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Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War, 1914

Audio from Max Hastings’ CVHF talk on Saturday 28th June 2014.

Journalist, editor and acclaimed author Sir Max Hastings tells the story of how Europe went to war in 1914 precipitating the first of the 20th century’s great tragedies. He challenges the view of some modern historians that British participation was unnecessary and concludes with the christmas truces when the struggle had lapsed into the stalemate which was to last the next four years.

Warrior: The Amazing Story of a Real War Horse

In this video, Brough Scott recounts the story of Warrior, bred by his grandfather Jack Seely and ridden by him on the battlefields of World War 1.


Brough will be speaking at CVHF on Sunday, 28th June in ‘WARRIOR: THE REAL WAR HORSE
. He will follow Warrior’s extraordinary journey from birth to his survival through Ypres and the Somme with his grandfather, General Jack Seely. Surviving five years of war, this will be the story of men and horses who fought and died, for ‘God and Country’.

Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One

Audio from Kate Adie’s talk at the Chalke Valley Festival on Monday, 23rd June 2014.

Renowned broadcaster and bestselling author Kate Adie reveals the ways in which women’s lives changed during WWI with fascinating details of their struggle for admission into the world of men. She charts the seismic move towards equal rights that began a century ago and show how women emerged from the shadows of their domestic lives.

Lady Emma Kitchener to open Princess Mary Gift Boxes, untouched for nearly 100 years

You are invited to a special event at the Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival, on Saturday 28th June at 4pm, when Lady Emma Kitchener will be opening a sealed packing case which has remained untouched since the start of the First World War.

Princess Mary Gift Box
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Dealing With the ‘Blackadder’ View of the First World War: The Need for an Inclusive, Bi-Partisan Centenary

The intervention of Education Secretary Michael Gove on the First World War suggests that the Centenary is becoming a political football. In this personal reflection, historian Gary Sheffield argues that it is not too late to disentangle the Centenary of the First World War from crude partisan politics.

This article was first published by Royal United Services Institute, January 2014

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Dealing with Blackadder

Michael Gove’s comments about the First World War have ensured that what some of us feared would happen has come to pass. Aided by a rather-ill-advised reply from Labour’s Tristram Hunt, immediately seized upon by Boris Johnson, the Centenary of 1914-18 has become a political football. Gove’s Daily Mail article attacked Sir Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge. This might not be unrelated to the fact that Evans has been an outspoken critic of Gove’s educational reforms. In July, Evans published a Guardian article on the Gove reforms which included some trenchant comments on the First World War. Some historians, myself included, were also in his sights.

As a loyal Guardian reader, my feelings about this piece were mixed. Not being one of Michael Gove’s fellow travellers, I actually agreed with many of Evans’ criticisms of the educational reforms. Of course, I dissented from his interpretation of the First World War. Likewise, the opinions formed in the course of my research mean that I cannot support some the things Evans has written and said in response to Gove’s Daily Mail article. He is not going to convert me to his views, and vice versa. So be it. But we share common ground to this extent: it is plain wrong to suggest academic opinion on the First World War is polarised along Left/Right lines.

Historians of all political persuasions and none have been working for decades to discredit what might crudely be described as the ‘Blackadder’ view of the First World War. Views among this group are by no means uniform, and there are some sharp divisions over interpretations. My politics happen to lie on the Left. Interviewed on the BBC’s ‘World at One’, I was asked if I was embarrassed that Gove mentioned my work approvingly. I am not embarrassed, but I am concerned, for by politicising the issue Gove has done the cause of education no favours.

He gets the history broadly right. For Britain, the war was one of national survival, fought in defence of its vital interests against an aggressive, militarist, anti-democratic, near-autocracy. The tired stereotype of the British army as ‘lions led by donkeys’ has long been thoroughly discredited. My worry is that because my work and that of other historians has been used for party political advantage, it might be regarded as tainted by those who are not knowledgeable about current debates. This would be a great shame, because above all the Centenary period offers a wonderful opportunity for education about the seminal catastrophe of the Twentieth century. Sadly, responses to ‘Govegate’ have all too often been intemperate and ill-informed, with ignorance and prejudice to the fore.

A subject as emotive as the First World War can never be depoliticised; nor should it. I hope, however, that it is not too late to disentangle the Centenary of the First World War from crude partisan politics. It is a hopeful sign that both Andrew Murrison, the Prime Minister’s pointman for the event, and Dan Jarvis, his Labour shadow, have taken a much more measured approach. In particular, Jarvis’ article for the Fabian Review should be required reading. Moreover, mutterings have been reported among some of Gove’s fellow Conservatives about his undermining of No. 10’s consciously inclusive, bi-partisan approach to the Centenary.

My hope, perhaps doomed, is that academics and politicians will rise above ‘Govegate’ to ensure that by this time next year, the British public will better informed about the First World War. At a minimum I would like to see general recognition that the ‘sleepwalkers’ interpretation of the origins of the First World War, crudely stated that the great powers stumbled into a war that no one wanted, remains a minority view among scholars. On the contrary, there is a great deal of evidence that Austria-Hungary and Germany bear the burden of the responsibility for unleashing the war. Moreover, it needs to be understood the vast majority of the British people supported the war, not as an imperialist venture but because they believed that Germany posed a direct threat to their country, their well-being and their families; and many historians argue that they were absolutely right to do so.

To assert that the Kaiser’s Germany was not the same as Nazi Germany is a red herring. True, it was not consciously genocidal (at least in the European context: in Africa it was a different matter); but the aggression and brutal occupation polices of Imperial Germany were, by any other standard, bad enough. Finally, the complexities of understanding what happened on the battlefield needs to be explained. The idea that the heavy British casualties were caused by solely by the stupidity of the generals remains surprisingly enduring, but cannot withstand even a cursory glance at the evidence.

Commemoration of the First World War is too important to become caught up in partisan politics. The years 2014-18 offer a unique opportunity for education and rational debate about the war. We should not squander it.


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gary-sheffieldProfessor Gary Sheffield is Professor of War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton and spoke at CVHF on ‘Our Father’s War’ on Friday, 27th June 2014.

Email:  [email protected]
Twitter: @ProfGSheffield