Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Lions Led By Donkeys


Tony Blair’s decision to give the proceeds of his new book to the Royal British Legion follows a long line of public figures who have attempted to rehabilitate their reputations with acts of charity - the late John Profumo being the most obvious example.

However, there is another example, also involving the British Legion, which perhaps offers a lesson to Blair in his efforts. The ‘Legion’ was set up after the First World War by another man haunted by his part in the deaths of soldiers on the field of battle, namely Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. Many have interpreted his post-war charitable activities as an act of contrition for the appalling loss of life suffered during four years of fighting on the Western Front (he was nicknamed the Butcher of the Somme) and it did much to restore his reputation by the time of his own death in 1927.

However, in many people’s eyes Haig got his comeuppance when the historian Alan Clarke completely trashed his reputation in the mid-1960s. It was Clarke, later to become a Tory Defence Minister which provided him with plenty of material for his own notorious diaries, who based the title of his devastating book, “The Donkeys”, on an infamous exchange between Generals Erich Ludendorff and Max Hoffman during a meeting of the German Army General Staff in 1915. The exchange went as follows:

Ludendorff: “The English soldiers fight like lions.”
Hoffmann: “True. But don't we know that they are led by donkeys.”

There is some dispute about whether the exchange ever actually happened, but it’s use by Clarke was enough to trash Haig’s reputation forevermore. Blair may well be hoping to begin the restoration of his reputation, as Haig did, with his own charitable act involving the Royal British Legion, but his real fear must be what will be revealed when Cabinet papers are released in thirty year’s time, or earlier, as is increasingly likely.

One suspects that any repairs to his reputation, like those of others involved in the decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, such as John Reid (“we’ll be in and out without a shot being fired”) won’t survive the thirty year scrutiny. Blair probably wanted to be remembered as a lion, but history may well portray him as Bush’s nodding donkey.

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