Jeremy Paxman’s compelling account of the Great War
The BBC ‘Newsnight’ presenter blends anecdote with cold fact to create a picture not merely of what happened but also of how it felt to those involved
Photograph: Dave Williams/BBC
Great Britain’s Great War
‘Lady, fiancé killed will gladly marry someone blinded or totally incapacitated by the War” read an advert in the personal column of the London Times in September 1915. “Has a more poignant lonely-heart appeal ever been printed?” asks Jeremy Paxman in his beautifully lucid account of the impact of the first World War on the British way of life.
Some years ago, delving in local archives, I discovered that the same family had lived in my home from 1851 to 1913. Reckoning that anyone who has lived more than 60 years in my house deserved to have their picture hanging in the hall, I set out to track down a photograph of the old couple. It would, I assumed, be an easy task. All I had to do was find the current generation, who would have custody of the family photographs. It proved a great deal more difficult than I imagined. Despite having a son and four grandchildren, the family had died out, and little or no trace of them remained. How could this happen within three generations?
The explanation is that all the grandchildren were daughters who came of age during the war and not one of them married, presumably because not enough men were left. Britain had lost 770,000 dead, and another 250,000 returned home with serious injuries, many hideously maimed. At the height of the carnage a young officer at the front had an average life expectancy of about six weeks. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The strength of the BBC journalist’s account, which sets it apart from other, more scholarly versions, is the way he has blended anecdote with cold fact to create a picture not merely of what happened but also of how it felt to those involved, whether high or low, in the front line or on the home front.
This was the war in which killing was for the first time, at least in Europe, possible on an industrial scale. At the Somme, at Passchendaele and in 100 other places wave after wave of exhausted, terrified young men climbed out of their trenches and walked or staggered through the mud towards the enemy machine guns to be mown down like corn. Why did they do it, asks Paxman?
His explanation is, in part at least, that the past is another country. “Our incomprehension is owing to the hundred years that separates us from them.” Paxman, who earlier this year made a BBC series about the Great War, says that before the war began “the country had enjoyed half a century of being told that theirs was the greatest nation on earth. We have since had generation after generation of international decline. The men and women of the time were accustomed to going to church and being told how to behave, while we have had 50 years of being told we can make up our minds about almost anything.”
Paxman goes on: “The middle and upper classes of 1914 had been brought up on the idea of privilege and obligation, which made them respond to what they were convinced was the call of duty. Ordinary people, many of whom did not even have the vote, were accustomed to being bossed about and not listened to.”
Especially in its early stages, the war was universally seen as a just cause. Germany, after all, was clearly the aggressor. Many of those who volunteered at the beginning, waved off by cheering crowds, were caught up in a wave of jingoism and anti-German hysteria generated by Britain’s free press, particularly by the loathsome Lord Northcliffe, whose empire included the Times and the Daily Mail . (The latter still from time to time provides a similar service today.) Finally, of course, none of those who marched so willingly to war in 1914 had the slightest idea of the terrible fate that awaited them, and by the time they did there was no going back. Incredibly, such was the flood of volunteers that conscription was unnecessary until nearly three years in.
Although he addresses the origins of the war – the fateful series of alliances that sucked one country after another into the furnace – Paxman focuses firmly and unashamedly on the British experience, starting with his great-uncle Charlie. The story he recounts is only a fragment of the horror and the far-reaching consequences. The Germans, Russians, French, Italians and Turks between them lost many millions. The war also brought about revolution in Russia and the disintegration of the Habsburg dynasty. Those who seek the bigger picture will need to turn to Max Hastings’s magnificent recent account of the catastrophe.
The outcome was close run. The kaiser’s armies, when eventually defeated, were everywhere on foreign soil. The final German offensive in the spring of 1918, preceded by a five-hour artillery barrage in which more than a million shells rained down, broke through the British lines and almost reached the English Channel.
In some respects the slaughter was a dress rehearsal for the horrors to come. The 1914-18 war saw the introduction of tanks, aircraft and submarines, all of which would play a big part in the next conflagration. Who would guess that in little more than 20 years history would repeat itself?
Over and over, I kept thinking as I read this how fortunate am I – are we – to have been born in a generation that was never tested in the fires of hell.
Chris Mullin was an MP from 1987 to 2010. He is the author of three volumes of diaries