There are two ways to remember the First World War.
One approach – let’s call it the heritage version – is hard to miss and is essentially the story of Britain’s First Big War Against Germany. It tells of poems and poppies, slaughter in the trenches and lions led by donkeys, of a gigantic exercise in stupidity and futility that opened the door to Hitler’s war. It describes struggles on the home front, chronicles the ghastly the horrors of the Western Front and merely touches upon a more or less familiar series of events in the wider world. It takes in plenty of truths, helps us identify the past in terms of personal experience, serves as a warning beacon to the future and is a fitting memorial to the suffering of millions. It’s important, and it’s all over Britain’s press, radio and TV… but it’s only one thread in a much bigger tapestry.
The other approach tells the full historical story of a true world war, an astonishing cataclysm that transformed the planet and laid clear foundations for the complicated mess we currently inhabit. It ranges across continents and peoples, sweeping military campaigns and revolutionary social changes, seismic shifts in the nature and balance of power around the globe. It’s amazing stuff, an action-packed snapshot of the modern world’s test-tube birth, but it’s not part of the heritage package and most people don’t know much about it.
Who knew, for instance, that a Japanese naval squadron fought (and learned) alongside the Allies in the Mediterranean? Or that Europe’s preoccupations elsewhere opened the door for Washington’s economic and political dominance of South America? As Britain mourns a lost generation, how many of us are aware that Austria-Hungary and France lost almost twice as many dead, Russia and Germany many more? And when we dismiss the First World War as futile, what about the empires it brought down, the dozens of new nations it spawned or its role in the vast shift of global wealth to the USA? What about new world orders that emerged in the Soviet Union, Central Europe, the Middle East and Britain’s white dominions, or the momentous changes seeded in India and China?
The list of seismic geopolitical changes goes on and on, as does any catalogue of the War’s social, technological and cultural impacts on humanity as a whole. I’m not sure you can get a three-dimensional take on modern life without knowing something about them, and it seems wrong to let the centenary pass without at least trying to bring the real First World War to a wider audience – so that’s what Poppycock aims to do.
This won’t be another complete history of the War, it isn’t intended to be controversial or unorthodox, and it will be written for the interested layperson rather than for informed historians. I plan to shadow the War’s progress, a hundred years on, with stories, snippets or analyses designed to cast light on the wider picture, and to write occasional, longer pieces for the Big Guns category that will, I hope, provide dispassionate and accurate overviews of issues, events, people and places central to understanding. In between, in the Sniping category, I’ll put any rants and raves that spring to mind about differences between the real War and the all-media heritage version. Comments, suggestions and any other kind of feedback are very welcome… now I’ll shut up and get on with it.
Check into the blog and take a look at the real First World War.