If I may be so bold, I should like to move against the grain of advice being meted out by military revisionists, and posit a useful corrective to the strict, but unnecessary, dichotomy between the so-called ‘known facts’ and ‘popular image’ of the First World War in Britain. This separation is profoundly unsatisfying for the historian of ideas. Of course, it is crucial to acknowledge the feats amounting to ultimate victory in 1918, along with societal landmarks such as strides in education and employment, and broader national landmarks in economic, foreign and imperial policy. But the ‘history’ of the war is not synonymous with the military and political decisions that shaped its conduct and aftermath.
As long ago as 1976, John Keegan suggested that our understanding of wars could be confused by the rhetoric of military historians trying to override their piecemeal and chaotic nature. One should perhaps feel sympathetic towards Paul Fussell, who clearly believed that he was portraying a deeper truth about the war that was beyond the comprehension of military historians. It is therefore our responsibility to admit the deeper implications of the war as a necessarily human endeavour, the essence of which was the upheaval and destruction of many lives. Posterity should not dismiss, but instead try to understand, how this made people feel.
Moreover, the ‘popular image’ of the war has been continually shaped and reflected by myths firmly rooted in historical events and factual memoirs, along with other documentary evidence. Clearly the time has passed for taking such representations at face value. How individuals and groups within British society have interacted with these, contested their meanings, and appropriated their moral lessons along with the constructed identities of their authors, is a far more fruitful topic for investigation that will enrich our understanding of ideas and assumptions about the First World War.
Yes, history may be written as a celebration of achievement and a vindication of this particular perspective. Yes, it can present a story of hard-fought progress towards a satisfactory outcome – though I use the term ‘satisfactory’ lightly, so as not to perpetuate the idea that ‘victory’ was in any sense a politically neutral objective. And, of course, the wider history of Britain in the twentieth century should not simply be understood in terms of decline. But we must try and piece together the diverse aspects of the war’s history. While the argument made here might too quickly be associated with one political view characteristic of the liberal tradition of socio-political thought, it is certainly not one which deserves to be dismissed, given the distinctively conservative tendencies inherent in attempts to explain modern wars.