Most Britons as well as millions in other countries around the world have seen the final series of Blackadder which concerns itself with the Great War.

Sadly for many, Blackadder Goes Forth is the Great War. Yet, there is also the reality in which a high proportion of officers died between 1914 and 1918.

Factual comedy?

Earlier in 2014, the centenary of the First World War, the Conservatives managed to generate a large amount of undeserved negative publicity in their announcements regarding this anniversary, which begins a four-year programme of educating Britons, especially schoolchildren, about the war, with trips to battlefields on the Western Front.

Left-wingers criticised then-Education Secretary Michael Gove for blaming Blackadder Goes Forth as well as plays and films for encouraging the belief that this war was ‘futile’. He added that left-wing academics are only too happy to continue promoting this notion.

Steven Fielding from the left-wing London School of Economics downplayed the idea, saying that today’s students were not even born when Blackadder aired. Whilst that is indeed true, all the various Blackadder series have been rerun several times since then. The people who enjoyed them the first time around now have children of school age. And, once a Blackadder fan, always a Blackadder fan, so it is highly likely that these parents will have introduced their children to the programme. Furthermore, I know several conservatives who were young adults when Blackadder Goes Forth first premiered. They watched it and agree with the ‘accurate’ depiction of bumbling officers in the Great War.

Therefore, Gove was not wrong in what he said.

The BBC Magazine’s History Extra has a column about the possible worth or otherwise of using Blackadder Goes Forth as a teaching aid.

Not surprisingly, the BBC had two supporters of the show’s use — both women — and only one contribution against it — from a man.

Mark Connelly, writing against Blackadder as a teaching aid, is a professor of modern British history at the University of Kent. He says, in part (emphases mine):

Of course teachers have to engage their students, but the real problem is that – through no fault of their own – teachers cannot get it through to pupils that what they are watching is an interpretation of the war, written by someone who was not there.

I find that many of my first-year students [at the University of Kent] believe Blackadder and similar programmes were written in the trenches, and are a primary source.

I love Blackadder, but it is a reflection of a view of the First World War from the 1960s and 70s. You are seeing how [Richard] Curtis and [Ben] Elton were taught about the war.

He adds:

‘the Blackadder effect’ is still lingering – particularly in the teaching of English literature. And my concern is that we are not questioning how representative these programmes are of the millions of men who went through the British Expeditionary Force.

He’s right. This manner of teaching is also no doubt responsible for the aforementioned conservatives I know who also think that Blackadder is funny but factual.

It is the same in the United States; I remember our study of the War Poets was distinctly left-wing. History class was better, although, being an avid reader, I read a lot of op-ed pieces about the futility of the First World War which shocked my parents and grandmother, a die-hard blue-dog Democrat. Two of her brothers were ready for call-up, and one of them did a brief tour in the United States Navy prior to armistice.

We need to be careful in how we handle information and perspectives about the Great War.

The truth about officers in the Great War

Tatler ran a short series remembering the Great War this year. Families and friends sent copies of the society magazine to Army officers serving on the Front. A goodly amount of the content at that time concentrated on the war effort — what socialites were doing to help — and featured upbeat articles or illustrations which boosted morale. Officers passed older issues of the magazine along to their troops, who also enjoyed reading them.

The June 2014 issue (p. 167-172) has interesting articles from descendants of officers who recently toured the battlefields and described their experiences as well as their ancestors.

Rhydian Vaughan, who owns a travel company offering tours of the Western Front, wrote a piece entitled ‘Officers & Gentlemen’ (p. 168). He makes this observation:

The higher social and political classes were hit disproportionately hard by the Great War. Their sons provided the young officers who led the way over the top and whose life expectancy was measured in weeks. Roughly 12 per cent of the British Army’s other ranks were killed in the war, compared to 17 per cent of the officers.

Historian Dan Snow says the same in an online debate, ‘Lions and donkeys: Dan Snow’s 10 myths about World War One debunked by No Glory’ for the No Glory in War site. (I leave it up to you whether what he says is truly ‘debunked’.) Snow says:

Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils – 20% of those who served. UK wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, while future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two. Anthony Eden lost two brothers, another brother of his was terribly wounded and an uncle was captured.

This is because officers (so-called ‘donkeys’) led their soldiers (‘lions’) into battle. They didn’t spend their days sitting around drinking cups of tea and reading Tatler!

So, how did we get this ‘lions led by donkeys’ saying?

Snow gives us an important explanation about the style of military leadership as well as the new technological challenges which officers had to anticipate:

This saying was supposed to have come from senior German commanders describing brave British soldiers led by incompetent old toffs from their chateaux. In fact the incident was made up by historian Alan Clark [an upper-class Conservative MP]. During the war more than 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured. Most visited the front lines every day. In battle they were considerably closer to the action than generals are today. Naturally, some generals were not up to the job, but others were brilliant, such as Arthur Currie, a middle-class Canadian failed insurance broker and property developer. Rarely in history have commanders had to adapt to a more radically different technological environment. British commanders had been trained to fight small colonial wars, now they were thrust into a massive industrial struggle unlike anything the British army had ever seen. Despite this, within three years the British had effectively invented a method of warfare still recognisable today. By the summer of 1918 the British army was probably at its best ever and it inflicted crushing defeats on the Germans.

This divide between officer and soldier is not as black and white as we portray it today. A bit more investigation would help to dispel the myths we have heard and, perhaps, perpetuated over the past 60 years.