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Lions and donkeys: Dan Snow's 10 myths about World War One debunked by No Glory

Historian Dan Snow says there are ten myths used to portray the First World War as uniquely horrific that are historically false. Lindsey German from No Glory in War thinks he is wrong.

Troops with stretcher

Historian Dan Snow, writing for the BBC, says no war in history attracts more controversy and myth than World War One. In particular, he says that a number of myths are used to set it apart as uniquely awful: we are blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1 but war in general, which he says belittles the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in countless other appalling conflicts throughout history and the present day (by which it can be assumed he means the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Lindsey German from the No Glory in War campaign disputes Dan Snow's ten myths, which she argues do not reflect the full horror of a war in which there were 37 million military and civilian casualties, of which 15-20 million soldiers were killed, including 700,000 from Britain.

Myth 1. The bloodiest war in history up to that point

Dan SnowDan Snow says:
Fifty years before WW1 broke out, southern China was torn apart by an even bloodier conflict. Conservative estimates of the dead in the 14-year Taiping rebellion start at between 20 and 30 million. Around 17 million soldiers and civilians were killed during WW1. Although more Britons died in WW1 than any other conflict, the bloodiest war in our history relative to population size is the Civil War which raged in the mid-17th Century. It saw a far higher proportion of the population of the British Isles killed than the less than 2% who died in WW1. By contrast around 4% of the population of England and Wales, and considerably more than that in Scotland and Ireland, are thought to have been killed in the Civil War.

No GloryNo Glory says:
All war is bloody. It is true that proportionately the highest number of British war dead were in the 17th century civil war. The US civil war was similarly bloody. But it cannot simply be measured in percentages. The First World War was a modern industrial war, using machine guns, artillery and barbed wire in what was a war of total attrition. At Waterloo in 1815, the British had 156 heavy artillery; at the Somme in 1916, they had 1400. The Prussian army had 60,000 men at Waterloo; by 1914 the German army had 1.5 million men on the western front alone. Victory in war relied heavily not just on troops but also on industrial production of ever-greater quantities of ammunition.

Myth 2. Most soldiers died

Dan SnowDan Snow says:
In the UK around six million men were mobilised, and of those just over 700,000 were killed. That's around 11.5%. In fact, as a British soldier you were more likely to die during the Crimean War (1853-56) than in WW1.

No GloryNo Glory says:
True most soldiers survived, but many with horrific mental and physical injuries. And 11% of soldiers dead are more than one in ten of all soldiers. In total, this was the biggest loss of British troops ever (considerably exceeding in number those killed in the Second World War).

Myth 3. Men lived in the trenches for years on end

Dan SnowDan Snow says:
Front-line trenches could be a terribly hostile place to live. Often wet, cold and exposed to the enemy, units would quickly lose their morale if they spent too much time in them. As a result, the British army rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a unit spent perhaps 10 days a month in the trench system, and of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual to be out of the line for a month. During moments of crisis, such as big offensives, the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two.

No GloryNo Glory says:
They were in the trenches for long periods of time over a space of years. Surely the point is not whether they were given time behind the lines, but that firstly the trenches were miserable and dangerous places to live and secondly that they were symptomatic of a war whose front lines barely moved from one month to the next, despite huge human sacrifice.

Myth 4. The upper class got off lightly

Dan SnowDan Snow says:
Although the great majority of casualties in WW1 were from the working class, the social and political elite was hit disproportionately hard by WW1. Their sons provided the junior officers whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men. Some 12% of the British army's ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17% of its officers. 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.

No GloryNo Glory says:
The argument is not whether the upper class got off lightly. People like Asquith and Kipling did lose their sons in the war. A high proportion of junior officers died, many of them drawn from public school backgrounds. Again proportions don’t tell the whole story. If a higher proportion of young officers died than ordinary soldiers, this is still a tiny number in terms of total dead. The loss of 1000 old Etonians certainly tells a story. But compare this to the many former pupils of schools in Accrington who died on just the first day of the battle of the Somme. There were 700 in the Accrington Pals Battalion that day, of which 235 killed and 350 wounded. These horrific statistics would be replicated for former pupils from schools in towns and cities throughout Britain.

Myth 5. 'Lions led by donkeys'

Dan SnowDan Snow says:
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. 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.

No GloryNo Glory says:
The record of the generals speaks for itself at the battles of the Somme (20,000 British soldiers killed on first day), Gallipoli (43,000 British soldiers killed), Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele (over 300,000 British casualties).

Myth 6. Gallipoli was fought by Australians and New Zealanders

Dan SnowDan Snow says:
Far more British soldiers fought on the Gallipoli peninsula than Australians and New Zealanders put together. The UK lost four or five times as many men in the brutal campaign as her imperial Anzac contingents. The French also lost more men than the Australians. The Aussies and Kiwis commemorate Gallipoli ardently, and understandably so, as their casualties do represent terrible losses both as a proportion of their forces committed and of their small populations.

No GloryNo Glory says:
There were many British troops involved in Gallipoli (my mother knew a girl in her village who was named Dardanella after an uncle died there). The British forces suffered 43,000 casualties. But it was a military catastrophe which hit the Australians and New Zealanders very hard, and which has in those countries become symbolic with failure and waste of human life in war (as beautifully expressed in the song The Band played Waltzing Matilda).

Myth 7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure

Dan SnowDan Snow says:
Never have tactics and technology changed so radically in four years of fighting. It was a time of extraordinary innovation. In 1914 generals on horseback galloped across battlefields as men in cloth caps charged the enemy without the necessary covering fire. Both sides were overwhelmingly armed with rifles. Four years later, steel-helmeted combat teams dashed forward protected by a curtain of artillery shells. They were now armed with flame throwers, portable machine-guns and grenades fired from rifles. Above, planes, that in 1914 would have appeared unimaginably sophisticated, duelled in the skies, some carrying experimental wireless radio sets, reporting real-time reconnaissance. Huge artillery pieces fired with pinpoint accuracy - using only aerial photos and maths they could score a hit on the first shot. Tanks had gone from the drawing board to the battlefield in just two years, also changing war forever.

No GloryNo Glory says:
The essential method of trench warfare remained throughout the period of the war. It was embellished with the latest technology, including gas and air power, but it was never altered fundamentally. The war remained a war of position using modern weaponry that required ever-greater reinforcements of troops.


Myth 8. No-one won

Dan SnowDan Snow says:
Swathes of Europe lay wasted, millions were dead or wounded. Survivors lived on with severe mental trauma. The UK was broke. It is odd to talk about winning. However, in a narrow military sense, the UK and her allies convincingly won. Germany's battleships had been bottled up by the Royal Navy until their crews mutinied rather than make a suicidal attack against the British fleet. Unlike Hitler in 1945, the German government did not insist on a hopeless, pointless struggle until the allies were in Berlin - a decision that saved countless lives, but was seized upon later to claim Germany never really lost.

No GloryNo Glory says:
No one really won. The Germans were launching offensives right up 1918. They were defeated after the United States entered the war near its end, tipping the balance of forces away from Germany. The war had been fought pretty much to a stalemate. Germany was forced out of the war by the mutiny of its sailors. This led to revolution, mass desertion of German soldiers and the end of the monarchy. Russia had already pulled out of the war as a result of its 1917 revolution, and the war’s end led to revolution and upheaval in Austria Hungary. In Britain there were mutinies at the end of the war. The toll of the war (37 million military and civilian deaths) and the related influenza epidemic was surely too high a price to pay to talk about victory.

Myth 9. The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh

Dan SnowDan Snow says:
The treaty of Versailles confiscated 10% of Germany's territory but left it the largest, richest nation in central Europe. It was largely unoccupied and financial reparations were linked to its ability to pay, which mostly went unenforced anyway. The treaty was notably less harsh than treaties that ended the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and World War Two. The German victors in the former annexed large chunks of two rich French provinces, part of France for between 2-300 years, and home to most of French iron ore production, as well as presenting France with a massive bill for immediate payment.

No GloryNo Glory says:
It's not true to say Germany was hardly occupied. The Rhineland was taken over, as was the Saar region, Upper Silesia, Posen, Danzig and other areas. As for Germany’s colonies, they were not granted independence but were parcelled out to the other colonial powers. The economist JM Keynes considered the demands for reparations harsh, and they are generally seen as contributing to the causes of the Second World War and the rise of Hitler. To say that it wasn’t as bad as what happened to Germany after the Second World War, when the whole country and its capital were occupied and partitioned, is simply to miss the point.

Myth 10. Everyone hated it

Dan SnowDan Snow says:
Like any war, it all comes down to luck. You may witness unimaginable horrors that leave you mentally and physically incapacitated for life, or you might get away without a scrape. It could be the best of times, or the worst of times. Many soldiers enjoyed WW1. If they were lucky they would avoid a big offensive, and much of the time, conditions might be better than at home. For the British there was meat every day - a rare luxury back home - cigarettes, tea and rum, part of a daily diet of over 4,000 calories. Absentee rates due to sickness, an important barometer of a unit's morale were, remarkably, hardly above peacetime rates. Many young men enjoyed the guaranteed pay, the intense comradeship, the responsibility and a much greater sexual freedom than in peacetime Britain.

No GloryNo Glory says:
Ok some people were fed better, no doubt many derived comradeship and companionship from their fellow soldiers. But let’s remember where the criticism of the First World War first surfaced: from the recollections and the art of some of the soldiers themselves, who saw it as nothing more than an unjustified bloodbath. The mutinies in armies during and at the end of war demonstrate a sickness with war. In Britain, the granting in 1918 of the right to vote for all men, and for some women, was a tacit recognition of the scale of discontent at a war that had slaughtered and wounded so many. In 1919, the release of this discontent, after years of military discipline, brought revolutionary upheaval across Europe and was manifested in Britain by a huge wage of strikes.


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