OPINION: Controversy over the origins, conduct and consequences of the First World War is nothing new

MP Keith Simpson

MP Keith Simpson - Credit: Colin Finch

Recently Michael Gove, the education secretary, was involved in a public spat through newspapers with Tristram Hunt, the shadow minister, about alleged left-wing interpretations of the First World War perpetuated by the play/film Oh! What a Lovely War and the TV satire Blackadder Goes Forth.

Controversy over the origins, conduct and consequences of the First World War is nothing new. As someone who has written about the British Army and the First World War and has been involved in advising the government and Parliament I welcome debate. But it is not up to the government to lay down the details of such a debate or to micro-manage how it should be taught in our schools.

The important point is that people should have access to a full debate and all interpretations and if possible to study the contemporary evidence of those who lived through the war. When the subject of commemorating the First World War has been debated in Parliament it has produced almost complete unanimity on this, reflecting public opinion. The BBC is contributing to this debate through a wide range of documentaries, dramas and online debates.

The overwhelming majority of British public opinion supported the war effort at the time – but then so did public opinion in Belgium, France and Germany. While commemorating the British experience of the war we have to remember it was a world war and today our commemorations are international.

Many schools in Norfolk are twinned with schools in France and Germany. For example, in Reepham where I live, the High School and College has visited the battlefields on the Western Front with children from its German equivalent and on Remembrance Sunday holds a truly international service. There will continue to be debates and controversy about the First World War and the experiences of those who lived at the time but this should be encouraged.

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Last week I was invited to Paris to speak at a dinner of the English Speaking Union held at the French National Assembly. My audience was both British and French and I spoke about the different national experiences of the war and how its consequences are still with us today. For example, it was a Franco-British agreement in 1916 to divide up the Middle East which effectively established the countries we know as the Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq.

The next day I visited the British School in Paris which has a junior and senior department with about 1,000 pupils. Forty per cent are British and the rest are drawn from about 50 nationalities. I was asked to speak again about the First World War to students who are studying it, and their international background was apparent through the questions put to me. A link with our part of the world was provided by the fact that the current headmaster retires this summer and his replacement is the head of Wisbech Grammar School.

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Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder Goes Forth are not factual but satirical interpretations which reflect a particular point of view and the culture of the period they were written and performed – and that is how they should be judged. In fact they are in the finest traditions of British military humour and would have been appreciated by the editors and readers – all soldiers – of the unofficial 'The Wipers Times,' published from 1916, which poked fun at the military establishment and used gallows humour as a relief from the stress and strain of combat, something which continues today through websites used by British military personnel in Afghanistan.

Keith Simpson is MP for Broadland

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