Where Blackadder Blunders
The fourth series of the famous TV comedy show Blackadder is set in World War I. It stars actors who are now – 20 years after the production – household names: Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Tony Robinson.
It is 1917, and lunatic General Melchett is commanding the British troops at the Western Front. Captain Edmund Blackadder, intelligent, arrogant, and sarcastic, is always searching for a way out of the war and tries various crazed variations on escape, all of which will take a turn he never expected.
Blackadder shares a trench with Lieutenant George Saint Barleigh, who is keen to thrash the Germans and is incredibly naive about his tasks, and Private Baldrick, who finds the whole war a terrifying experience where he is manipulated by those above him in the class system.
Blackadder’s main obstacle to being able to disappear is Captain Kevin Darling, General Melchett’s right-hand man, who revels in being safe on the Staff.
The series of six episodes is well-written, funny, and cleverly filmed, with reasonably accurate sets, uniforms and equipment. Unfortunately for anyone who gets their history from TV, it is incredibly wrong. Here are just some of the ways it blunders:
- In the show, General Melchett and indeed any senior officer are always incompetent, sheltering well away from the action, and persisting with ridiculous ideas which involve squandering soldiers’ lives in quantity. In reality, generals who weren’t successful were withdrawn very quickly by all sides – witness the replacing of General Sir John French, initial commander of the 1914 British Expeditionary Force into France.
- Generals did often have headquarters in French chateaus, because of the need for a large building to house a general and his staff. There is not a lot of point, in a war dominated by artillery and quick firing rifles, for a general to lead from the front, as was the case in the days of mounted men at arms in armour where being an inspirational figure in a cavalry charge was a good way to get the soldiers to go forward. But in fact over 200 generals were killed in World War I.
- Blackadder is a captain in the infantry, but we never see him commanding the 150+ men that in reality would have been his everyday responsibility. His lieutenant also has no soldiers to command, whereas he would actually have been in charge of a platoon of between 30-50 men.
- Blackadder, Barleigh, and Baldrick live continually in the firing lines, in horrible dugouts, eating appalling food. In fact, infantry soldiers spent only 3-7 days a month in the trench system. A constant rotation of battalions took the men away from being shot at – it being well understood that living in constant fear of being shelled or shot would lead to terrible morale.
- Private Baldrick is stunningly incompetent, on one occasion making coffee out of mud and using dandruff for sugar. This suggests the soldiers’ food was terrible, but in fact hot food; tea in sealed buckets and sandwiches were regularly brought up through the trench system by a well regulated plan.
- The average private was industrious and quite capable, or the Army trained him until he was. Nor were they stupid: the average soldier could read, write, and was usually interested in the rapidly developing technical world of the early 20th century.
The last program of the series sees Captain Darling relegated to the trenches, where he is going to have to “go over the top” into combat with the other three. Earlier, Field Marshal Haig is shown casually sweeping away toy soldiers with a dustpan and brush. BBC News Magazine ’s Finlo Rohrer called this an “allusion to his callousness", but quoted the historian Gary Sheffield as saying “The real Field Marshal Haig was certainly not a callous man. He was commanding the largest British army ever. Whatever he did you ended up with lots and lots of casualties."
In the end of course, Blackadder is just a TV comedy. It isn’t History. But it is well-written, acted, and produced, and with a little analysis can lead to an even greater understanding of the Great War.
Written by Lead Historian Dr Tom Lewis