Open Letters Monthly
February 2014 Issue
THE GREAT WAR:
July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme
By Joe Sacco
W. W. Norton, 2013
At the beginning of January, the already unpopular British education secretary Michael Gove chose to kick off World War One’s 100th anniversary year in appropriately belligerent style, by railing in The Daily Mail against the “Blackadder myths” surrounding the teaching of the war. He suggested that the centenary celebrations would better honor the “noble” dead if they acknowledged that the war was provoked by German aggression, although how exactly this would work is unclear—would he make Angela Merkel stand outside in the rain while other dignitaries toast Our Boys?
By “Blackadder myths” Gove meant what the historian Samuel Hynes called “the myth of the war,” which holds that the soldiers were duped by propaganda into volunteering, then “slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals” for no very good or clear reason. Derived from left-wing history and filtered through comedy, Gove suggested, this myth has become entrenched in British culture and British schools. The trouble for the right honorable minister came when he was challenged, immediately and on several fronts, to present a convincing alternative view.
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