Thursday, 3 July 2014

I’m not surprised historian Dan Snow received hate mail for questioning “myths” surrounding World War One

The local book group to which I belong recently discussed Siegfried Sassoon’s autobiographical Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, the poet’s account of his disillusionment with the conduct of the First World War – i.e. the systematic demonisation of the enemy, the (supposed) deliberate prolongation of the war, widespread profiteering at home, the incompetence of the High Command etc. Sassoon – under the influence of that brilliant fool, Bertrand Russell, and other influential anti-war protesters, wrote a letter to the War Office in 1917, attacking the conduct of the war and refusing to fight any longer.

Rather than make a martyr of Sassoon by court-martialling him, the military got fellow-officer, fellow-poet and good chum Robert Graves to persuade Sassoon to allow a medical board to report that the poor, muddled chap was suffering from shell-shock, and was therefore basically off his chump when he started complaining about the war (a wonderfully English compromise).

When the book was published twelve years after the war, it was well received and Sassoon (who, it must be said, was an extremely brave soldier) suffered no adverse consequences for publishing it – the opposite, in fact. By 1930, it seems, his view of the war was uncontroversial. Since then, of course, it has become the standard interpretation.

Towards the end of our discussion of the book (which I hadn’t actually enjoyed much) I happened to mention the article published on the BBC website by the TV historian Dan Snow, entitled “10 big myths about World War One debunked” (here), which I referred to in a blog earlier this year (here). When I mentioned some of the points made by Dan Snow (after carefully explaining that he was a TV historian of whose academic status I had no knowledge), the person who had suggested we read Sassoon’s book (a friedn, by the way) absolutely exploded. “Who is this man? What has he written? Was he there?” (I was almost expecting him to ask, “Who are his people?”).

I replied that I had already told the group who he was, I had no idea what he had written, and that I hadn’t realised that historians were only allowed to write about events they had personally witnessed. (Fortunately, given that my friend is Australian, I hadn’t mentioned that one of the myths Snow questions is that Gallipoli was an entirely Australian and New Zealand show, when four to five times as many British troops died in the fighting.) Anyway, it resulted in a somewhat frosty end to a lively discussion (everyone else adored the book, by the way).

I was reminded of my friend’s somewhat excessive reaction to a professional historian having broken ranks to question what our Education Secretary has called the “Blackadder” view of the First World War when Dan Snow himself, speaking at the recent Chalke Valley History Festival, reported that he had received hate mail in the wake of his debunking article. He gave what I thought was a sensible justification for questioning received wisdom:
If we put the First World War on a pedestal of awfulness and incompetence and tragedy, it ignores the fact that all wars should be looked at through that lens. It can belittle the experience of soldiers throughout the years if you set World War One apart. World War One is part of our military history; elements of it were worse than other wars and elements of it were better. 
Quite. But WWI is also the war most beloved by Guardian-reading anti-war leftists: for them it is simultaneously the ultimate example of working-class sacrifice and suffering on the one hand, and of upper class cruelty and incompetence on the other. To question the validity of their beliefs concerning it is seemingly to question their cherished political prejudices – something we right-wingers have grown used to over the years, but an experience to which left-wingers evidently haven’t grown accustomed. (The odd thing about all this is that I'm pretty sure Dan Snow is a standard-issue left-of-centre BBC historian, so it's his co-religionists he's upsetting.)


  1. An excellent post. Thank you. I have read either "Fox-Hunting Man" [1928] or "Infantry Officer" [1930], but now don't know which? Thank you for introducing this unnecessary confusion. Or perhaps I have read both and forgotten? Oh Christ...noch ein Problem!

    1. I've heard good reports of "Fox-Hunting Man" and wish I'd read that first.