Dan Snow and the Daily Mail

On 5 July 2016, I spoke about the Battle of the Somme at an Oldie Literary Lunch. On the following day the Daily Mail ran a piece that purported to be a report of comments that I made about Dan Snow’s contribution to a television programme on the battle. The comments attributed to me were simply not accurate. I have addressed the matter privately with Dan Snow, who has responded with great dignity and kindness. I am pleased to say that he is interviewing me for his ‘History Hit’ podcast which will be made available shortly.

Needless to say, I am extremely disappointed by the actions of the newspaper. As well as having an adverse impact on myself, they have also harmed a man for whom I have professional respect.

Ultimately, what is important is educating the public on all levels about the battle and remembering all those who took part, those who were lost, and those who survived.

Gary Sheffield
7 July 2016

‘Put that light out, Napoleon!’

The immortal words of ARP Warden Hodges, the baddie of Dad’s Army, the archenemy of Captain Mainwaring, commander of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon, came to mind when I heard of the idea emanating from ’14-18-Now WW1 (sic) Art Commissions’, the official cultural programme of the UK Government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Their suggestion is that the homes of Britain have but a single light burning at 11pm on 4 August 2014, to commemorate British entry into the First World War a century before. Among the reactions on Twitter, the words ‘inane’ and vacuous’ appeared. My initial reaction on Twitter was to call it a ‘ludicrous gimmick’, and it gets sillier the more I think about it. (I was surprised but pleased, incidentally, that Centenary News thought my views worthy of a story on their website. Truly the year 2014 is the First World War historian’s moment in the sun).

If the ‘lights out’ idea was just a vacuous wheeze along the lines of the spam fritter competitions proposed some twenty years ago by John Major’s government to mark the anniversary of VE-Day, I would not be blogging about it, but it is a great deal more than that. The idea comes of course from the words supposedly uttered by the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, as war approached: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”. He made no less than six attempts to resolve by mediation the crisis begun by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Grey believed until very late in the day that the goodwill of the Powers could avert war. He was wrong, for the simple reason that neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary were interested in the crisis being resolved peacefully. At a minimum, they were determined to destroy Serbia, heedless of the likelihood that it would plunge Europe into general war.

It seems to me that the ‘lights out’ gimmick is predicated on the belief that the war was a terrible tragedy – which of course it was – but also that it was some sort of accident. Pace the once again fashionable ‘sleepwalkers’ idea, it was nothing of the sort. The blame for beginning the First World War rested with a small clique of decision-makers in Vienna and Berlin who took decisions to pursue aggressive policies, fully aware of their likely outcome. Once at war, the brutal, expansionist, militaristic German regime posed an existential threat to the survival not only of the British state and nation but to liberal democracy in Europe. ‘Lights out’ perpetuates the patronising myth that the British leadership and people of 1914 were deluded in entering an unnecessary war, when the evidence points to radically different conclusions: that the conflict that began in August 1914 was a war of national survival, and the vast majority of the British understood very well what was at stake.

‘Lights out’ is yet another manifestation of the weakness at the heart of the UK government’s programme of commemoration: it has consistently refused, from the PM’s intellectually incoherent announcement in October 2012 onwards, to take a position on why Britain fought in the war. To their credit, individuals such as Dr Andrew Murrison MP have bravely said the war was worth fighting, but that is not enough. Britain fought Nazi Germany and Imperial Germany for essentially the same reasons, and successive governments have had no difficulty in interpreting the meaning of the Second World War. The Government’s present attitude is an abdication of leadership, and feels like a betrayal of the memory of the men and women of 1914-18.

Education is supposed to be at the heart of the commemorative programme. I believe that a disinterested study of Britain in the First World War shows that this was a conflict that was forced upon it, but one that it could not afford to stay out of, and certainly could not afford to lose. If ‘lights out’ was linked to an educational programme to explain Grey’s desperate efforts to avert war and the reasons why Britain eventually was forced to fight, it would have some purpose. As it is, ‘lights out’ is simply a gimmick, a pathetic substitute for education.

Coda: Did Grey actually say the words attributed to him? I am open to correction on this, but it seems possible that they are apocryphal. Grey himself in his memoirs wrote that a friend ‘recalls’ Grey’s comment on seeing lamp lighters at work one evening, probably on 3 August. From Grey’s own words it appears he did not remember his comment until reminded of it by his unnamed friend. I would be interested if anyone has any evidence that Grey’s words were in circulation before his memoirs were published in the 1920s.

‘Command and Morale’ has been published

‘Command and Morale’, my latest book, appeared last week. For a long time I’ve been thinking of bringing together some of the articles and book chapters I’ve published over the years. Around the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War seemed a good time to bring the project to fruition.

The essays range from some of my earliest publications, products of research from my MA back in the 80s, through to one I wrote especially for the book. So, the collection represents a series of snapshots of an academic career that has, so far, stretched over three decades. It originally had the working title of ‘Gary’s greatest hits’ but someone pointed out that ‘Gary’s B sides’ would be more accurate. Actually, B sides are where you can be creative: one of my favourite Bob Dylan performances is his impassioned, bluesy cover of the Everley Brothers’ ‘Let It Be Me’, the B-side to (from memory) ‘Heart of Mine’ from 1981. But I digress.

The title of the book reflects my two major research interests in FWW studies: high command, and morale and motivation at unit level. I resisted the temptation to engage in major rewriting of the text, just correcting a few glitches (in one case, my original text was butchered by the in-house editor of the collection in which it appeared so the work was a bit more extensive). Otherwise I provided some afterthoughts, in which I engaged with work relevant to the subject which had appeared since original publication.

In the one original piece I trace the difficult relationship between Douglas Haig and Henry Rawlinson from the Sudan campaign of 1898 (when I think they first met – if anyone can provide me with evidence of an earlier meeting I’d be interested to see it) through to 1915. What struck me when researching this chapter is that their backgrounds within the army were so different. We need more research on factionalism in the First World War army. It does both men credit that they were able largely to put this aside and work together.

However, as I argued in my bio of Haig, ‘The Chief’, Rawly does not come well out of the First Day on the Somme. By ignoring both the letter and the spirit of Haig’s concept of operations, he threw away the chance of a substantial advance on the southern flank in the afternoon of 1 July 1916. Although there was a ghastly failure in the northern sector, a failure for which Haig bore much responsibility, there was a real chance of a major British success in the south to accompany the impressive French advance. British 18th and 30th Divisions took all of their objectives and German resistance largely collapsed. This was the time for mobile reserves to be deployed, as Haig’s CONOPS demanded. Rawlinson, wedded to bite and hold, did not rise to the challenge.

Relaunch of website

This is my first blog post for a very long time. Apologies – but I’ve been a bit busy!

However, I now intend to regularly post my thoughts, particularly on the centenary of the First World War. I am aided in this by my new very efficient webmistress (my daughter, Jennie @JennieSheffield), who is updating my website.

In the meantime, here is something I wrote for the Royal United Services Institute on the First World War back in January.

More to follow soon.

Leadership Conference in Maynooth

Last weekend, I gave the keynote address at a conference held at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. The title of the conference was The Art of Leadership: Leadership in war, conflict and crises – past, present and future. The conference was hosted by NUIM’s Centre for Military History and Strategic Studies, which is run by Dr Ian Speller and Dr David Murphy (a very promising setup – I hope to work with them on some projects in the future). They deserve a lot of credit for putting together an excellent conference which attracted speakers from as far afield as South Africa and the USA.

It was a good conference for hearing interesting papers on unfamiliar subjects – Dr Harman Murtagh’s illustrated lecture on French generals in Ireland during the Williamite Wars was a case in point. The highlights for me included (and bear in mind that I did not hear all the papers, as there were parallel sessions, and timings of flights meant that I had to miss the Sunday afternoon sessions) Dr Ian van der Waag’s paper on ‘The South African High Command in 1914’, a subject that is close to my own research interests. Lt. Col Dave Dignam (Irish Defence Forces) gave a stimulating paper on ‘The Evolving Operational Paradigm and the Leadership Challenge’ and Dr Stephen Hart (RMA Sandhurst) examined the attempts of the Nazi leadership to stiffen resistance in the last days of the Second World War. Dr Greg Hospodor of the US Army Command and Staff College analysed the respective reputations of Taylor and Scott in the Mexican War, and Dr Harry Laver (South Eastern Louisiana University) discussed the development of Ulysses S. Grant as a leader.

I found the latter paper particularly fascinating, as I am rereading Grant’s Personal Memoirs and, while writing my recent biography of Douglas Haig, had to grapple with the comparisons between the two men flagged up long ago by John Terraine. In the end I only covered the subject briefly, but might return to it in the future, particularly in light of Brian Holden Reid’s recent JRUSI article on the American Civil War and the First World War, which was based on the 2011 John Terraine Lecture he gave at the University of Birmingham.

My keynote was, inevitably, on Haig, although in my defence I must say that a) the organisers asked me to speak about him, and b) I tried something a little different! Inspired by the work of my Birmingham colleague Dr Peter Gray on Bomber Command in the Second World War, I examined Haig as a strategic leader. For this I used some theoretical tools such as Rittel and Webber’s concept of ‘tame’ and ‘wicked’ problems, and various aspects of strategic leadership theory, including ‘tipping point leadership’. Using theory was helpful in making sense of Haig’s role on the Western Front, and although I only had time to examine a couple of aspects of his performance, concluded that in some ways he was a fairly effective strategic leader. Having put my toe in the water, I am now going to write a full-blown article on Haig as a strategic leader.