The Re-Writing of History: The Second Battle of Ypres

February 7, 2014 § 1 Comment

Ypres was a hotspot in the First World War.  No fewer than five  major battles took place around this Flemish town between 1914 and 1918.  During the Second Battle of Ypres, fought in April-May 1915, the Germans wafted a cloud of chlorine gas at the Allied troops across No Man’s Land.  The other side was occupied by Moroccan and Algerian troops, flanked by Canadians.  In other words, the main targets were French African colonial troops.  The Germans didn’t dare set the gas towards Europeans.

The Moroccans and Algerians died on the spot and/or broke ranks and ran.  This left a massive gap, 4 miles long, in the Allied lines, which the Germans were rather hesitant to rush into, for obvious reasons.  That meant the 13th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force was left to counter the German attack, on its own.  It was reinforced by the 10th Battalion of the 2nd Canadian Brigade, as well as the 16th Battalion of the 3rd Canadian Brigade the next day.  It’s worth noting that the Canadians became the first colonials to defeat a major European power at Ypres.

In short, the Allied lines when the Germans used chlorine gas on them were manned by colonial troops: Moroccans and Algerians who took the brunt of the gas, and then Canadians who also got hit with gas, but to a lesser extent (they urinated on handkerchiefs and then put them to their faces to survive the attack).

This is the version I was taught in school and university in Canada.  And it was also the version I saw in pop culture, films, literature, history books, at least until recently.  In the past year or two, this story has been simplified: French and British troops were gassed by the Germans.  And while that is technically true, it is massively mis-leading.

In the case of Canada, our national mythology says that our country came to age on the battlefields of the First World War.  It led to Canada demanding and gaining the ear of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George with the creation of the Imperial War Council (along with the other Dominions). And Canada (as well as the other Dominions) were seated at the Versailles conference.  Eventually, in 1931, Canada (and the other Dominions) gained control of their own foreign affairs in 1931 with the passing of the Statute of Westminster.  And, as I argue myself in my own forthcoming book, The House of the Irish: History & Memory in Griffintown, Montreal, 1900-2013, Canadians were consciously fighting for their own nation, they fought in their own army, the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  And even if the CEF was appended to the British Expeditionary Force, Canada was coming of age as a nation of its own right.  So, to state that the British and French were the victims of the German gas attack is disingenuous.  And yet, there it is in our culture, everywhere from writers who should know better to Downton Abbey.

Imagine my surprise, then, to be reading a quick review of Graeme Kent’s new book, On The Run: Deserters Through the Ages, (which has yet to be published in North America) in The Times Literary Supplement, that states that the gas attack “fell four square on the French and to a lesser extent on the Canadian First Division.”  I quickly flipped to the back to see who the reviewer, Nathan M. Greenfield, was.  A Canadian military historian.  So that sort of doesn’t count.  And, there is also the fact that while Greenfield did wave the Canadian flag, he also denied the Moroccan and Algerian troops their due.

Niall Ferguson Almost Gets It Right

February 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

Niall Ferguson likes attention.  There’s no other way to explain his public pronouncements.  Like when he predicted there’d be blood on the streets of major Western cities in response to the 2008 global economic meltdown.  Or when he said John Maynard Keynes was a bad economist because he was gay.  Or when he attacked Gandhi in his Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Then there’s that book in general, with its incredibly lame attempt to be hip, as Ferguson talked about the West developing “killer apps” that allowed it to dominate the rest of the world. This idea was so bad it detracted from what was actually a decent argument.  Ugh.  So when I saw that Ferguson had opined to the BBB’s History magazine that Britain should never have entered the First World War in 1914, I was already in mid-eye roll when I realised that Ferguson was actually onto something here.

The BBC article is behind a paywall, but when Ferguson speaks, the media listens and The Guardian published a quick account.  Basically, Ferguson says that Britain made “the biggest error in modern history” by entering the war in 1914.  He says that Britain could’ve let the Germans, French, and Russians slug it out on the continent, and then dealt with a victorious Germany at a later date, on its own terms.  He also notes that had Germany defeated the Russians and French, it would have had the same problems Napoléon had a century earlier, in terms of governing an unruly empire and being behind a British sea blockage.  In 1914, Britain was simply not ready for war, especially a land war.

And then he looks at the long-term cost for Britain of the war.  It nearly bankrupted the nation, Britain was saddled with debt after 1918.  It ultimately cost the British their empire and their status as a major world power (as it also did to France).

There is something to be said for his argument here, but, as usual with a polemicist, he overshoots his mark, taking a claim that might actually be something and then wrapping it up with ridiculousness, like what he did with the unfortunate Civilization.  At its core, the Great War was calamitous for Britain, there’s no two ways about that. But Ferguson doesn’t take into account the human cost of the war.  An entire generation of young men was destroyed by the war.  The costs of that lost generation are immense, in terms of politics, economy, and culture.  It also meant a decline in birth rates, so the lost generation had a long-term effect of Britain.

Ferguson does talk about the cost of the war economically, the massive debt the country accumulated, and the fact that this ended up costing Britain its empire.  This is where I think Ferguson gets his hackles up, given that he’s the last great defender of the force of civilisation that the British Empire was.

As historians, we are supposed to enjoy the benefit of hindsight, to be able to see the bigger picture that, say, Sir Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister in 1914, could not.  But we still need to take into account the view from White Hall in August 1914.  From Asquith’s point-of-view, Britain was bound by treaty to protect its Allies.  Britain was also militarily prepared for war (a point Ferguson dismisses), even if it was the wrong kind of war it anticipated.

Recently, I read a review of three books on the start of the First World War in the Times Literary Supplement.  There will be a lot of that this year, since its the centenary of the start of the war.  One of the books was written by a journalist, and one with a particular axe to grind, and was full of broad, sweeping statements about the war, the British generals, and politicians.  The reviewer took issue with this approach as being ahistorical and anti-intellectual.  And while I wouldn’t go that far with Ferguson’s argument, it’s on that route.  At least at this point.  I hope a book will emerge from this thought, as it would certainly be worth the read.

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