I’ve noticed all of these down the years, but it’s only just clicked how much a problem they are. They can be applied to most other historical periods as well.
Modern Man’s Superiority Complex:
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s also a double-edged sword. Looking back on historical events, especially vastly tragic ones like the Great War, it is easy for people today to lambaste our ancestors as “naive” or to make statements like “that could never happen today.”
Believing people in the past were less intelligent, less worldly or more gullible than we are is a cardinal sin, whether you’re a casual commentator or an actual historian. Sure, education and access to information is at an incredible peak at the moment, but to imagine that people living in the past were somehow dull or shortsighted is itself incredibly shortsighted.
Classic example - plenty of people, from the medieval world to ancient Greece, knew the world was round.
Regarding World War One, I’ve often heard people scorn the propaganda of the time as ridiculously basic. We’re too intelligent, they say, to fall for the “Your Country Needs You” stuff en mass nowadays. These people are totally blind to the fact that propaganda surrounds us in the modern age 24/7. Values change, and I have no doubt in 100 years people will sneer at the things that made us tick, and wonder how global fast food chains could stay in business through the simple expedient of bombarding people for 30 seconds every half hour on television sets.
Martyrology Obscures Complex History:
It was tragic. It was unnecessary. It had few positive outcomes. I’m talking about World War One, right? Or maybe the Thirty Years War, that cost Europe almost half its population? Or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, that proportionally killed more British people than any other war before or since?
World War One certainly occupies a hugely significant chunk of our history, and its tragedy resonates clearly down the century to us today. There is indeed something uniquely horrible about that seeming “golden generation” being decimated in Flanders mud.
Since the 1960s and 70s, however, World War One and its causes have been twisted into a grotesque caricature by a mixture of selective historiography and an ill-informed public. Any schoolboy can tell you all WW1 consisted of was young Tommies being told to walk through a sea of mud into machine gun fire by posh generals miles behind the front line, before the survivors were executed for cowardice. That view rules absolute.
And guess what? Some men walked into machine gun fire through mud and were mown down, many generals were indeed miles from the front and people were wrongly executed by their own side.
But the reality is that at the Somme only a few battalions walked, and those that did, did so because they carried heavy packs and had a lot of ground to cover. Others ran or sprinted, others advanced in column, others actually crawled up out of the trenches before the whistles were blown, and some even extended their trenches towards the enemy. Generals sat in chateaux because communications were key, and these buildings were the ones best furnished with telephones and usable roads - the closer a high-ranking officer got to the front, the less they could control the battle and the more men would die. And whilst summary executions were reprehensible, the textbooks make out that 1000s of innocents were killed in this manner, not the 300-odd that actually died.
Modern remembrance focuses on the waste and the stupidity. This is important, but it shouldn’t sharpen the war to a set of unflattering stereotypes. When it does, it assists the first point raised, making people believe their ancestors were either stupid or hugely misled. To them, the war was a necessary one, and even if we could go back in time today there’s probably not much we could actually have done to lessen the carnage.
History Starts in 1914:
This one was also touched on above - World War One wasn’t actually the first World War at all, and the Tommies weren’t the first young men cut down in what we today consider pointless warfare.
Again, there’s no disputing the direct links we today have with our immediate family who fought a century ago. That makes its prominence entirely natural. It is strange, however, to not commemorate the British dead from “imperial” wars in the 18th and 19th century, yet remember WW1’s dead, despite the fact the WW1 was quite clearly also “another” imperial war. We remember the men, not the cause, we’re told, but shouldn’t that extend throughout history?
If this mindset prevails then in 200 years time people will be remembering other catastrophic conflicts, and 1914-1918 will be just another faded memory.