The last battle – Why has almost everyone forgotten this great British victory?

THIS week marks the centenary of the Battle of Amiens – a great British victory. So why is hardly anyone celebrating or even aware that it happened?

Battle of Amiens
Building on the Battle of Amiens, the Allied counter offensive would drive the Germans from France (Image: ALAMY)

And what does this tell us about the way history is taught in our schools and about our increasingly fractured sense of national identity?

Sure, Prince William and Prime Minister Theresa May marked the centenary yesterday at a memorial service at Amiens Cathedral in Northern France.

Yes, it’s true that there have been one or two slightly embarrassed news items by reporters playing catch-up via a quick scan of Wikipedia.

But for the most part this vital moment in our history has gone all but unnoticed. Why?

I am sure the fact that we won didn’t help.

As George Orwell and others have noticed, we British have always been more drawn to tales of heroic defeat – the Charge of the Light Brigade, Scott’s doomed expedition to the Antarctic, Dunkirk – than we have been to stories of resounding victory.

Read the rest in the Express.

We Know War Is Hell. But It Doesn’t Stop Us Wanting to Do It

There’s a plausible theory — recently rehearsed in the BBC’s excellent two-part documentary The Lion’s Last Roar? — that our war in Afghanistan was largely the creation of the Army, which sorely needed a renewed sense of military purpose after the debacle in Iraq. As a taxpayer, this appals me. As the parent of a boy approaching conscription age it horrifies me. But as an Englishman, it doesn’t half make me proud that we’ll still do anything — up to and including embroiling ourselves in a futile conflict — rather than admit we’re finished as a fighting nation.

Though we joke about having beaten Germany twice at their national sport in the first part of the 20th century, the truth is that we need our wars at least as much as they do. Yes, we know that war is hell: we’ve seen Saving Private Ryan and Fury; we’ve watched the funeral processions at Royal Wootton Bassett; we’ve been steeped since school in the poetry of Owen and Sassoon. But it’s never anywhere near enough to make us vow ‘Never again’ and perhaps the weekend’s commemorative programming offered an inkling as to why.

Take the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance (BBC1, Saturday) — a sort of military-themed variety show performed at the Royal Albert Hall before the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prime Minister. It ought to have been excruciating: tacky, ponderous, bombastic. Despite such jarring combinations as a rock performance by Jeff Beck and Joss Stone, the puppets from War Horse and a sea shanty composed and sung by Jim Radford, the youngest man to have served in the D-Day landings (he was 15) — the whole affair was quite irresistibly moving. We love our military — and there’s an end to it.

I had my initial reservations, too, about Tony Robinson’s World War One (Discovery, Sunday). The premise, I feared, was a bit flimsy: here are some 3D photographs from the first world war that have never before been shown on television. (Wow!) Plus, of course, there was the inevitable concern that Labour luvvie Baldrick might impose all the fashionable bien-pensant preoccupations of the modern age on an era when people thought and felt very differently.

But I needn’t have worried. Of the myriad first world war documentaries I’ve seen this year, Robinson’s was one of the clearest and most accessible: a mix of travelogue, expert guidance (including some fine exegesis from Max Hastings, who doesn’t often do these things), re-enactors in 1914 kit (with the Tommy wearing a moustache — as, astonishingly, was compulsory for the first two years of the war) and enthusiastic accounts by battlefield tour guides. You came away with the — probably correct — impression that the first world war was entirely unnecessary. But it was never less than respectful towards — nor, on occasion, properly excited about — the courage, endurance and self-sacrifice of the poor sods at the sharp end.

Then there was The Great War: an Elegy — a Culture Show Special (BBC1, Saturday) in which Simon Armitage examined the war from the perspective of seven characters, including a nurse, a captured flier who’d successfully tunnelled out of his PoW camp, and a remarkable fellow called Arthur Heath, one of the most brilliant intellectuals of his generation, who had been killed at 28.

For each one, Armitage wrote a poem (he’s good: perhaps too good ever to be poet laureate), my favourite of which was the one inspired by Heath, meditating on the vast array of talent so cruelly and pointlessly snuffed out before its time, and what these people might have achieved if only they had lived. ‘The faint of heart won’t want to trawl through a mud bath strewn with body parts. An architect’s hand, a surgeon’s rib, an explorer’s foot still laced in its boot, the flaxen shock of an actor’s hair, an artist’s eye, a composer’s ear…’

Read the rest at The Spectator

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How to Behave

‘I don’t suppose the war will leave any of us alone by the time it’s done,’ prophesied one of the characters in the new series of Downton Abbey. Oh, dear, I’m sure she’s right. So I wonder which will be the character who comes back with shellshock, which one with no legs, and which one a hero.

For the last, I’m guessing Matthew Crawley, the worthy but slightly dull heir to the worthy but slightly dull Earldom of Grantham. That would be nice: then, after many travails and obstacles, cold, aloof (but really quite hot) Lady Mary will get to realise in the final episode that, yes, of course, he was the man for her all along. At the big wedding the redoubtable Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) will say something very funny and acerbic. And everyone will laugh through their tears of joy and say how Sunday nights just won’t be the same without Downton.

In an alternative, bolder universe, it’s possible they’re showing a Downton which works out differently. Perhaps Crawley gets his penis shot off at Passchendaele, creating serious issues over the inheritance, till the handsome Irish chauffeur offers to stand in for his Lordship on the wedding night, causing serious ructions with Lady Sybil shortly before her hideous and moving death from a fever contracted from one of her patients. But not in this universe, I don’t think. And you can’t really blame Julian Fellowes for this. Comfort and predictability is what people want from their Sunday evening dramas.

Comfort and predictability is what they’re going to get — as you could tell from, say, the Somme scene where the stretcher-bearer is standing taking a breather and talking about how, if there’s a bullet with your name on it, there’s nothing you can do. ‘Oh, dear,’ you think. ‘Any second now he’s going to get shot in the —’ And bang, he’s just been shot through the head.

That particular black joke (repeated countless times in real combat, I’m sure) was done rather better by Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan where a GI removes his helmet to stare in amazement and gratitude at the hole made by the bullet which should have killed him but didn’t. Then gets shot dead by a more successful one.

He has got a lot to answer for, Steven Spielberg — raising the bar for on-screen combat scenes so high that almost everything thereafter (unless it’s one of his own series: Band of Brothers or Pacific) looks pallid and unconvincing. This was certainly the case with the war scenes in Downton. It just looks like a film set with actors scurrying around with mud on their face. There was never any real sense that this was hell on earth. It felt more like a slightly more eventful extension of Downton Abbey: ‘Mister Crawley will be taking tea in the Brown Explosion Room.’ ‘Very good, Carson.’

OK, so Spielberg had lots of money to spend.

(to read more, click here)

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