Gove – ignoring the voices of the dead

06 Jan

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

If you want the old battalion,
We know where they are,
They’re hanging on the old barbed wire

or more simply

I don’t want to die

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. 

BBC News Magazine – The Birth of Oh What a Lovely War!


Posted by on 6 January, '14 in About


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6 responses to “Gove – ignoring the voices of the dead

  1. Tamsin

    7 January, '14 at 05:55

    That is so appalling – and so superficial. What sort of prism was he watching “Oh What a Lovely War” through? Surely nothing can be truer, as you say, than the words of the men who were there.

    From the “Wiper’s Times”

    If you can drink the beer the Belgians sell you,
    And pay the price they ask with ne’er a grouse,
    If you believe the tales that some will tell you,
    And live in mud with ground sheet for a house,

    If you can live on bully and a biscuit,
    And thank your stars that you’ve a tot of rum,
    Dodge whizzbangs with a grin, and as you risk it
    Talk glibly of the pretty way they hum,

    If you can flounder through a C.T. nightly
    That’s three-parts full of mud and filth and slime,
    Bite back the oaths and keep your jaw shut tightly,
    While inwardly you’re cursing all the time,

    If you can crawl through wire and crump holes reeking
    With feet of liquid mud, and keep your head
    Turned always to the place that you are seeking,
    Through dread of crying you will laugh instead,

    If you can fight a week in Hell’s own image,
    And at the end just throw you down and grin,
    When every bone you’ve got starts on a scrimmage,
    And for a sleep you’d sell your soul within,

    If you can clamber up with pick and shovel,
    And turn your filthy crump hole to a trench,
    When all inside you makes you itch to grovel,
    And all you’ve had to feed on is a stench,

    If you can hang on just because you’re thinking
    You haven’t got one chance in ten to live,
    So you will see it through, no use in blinking
    And you’re not going to take more than you give,

    If you can grin at last when handing over,
    And finish well what you had well begun,
    And think a muddy ditch a bed of clover,
    You’ll be a solider one day, then, my son

  2. admin

    7 January, '14 at 08:05

    Thank you for this. It’s an important reminder that although the letters that will be published here are unedited by us, they were self-edited by Ted, Richard and Paul. They did spare their mother the worst of it, by a long way.

  3. Alfster

    7 January, '14 at 17:43

    It is with some irony (or not really when you know what Gove is capable of) that he a) totally misses the point of Blackadder Goes Forth especially the ending – the ordinary men in the trenches were the brave intelligent ones who could see it wasn’t working and the upper classes were the idiots and b) doesn’t see the absolute parallels that we are still lions led by donkeys but the lions are slightly closer to the donkeys and I think he’d prefer it we were all back in our places.

    It is due to WW1 that the class system fell and why we have had nearly a hundred years of slightly more parity between social classes…and now it seems, with food banks etc, that the Tories are getting the country back to pre-WW1 status.

  4. Tamsin

    7 January, '14 at 18:16

    I don’t think it was simply class – there were upper class lions. The life expectancy of a junior officer was 3 months – and that was a time when, at the start of the war at least, you couldn’t live on your pay and needed a private income to support a commission. And the most poignant thing about Castle Drogo in Devon, the last “castle” built in England by the millionaire who founded the Home and Colonial Stores, is the room of the heir, an only son (like Kipling’s) killed in WW1 – with his belongings still there, and his college gown (another preserve of the upper, or at least monied, classes) hanging on the back of the door.

    It was, I think, more a matter of old and young.

    Wilfred Owen – the Parable of the Old Men and the Young (although he was dithering about “Old Man” or “Old Men” in the title – it’s one of the ones where various drafts have survived.)

    So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
    And took the fire with him, and a knife.
    And as they sojourned both of them together,
    Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
    Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
    But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
    Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
    And builded parapets and trenches there,
    And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
    When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
    Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
    Neither do anything to him. Behold,
    A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
    Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

    But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
    And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

  5. admin

    7 January, '14 at 19:38

    Lord, but Owen was a powerful poet.

    The shortest life expectancy in the trenches was for the very new, very inexperienced junior officers, apparently. The cynic in me wonders if their schoolboy naivete was just too much for the men they were supposed to be leading (“But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks: ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!'”) and they were targets for both sides. I have just had that rather unpleasant thought. It’s possible too that the playing fields of Eton simply didn’t give them whatever they needed to survive.

    I learned yesterday that the phrase “Lions led by donkeys” was apparently coined by Tory grandee Alan Clark.

    WHAT was Gove thinking? WAS Gove thinking?

  6. Tamsin

    8 January, '14 at 08:51

    He is, isn’t he – those amazing half rhyrmes and the gradual built up of images of the war of which there is no hint in the first three lines.

    An unpleasant thought indeed. But although some may have been occasions when they were left to drown in a shell hole I don’t think they would have been actively targeted. An inconceivable remove from the normal discipline, stupendous risks (“and later they found and English ball” – from SIW) and the non-coms wouldn’t have stood for it.

    Interesting – I would have thought the phrase was much earlier than that. Here is Sassoon expanding the concept in “The General”

    ‘GOOD-MORNING; good-morning!’ the General said
    When we met him last week on our way to the line.
    Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
    And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
    ‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack 5
    As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

    . . . .
    But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

    To actually answer your rhetorical questions about Gove: “That he should spin a party line at every opportunity” and “No”.

    On authentic voices: the songs and parodies made up by the men for their own amusement in the hour itself are surely truer than even their self-censored letters home or recollections shared with interviewers a third of their age half a century on.


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