GEOFF BARTON: Our war heroes deserve better

A Personal View
A Personal View
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So: another year begins and it didn’t take long for education to clatter its way into the January headlines.

The new term was barely under way when Education Michael Michael Gove wrote an incendiary article about the First World War. Writing in the Daily Mail, he suggested that as a nation we have allowed ourselves to be taken in by (as he put it) left-wing academics with their distorted version of history.

He said we had all fallen for a sickly, saccharine version of the events of 1914-18. We had uncritically swallowed the myth that all soldiers were earnest, noble working class heroes led to their doom by incompetent upper class generals.

We were guilty of viewing a righteous war as if was just some prolonged episode of Black Adder.

In a year which is likely to be dominated by a national retrospective about what was known as the Great War, it was an unexpected intervention by the Secretary of State for Education. And I think it was unwise for two reasons.

The first is that his complaint about bias is simply not true. Two of the most eminent historians of World War One are anything but left wing. Max Hastings, author of the current bestselling and much-admired history of the war, Catastrophe, is a former editor of the Daily Express. He is also a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. Neither publication is exactly known as a mouthpiece of raving lefties.

The other author was Alan Clark whose book The Donkeys, written in 1961, was based on the line ‘lions led by donkeys’. He depicted an officer class seriously out of their depth, struggling with unfamiliar conditions and new technology, failing to comprehend the horrifying significance of machine guns, aircraft, tanks and – lethally – barbed wire.

It’s hard not to support Clark’s view when you consider the scale of the massacre. On the first day of 1916’s Battle of the Somme – the first day, note – some 60,000 men were injured.

The accusation of incompetence came loud and clear from Clark. And who was he? A long-standing Conservative MP and, briefly, a colourful member of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet. This was no sequestered left-wing academic.

So the problem with Michael Gove’s broad-brush assertion is that his argument doesn’t stand up. We aren’t all hapless dupes who can’t tell the difference between Black Adder and a serious documentary. Our Secretary of State should credit us with a bit more intelligence than that.

Back in 1997, on my first visit to Suffolk to be interviewed for a deputy headship at Thurston Upper School, I wandered into that fine, imposing church in the heart of Walsham-le-Willows. You couldn’t miss the simple plaque listing the names of young men from the village – often several from the same family – who had died in World War One. Each name concealed a story.

Every Suffolk town and village has similar lists, and so does our school. Those names deserve to be free from political point-scoring. And that’s why Freya George, the Year 13 chair of our student History Society, is on a mission to get beyond the simple list of names of former students. Working at the Suffolk Regimental Museum, she and other current students have begun to delve beyond the inky catalogue and to find out who these young people were, where they lived, and what perhaps were their hopes, fears and dreams.

That sense of personal history, 100 years on from the war that failed to end all wars, is what we should be exploring now, rather than trading cheap political jibes and shuffling stereotypes as the Secretary of State has done. We owe it to the current generation to illuminate such a devastating moment in our nation’s history. We owe it, too, to that lost former generation by reminding ourselves that at the heart of war are always ordinary human beings just like us. In World War One, many of them came from Suffolk. And far too many of them never came home again.