Most people’s knowledge of the Great War is summed up perfectly in an episode of Friends in which Phoebe and Rachel reach the conclusion that the allied forces fought against Mexico in the First World War. I should point out that Germany did indeed attempt to ally itself with Mexico, although I doubt Rachel and Phoebe had an in depth knowledge of the German’s Zimmerman Telegram that offered Mexico territory from the United States if they were to join their cause.
Rachel’s unfortunate blunder does however raise some very serious questions about our knowledge of one of the most significant events of modern history. Regrettably, within our education system, the events of the First World War appear overshadowed by the Second. My own history courses at school always conveniently began at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, altogether omitting the run up and events of the Great War. I would assume that the majority of people have, to some extent, learnt about Churchill, the Blitz, the Holocaust and the Nazis. However, I suspect the number who are well informed about The Black Hand, the Somme, the Russian Revolution and the Fourteen Points is significantly lower.
According to the Conservatives however, this is all about to change. This year’s centenary has produced a flood of new documentaries, newspaper features and national events, and David Cameron has argued that he wants to see this restored interest in the Great War reflected in schools. Indeed, I completely agree that it is of great importance that our generation understands why the war broke out and how the conflict shaped our society today. Whilst it is undeniably our duty to reflect on the horrific scale of the conflict, and to remember the sacrifices made by millions of people, Michael Gove’s intention to portray the conflict in schools as a ‘just and noble war’ appears, to me, a cause of concern. This is not simply a question of encouraging the study of the Great War, but also the approach taken whilst implementing this change.
Cameron’s statement calling for the ‘realities of the conflict’ to be exposed is somewhat at odds with Gove’s conception of a noble war. Political decisions taken during the First World War were often neither honourable nor just. The fact is that whilst our troops fought to protect the independence of European states, our government was overseeing what were often brutal regimes across the British Empire, denying those people the right to autonomy. As politicians condemned the actions of the Germans, murder, rape and torture were being used by the allied forces as political tools to control their own colonies. Even within our own country, the Defence of the Realm Act brought Britain close to dictatorship; censoring newspapers, allowing government to take over any factory or land and criminalising the spread of rumours.
The fact that it is not compulsory to teach this pivotal era of our history is our first failure. Our second failure is our patchwork approach. We cannot pick and choose our history and I am simply advocating that the whole truth be taught. Whilst recognising the debt we owe to that generation, it is essential we acknowledge the darker side of our own history, rather than depicting the British government as the embodiment of tolerance and morality.