Michael Gove in the Daily Mail: “The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war.”
Michael Gove’s qualifications for being Secretary of State for Education consists of a 2:1 degree in English at Oxford, and once winning Top Club.
Michael Gove does not care for shows like Blackadder Goes Forth, which he feels depict World War One – or as it was called then “the Great War”, as “a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite”, whereas, Gove thinks, WWI was really about British opposition to:
“The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.
“And the war was also seen by participants as a noble cause. Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.”
Baldrick asks Blackadder in the last episode:
No, the thing is: The way I see it, these days there’s a war on, right? And, ages ago, there wasn’t a war on, right? So, there must have been a moment when there not being a war on went away, right? And there being a war on came along. So, what I want to know is: How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?
Excellent question, Baldrick.
On 28th June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot. He was the heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was visiting Sarajevo because the Empire had annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina from the Ottoman Empire in 1908.
Serbia, which had once been part of the Ottoman Empire, and which had been recognised as an independent nation only in 1878 – but under the domain of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – felt that Bosnia and Herzegovina should have become part of Serbia. Gavrilo Princip, who shot Archduke Ferdinand, was a Serbian nationalist.
The Serbian government was blamed for the assassination. The Russian Empire supported Serbia, and France was allied to Russia – and Britain allied to France. The Austro-Hungarian government wanted Germany’s support if Russia intervened in a war with Serbia.
On 28th July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Over the next five days, Russia mobilises for war, Germany tells Russia to stop mobilising, Russia says they’re only going to attack Austria-Hungary in support of Serbia – and on 1st August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia.
In 1904, Britain and France had signed an agreement – the Entente Cordiale – that did not bind them absolutely to come to each other’s military defence, but was intended as a protection against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. In 1907, Russia joined the Entente Cordiale.
On 2nd August, Germany invaded Luxembourg, primarily to make use of Troisvierges railway station as a route into France: on 3rd August, Germany declared war on France and on 4th August, invaded Belgium, to outflank the French army: whereupon Britain protested Belgian neutrality and declared war on Germany. On 5th August, Montenegro declared war on Austria-Hungary, on 11th August, France declared war on Austria-Hungary and Britain followed suit on 12th August.
Japan and Britain had been allies since 1902. Japan had offered to make war on Germany in support of Britain in exchange for taking the German colonial territories in the Marianas, Carolines, Marshall Islands and Palau. Japan declared war on Germany 23rd August 1914 and on Austria-Hungary on 25th August.
On 6th August, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia and Serbia declared war on Germany. On 2nd August Germany and the Ottoman Empire had signed a secret treaty: on 1st November, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire, and the lineup was almost complete – Italy entered the war on 26th April 1915, Bulgaria entered the war on 11th October 1915. (And the US declared war on Germany in 6th April 1917.)
On one side of the war: the Russian empire, Serbia, France, the British empire, Belgium, Italy, Japan. On the other side of the war: Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire.
So what, precisely, does Michael Gove see as the “noble cause” which British troops were defending?
- Is it the right of Serbian nationalists to assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire?
- Is it the right of Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, to come to the support of Serbia?
- The alleged war crimes of German soldiers invading Belgium?
- The peaceable British Empire standing up against foreign invasion and occupation?
- The awful stories of soldiers burning villages, mutilating unarmed civilians, raping women, killing without mercy? (That did happen. Belgian forces in the Congo did all of these things.)
- The Japanese empire’s claim to the German empire’s colonial territories in the Pacific?
Michael Gove claims that children suffer from history lessons as a “disconnected set of topics” and need a “narrative arc of chronology”. But what kind of “narrative arc” could present World War One as a just cause?
The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire- building.
The National Union of Teachers recently published a survey:
almost half of the 826 teachers (49 per cent) polled reported pupils struggling to concentrate because of malnutrition or hunger, and 63 per cent arguing more than a fifth of their work load does not directly benefit children’s learning.
How do you convince children that a war a century ago is worth learning about? There are the memorials – the familiar Their name liveth for evermore used for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission graveyards. But in the UK, we are surrounded by memorials to wars: they become so familiar you hardly see them.
Ben Elton and Richard Curtis did think about how to write Blackadder in WWI – and did more research than Michael Gove seems to have done.
Ribbing the attitudes of centuries gone by was one thing, but finding humour in the deaths of 35 million people within living memory was not a task that anyone could countenance. “We read lots of books about it,” Curtis says. “They were interesting, because all the stuff we wanted to write about, which was sort of the clash of the classes, and getting stuck in a small confined space, was funny. All the people coming from communities where they’d never bumped into posh people, and vice versa, and all being so gung-ho and optimistic and enthusiastic… The first 100 pages of any book about the First World War are hilarious – and then everybody dies.”
Blackadder Goes Forth is not an educational drama. But a child watching Blackadder may ask themselves – or their teachers – “Did that really happen?” and be led into finding out for themselves.
I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war. -King George V, Flanders, 1922