How the First World War has been symbolized over the past century – a guest post from Stephen Heathorn

StephenHeathornThis is a guest post from Stephen Heathorn, author of Haig and Kitchener in Twentieth-Century Britain: Remembrance, Representation and Appropriation

One of the long-lasting images of the British experience of the First World War has been that the British fielded armies were filled with brave soldiers (‘lions’) led by incompetent, reckless and callous generals (‘donkeys’), the latter sitting safe miles behind the murderous frontlines.  This ‘lions led by donkeys’ image became very popular after the Second World War because it implicitly contains a then popular critique of British society: the British high command had been led by aristocrats and gentry who, because of their class position, were largely contemptuous of the middle- and working-class men they sent into battle.

This view of the war was emotionally satisfying for some as it identifies clear villains and victims of the conflict, which was especially important after the interwar years demonstrated that the war had not brought about a necessarily better Britain and the second calamity of the Second World War solidified existing doubts on the motivations for going to war in 1914 in the first place.  But the very idea of ‘lions led by donkeys’ is a myth.  It is a way of understanding the past that contains elements of the actual story, but arranged in a way that overly simplifies what had happened and apportions responsibility for tragedy too neatly and without full context.  It is also not the way in which most people in Britain understood the First World War prior to the 1950s.

A number of historians have tried to debunk the ‘lions led by donkeys’ myth, showing that as a group the British generals (of which there were hundreds who saw service, and some 78 were killed in action) learned the necessary lessons of trench warfare better and quicker than did their opponents, which is why Britain and its allies were able to defeat the Germans.  Others have argued that the generals did not learn very quickly, but that ultimately they were never in complete control of their armies’ efforts anyway, and indeed, because of the limitations of technology at the time, often could not even communicate effectively with their subordinates while battle raged.  Technological, logistical, demographic and geographical factors impinged on what the leaders of the armies could do – regardless of their imaginative frame of mind or tactical abilities.

But the generals at the top – Field Marshals Douglas Haig and Herbert Horatio Kitchener in particular – have since the war continued to be the focus of popular fascination, regardless of whether they have been depicted (as they have at various times) as heroes, villains, unfairly scapegoated, or really quite irrelevant.  Indeed, at different times over the course of the 20th century these two men have become symbols of how the war itself was popularly understood and argued about.  Haig, for instance, was given a hero’s funeral attended by more than a million people in 1928, when the mass of the population still believed (or wanted to believe) that the war had resulted in a meaningful, if costly, victory.  The proposed statue in Whitehall (actually erected in the late 1930s) to commemorate him was controversial from the start not because Haig was reviled, but because numerous constituencies wanted it to reflect their values and sacrifices: the monument to Haig was popularly perceived as standing for more than just the man, Haig stood as a contested symbol of how the British war effort ought to be understood.  Similarly, in the 1990s when a newspaper campaign was launched to have the Haig statue removed, it was because a far more negative view of the war (more in line with the ‘lions led by donkeys’ image) had become popularly entrenched.

Haig’s example points to one of the paradoxes of how the First World War has been remembered and popularly understood.  For while it was a conflict that involved millions and operated according to a depersonalized, alienating logic, subsequent attempts to understand the war have almost invariably tried to do so through the experience and understanding of individual participants.  The experience of a few individuals in the trenches immortalized by the young officer-writers like Owen, Graves and Sassoon, subsequently came to represent for many who did not experience it first hand, what the war was like for the ‘everyman’ in the trenches.  These writers and their perceptions shaped our culture’s understanding of what the war (and indeed for some, all modern war) was like.  The changing representations (and their subsequent use, politically, commercially and academically) of the military leadership, on the other hand, points to the continuing need to have heroes/villains who might be held accountable for the events that occurred – even if such an accounting overly simplifies/amplifies these men’s actual role.  Both representations – of the everyman soldier and of the general – have telescoped a huge variety of experience and context into simple, mutually re-enforcing symbols that have changed considerably over the course of the century since the war began.  Understanding how these symbols have evolved provides us insight into how the war itself has been understood, and why those understandings have changed.

Stephen Heathorn is Professor of British History and Director of Graduate Studies of the Department of History at McMaster University, Canada  He is the author of the research monographs, ‘Earl Kitchener and Earl Haig in Twentieth Century Britain: Remembrance, Representation and Appropriation’ (Ashgate, 2013), and ‘For Home, Country and Race: Constructing Gender, Class and Englishness in the Elementary School Classroom, 1880-1914’ (University of Toronto Press, 2000), and more than two dozen peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters.

Haig and KitchenerMore about Haig and Kitchener in Twentieth-Century Britain: Remembrance, Representation and Appropriation

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