Only a few days into 2014 and the WW1 Centenary has very much been part of the news. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education began with a pronouncement that people’s misconceptions about the war had been fuelled by drama, fiction and the theatre.
“But even as we recall the loss and commemorate the bravery of those who fought, it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict. The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War!, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.”
It is that last sentence, the attempt to politicise the approach to studying the Great War, that prompted the storm which followed Gove’s remarks. Professor Gary Sheffield stated in the Independent:
“Mr Gove’s politics and mine are pretty different but the view he has put forward is right. What he was wrong about however is that there is a left-right split – there isn’t.”
And that’s the real shame behind Gove’s attempt at bringing party politics into the debate; in some respects he is right. There is a common perception of the conduct of the Great War which has been re-enforced to an extent by drama and fiction, almost all of it published since the 1960s. But that is not the debate here. Gove’s comments have proven to be a veiled attempt at teacher-bashing which was soon picked up by one of the Blackadder stars, Sir Tony Robinson:
“I think Mr Gove has just made a very silly mistake; it’s not that Blackadder teaches children the First World War.
When imaginative teachers bring it in, it’s simply another teaching tool; they probably take them over to Flanders to have a look at the sights out there, have them marching around the playground, read the poems of Wilfred Owen to them. And one of the things that they’ll do is show them Blackadder.
And I think to make this mistake, to categorise teachers who would introduce something like Blackadder as left-wing and introducing left-wing propaganda is very, very unhelpful. And I think it’s particularly unhelpful and irresponsible for a minister in charge of education.”
So has the use of Blackadder become a war crime in the classroom? There is plenty of evidence from history teachers on Twitter that they use it, but not in the way Gove suggested. Many show episodes to demonstrate in a visual way the historiography of the First World War. That for many decades there has been a popular belief that all Generals were bumbling fools like General Melchett and that men like Baldrick and Blackadder were somehow victims. They then contrast this with more modern studies from historians like Professor Sheffield and the work he has produced on Haig and the Victories on the battlefield in 1918; indeed some also contrast it with some of the fine writing about the war from those who were actually there. From this it would appear that our history students are better informed than the popular media would have us believe.
Blackadder is a comic satire. It has never pretended to be anything else and when it was first shown in the late 1980s, the handful of WW1 veterans I knew who were still alive said that they had found aspects of it funny. One, a former artillery officer, said it reminded him of a modern version of the Wipers Times. None of them ever believed it reflected the real war they fought and in years of guiding groups on battlefields I have never encountered anyone who believed the series was anything but comedy. Again this is where political commentators seem to forget that people are quite capable of making these decisions themselves.
The real tragedy here is that the portrayal of the British High Command in the drama mentioned by Gove – Blackadder, Oh! What A Lovely War and Monocled Mutineer – could have prompted a worthwhile discussion on the generalship of the conflict but instead academics like Professor Sheffield have found themselves debating the political Zeitgeist rather than the subject itself. This is not a good start to the WW1 Centenary and one hopes that politicians will get increasingly less involved in the debate, although as the 2015 election is now clearly on the cards, this may be unlikely.