent to find out why an attack in Flanders had gotten nowhere in the fall of 1917. Autumn rains had turned the plains of Flanders into a waist-deep swamp. Wounded men drowned, if left unattended. The staff officer famously asked, "We sent men to fight in this?"
In Blackadder, the general is shown to be directing the war from the comfort of a French chateau, 35 milies behind the lines. There is some truth to this, but it's also true in any modern war. On the other hand, plenty of senior officers were killed and wounded at or near the front.
Some historians excuse the generals for not knowing any better; they argue that technology had revolutionized warfare since the last major war in Europe. But to me, this seems disingenuous. A study of British infantry tactics before the war shows an excellent understanding of the need for dispersal, and the advantages of fire and maneuver — where one squad moves with covering fire from others.
The Brits had learned hard lessons at the hands of the Boers, or white South Africans, in the Boer War (1899-1902). However, this manual was deliberately discarded when Britain mobilized massive new armies of civilian volunteers. The volunteers were deemed incapable of learning such sophisticated tactics, and it was assumed they would lack the discipline to keep moving once dispersed.
Instead, the new armies were ordered to "walk" across no-man's land, shoulder-to-shoulder, when first launched into action at the Battle of The Somme river on July 1, 1916. The results were predictable: some 50,000 to 60,000 men became casualties out of an attacking force of about 140,000. Gains were minimal.
And that was only the first day. The British commanders reinforced failure rather than exploit the few areas of success, so that the succeeding months of the attack yielded only meager results.
This kind of futile action has led some to assume that the high commands were simply fighting a war of attrition. There were three allied soldiers fighting every two Germans and their allies. Eventually, the Germans would run out of men. This particular criticism does seem to be a myth, as there is no documentation of this at the highest levels. Even so, some generals did talk like this.
The rehabilitation of the generals highlights the efforts they made to adapt and learn from mistakes. Artillery support became more sophisticated. Infantry tactics again called for dispersal, by the last year of the war. Tanks were invented and used to break the stalemate. The generals learned to exploit success rather than reinforce failure.
In the last year of the war, 1918, both sides were able to make rapid gains. But in the end, it was the numbers game that led to Germany's defeat. America came in on the side of the allies and, in 1918, made a decisive contribution to the war effort. Interestingly, British and French officers criticized the American high command for making many of the same tactical mistakes they had made earlier in the war, and suffering many unnecessary casualties as a result.
Another popular criticism of the war was that the cost was disproportionate to the stakes involved. Most of the major powers entered the war with fairly limited goals. It was never a genuine existential war for survival, except for the smallest players like Serbia. That led to an inflation of rhetoric and propaganda on all sides. It became "the war to end all wars."
Of course, it didn't. In fact, harsh peace terms persuaded enough Germans to support Adolf Hitler's attempt to achieve real domination of Europe just a few years later.
Overall, for me, Blackadder Goes Forth contains enough grains of truth to be credible, even if some of it is exaggerated. Much of the fighting — especially on the British side — was futile, unnecessary and badly managed.
My favorite story from World War I is one I stumbled across in "The Last of the Doughboys" by Richard Rubin, a book containing the stories of many American veterans, like Anthony Pierro:
"On the morning of November 11, 1918, Anthony Pierro was guarding German prisoners in the Argonne Forest — 'a whole bunch of them. We had them all fenced in' — when a messenger brought the news: The war was over. 'Everybody was dancing,' Mr Pierro recalled. 'Hurray!' And then: 'Who won? Who won?'"