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The First World War

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Interpretations: The conduct of the war

In the 1920s, Field Marshal Haig and his generals were praised. Many of the men writing these books were officers or officials - or their friends - who had fought the war.

The Detractors

In the 1930s criticisms of the war became popular. The anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon became widely accepted as representing the typical feelings of men in the trenches. The film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, and remade in 1979) portrayed the war as a pointless waste of young men's lives.

In the 1960s, Alan Clark (1961) described the British soldiers as 'lions led by donkeys', and soon the British generals were mocked as 'butchers and bunglers' in shows such as Oh What a Lovely War (1963). This is the view that most ordinary people still believe, as the TV comedy Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) shows.

The Revisionists

However, in 1963, the historian John Terraine set about correcting what he thought were the myths of the war. He argued that Haig was not an idiot, but a good commander who cared about his soldiers. Haig was faced with the problem that there did not exist at that time any weapon which could win the war without the loss of many lives. This is the view that most serious historians take of the war nowadays.

What is your interpretation of the conduct of the First World War? Was Haig a butcher and bungler, or Britain's greatest general?

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