Lies, Damn Lies and Numbers…

18 08 2009

Two interesting historical posts coming out of the Indepenent today. I’ll write something about the second later, but for now I wish to consider Robert Fisk’s comment on the number of British casualties in Afghanistan.

The full copy of Fisk’s thoughts is to be found here. It is emotively entitled “Why these deaths hit home as hard as the Somme”. Upon seeing such a headline I will admit to growing fearful about the content of the article. Where was Fisk going with such an ill-considered banner line? I actually disagree with the implication of such a headline, I think that these Afghanistan deaths hit home harder because of many things, not least the nature of the world media. That’s by the by though.

The real point that Fisk made, and it is something I agree wholeheartedly with him about, is this one. He writes it pretty succinctly so I’ll simply transcribe his words:

And let’s just remind ourselves of the casualty figures. We’ve lost just over 200 soldiers- admittedly most of them in the past 14 months- in a war that has lasted for eight years. In the Second World War, which lasted for almost six years, Britain lost 650 men on D-Day, 6 June 1944, alone. And let’s go back to the Great War. On the first day of the Somme- 1 July 1916- we lost almost¬† 19,500 dead. That’s almost a hundred times our Afghan dead in 24 hours.

A good point well put I feel. The deaths in Afghanistan are, of course, tragic, but they are small fry compared to many other battles, wars, military engagements made by the British. The word ‘tragic’ above was carefully picked as to echo Stalin’s famous thoughts on war dead, paraphrased “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic“. This I feel has a certain resonance when considering the parallels between the two conflicts. The reason there is such a media outpouring when another British soldier falls is because the event is a comparative rarity.

The British army have grown a lot better at engaging an enemy, and because of this the death rate has fallen. However, this falling death rate has meant that more time can be given to each dead person. We are told their names, their ages, their private life. We are told this because we can be told. The media can keep up, and play with the public emotions of hearing of one more dead person. They simply couldn’t during WW1. The soldiers were falling in such numbers that no-one really knew who was dead, and who wasn’t. Soldiers were lost during battles, and only inaccurate numbers could suffice as to the number of dead on any given day of the war.

The real point is that we should actually be thankful that only 201 troops have died during eight years of conflict in Afghanistan. There is, of course, the lingering question of whether Britain should be in the country in the first place, but that’s a whole different issue. The result is that the soldiers are. And they’ve only lost 201 of their own through the course of eight years of action. That’s actually a pretty remarkable statistic. That’s 201 deaths in 2850 days (roughly). That’s mightly impressive really. The army should be commended for this, not chastised. Of course these soldiers should be remembered too, but the army should not be attacked for losing men, it is after all, the nature of the beast.


In Memory…

25 07 2009

In the course of the past two weeks the last two British survivors of the First World War have both died. The oldest, Henry Allingham died last week, and today Harry Patch has, so we are told, peacefully passed away. It is truly the end of an era.

I read somewhere after the death of Mr Allingham, that these men were not the bravest, not the best, not the most decorated, but simply the ones who had the misfortune of celebrity through being the last. Whilst I understood what the writer was driving towards, I also felt that he was being a touch unconsidered. These men deserved our respect, both in life and death. For someone to be so casually dismissive of them as simply the ‘last’ was somehow wrong. Yes, they were the last. But they still served on the front line. Mr Patch witnessed first hand the horror of Passchendaele. Mr Allingham was also involved in the Ypres offensives of 1917, but as part of the RFC.¬† They still had the memories, the atrocities, the pain of the experience, and I’m sure that would have gone with them to the grave.

I wish to say nothing more about them, except simply to express my own appreciation for these men, who were, of course part of a bigger picture, but were for a period, the last parts of this picture.

The Relevance of It All…

15 06 2009

Last Saturday was the final meeting of my MA class for this year. This time next year I will be in the midst of writing a dissertation on some element of the First World War. Naturally therefore, I have spent some time thinking about what topic I will do this on. Whilst thinking about this, I somehow stumbled upon the thought of discussing the relevance of the war to a modern society. I’m not entirely sure that this would make a disseration though, so have decided to scribble some thoughts down here.

So, is the First World War still relevant to society in the Twenty-First century? Obviously there can be no simple answer to this. It would depend entirely upon what criteria you judge it upon. And indeed, how you determine ‘relevance’.

It was the dicussion about the recent death of the first swine-flu victim which led me down this road. A lot has been made of this death, and the potential threat of swine-flu, although, as has been pointed out, ‘normal’ flu kills a fair few people yearly, and there is no media coverage of this. The Spanish-flu in 1918 spread worldwide killed anywhere between 40 and 100 million people, depending on what you read. That’s quite a lot of people. At its peak, roughly one-third of the world had the flu. So, could lessons learnt in 1918 help people appreciate the scale of the current situation? I’m not so sure, simply because the nature of the media is different now. It is a 24 hour thing, with access from papers, television and internet to anything, anytime. There needs to be something to fill this insatiable appetite for news, and, at the moment, that is swine-flu. If there is something there, the news will use it. They have to, simply to stay afloat. Experiences of the soldiers in the war of the spanish-flu vary, but, generally, the troops seemed to have suffered badly from the flu, due to a variety of things, of which malnourishment was certainly one. Indeed, some have argued that this helped the allied cause, and proved to be the tipping point. I’m very much not convinced by this argument as it ignores all the rest of the stuff that was going on at the time (ie Britain finally developing a decent arms system, sorting out the logistics, and Germany shooting her bolt too early in 1918), but that this has been argued at all shows the impact the Spanish-flu had in 1918.

Experiences of the flu tend not to vary over time. Either you get ill, suffer for a period of time, and then get better; or you get ill, suffer for a period of time and then die. The only experience we will really know about is the former. Solutions to the illness have developed, medicine has progressed (although it should never be assumed that the medical care in WW1 was poor, certainly for the British, it wasn’t). People learnt from the lessons of 1918. They learned how to deal with large scale pandemics. So much so that come 2009 we know the need to have a standing stock of vaccine for such outbreaks.

However, does this make the experience of 1918 relevant to today’s society? Possibly, although it would be easier to argue the other side. How can you really compare a nation coming out of the industrial revolution threatened by other countries around her to Britain today, in the midst of a digital era, moving away from her industrial past, and threatened by countries on the other side of the world? There is call to say that a comparison is impossible. However, I’m inclined to disagree. Pre-war Britain was not this unified harmony that was abruptly shattered by a war started in the east. Far from it, at least half the population were concerned with the suffrage, and a percentage of that were demonstrating their concerns through violent activity. There was some unrest in the waning, although not yet dead, industries which had for so long provided Britain with a platform in the world. Compare that to 2009 and the collapsing British car industy and the impact that this is having on the world car market. People in Britain are concerned with the political system and how it is working. It might not be the top-hats of 1914, but there is a distinct alienation of the politicians from the people in 2009.

However, this is but a digression from the original question. Does the war still have a relevance to today’s digitised society? Flu aside, I think there is cause to think that it does. As bands such as Franz Ferdinand and the Kaiser Chiefs (although their name was taken from a South African football team, this is evidence of the stretch of empires and the lasting memory of the Kaiser) march their way up and down the pop charts, this is evidence that the war has a wider ranging impact upon society than perhaps first realised. There is further musical evidence too, take the well-played Christmas song “Stop the Cavalry”, deliberately a critique of war, but holding further historical connotations. The most famous line “I wish I was at home for Christmas”, can be read in light of the famous thought of Kitcheners volunteers presuming the war would be over by Christmas. Even the title of the song has implications relating to the First World War, with the use of the cavalry in an industrialised war being one of the main bones of contention amongst historians. The misinformed suggestion that Douglas Haig was intent on using the cavalry at every opportunity appears evident is one which the main detractors of the war manfully stick to. Even the video for the song has Jona Lewie appearing in khaki as if on the front line. There is obvious connection to the famously “futile” war that remains today.

Blackadder perhaps has much to do with this. You can barely escape the sitcom in any discussion of the war. Most take it as read that Curtis and Elton were playing with the truth of the war, and whilst there was ‘artistic licence’, there was also a sense of reality to the plight of Captain Blackadder and crew. Rowan Atkinson’s titular character is an obvious critique of what a Captain was, or at least, the perception of what a Captain was. Obviously at odds with the concept of war, he has obviously been promoted earlier than he should have been, and it is only the men around him which make him appear good enough to lead. There are other comparisons too, General Melchett is the archetypal “donkey” general: mad, traditional, and out of touch with the reality of the situation. Even the representation of Haig is of him ‘playing soldier’ with plastic characters and a dustpan, indicative of his apparent scant regard for human life. The fact that he was a devout religious man perhaps detracts slightly from that particular myth. Naturally, it gets left out of the detractors thoughts.

There are other forms of entertainment derived from the war, various films in recent times have played upon a continuing fascination with the conflict. This is obviously part of a larger whole however, with war films as a genre growing in number. Indeed, in comparison to later conflicts, the First World War has got away without the ‘Hollywood’ treatment which has perhaps ruined public knowledge of the Second World War.

Moving away from entertainment, the war still resonates with the public at least once a year. I have, in the past, complained about a startling naivity in relation to the war, and the acts of remembrance that are performed every year on 11 November. However, there is clearly a large part of society which understands the significance of the emblematic poppy, and appreciates its pre-WW2 origins. The acts of remembrance still centre on WW1, which then encompasses the following conflicts.

The reason for this is simple enough to explain, WW1 was the first global war, and the first on the path towards total war. It was the original conflict for the industrial age. For this reason alone it will always have a certain resonance. However, whether this is enough to claim that it still bears relevance to today’s society is less clear.

There are other things which must inevitably must be considered (I haven’t mentioned the role of books, or indeed the middle east conflicts which could easily be claimed to be a product of the First World War), but this was only intended to be a few notes on the issue. Obviously there is plenty more to say, but I am not going to go into them now. Perhaps in the future. It is, for the time being, sufficient to suggest that the First World War is a remarkable period of history which perhaps shaped the course of the entire 20th Century, and indeed, the early period of the 21st.

Ejucashun, Ejucation, Twitter…

25 03 2009

Whilst on my daily trawl through the BBC’s webpages, I found this story and was instantly dismayed. As a history scholar, I firmly believe more should be done to encourage people to question their pasts, and to connect the present with what has gone on before. The suggestions mooted in this report indicate that this is no longer a concern for governmental officials. Instead, it seems, we should be encouraging the ‘life skills’ of how to use Twitter, or how to blog.

Lets deal with this in three parts:

1. The suggestions seem to point to the idea that using Twitter is an important thing for children to learn. It is almost certainly not just Twitter but every social networking site going, but for the sake of convenience, Twitter will be used. I have a huge problem with this. The childhood stage of life is an important one in terms of building relationships with people, or at least learning how to do so. Kids learn moral and social things, you don’t pull people’s hair, you don’t hit people, you don’t bully people etc etc. They learn this through experiencing things, through doing, and through the repercussions of their actions. Kids learn how to talk to people, how to interact with others and communicate themselves. Again, they do this through actions. If we add Twitter into this, how much of a negative effect will this have on how they learn to build relationships with other people? I would suggest it would be a massive effect. No longer would it be necessary for children to talk to each other, when they can type instead. No longer would it be fun to go and play in the park with their mates because they could be interacting online instead. Twitter would begin to destroy how kids learn, rather than giving them the skills necesary. So yes, while they may learn to type, they will stop learning how to talk.

2. The report also mentions blogging. It seems to want to encourage more children to want to use blogs as a source of information, and to take up writing their own stuff. Why? Not all people are comfortable writing in the first place, never mind in a public access site. Why exacerbate things for those who do not want to write or use blogs?

Also, I’m going to throw into this Wikipedia, which is also mentioned in the report. Apparently, according to this write up of the story, “Children [are] to leave primary school familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of information“. Great. This though assumes one very important thing. That Wikipedia is right. Which, as we all know, it is not necessarily. Indeed we have been told on countless occasions not to use Wikipedia as a credible source for work as accuracy cannot be guarenteed.

3. It was though the final point of the BBC’s first paragraph which irked me the most though. All this is come come at the expense of history. At least, that’s the impression it gave. Further reading indicates that this is not the case, although schools will have the ability to choose which periods should be taught with the goal to be:

By the end of the primary phase, children should have gained an overview which enables them to place the periods, events and changes they have studied within a chronological framework, and to understand some of the links between them.

Great. They will not be taught about possibly two of the three most important parts of modern British history, but instead whatever takes the teachers fancy at the start of the year. Now I get that the Second World War is still part of later academic life, and, to some extent, so is the Victorian era. But what else is there of significance that can be taught? The First World War? No-one understands that, let alone primary school kids. At least the Second World War had the ‘bad guy’ in Hitler. What does World War One have? Nothing, it was fighting for the sake of fighting. I would suggest it is better to sow the seeds of curiosity when children are more receptive to ideas. They can then follow this up and develop an interest later on in their academic lives.

I really do not think that further use of Twitter, Wikipedia et al should be encouraged. Many people are already moaning that there is too much exposure to the internet and computers, so surely encouraging further exposure should be frowned upon? At a period where we are frequently told of the growing obesity problem, surely placing kids in front of another screen cannot help? I’m still not sure what was wrong with classrooms and books personally.

Just as a note, reading some of the comments about this story, this one has to be my favourite:

Im sure its just a coincidence the second world war where we fought against fascism is removed from the curriculum as our government becomes more fascist and controlling,

To cynical for my own good sometimes

The writer later admits that the Second World War is not being removed at all, but the point still made me chuckle.

A Moment of Reflection…

11 11 2008

Having spent much of this afternoon in the University’s Special Collections, I thought I would relay two of my findings which seem to have particular poignancy on this day.

They are both poems written by W.M. Letts in 1917.

The Deserter

There was a man, – don’t mind his name,
Whom Fear had dogged by night and day
He could not face the German guns
And so he turned and ran away.
Just that – he turned and ran away,
But who can judge him, you or I?
God makes a man of flesh and blood
Who yearns to live and not to die.
And this man when he feared to die,
Was scared as any frightened child,
His knees were shaking under him,
His breath came fast, his eyes were wild.
I’ve seen a hare with eyes as wild,
With throbbing heart and sobbing breath.
But oh! it shames one’s soul to see
A man in abject fear of death.
But fear had gripped him, so had death;
His number had gone up that day,
They might not heed his frightened eyes,
They shot him when the dawn was grey.
Blindfolded when the dawn was grey,
He stood there a place apart,
The shots rang out and down he fell,
An English bulelt in his heart.
An English bullet in his heart!
But here’s the irony of life, –
His mother thinks he fought and fell
A hero, foremost in the strife.
So she goes proudly; to the strife
Her best, her hero son she gave.
O well for her she does not know
He lies in a deserters grave.


John Delaney of the Rifles has been shot
A man we never knew
Does it cloud the day for you
That he lies among the dead
Moving, hearing, heeding not?

Read the rest of this entry »

Compulsory Remembrance…

4 11 2008

Tonight I have had a moan at my dad. This doesn’t happen very often, as generally my dad is great. But tonight, when he revealed he hadn’t yet bought a poppy, I got a little worked up.

It irks me that people can live in ignorant bliss, and not pay a pound once a year to buy a poppy to show support and remembrance to fallen soldiers of conflict. Why is it so hard? Is it through a lack of education? Is it just a case of being tight-fisted? Or (and this is the option I’m inclined to pick) is it just sheer laziness?

Too many people view the buying of a poppy as a chore, as something that ought to be done ‘because’. The only solution to my mind is to drum it into them from a young age. Make the wearing of poppys compulsory at school for two weeks before Remembrance Sunday. Simple. As the kids get older, educate them in the meaning and significance of the poppy, so that by the time they are adults, they will understand and be willing to get their own and donate to the British Legion.

There is no cost issue either, at my school we used to pay a pound a term (roughly) to be allowed to wear our own clothes for a day. It wasn’t much to pay for the privilage of wearing a pair of jeans and t-shirt instead of blazer and tie for a day. So why would paying a pound to wear a poppy for two weeks be any worse? The simple answer is, it wouldn’t.

I don’t think there can be any moral objection either, after all, what is there to object to? Remembrance? I’m reasonably sure most people would not object to paying a small tribute to our fallen soldiers. And lets be honest here, they don’t ask for much. They gave their lives in conflict fighting for Britain in war. All you have to do is spend a pound a year and shut up for two minutes. Hardly hard work now is it?

Ignorance, sloth and being tight are not good reasons not to remember. If we force the issue from a young age through our schools, then, as we move away from the generations who remember the world wars, we can hopefully keep the tribute running strong.

It’s Remembrance Day dammit…

28 10 2008

This will be short and to the point. I was in the petrol station this morning. Whilst I was there in walked a mother with her daughter who must have been about 5 or 6. It was reasonably busy in the shop. As they wandered around I heard the daughter ask her mother, “why are people wearing those flowers?

The mother’s response was “I don’t really know, but it’s what people do at this time of year.

I was disgusted. I felt like giving the mother a slapping and were it not for the fear of being arrested I think I might have.