History

What diaries tell us about the First World War – and whether Michael Gove was right

News that millions of pages of diaries from British soldiers in the First World War are being published online reminds me of some of the main conclusions from previous academic studies of such diaries and other personal paperwork.

British soldiers on the western front were regularly rotated out of the front line, spending much of their time as a result complaining about being bored, miles away from the action and even being impatient to get back to it. Phil Mason’s book on historical myths has a nice introduction to the evidence on this.

I find the idea of being so bored that you look forward to a return to the front lines and risk of death macabrely baffling in many ways, but it’s certainly a common pattern across much of warfare, whatever the century and whatever the country.

So in one way Michael Gove has a point about how the First World War is represented in modern popular culture. The prevalence of boredom and a desire to return to the fight is not only not the world of Blackadder, it is not really the world of the war poets either.

But in a much larger respect he is completely wrong, because that’s not about a left-wing bias. The failure to reflect what war is really like for soldiers (long periods of boredom punctuated by action that brings both excitement and horrors) is part of the more general concentration on ‘the kinetic stuff’ which is true of war reporting and military history from all sorts of perspectives.

Understanding the mix of boredom and horror is part of understanding war and military life, not about being left or right wing.

And of course on the other part of his critique of the way in which the First World War is portrayed, he’s right that many generals and senior officers were imaginative and passionate about their soldiers, not at all the dullards who generated the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’.

But that view was massively popularised by Alan Clark, who can be called many things – a right-wing Tory MP, a womaniser, an eccentric, a lover of alcohol, a writer of memorable phrases, but most certainly not a left-winger.

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