Michael Gove wrote recently about WWI with an astonishing lack of self-awareness. His remarks are worth quoting:
The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.
It is hard to let the phrase “an out-of-touch elite” pass without comment, but I shall. Instead I am going to make three observations.
The first is that a war where 65 million men were mobilised has many millions of meanings. The meaning of the First World War in particular changed when it was not “over by Christmas” as expected, when entire families of brothers and entire streets of men were killed in a week or a single day going over the top in France, when the 16 million killed were not dead for the duration as Diana Cooper noted in confused grief, but dead forever.
The second is that Gove cites Oh What a Lovely War as a “fictional prism”. This is immensely interesting. I discovered this week that Oh What a Lovely War was based directly on a radio documentary called The Long Long Trail made in the 1960s by Charles Chilton whose father died aged 19 at Aras. Chilton collected the folk songs of the war, the parodies, the bar-room songs, the songs the troops sang on trains and in the trenches. The words of Oh What a Lovely War may be left wing; if so it’s because the enlisted men singing
or more simply
are not singing the words written for them by song-writers or propagandists. They are singing their own words. And they speak directly to us.
My third observation is that one of WW1s shortest war poems was by the British Empire’s greatest apologist, Rudyard Kipling. It is also one of the most powerful. Kipling’s only beloved son John should and could have been exempt from from military service because he was cripplingly short-sighted, instead his father pulled strings and got him into the army and out to France where the 18 year old was killed on his second day at the front when his face was blown off. His body was never found. Kipling was stricken with grief and guilt:
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
Gove should show the dead some respect. He should not try to silence the voices of the people who were there, even when they say things he doesn’t want them to say.
The Long Long Trail – Broadcast for the first time since 1961, this is Charles Chilton’s forgotten radio masterpiece telling the story of the First World War through the songs sung by soldiers.
BBC Archive on 4 – Documentary about The Long Long Trail – Roy Hudd explores Charles Chilton’s masterpiece telling the story of the First World War in a unique way – through the songs sung by soldiers.