Jeremy Paxman’s Great War: the unrevised edition
Jeremy Paxman is best known as the pugilistic presenter of ‘Newsnight’, but he pulls no punches in his new book on Britain during the first World War
Jeremy Paxman: ‘Those who read the war through the prism of the 1960s do their history a disservice.’ Photograph: Phil Fisk
British soldiers in the trenches during the first World War. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
British tommies relaxing and having wounds treated in an underground dressing station in France. Photograph: Three Lions/Getty Images
Every war is filled with myths, some big, some small. Growing up, BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman regularly heard of his “Uncle Charlie”, his deeds and early death.
“The photograph was always on the wall,” Paxman remembers, sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a cordoned-off area at this week’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“The family fable was that he had faked his age, joined up early, been killed on his 18th birthday, all that kind of stuff: the common first World War story, which turned out not to be true.”
Instead, his great-great uncle, Pte Charlie Dickson, was 24 when he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and just a year older when he died on the first day of the doomed Gallipoli landings.
Paxman’s new book Great Britain’s Great War seeks to examine the war through the eyes of those then living. The spur to do so came after the death of his mother, who, like others born in the years after 1918, had her perception of it guided by the belief that the soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”.
However, Paxman argues, this was not the common perception at the time – not just in 1914, but even into the later years of the war, when the full horrors were known to many.
“She would have had her view very strongly coloured by the revision which begins in the late 1920s and goes through David Lloyd George’s memoirs,” he says.
The flowering of that perception of history is perhaps most prevalent in Oh, What A Lovely War, the 1969 musical directed by Richard Attenborough, which ruthlessly mocked the generals.
“My big beef is that we don’t realise that people saw the world very definitely in 1914. There had never been a war like this; they had been fed this view of Britain’s great imperial destiny.
“They knew nothing much about ‘abroad’. Most of them had never left their county, let alone their country. Those who read it through the prism of the 1960s do their history a disservice.
“We need to have in mind those who heard this call, rightly or wrongly. It is seen now through the prism of Sassoon and Brooke, Owen and so on [the war poets Sigfried, Rupert and Wilfred, respectively]. That isn’t how it was seen by most at the time.”
History, he acknowledges, is understood anew by each succeeding generation, though Paxman disagrees fundamentally with the view that the war was a pointless sacrifice. “The suggestion that there was a callous indifference on the part of the generals is all very well, but to suggest that they consciously set out to have their own troops killed just doesn’t make sense. It’s nonsense.”
Paxman argues that Britain’s decision to fight in the war was justified, since “stopping German domination of Europe was important”.
For many, the first World War is a forgotten past. “It is partly because the images are all black and white – it is one of the reasons why I insisted that the cover of the book was in colour. We tend to see things differently when we are used to high-resolution digital quality in colour. A hundred years is a very long time: four generations.”
But an understanding of it is necessary. “It is with us today because the changes that it wrought – their ideas about gender, their ideas about the role of the state, entitlements, the relationship between the citizen and the state – are still with us today. We don’t really question any of that.