Gove Goes Forth

Michael GoveMichael 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.

Europe, 1914

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.

Europe 2013On 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?

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.

Blackadder Goes ForthHow 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


Filed under Education, TV reviews

29 responses to “Gove Goes Forth

  1. Katz L

    Absol-bloody-lutely! If Gove wasn’t so powerful he’d be hilarious… To be enthused by history first kids need to tell the present from the past in EYFS – what are we supposed to teach them? The Stone Age. Then they need to use primary sources, look for evidence and draw conclusions. Easy to do with WWII, WWI, Victorians and even Tudors – so what are we giving them in KS1&2? Everything before 1066.

    Sorry Scotland – but please have the little swine back and put him where he can’t do any damage. Gruinard maybe?

  2. Spot the centenary typo; or do you know something we don’t?

  3. kim

    You left out that Italy joined the war in a cynical land grab. Your maps show the post 1919 boundaries of Austria after the annexation of the South Tyrol (Sud Triol), which remains to this day cultural & linguistic Austria.

    I wonder what leasons Gove would have us learn from from the Italian conscripts marched into machine gun fire by officers at the back who shot they if the tried to retreat?

  4. SomeRandomBint

    Cracking post. Best response to that awful belly aching article that I’ve read (my own was pretty much howling derisive comments and calling him a arse). My best mate is a history teacher – he is currently so bloody depressed by the whole hoop jumping exercises he has to do, and the 70 hour a week workload, that I don’t know how he actually manages to keep teaching such amazing lessons.

  5. Gove attacks artistic representations of history and everyone adduces Owen and Sassoon as if what they wrote IS history. He has everyone running round like infantrymen.
    What he is really doing is yet another sordid chapter in the class war and we are buying it!

  6. Blackadder Goes Forth is funny AND poignant – my sons learnt that. The only disrespect, if you want to call it that, is to jingoistic nitwits who deserve it. The episode where they fight over a literal yard of earth is a striking lesson in itself.

  7. Germany decided to start a war, the strategic concept was that as Russia developed the Franco-Russian alliance looked set to attain an unassailable military advantage so better fight now while the advantage was small and Germany could still win and then cripple France and Russia in the peace deal. Italy also seemed to be drifting out of its alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary while Britain was becoming more pro-French. The assassination provided an excuse to start the war by issuing a deliberately unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia. The Serbs actually accepted almost all of the demands, nonetheless Germany chose war. Germany then engaged in a totally unprovoked invasion of Belgium and Luxembourg. The atrocity stories about the invasion were exaggerated however the German army did commit a number of atrocities.

    • I think that WWI started because all the governments involved thought they’d do well out of it – and once started, kept on going because so long as it was “only” costing millions of soldiers’ lives, it didn’t matter. Trying to land the whole blame on Germany would be as absurd as trying to exonerate Germany completely. Britain’s protestations that they had to go to war with Germany over the invasion of Belgium (but not Luxembourg) were frankly hypocritical.

      The one thing which WWI did change fundamentally for European countries was the idea that it was just fine for one country to invade another. The US, which didn’t particularly suffer from WWI, still has the idea that unprovoked invasion of a country too small to effectively resist is just fine. (And as I linked in my blog, Britain’s invaded 9 out of 10 countries in the world.) Undoubtedly all soldiers in the conflict committed atrocities against civilians: as you note, the stories of German atrocities in Belgium are very largely invented.

      • Actually that is not correct. Germany and Austria-Hungary wanted a war as they believed that it was better to do it then rather than later. France and Russia didn’t want a war as they would be relatively stronger later. Britain didn’t want a war but wasn’t willing to see continental Europe dominated by Germany, the foreign secretary Edward Grey had a realistically gloomy view of the war hence his comments about the lights going out across Europe. Serbia went rather beyond the boundaries of what was reasonable in an effort to avoid the war, Belgium was attacked without provocation.

        That isn’t what I said, there was some exaggeration however the behaviour of the German army was notably worse than that of other armies and serious atrocities were committed basically while exaggerated they had a basis in fact. Britain had a much stronger commitment to defend Belgian neutrality and independence than we did to defend Czech independence in 1938, a treaty commitment dating to the 1830s as opposed to no specific commitment. Munich is viewed as shameful capitulation it is hard to see how failing to aid Belgium would be anything less.

        Incidentally before Germany invaded Belgium Britain had already stated that German warships entering the Channel would be treated as an act of war. Regarding Luxembourg Britain had no explicit guarantee and the Luxembourg government didn’t actually protest against German occupation, so there were no legal grounds to protest an action that had Luxembourg’s tacit consent.

        • Yes, Belgium and Britain had a relationship of long-standing. Sending British troops to fight German troops in Belgium was fairly evidently not “aiding Belgium”, but that’s a standard line of governments. Contrary to your claims, it would appear that all the militaries in all the countries involved were gearing up to fight in the next war.

          As for your line about German atrocities in Belgium, all soldiers in all armies committed atrocities, of that there is no doubt: nor is there any documentary evidence that German soldiers were worse than the soldiers of any other army, nor is there any evidence at all that atrocities were more than isolated incidences – that any army had given orders for atrocities to be committed as a plan of campaign.

          From Robert Graves Goodbye To All That:

          “For true atrocities, meaning personal rather than military violations of the code of war, few opportunities occurred – except in the interval between the surrender of prisoners and their arrival (or non-arrival) at headquarters. Advantage was only too often taken of this opportunity. Nearly every instructor in the mess could quote specific instances of prisoners having been murdered on the way back. The commonest motives were, it seems, revenge for the death of friends or relatives, jealousy of the prisoner’s trip to a comfortable prison camp in England, military enthusiasm, fear of being suddenly overpowered by the prisoners, or, more simply, impatience with the escorting job.”

          • Sending troops to fight to defend Belgium fairly evidently was aiding Belgium to claim that it was not is utterly ludicrous. The 1839 Treaty of London implicitly obliged the guarantor powers to take military action to defend Belgian neutrality.

            The German army was a lot more inclined to shoot civilians in reprisal commuting several massacres of several hundred civilians.



            In some places, particularly Liège, Andenne and Leuven, but firstly Dinant, there is evidence that the violence against civilians was premeditated. However, in Dinant, the German army believed sincerely that the inhabitants were as dangerous as the French soldiers themselves.

            German troops, afraid of Belgian guerrilla fighters, or francs-tireurs, burned homes and executed civilians throughout eastern and central Belgium, including Aarschot (156 dead), Andenne (211 dead), Tamines (383 dead) and Dinant (674 dead). The victims included women and children.

            On August 25, 1914, the German army ravaged the city of Leuven, deliberately burning the University’s library of 300,000 medieval books and manuscripts with gasoline, killing 248 residents, and expelling the entire population of 10,000. Civilian homes were set on fire and citizens often shot in the place they stood. Over 2,000 buildings were destroyed and large amounts of strategic materials, foodstuffs and modern industrial equipment were looted and transferred to Germany. (There were also several friendly fire incidents between groups of German soldiers during the confusion.) These actions brought worldwide condemnation.

            In the Province of Brabant, nuns were ordered by Germans to strip naked under the pretext that they were spies. In Aarschot, between August and September, women were repeatedly victimised. Just like looting and murder, rape was widespread.

          • Sending troops to fight to defend Belgium fairly evidently was aiding Belgium

            Yes, because look how well that turned out for Belgium and the Belgians, compared to Luxembourg.

            Cut-and-pasting from Wikipedia isn’t terribly effective as an argument, by the way. It’s as if you really don’t know very much but you’re trying to sound authoritative, forgetting that plagiarism is one of the most easily detected Internet crimes.

          • Given the series of crises that had occurred over the previous decade or so. It was rational to prepare for the possibility that one of these games of diplomatic chicken would go wrong with neither side backing down. It was Germany and Austria-Hungary that decided to use the July crisis to justify starting a war. Whether the intent was to start a general war or just to conquer Serbia and humiliate Russia doesn’t change that Germany conducted an unprovoked and brutal invasion of Belgium a nation who’s neutrality Germany and Austria-Hungary had both guaranteed since 1839 (as Prussia the German Confederation and Austria). Politically Britain might have had trouble intervening on France’s behalf given Serbian involvement in the assassination, however the attack on Belgium was a clear case of unprovoked aggression so could attract wider support.

            The Liberal government in Britain had attempted to cut military spending as it wanted to increase social spending so it had attempted to do a deal with Germany to mutually limit naval spending, specifically we had wanted to each build two Battleships a year, if Germany did not agree then for every Battleship beyond that they built we would build two. Germany did not agree hence a government that had wanted to cut naval spending increased it. In 1907 at the second Hague Convention Germany was the only power not to support arms limitation.

        • If Britain didn’t want to go to war, getting into an arms race with Germany was a funny way of showing it.

          • Quite. This modern retcon of 1914-Britain as an essentially pacifistic nation, absolutely provoked into going to war by nasty aggressive Germany, is really utterly absurdist – and forgets entirely the million-plus dead of Austria-Hungary. (Britain wasn’t even a fully-democratic nation in 1914: not all adult men, and no adult women, had the vote. Germany had adult male franchise without property test by 1914, so Germany was in fact more of a liberal democracy than Britain at that stage….)

  8. It wasn’t plagiarism. It was quotation in support of the argument that the behaviour of Germany towards civilians was notably bad. I stated the immediate source.

    Since the 1960s historians have tended to assign Germany the primary blame the trend to blame everyone was prevalent from the 1920s until the 1960s however with the availability of more German archive material (the material made available by the Weimar republic was heavily edited to disguise German culpability) it became clear that Germany bore primary responsibility. The pro-German position is mainly advocated by very right wing historians of rather dubious reliability such as Alan Clark and Niall Ferguson. For whatever reason the popular perception has stayed where it was before the 1960s while professional opinion has changed dramatically. Gove surprisingly is actually stating what is probably the most widely held position amongst historians.

    Following the war Belgium regained genuine independence and made some territorial gains (annexing Eupen and Malmady from Germany and acquiring the league trust territory of Rwanda-Urundi from German East Africa) in the event of a German victory this would probably not have occurred, if Germany had won quickly it is unclear as German hadn’t really decided it’s war aims later on Germany planned to annex large parts of Belgium leaving at most a politically subservient rump. Luxembourg also regained independence Germany had planned to annex Luxembourg. Unlike in WWII in WWI we actually accomplished our war aims, Belgian independence was secured while Poland ended up as a puppet dictatorship of the USSR.

    Britain was pretty sincere in wanting to respect Belgian independence and being genuinely upset at German failure to respect Belgian neutrality. In the early stages of WWII this resulted in the Anglo-French army remaining within France until Hitler invaded Belgium despite the fact that we expected Germany was planning to invade.

    • I apologise for saying plagiarism, since you did indicate your source. But it was a direct cut-and-paste quote from Wikipedia, and seriously, Brett, that’s just evidence you don’t do any research/thinking on your own: you’re not worth arguing with. I can go to Wikipedia and read what a team of American editors have put together for myself.

      What’s worth doing – for your future reference – is using Wikipedia as the treasure-trove it can be of links to source material and historical research. And it is undeniably useful for checking generally-uncontroversial facts like dates: though it is always worthwhile crosschecking the most uncontroversial fact, I have generally found Wikipedia gets dates right.

      • Wikipedia is a fairly useful source for this kind of thing as it gives a fairly decent basic outline of events. The fact that I chose to quote that was more to do with it being a fair brief summery and easy to quote. I have read rather more than that on the matter, for example Massie _Dreadnought_. Since the 1960s when Franz Fischer published his work based on full access to the German Imperial archives which previous historians had lacked it became clear that the material released previously under the Weimar republic was edited and selected in such a way as to be extremely misleading omiting a large amount of incriminating cabinet level discussion. You were promoting the pro-German theory popular between the 1920s and 1960s which, while retaining a hold on popular perception, is largely rejected by modern historians. So it was fairly clear that you were not familiar with the situation about which you were pontificating. The pre-Fischer material is largely obsolete due to the biased nature of the available German archive material then available. Alan Clark although very influential on popular perceptions is very poorly regarded by military historians.

        The point is while the rape of Belgium was somewhat exaggerated at the time it was real and the German army committed rather more war crimes than its opponents. The Second Reich was a belligerent and aggressive regime which chose to use the July crisis to start a war, choosing to support Austria-Hungary in rejecting Serbia’s near total acceptance of an intentionally unacceptable ultimatum and then engaged in an invasion of two countries not involved in the crisis. France had declared war so whatever sympathy Britain had didn’t provide a justification in the absence of a formal alliance or guarantee. Britain had a formal guarantee to Belgium so a small but significant number of politicians who wouldn’t support a declaration of war on France’s behalf would on Belgium’s behalf. Whether Germany belived that Britain would not intervene or that the war would be over before Britain could create an army big enough to matter is unclear.

  9. The arms race occurred as Germany decided to build a navy specifically structured to attack Britain, German battleships were short ranged (the crew would normally sleep ashore due to a lack of cabin space) and heavily armed. Britain had a very small army compared to other great powers so if an invasion got a secure landing Britain was stuffed. So any threat to the Royal Navy’s control of the waters around Britain was not viewed as tolerable. Therefore if Germany wold not agree to limit building, we had to outbuildings them. Germany was becoming increasingly aggressive diplomatically and had a very big army. The third largest navy was that of the USA that wasn’t considered a threat as war with America wasn’t a realistic prospect.

    Germany had a wider franchise than Britain but the German government wasn’t really accountable to parliament in the way that Britain’s was. The German parliament was somewhat more democratic but a lot less powerful.

    The house of Commons had twice voted to give women the vote but both bills ran out of time due to first the January and then the December 1910 elections a third attempt in 1911 failed due to a loss of Irish Parliamentary Party support as the IPP wanted to prioritise Home Rule. That had passed in 1913 so Women’s suffrage was almost certain to pass the next time it came up as the IPP would now support it. Britain had a government mainly focused on domestic matters which had wanted to cut naval spending provided that didn’t endanger Britain’s security. Britain was rather preoccupied with an extremely messy domestic constitutional crisis at the time and with a comprehensive programme of social reform.

    Austria-Hungary would have been unlikely to start the war without the diplomatic blank cheque from Germany. I’m not sure what point you are making with this, the proximate cause of Britain’s declaration of war was German actions not Austro-Hungarian actions. Austria-Hungary was also culpable as they chose along with Germany to start the war, with terrible consequences for everyone. The war happened because Germany and Austria-Hungary decided to attack. None of the other great powers crossed their borders.

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