Category Archives: Sniping

14 February, 2017: Stupid Hacker

Oi you, hacker.

Why are you bothering to put your illiterate, pointless mark all over my modest little blog?

This is a quiet hobby, and I take a few hours out of my life every few days to dilute a century of misinformation and nationalist propaganda.  Almost nobody reads it, and it’s not going to help you sell whatever cheap, black market drug you’re peddling.  As it is I’m having to spend a while every day removing and replacing your childish graffiti, and in the end your only achievement will be to stop me bothering.

Given that you appear to have Middle Eastern connections, you might try reading some of it instead, maybe get to know a bit of your own history and develop some intellectual self-respect.

Of course, you may well be a robot, in which case there’s nothing much I can do except trawl through all my security protocols, update them and hope for the best – but if you’re a human, do yourself a favour and stop wasting both our time.

Oh and, FYI, you might find the sales pitch goes better if you learn to write the kind of English people can understand.  I happen to run a small but very efficient editing and proofreading service, and I’m sure we can work out a reasonable price – in a currency of your choice – for me to turn your embarrassing gibberish into solid commercial copy.  Feel free to contact me about that, but try doing it through the comments section…

17 MAY, 2016: Sniping

Just a threepenny bullet for that august but sadly diminished trouper, The Times, which has been recommending what it calls a First World War Quiz to its online readers.  It’s not a First World War Quiz, it’s a heavily Anglocentric set of questions about Western Front trivia, with a couple of nods to American involvement thrown in.  I know I shouldn’t expect anything much better from the tabloid in the gladrags, and I probably shouldn’t waste ammunition on the old harlot… but this is the same newspaper that spent the War years assiduously chronicling action and developments on every front, everywhere in the world, for posterity.   Exchanging posterity for populist light entertainment sucks, so eat lead and die, Murdoch.


There hasn’t been much time for sniping lately, and with so little popular coverage of the War’s centenary there hasn’t been much excuse, but it’s good to keep my eye in so I’ve been scanning for targets. Most of my previous potshots seem to have been aimed at the BBC, possibly because it’s a sniper’s job to pick out the officers, but lately another bigwig who should know better has been wandering about in my crosshairs, and it’s time I responded with a bullet.

I refer to that august institution, the Imperial War Museum. Now I know its name is a mandate to commemorate the British Empire, and I know its brief covers British wars in general (whether or not they fall into the imperial phase of the nation’s history), but I still think its popular coverage of the First World War is shockingly narrow.

That’s not quite fair. I’ve been following the IWM’s Facebook feed for a few weeks, so I’m hardly seeing the Museum’s full show. On the other hand we are talking popular coverage here, and if Facebook doesn’t reflect an institution’s popular face, what does? Anyhow, here’s the problem.

Life in the trenches, British home front, Western Front action and Gallipoli (for the moment), along with an occasional nod to British colonial campaigns and forces elsewhere – that’s your lot, scattered fairly sparsely among a selection of feeds dominated, inevitably, by the Second World War. All very well, and as I never tire of repeating, the horrors suffered by Tommies the trenches are well worth examining for lots of reasons, but I’m prepared to bet the IWM includes education in its CV for funding purposes, so where’s the big picture?

If you’re going to educate people about the First World War, they need to understand its global impact. The easiest, most accessible way to do that is to make connections between the upheavals a century ago and the world we see now. The upheavals in question were enormous, took place all over the world and had world-shaping consequences. They didn’t all directly involve British or British imperial armed forces (and very few of them happened on the Western Front), but they did all make a big difference to our lives today. They are important, relevant stories, but you won’t learn much about them from the IWM’s Facebook page.

The IMW, sending a message to the rest of the world…

Just a quick shot – no good sniper ever wasted more than one bullet on a Facebook page.

7 MAY, 1915: Victims and Values

A hundred years ago today, the giant passenger liner SS Lusitania went down off the coast of western Ireland. En route from the USA to Britain, it had turned directly into the path of the German submarine U-20 and been holed to starboard by a single torpedo. After a second, larger explosion it had rolled onto its side, preventing the launch of more than half its lifeboats, and within twenty minutes it had sunk. Of more than 1,900 people on board, 1,198 lost their lives. If you’ve been listening to the radio, watching the television and hearing about it in the heritage corner, you won’t have learned much.

Maybe that’s not fair. You will have learned that a German U-boat sank a very big ship, and you will have learned how it feels to be the descendant of somebody killed at sea or rescued from the sea. More detailed reports may have included the phrase ‘international outrage’, but only in passing and with no attempt at context. Poppycock wonders why, when the full story is neither boring nor complicated, various editors felt compelled to serve up yet another saccharine-soaked reminder that the really important thing about the First World War is its ability to tug at modern heartstrings. The answer presumably lies somewhere between a desperate need to attract the Downton Abbey constituency and a lazy preference for the lowest common denominator, but it’s not my job to work out why you’re being fed slurry or why nobody seems to mind. My job is to snipe from the sidelines, but now I’ll put down the rifle and supply some information.

For all the loss of civilian life involved, the real significance of the Lusitania incident lay in its value to the British as a weapon in the propaganda war for hearts and minds in the United States. The German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare had already soured relations between Washington and Berlin, and the death of 124 Americans aboard the Lusitania was a godsend for allied propagandists.

According to pro-British media all over the world, the loss of a civilian liner was an outrageous consequence of Germany’s barbaric submarine policy, which allowed U-boats to sink anything that might be construed as valuable to the Entente war effort. The British also claimed, repeatedly and vehemently, that a second torpedo, launched to ensure maximum casualties, had caused the second explosion.

German propaganda initially greeted the sinking as a success but soon changed its tune.  Berlin sought to limit diplomatic damage by issuing apologies to the United States, renewing restrictions on U-boat commanders, denying that a second torpedo had been launched and insisting that the second explosion was caused by the Lusitania‘s secret cargo of heavy munitions.

German protestations fell on deaf ears.  The British version of the story was generally accepted at the time and had a powerful, long-term effect on popular and political opinion in the USA. It also passed into Anglo-American folklore as the truth, and is the (often unspoken) subtext for much of today’s commemorative coverage.

Evidence from the wreck of the Lusitania reveals a rather different truth. The vessel wasn’t carrying a secret cargo of heavy munitions, but might have been carrying small arms and ammunition for the British military, a regular (and cynical) practice that complicated attempts to immunise passenger and hospital ships from attack at sea. These would not have caused the second explosion, but neither did the U-20, which fired no second torpedo, and modern analysts accept that coal dust igniting in the ship’s almost empty fuel bunkers was responsible for the fatal blast.

So the high death toll that made the Lusitania such big news was down to an accident, but even if the heritage industry was telling us that it’s no excuse for treating the loss like a second Titanic. Our mass media could, perhaps should be commemorating one of the most important propaganda victories of that or any war, a vital step on the road to an American intervention that defined the century to come, but I suppose it’s hard to commemorate propaganda without acknowledging its existence.

10 MARCH 2015: Sniping

Oh well, at least the BBC tries to commemorate the First World War beyond the Western Front – Poppycock just wishes it employed somebody with an informed overview to fact-check and coordinate the effort. Yesterday was Commonwealth Day and so, to its credit and my satisfaction, the Beeb’s main evening news rolled out a story about the very considerable part played by soldiers and labourers from the British Empire during the Great War. It was delivered in two parts – first a look at troops from British India fighting on the Western Front, and then an on-location report from Kenya about the role of South Asian troops in the long battle for control of what was then German East Africa. It was a lazy effort, and I’m afraid it needs shooting down.

Yes, Asian troops fighting in Europe make an interesting story, and servicemen from British India did perform much of the fighting in East Africa, but there is so much more to tell.  What about all the other fronts where Asian and other peoples from the modern Commonwealth fought and died? Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, stands out as an obvious and newsworthy example, but Imperial forces fought on literally every front contested by the British.

And what about all those Imperial troops that weren’t from British India? I can see why the Canadians and ANZACs, well covered by heritage commemorations of their own, don’t need the BBC to remind us of their participation, and remembering Irish soldiers can sit uneasy in an Imperial context – but this report made no mention at all of the thousands of Africans, West Indians and men from other Imperial outposts who were caught up in the world at war.

Maybe that’s because they don’t all sing to the happy, clappy Commonwealth tune, or project the same comforting acquiescence that characterises so many South Asian responses to the relative success of the Raj. Or maybe, as mass-media newscasters are wont to do, this team simply reported the easy story it was given on a plate and chose to let the audience assume it was the full story.

The tendency peaked in East Africa, where the estimable Reeta Chakrabarti managed a (very) loose description of the four-year campaign for the region, focused on Indian Army involvement, without even mentioning the many, many Africans who fought there for both of the empires at war. I happen to know people at the BBC who’ve heard of, for instance, the King’s African Rifles, and it’s a shame they don’t know Reeta.

So, once again, a pat on the back for the BBC for noticing anything but Tommies in French trenches, followed by a stern lecture for staying fixated on the Western Front and completely failing to join up a few very obvious dots.

Finally, and just before I pack away the rifle for the day, the East African report featured one contribution from an actual historian. I’ll spare him the namecheck, and it may be that editing took out any reference to non-Indian Army troops or auxilliaries, but he was allowed to get away with referring to the East African campaign as ‘our success’. Just for the record, the battle for East Africa was arguably the most successful German campaign of the entire War. A small German/African force was still running rings round a relatively massive British Empire contingent when the War ended, and ‘our success’ in the region was delivered by the post-War peace process. Poppycock thinks Reeta, or someone, could protect the public from casual misinformation by devoting a few valuable minutes to research.

9 November, 2014: Sniping

Actually, I’ve put down my sniper rifle so I can spend a moment giving thanks and praise where it’s due.  There I was, armed and ready, one eye glued to the sniperscope, when a target in BBC uniform wandered into view and I got set to mark up another victim.  Fortunately, and like any sniper with a conscience, I’m apt to take an interest in the face and personality of anything I plan to shoot, and this time it was worth it.  I took a good look, and realised this particular documentary series didn’t deserve a bullet.  It’s the Beeb, it’s the right stuff, and it’s called World War One: Beyond the Trenches.

Because Poppycock is by nature British and a pedant, I have a small issue with ‘World War One’ as a title (that’s American; it’s called the First World War), and at five minutes a shot it’s ridiculously short, but otherwise the series is a marvellous look at those heritage-obscured ways and places in which the big, wide world was transformed by the conflict.  Sure, it suffers a little from television history’s usual need to fit narrative to available pictures, but it doesn’t rely for a thesis on some art-schooled director with no history, it puts out some basic facts to go with its vignettes, and it’s full of amazing stuff that’s hard to find elsewhere. Do yourself a favour and watch some.  Do the BBC a favour and tell it you want more.  Thank you.

31 OCTOBER, 2014: Sniping

Forget history, politics or understanding the world around us, we are obsessed with feelings and the media know it. It’s so much easier for audiences, auteurs and editors to identify with feelings than with ideas. Vicarious agony, joy and everything in between can be absorbed on instinct, no messy analysis or tricky doubts. We’re comfortable with feelings the way we once liked Hammer films – they shock us but don’t challenge us. That’s one reason why feelings, usually pure feelings with no discernible added nutrients, come gushing out of our screens, radios and print media.

You want evidence (apart from ‘reality’ TV)? How about the dumb question routinely asked by apparently intelligent reporters when interviewing victims or winners: how do you feel about losing a loved one, suffering some other disaster, winning Olympic gold, you name it?

“Losing the house to a hurricane? Loved it! Can’t wait for the next one.” Yeah, right, and the same applies to the tsunami of personal letters, diaries and other memoirs that makes up the vast majority of First World War commemorative material put together by the heritage industry.

We get the message. We honour the sufferers and admire their courage, but we get the message. We’d love to know about and sympathise with all their feelings during that terrible time, give each and every one of them the place in our memory they undoubtedly deserve, but maybe we could do that after you’ve had a go at telling us about the war itself.

I’m not going to pick on individual media organisations, not even the BBC, because pretty much all of them are contributing to the flood, and though personal memoirs often include fascinating insights into the social history of the day, most of the output makes sure to keep feelings to the fore. Check it out – count the editors and authors cashing in by providing a million shocking but comfortable versions of the journalist’s dumb question.

“So what was it like going through Hell during the War?” “It was like going through Hell, actually.”

Stop it! It’s poppycock!


Just been for another look at the BBC’s I-Wonder feature on what it calls World War One, and in some ways it’s an impressive, informative exhibition. I particularly recommend the piece explaining the War’s effects on the Middle East as a well-presented, straightforward outline of events that were hugely important for the world we live in today but are largely forgotten.

Shame the rest of the site is so relentlessly Anglocentric and fixated on the Western Front. Buses, songs, poets, the post office… home front, trenches, home front, trenches, on and on it goes. It’s all good stuff and, as I’m bound to keep on saying, well worth the telling, but it’s also editorially timid. It offers an expanded, high-quality dose of what the public expects and what it’s getting elsewhere, and as such it’s an opportunity thrown away.

Given that my last sniping attack was on Radio 4, it might look as if I’m picking on the BBC, but they attract the bullets because they’re the best out there, providing more diversity and depth of commemoration than any other major media outlet I’ve found. But with its global reach and access to international expertise, the BBC should be ideally placed to remind us that this was a world war. Instead, deep in the Internet where tabloid values aren’t an economic requirement and the competition is pitiful, editorial decisions seem to have been made along standard commercial lines. Why offer up interesting, relevant, often eye-opening information about the wider war, when you can play it safe and pile up the poppycock? Over to you…

9 AUGUST, 2014: Sniping

This is bound to happen from time to time.  Every now and then a heritage story’s going to get plain daft, and I’ll feel the need for a flag on the play.  This morning, Saturday August 9, Radio 4’s Today programme came up with a classic example of media inventing history for editorial purposes.  The First World War, Mishal Hussein suggested in her best Oxbridge trill, turned British women into drug abusers.

The death of a showgirl from a drug overdose in 1918 was quoted as evidence of the claim, and the authors of two books, one about wartime mental health issues, the other about the birth of the British drug underground, were wheeled in to discuss it.  Both authors began by pointing out that female drug abuse in wartime Britain was extremely localised, meaning it was essentially restricted to women involved with various entertainment industries in the West End of London.  After that, both struggled bravely but in vain to find anything that supported the story’s main thrust.  It was desperate stuff, with the woman responsible for Shell Shocked Britain, the stress book, reduced to suggesting that civilian women took drugs because the noise of Zeppelins was freaking them out.

Ridiculous.  According to witnesses I’ve interviewed (years back, obviously) the scariest thing about a Zeppelin attack was the machines’ eerie silence, but that’s what happens when editorial imagination forces specialists to go off piste.  The real point here is that the whole story is fiction, cobbled together by some bright BBC spark in possession of three facts and no history.  The First World War did not turn British women into drug abusers.  Women in and around the show business enclaves of Soho and theatre land had been abusing various substances for centuries; working class women all over industrial and urban Britain had been doing the same for at least as long, in gin palaces, through opiates and stimulants in patent medicines, any way they could find.  The War may have increased the need for escapism felt by some civilian women (and men), but I’m not sure the idea that raised stress levels encourage people to get off their face is particularly newsworthy.  No, the BBC wanted a war angle so it made one up.  After a series of embarrassing attempts to justify the story had failed, Mishal Hussein should have ended the piece by declaring the case unproven and unlikely.  Instead the show’s silly premise, a small piece of misleading, false history, was allowed to stand.

Invented angles on the First World War will be turning up all over the media for the next few years.  I’ll keep an eye open for them, because they’re poppycock.