If there’s anything Michael Gove should keep his nose out of, it’s history. Time and time again he proves himself to be handling the study and discussion of history like a brick handles the art of swimming gracefully. However, his most recent comment has in particular hit a nerve with me – he waded out calling Blackadder a left-wing myth because it propagates that, shock and horror, the First World War was perhaps a bad thing! That it wasn’t the glorious patriotic war against the aggressive hun, but rather a waste of young life. Members of my family have served, and died, in both world wars – and I don’t feel they did for the glory of Britannia or other patriotic sound-bites that are so tirelessly rolled out whenever the government feels fit to send young men and women off to die. World War Two was fought against fascist aggression – which I can understand. World War One however? I side with Blackadder that this war wasn’t glorious, it wasn’t patriotic, and it wasn’t honourable.
However, I feel aspects of Gove's remarks need to be picked apart to see if my ranting can be justified. Let’s start with his view of those who actually fought in the war. Gove argues that Blackadder, and left-wing academia, portrays those who served in the war as “dupes” rather than “conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.” I find it ironic that one of the most un-liberal people ever to grace the Department of Education would say such a thing, but I digress. So, were the troops willing to die for their monarch against the fiendish Germans? Well, on the subject of conflict, the longest-living British World War One veteran stated: “War is organised murder, and nothing else.” Another, first-hand testimony comes from L.W Kentish, an officer, describing an instance whilst serving: “We were pitchforked into a quagmire in the dark and there was no possibility of a man helping the one next to him... It was the worst instance I came across of what appeared to be a cruel useless sacrifice of life.” I can’t exactly feel the desire to serve queen and country oozing from the accounts of many British soldiers. Indeed, it seemed many felt they were duped. Gove cannot speak for the thousands who came back experiencing post traumatic stress disorder on a level never seen before in military conflict, he cannot speak for those whose bodies have yet to have been recovered, lost in foreign soil, nor can he speak for the veterans who spoke up bravely against the notion of war.
Another analogy from Gove that got to me was his view of the Somme. He called the Somme a “vital precursor to victory”. To those who don’t know what the Battle of the Somme was, it was essentially the worst disaster in British military history. Fought on the western front it saw over 600,000 British and French troops die to gain 26km of ground. Many of those who died were part of the ‘Pals Battalions’ – a recruitment tool by Kitchener that saw many friends from the same community join up and serve together. Can you imagine the pain and loss that would have been caused within both groups of survivors and relatives back home? Gove, you disgustingly seem to support the notion that the ends justify the means. So were the lives of largely young British troops worth the meagre gains of ground in this battle? Was it ‘vital’ that entire communities would be permanently scarred by the losses on the Somme? I only hope that if there ever is another large-scale war, Gove never finds himself in any political office – the way he seems to disregard human life in the pursuit of victory is an attitude fit only for a 19th century general, not a 21st century politician.
Now, I feel it’s appropriate to move onto his specific criticism of Blackadder, mainly Blackadder Goes Forth. This was the fourth series of the popular comedy show, set for this particular series in WWI. It did what many comedies at the time didn’t do; actually have a message. However, for this, Gove labels it “left-wing propaganda”. It displayed the officers as posh, bungling and very naive about the true nature of war. The General, played by Stephen Fry, would often be way behind the front line in a cosy office, well away from the true experiences of the conflict. However, I didn’t notice red flags being waved, nor any notion of socialism or liberalism being touted. It simply seemed to convey the message that war is idiotic. Indeed, the poignant last scene perfectly captures this when, suddenly, Blackadder becomes a lot more serious as four of the main characters go over the top – as they leave the trench the camera cuts to a field full of poppies whilst a more sombre, piano-based orchestral score rings out. It’s a stroke of genius from the creators and really captures the camaraderie amongst the British troops when they stood staring hopelessness in the face. It doesn’t show them going over waving British flags nor victoriously beating the Germans, it simply ends with a sense of loss, captured in that symbol of remembrance, the poppy. Consequently however, Gove feels that because it wasn’t pro-war enough, it thus was left-wing propaganda! It angers me hugely that he would say this. Just because, as a matter of fact, war isn’t something to be glorified and lofted above criticism doesn’t make it ‘left-wing’. Criticism of war isn’t solely a left-wing thing, unless all members of the right are chomping at the bit for war or the glorification of it (which it seems Gove is).
To summarise, Gove is overwhelmingly wrong in his view. It’s disgraceful that he assumes that all those who fought in WWI would rally around him in glorifying the war as a triumph over German aggression, rather than the revisionism of qualified (but, apparently left-wing!) historians. It doesn’t need to be said that the conservative historian Niall Fergurson blames Britain for the First World War in his book The Pity of War. Sadly, all of the British veterans of the First World War have passed away, but I don’t think, judging by the testimonies of many of them, that they would be all too keen to be all painted as hapless, overly patriotic, and keen to die for their country. Rather, many became fervently against the notion of war or didn’t see it is as a victory. Blackadder wasn’t left-wing propaganda; nor are the academics and teachers who are critical of the war; they were simply accurately portraying it for what it was. Governments with Victorian values sending droves of men, barely out of their teenager years, to die; not for glory or their country, but to settle a power struggle. It appears Gove is the type of politician who views human life merely a means to an end – his views on the Somme and the First World War confirm this. Gove, I reject your jingoism, we shouldn’t celebrate the First World War, we should mourn those who died, and promise never to repeat such a horror again.
By Rory Claydon