WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed

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New WW1 Books From Pen & Sword

A round-up of some current WW1 books from military publishers Pen & Sword.

Breaking The Fortress Line 1914 by Clayton Donnell (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-84884-813-9, 225pp, Illustrated, £19.99)

For many British readers the Great War started at Mons on 23rd August 1914, but in fact the fighting started many weeks before as the German Schlieffen Plan took the conflict into Eastern France and Belgium. Both Belgium and France had invested heavily in fortifications before 1914 and these were considered state of the art and almost impregnable. German tactics and weaponry would prove otherwise and this new book looks at the battles for the forts in some details from the attack on the defences around Liege in the opening moves right up to the attack on Antwerp, which involved British troops from the Royal Naval Division in October 1914. A well written  and detailed account, illustrated with some superb photographs and good maps. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.

Public Schools And The Great War by Anthony Seldon & David Walsh (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-78159-308-0,317pp, Illustrated, £25.00)

Recent newspaper articles and documentaries have focussed on what a catastrophe the Great War was for the middle and upper classes and this book looks in detail at how British public schools were affected by the events of the war and also the terrible scale of losses among old boys. It also looks at the service and death of schoolmasters, often forgotten among the long lists of old boys who died, and examines the question of the ‘Lost Generation’. A good contribution to our knowledge of this important aspect of Great War history. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.

Teenage Tommy by Richard Van Emden (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-78303-278-7, 178pp, Illustrated, £19.99)

Richard Van Emden is one of our best oral historians having interviewed hundreds of Great War veterans and incorporated their memoirs into many of his excellent publications. This is a reprint of a book from 1996 but a most welcome one as it chronicles the story of Ben Clouting who was a young soldier in the 4th Dragoon Guards and fought in the campaign of 1914. This is a very engaging account of an important period of the Great War and one of the few ordinary soldiers voices from the ranks of a cavalry regiment. Highly recommended and essential reading for any student of WW1. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.

Artillery In The Great War by Paul Strong & Sanders Marble (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-78303-012-5, 246pp, paperback £12.99)

Artillery was the kind and queen of the battlefield throughout the Great War. Most soldiers killed and wounded during the war were not shot down by machine-guns or killed with bayonets, but fell to shell fire which swept across the WW1 battlefields in ever increasing amounts by 1918. This excellent study of the use of artillery in the First World War takes a chronological approach and examines not just British artillery doctrine and weaponry, but of all the major combatant nations. It is fully referenced throughout and while not being an ‘easy’ read is recommended reading for anyone with a serious interest in the conduct of the Great War. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.




WW1 Centenary Battlefield Trek by Mark Banning


The Royal Star & Garter Battlefield Trek

Guest WW1 Centenary Blog Post by Battlefield Guide Mark Banning

The Royal Star & Garter Homes provide excellent nursing and care within a friendly, supportive environment for those who have served their country in the Armed Forces but now need specialist nursing care.

They understand that having hope and purpose in life is important to everyone, so they do their utmost to enable the people who choose to live with them to be as independent as possible and live life to the full. With this in mind, everyone who lives in their homes enjoys superb facilities, brilliant therapeutic care as well access to an extensive programme of activities and outings.


They recognise that the nation owes a great debt to veterans and their families, and they pride themselves in providing the level of care, friendship and respect they deserve. They also encourage and maintain strong military links because they know this is incredibly important to many within the ex-Service community.

To this end, and to commemorate the Centenary of the Great War, the Royal Star & Garter Home are organising a Trek around some of the most evocative parts of the Ypres Salient, the Sacred Ground of the British and Commonwealth Forces from 1914, during four long years of slog, hardship, endurance and sacrifice. Monies raised from your sponsorship will go towards providing the care that is need for these veterans.

Numbers for the Trek are limited to 20 people, with guides on hand to explain the events that occurred at key points on each day’s walk.

This is an ideal opportunity to give something back to those who served and to experience parts of the most iconic battlefields of the Great War through sponsorship of your walk.

Further details, including how to sign up for this Trek can be found via the website: www.starandgarter.org


WW1 Centenary: Blackadder A War Crime?


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.


2014: Dawn of the Great War Centenary


As we pass into the New Year, 2014 brings with it the approach of the Great War Centenary. While it will not be until the summer before the actual anniversary of the start of the First World War begins, books are already appearing and the planned television coverage for the centenary starts this month with some of the first BBC material being aired, including Jeremy Paxman’s flagship four-part series about Britain in WW1.

Discussion on how the centenary should be interpreted began last year but the announcement of a commemorative coin from the Royal Mint, showing a rather ugly depiction of Lord Kitchener – no doubt inspired by the famous recruiting poster – kicked off a bit of a Twitter storm as to whether Kitchener was an appropriate figure to feature; was he too ‘martial’ a symbol? Some forget that Kitchener died in the war and was in the fact the most senior ranking soldier to die between 1914 and 1918; he is as much part of the ‘glorious dead’ as any other casualty. More debate followed with Michael Gove’s statement that “Left wing myths peddled by left wing historians and comedies like Blackadder belittle Britain and clear Germany of blame.” Already politicians are beginning to use the Centenary to push their own political agendas and one wonders how much this will increase as the 2015 looms closer.

For many the politicisation of the Great War Centenary and the issue of cheap souvenirs only confirms what they believe: that 2014-2018 could be as much of a disaster for those interested in WW1, as a blessing. I have some sympathy with this view but the web, Twitter and other aspects of social media are a way to redress this.However, it will require some action. Those who have studied the Great War long before it became fashionable, those who have moved the knowledge beyond Alan Clark, and those few who interviewed WW1 veterans have the perfect time to share that knowledge with a wider audience, who will be keen to see genuinely new material and hear new ideas as the centenary unfolds. It isn’t enough to sit there and moan. It is about engagement: realise that a subject no-one cared about when I first went to the Somme more than thirty years ago is now almost mainstream and use that – so a wider tale can be told than just the pronouncements of a few politicians and authors of fiction. The Great War Centenary is our challenge, and I hope that many will rise to it: evidence from the Blogosphere and projects like Lives of WW1 seem to demonstrate that this has already begun.



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Forgotten Heroes: North Africans in the Great War

A new website has been launched to highlight the role of North Africans in the Great War. Men from every part of North Africa fought in the conflict either in units of the British or French Armies. Among them were Egyptians in the Egyptian Labour Corps in the British sector and combat troops recruited in Algerian, Morocco and Senegal among many others.

The site is also a portal to a foundation which aims to send a ehibition highlighting the role of these men around the world. The site explains:

“Visitors to the Menin Gate in Ypres are often surprised to find the names of Muslim soldiers who died on the Western Front. The contributions and sacrifices of soldiers and workers from North Africa to the Great War have not been given the recognition which they are due. Colonial subjects worked, fought, were captured and died in their thousands between 1914 and 1918.

This is the first international exhibition to pay tribute to the citizens of North Africa who served in the Western Front. The men of North Africa, Berbers and Arabs alike, had no stake in the European war that erupted in August 1914.

Each North African country had a history of resistance to foreign rule.
It is a cruel irony of the Great War that colonial subjects were asked to serve their colonial rulers in a war not of their making.

Whatever their misgivings about fighting for France, the North African soldiers fought with courage and distinction by all accounts and played a decisive role in the ultimate Entente victory over Germany. During the war, North African loyalties were tested as the German government sought to turn Muslim prisoners of war to propaganda advantage.

The Great War also introduced North Africans to the European labour market, a trend that would develop over ensuing decades as workers from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia crossed the Mediterranean in search of gainful employment.

Over the years, many North Africans became naturalized citizens of Europe, where they are now in their third and fourth generation as European citizens. This exhibition is also intended to celebrate Europe’s citizens of North African origins and the contributions they have made to Europe in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.”

The site can be found here:- Forgotten Heroes: North Africa and The Great War.


Lives Of The First World War Project

The Imperial War Museum announced a new project yesterday entitled Lives of the First World War which will encourage the public to register with a new website and in time upload details about soldiers who fought in the First World War; importantly it is aimed at all who served, and not just those who died. The new project is in collaboration with genealogy company Brightsolid who, for example, digitised the 1911 Census for The National Archives. The premise behind the project is to create a massive online and interactive database of the generation who fought in the Great War and allow users to upload photographs and other content to share with a wider audience.

The project is very similar to the BBC’s Remembrance Wall, a project I was historical consultant for in 2008. However, while this is still online it was not really designed to be a lasting online database and this new Lives project promises that it will be permanent resource, and that is to be greatly welcomed.

It does, however, beg a few questions. One of the great weaknesses of the Remembrance Wall is that there was not the personnel available to check the details being uploaded. Just glancing at a few entries it is easy to find factual inaccuracies, which of course does question the validity of the whole resource. Lives has partners including Chris Baker’s website and the Great War Forum. If the response is anything like what we had in 2008, and personally I think that it will be much, much greater, then they will certainly have their work cut out in verifying all the material being uploaded.

The main aspect that concerns me, however, is the involvement of a commercial partner like Brightsolid. They did superb work with the 1911 Census but they are out to make money and their participation also begs the question of whether in time to maintain the important resource this is likely to become then it may be necessary to charge. People could find that material they have uploaded in good faith will at some point only be accessible if they pay to see it and a commercial organisation is making money from resources they have donated. I can see this leading to a few heated debates and may put people off from committing to the project, which would be a shame. Really a major venture like this should have been between two public institutions like the IWM and the BBC. Having said that the involvement of a commercial company could ensure its longevity but the implications of its involvement should be made clear from the very start.

The Lives Of The First World War project is a promising venture and I would encourage readers to visit the site and register for updates.


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WW1 Books: The Great War by Peter Hart

hartGWThe Great War by Peter Hart (Profile Books 2013, ISBN 978 1 84668 246 9), 522pp, illustrated, hardback £25.00.

For anyone with even a passing interest in the First World War, Peter Hart needs little introduction. His work as Oral Historian at the Imperial War Museum now spans several decades and his craft as an author covers a multitude of aspects of the conflict and theatres of war; although the war in the air and Gallipoli are two areas Peter is particularly known for. There is no doubting the author’s credentials as a serious historian and fine writer, but this single volume history of WW1 begs an easy question: given the huge number of one volume histories of the trenches, do we really need another?

And an easy questions also begs as easy answer: which in this case is a firm, yes. The historiography of the Great War has changed dramatically in recent times. Serious students have long since abandoned the Lions Led By Donkeys approach to the war and academics like the late Paddy Griffith and Professor Gary Sheffield have championed the formal approach to our understanding of how the conflict was really fought. But in many respects this new thinking has hardly left the lecture room. Working as a battlefield guide with thousands of members of the public one does not have to be a mind reader to know where the majority of those who start the tour stand when it comes to the command and conduct of battles like the Somme: slaughter, butchers, tin-pot generals are all common phrases. After a few days of looking at the ground, hearing the problems of command with little control, seeing how the conflict was ever evolving and how much training went into the later battles, most returned changed, and not a little challenged on many levels. That is what the First World War has long needed in print – the whole war in a broad brush stroke but with no attempt to dilute. And perhaps Peter Hart’s book is it.

The Great War both is, and is not, an academic study of the conflict. Hart I suspect would never call himself an academic, but his work is grounded firmly in academic rigour and his wide use of both primary and secondary sources makes the book solid and credible. But more importantly it is a very readable book, that takes the reader through the approaches to armageddon  and on a chronological journey through four years of a changing war and changing battlefields. Peppered with first hand accounts, which more than compliment the main body of text, the five hundred or more pages pass by quickly but should leave even the casual reader with a desire to raid the endnotes for books to read next.

As we move into the unknown territory of the Great War Centenary we need books like Hart’s. We need to know that the war was a conflict the veterans were not ashamed of, we need to know where it’s commanders sit in the wider picture but equally we need to understand what a catastrophe it was: to his credit, unlike some revisionist historians, Peter Hart does not exclude the human element. He writes “The Great War still resonates deeply even today” and for anyone who would ask why, how and what for, this new volume of Great War history is a perfect way to start the study of those fateful years from a century ago.