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Bruce Bucknell

Former British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata

Part of UK in Minsk

23rd June 2014

Reviewing History to Look beyond the Myths: 1914 Revisited

I am an historian by training.  The disciplines I learnt from studying history at university have remained with me.  I dislike general assertions that are not backed by evidence, or based on facts.  I like to understand the context of any particular situation, and I’m interested in the causes and consequences of events.

Every diplomat should have an understanding of the history of a country they are serving in.  The history can tell you so much about the attitudes of the people and what resonates and what doesn’t.

It was the ingrained habits from my education that made me so irritated by the selective use of history and lack of context that I wrote about in my blog on propaganda.  History is about learning from the past.  History is there to be consulted by everyone, and for them to draw their own conclusions.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.  We are taking part in a series of events in Belarus (and elsewhere) in collaboration with other countries to commemorate that war.  Unfortunately, recent events have over-shadowed this anniversary.

I don’t think anyone can properly understand the events of the 20th century in Europe without some knowledge of the First World War.  For Britain, the terrible traumas from the war made us hesitate to face up to the threat of fascism in mainland Europe in the late 1930s.  The course of events may have been very different if we had acted earlier.  But we didn’t, and history is about what happened, not what might have happened.

The memory of the First World War in this part of the world has probably been obscured by the two Russian Revolutions that took place during the war.  As I noted in a piece about the memory of war, our recollections of the period 1939-45 are quite different.  We don’t have anything to compare with the slaughter, especially of civilians, in the “bloodlands” as one writer put it in a recent book, of Belarus, Ukraine and Poland, about which I also wrote last year.

Perhaps the best comparison I can make is that the First World War dominates our collective memory in the same way as the Great Patriotic War dominates the collective memory in Belarus.

Our traumatic war memory came from the stalemate of the Western Front from 1914-18.  I don’t think death rates on the Western Front were any higher than those on the Eastern Fronts – in the battles between the armies of the Russian, German and Habsburg Empires.  But it was the manner of the war on the Western Front that so scarred a generation.

Apart from at the start of the war, and near the end, all the fighting was in a relatively narrow corridor, at most 80 kilometres wide.  The fighting was between armies across two lines of trenches that extended from the Swiss border to the North Sea across North-East France and South-West Belgium.  I realise that trenches also existed on the Eastern Front, but I think the memory of the war was overshadowed by the revolutions of 1917.

In this static fighting, soldiers had to contend with mud, deep mines, and the use of new technologies of killing:  of the machine gun, gas, and heavy artillery.  Morale was often poor, and many soldiers were understandably traumatised by fighting over the same terrain for four years.  Over 3 million soldiers died in this concentrated area.  The experience spawned a strong sense of futility and anger afterwards that so many had died for so little gain.

The war came to be seen as a cataclysm, a sweeping away of the old order.  This was not so different from the revolution in Russia.  So there was a rise of atheism, feminism, socialism and pacifism, and many artistic movements that tried to make sense of the rupture.

That collective trauma lived on beyond the Second World War – which was an altogether different struggle between us and our enemies.  But in Britain, at least, we kept harking back to the senseless loss of life of the First World War, and tried to make sense of it.

One of the most influential accounts was Alan Clark’s 1961 book “The Donkeys” about the generals who led the British army during the WW1.  He helped solidify a myth that the armies had been “lions led by donkeys”.  Clark accused the generals of not using their imagination and wasting the lives of a generation.

Clark was a writer, and later politician, of the political right.  His narrative was taken up in a musical play “Oh! What a lovely war!” that was written later in the 1960s by Joan Littlewood, a writer and theatre director on the political left, the film of which we showed in a season of films on the war in Minsk.


The musical was a great success.  It portrayed several real events, including the Christmas meeting in 1914 between British and German soldiers in no-man’sland.  There was a football match, an episode that is going to be re-created this year with David Beckham leading a British team.

The myth  of “lions led by donkeys” was strong in my generation.  But as recent historians have pointed out, the reality behind this and other myths was more complicated.  Life for ordinary soldiers in the British army was not all awful.  There was regular rotation of troops out of the Front Line.  Every soldier was fed and probably had a better diet than at home.

It was the junior officers who suffered most.  They were 50% more likely to be killed than ordinary troops, as they led the attacks over no-man’s land.  As for the generals, they tried a whole range of new tactics and weapons to overcome the static nature of the war.  By the end of the war, the development of such weapons as tanks was beginning to make the war less static.

I suspect that had I experienced life in the trenches on the Western Front, with the threat of asphyxiation by gas, or dying under a barrage of artillery, Imight have become a pacifist.  But it’s always instructive to try and see the bigger picture, and to look beyond the myths.

If any readers have any suggestions for books I might read on the war in the Eastern Front, please let me know via the comments section below.  The experience was probably as bad as on the Western Front.  I look forward to finding out more during the commemorations here in Belarus later this year.

2 comments on “Reviewing History to Look beyond the Myths: 1914 Revisited

  1. “War is over if you want it ”
    (John Lennon , 197o)

    Dear Bruce ,

    this is -in my opinion – a really outstanding & necessary article of
    1st . : that we all don ‘t forget this 100 th . anniversary of WW1
    plus all these horrible “collective traumas ” after the end in 1918.
    (I.e. WW2 , holocaust , cold war and so on.)
    2nd.: that we should today never ever forget , that it ‘s NOT NORMAL that we ‘re living since several decades in a more or less peaceful Europe.
    3rd.: that this described musical “OH! What a lovely war” is also just a great reminder to all these facts – written above by you.

    Best wishes , liebste Grüßle, Ingo-Steven, Stuttgart

  2. please write more about history. i enjoyed that. more interesting, honest and useful for the future than usual politics one expects from diplomats in general!

Comments are closed.

About Bruce Bucknell

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016. Bruce grew up on a…

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016.

Bruce grew up on a farm in southern England and enjoys walking in the countryside and visiting wild places.

He studied modern history at Durham University, and takes a keen interest in the history of the places he visits.

Bruce used to play cricket when he could see the ball. Now he enjoys watching cricket and many other sports in his spare time.

He has had a varied career in the Foreign Office. Between his postings to Amman (1988-91), Milan (1995-9) and Madrid (2003-7), he has spent much of his career in London mostly dealing with Europe and Africa.

He is married with two grown up sons.