Why I’ll be enjoying, but not learning from, the First World War tweets

It’s no surprise that in this social media saturated world, the First World War is being marked by various ‘live’ tweets, such as those from Sky, reenacting events as they happened 100 years ago.

If other similar such efforts are anything to go by, I’ll enjoy reading them from time to time. But that’s very different from learning about the First World War.

The problem with that lies with the inevitable over-emphasis on what foreign journalists often call the ‘kinetic stuff’.

As I wrote before, thinking more of Afghanistan and before than Vietnam:

The big problem with such footage of frontline fighting dominating is that the situation in Afghanistan is about much more than only the frontline fighting. It is a wider military, economic, social, diplomatic and political issue.

So having reporting about Afghanistan in mainstream TV dominated by the kinetic stuff provided by journalists embedded on the front line for a couple of weeks is rather like trying to cover the economy by embedding Robert Peston in a Manchester McDonald’s for a fortnight.

That may be interesting; that may be illuminating; but as a way of finding out and reporting on whether the whole UK economy is going to continue recovering or suffer a double-dip recession it would be woefully inadequate on its own. The same lesson too should be applied more widely to reporting of Afghanistan.

That problem applies to the First World War too. It is one of the reasons why our popular culture picture of what it was like to be a British soldier on the Western Front is so misleading:

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.

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…

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.

(Phil Mason’s book on historical myths is well worth reading on the forgotten prevalence of boredom in the First World War, by the way.)

So is it good that historic events are being marked in a way that suits modern audiences? Yes. Will I find myself following these updates too? Yes again. But will I learn that much about such key issues like whether Haig or the politicians were right? No. And without getting a better understanding of such issues, I may pick up some useful incidental information – which is very different from actually learning about events, just as being able to recite the names of Kings and Queens isn’t the same as learning about the history of Britain’s monarchy.

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