Dealing With the ‘Blackadder’ View of the First World War: The Need for an Inclusive, Bi-Partisan Centenary

tags: World War I, Michael Gove



Gary Sheffield is Professor of War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton g.sheffield@wlv.ac.uk @ProfGSheffield  

Michael Gove’s comments about the First World War have ensured that what some of us feared would happen has come to pass. Aided by a rather-ill-advised reply from Labour’s Tristram Hunt, immediately seized upon by Boris Johnson, the Centenary of 1914-18 has become a political football. Gove’s Daily Mail article attacked Sir Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge. This might not be unrelated to the fact that Evans has been an outspoken critic of Gove’s educational reforms. In July, Evans published a Guardian article on the Gove reforms which included some trenchant comments on the First World War. Some historians, myself included, were also in his sights.

As a loyal Guardian reader, my feelings about this piece were mixed. Not being one of Michael Gove’s fellow travellers, I actually agreed with many of Evans’ criticisms of the educational reforms. Of course, I dissented from his interpretation of the First World War. Likewise, the opinions formed in the course of my research mean that I cannot support some the things Evans has written and said in response to Gove’s Daily Mail article. He is not going to convert me to his views, and vice versa. So be it. But we share common ground to this extent: it is plain wrong to suggest academic opinion on the First World War is polarised along Left/Right lines.

Historians of all political persuasions and none have been working for decades to discredit what might crudely be described as the ‘Blackadder’ view of the First World War. Views among this group are by no means uniform, and there are some sharp divisions over interpretations. My politics happen to lie on the Left. Interviewed on the BBC’s ‘World at One’, I was asked if I was embarrassed that Gove mentioned my work approvingly. I am not embarrassed, but I am concerned, for by politicising the issue Gove has done the cause of education no favours.



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