After 100 years, Britain still at war over legacy of World War I

by Jill Lawless


For the people of Britain, for whom the trenches of Flanders are still an ideological battlefield, the centenary of the start of World War I has sparked an argument about patriotism, historical responsibility and the place of humor in teaching history.

Only in Britain, perhaps, would the spat pit the Conservative-led government’s education minister against a comic actor — Tony Robinson, who played the dim-witted soldier Baldrick in “Blackadder Goes Forth,” a much-loved television sitcom about the war.

In an article for the right-of-center Daily Mail newspaper, Education Secretary Michael Gove said “Blackadder” and other satires had created a public impression of the four-year war as “a misbegotten shambles, a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

In four seasons of “Blackadder,” comic actor Rowan Atkinson — now famous as Mr. Bean — played a world-weary nobleman in different eras of British history, suffering the never-ending idiocy of each period’s ruling elites.

In the final season, “Blackadder Goes Forth,” he and dim servant Baldrick, played by Robinson, are soldiers in the trenches of World War I under the command of a clueless general (Stephen Fry) in what is depicted as a futile conflict. “Millions have died, but our troops have advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping,” Blackadder says.

First broadcast in 1989, it is regarded by many as a classic — partly because of the poignant final scene, in which the jokes stop and the main characters charge into battle and to their likely deaths.

Yet Gove is not among its fans. In his article, he cited the show as a contributor to “misrepresentations which reflect . . . an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honor and courage.”

He said for Britain, World War I was “plainly a ‘just’ war,” and one country was to blame for starting it: Germany, with its “aggressively expansionist war aims and . . . scorn for the international order.”

Gove’s remarks were criticized by Robinson, a well-known activist for the opposition Labour Party. “I think Mr. Gove has just made a very silly mistake,” Robinson told Sky News, in saying that “Blackadder” formed children’s views of the war.

He said teachers used the show simply as “another teaching tool” alongside visits to battlefields and reading war poetry.

Labour’s education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, accused Gove of a “crass” attempt to hijack “what should be a moment for national reflection and respectful debate.”

The furor is evidence of how large World War I — in which a million British soldiers died — still looms in the country’s imagination.

Generations of British schoolchildren have studied the wrenching front-line poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and the conflict has inspired countless books, plays and movies.

Britain plans major commemorations of the war this year, from ceremonies and stage productions to the restoration of war memorials and a soccer tournament to commemorate the Christmas 1914 truce between German and British troops at the front.

Historians remain divided about who should bear the burden of responsibility for the war. It was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, which sparked a series of events that drove two powerful blocs into conflict: Britain, France and Russia on one side; Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other.

Cambridge University history professor Richard J. Evans accused Gove and other conservative politicians of using the war’s anniversary for political ends, to advance “a kind of Euroskeptic agenda — the idea that bashing the Hun is a good thing to do.”

“You have to be a bit more nuanced after 100 years and not just parrot British propaganda about the war,” Evans said. “It’s possible to say that extremely brave men were fighting courageously for a cause that in the end turned out to be a futile one.” He added that politicians should recognize “there are many different views of the First World War and there are many different ways you can commemorate it.”