“Not all First World War soldiers were heroes,” says historiantags: World War I, Heroes
Official accounts of 1914 take a too “cosy and comfortable” view of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and fail to acknowledge its shortcomings, historian Adrian Gilbert has claimed.
In a new book, Challenge of Battle: The Real Story of the British Army in 1914, Gilbert reexamines the opening campaigns in France and Belgium, and, amongst other things, notes instances where British troops broke and ran from the field of battle.
He considers failures at the battle of Le Cateau – normally described as a valiant British delaying action – and the St Quentin Surrender.
Inspired by the unusually frank memoirs of Major-General Thomas Snow, the 4th Division’s commander, the book draws on numerous first-hand accounts.
Here, in an interview with History Extra, Gilbert discusses his research.
Q: What do you mean when you say that ‘not all soldiers were heroes’?
A: There’s been a recent and irritating tendency to see soldiers as synonymous with ‘heroes’. But only a few soldiers were actually heroes, and they are the ones who made very difficult decisions. By virtue of simply being a soldier does not make a man a hero.
In my book I take a fairly hard look at the army, and examine both strengths and weaknesses.
There has developed what I call a commemorative history rather than an analytical one. It draws a veil over the more embarrassing aspects of the war. A particular offender is the British Official History, which covers up many of the more unpleasant aspects of the campaign.
Nor do you get an analytical history in regimental histories. Understandably, they ‘big up’ their regiments as much as possible.
Historians, however, have tended to follow these records too closely, and so the balance is lost – we end up with a lop-sided, overly ‘positive’ take on the war.
It may seem unpatriotic to delve deeper into some of these darker aspects, but you must look at the war in its entirety.
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