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Great Britain's Great War

Jeremy Paxman

(London Times)

1 The Kaiser hated the British

Lord Northcliffe, the archetypal mad newspaper tycoon, spent much time before the war trying to boost sales of his Daily Mail with scare stories about German bogeymen planning to invade Britain. In most of them, the place was bristling with well-hidden German spies just waiting for the chance to execute the Kaiser's dastardly scheme for world domination. Some of these stories he advertised by hiring actors to strut about Oxford Street wearing pickelhaube helmets. More than any of his successors, Northcliffe understood how much his readers enjoyed what he called 'a good hate'.

But Kaiser Wilhelm didn't hate Britain.

His grandmother was Queen Victoria. He was an honorary field marshal in the British Army, an honorary admiral of the fleet in the Royal Navy and the colonel-in-chief of a smart British cavalry regiment. Admiral Tirpitz, who had built him the navy intended to rival that of Britain, sent his daughters to Cheltenham Ladies' College, and the Kaiser hummed along merrily to Gilbert and Sullivan. His unconcealed lust was not to destroy Britain but to emulate her. A self-important man with a dressing-up box full of spangled uniforms, the 'All Highest War Lord' was convinced his nation was being denied the place it deserved in international affairs. It wasn't hate, but envy.

2 The British need not have entered the war

Famously, the war began after an assassination in Sarajevo which was blamed on Serbia. There were certainly plenty of British people who thought an obscure conflict in the Balkans had nothing to do with Britain, whose destiny lay overseas, in her worldwide empire. TO HELL WITH SERVIA! screamed the billboards on buses advertising Horatio Bottomley's nationalistic rag, John Bull.

But standing aloof while continental Europe fell to German invasion was never a viable possibility. As the United States today cannot avoid entanglement in the nasty little war in Syria, great powers (and Britain was the world's pre-eminent power) end up obligated to strike attitudes, and then have to act upon them, so that others continue to take them seriously.

Was it necessary to join the war to defend an inherently pointless country like Belgium? The precise treaty (in this case the ancient piece of paper guaranteeing Belgian neutrality) did not matter. But to renege on the promise would have been to declare Britain's word - and status - worthless.

There was self-interest at work, too. The consequence of a successful German conquest of Europe would have been to leave the Continent in the hands of a power that directly menaced British interests worldwide. Once the Germans had Belgium and France they would have command of the North Sea, which was then considered 'ours'. It was unthinkable.

3 The war was fought in the trenches

The trenches are certainly our abiding impression of the war. They had been intended for temporary defence but became miserably permanent fixtures on the battlefield, and finding a way of breaking out of the stagnation of trench warfare obsessed both commanders and politicians. But the trenches were only part of the war. Men also served in the Navy, in the air, or in vital industries (often alongside women). Because the trenches were so very horrible, the British Army had a well-organised rotation system in which infantrymen could expect to be replaced in the trenches by other units after a few days.

4 The generals stayed as far away from the action as they could

When General Melchett tells Blackadder that he'll be 'right behind' him when he goes over the top, Blackadder mutters, 'Yes, about 35 miles behind.' This stereotype has been around for the best part of a century. It is true that many a chateau was requisitioned to act as a headquarters. But commanding and controlling vast numbers of men would have been impossible at close range. Before the development of battlefield radios, communication was by field telephone (if there was peace enough to dig in the cables), carrier pigeon, messenger dog, runner or various odd forms of semaphore. There were certainly some generals who were incompetent dullards, and there were others who showed a genuine care for their men. Nearly 80 of them died on active service. As for the idea that they all set out to throw away the lives of their soldiers by marching them into machinegun fire - thereby making it more likely the battle would be lost - just ask yourself whether it makes sense.

5 Young men were forced to fight

The belief that young men were bludgeoned into uniform is a key part of the First World War myth, along with the bone-headed generals and the mass slaughter of Pals battalions.

But conscription was not introduced until early 1916, when the Government recognised it had a manpower crisis and voices began to ask why the security of those who chose not to risk their precious lives should be guaranteed by others who were prepared to volunteer. Even so, in the first year of conscription, slightly fewer men joined the Army than in the year before, when participation had been a matter of free choice. Those who objected to serving were called before tribunals to argue their case, which was a great deal more civilised than in most of Europe. Men appeared before tribunals claiming all manner of things - including that tripe-dressers should be exempt. One man wanted time to complete a course of hair restoration.

6 Britain was full of conscientious objectors

The number objecting on grounds of conscience were a very small minority - most seem to have accepted an unpleasant but necessary duty. In the entire course of the war there were only 16,000 conscientious objectors, a smaller number than in the 'good' war of 1939-45.

7 The war was fought by men

Women were not sent to combat roles,but plenty served in uniform, from nurses to members of the Women's Land Army. And women certainly died in the war, as did children. In December 1914, German warships shelled towns in the northeast of England, killing civilians indiscriminately. The following year bombing raids by great Zeppelin airships began. In 1917, hundreds were killed in attacks on England by German fixed-wing bombers, 18 of these victims were children, who died when a bomb fell on their school in Poplar.

Unlike previous wars, which were largely fought by a small professional army, no one in Britain was unaffected by the First World War. When the German U-boat campaign attempted to starve Britain into surrender, the Win the War cookbook (packed with advice which our obese generation would do well to follow, though it might be hard to gee up enthusiasm for recipes for Fried Mush) advised housewives that the struggle is not only on land and sea: it is your larder, your kitchen, your dining room.

8 The officers were all toffs

As memorials in almost every public (for which read private) school testify, the heart of the officer class was young men from the middle and upper classes. But the most dangerous rank in the British Army was to be a platoon commander, expected to lead his men in any attack. They were killed in huge numbers. As the war went on there came an ever more pressing need to create 'temporary gentlemen' to replace them. At the end of the war General Haig noted that he had found a taxi driver commanding a brigade, and a railway signalman, a coal miner and a market gardener each leading a battalion. D..H. Lawrence's earthy gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley's Lover, was a blacksmith who had served as a lieutenant. Her impotent husband was a minor aristocrat wounded in the war.

9 The tank won the war

The tank was only one of many weapons dreamt up to break the stalemate of trench warfare. The first sightings of this great weapon on the battlefield inspired genuine terror. Bullets just bounced off these great, clanking, smoking leviathans. But when first deployed - at the Somme in 1916 - great numbers broke down and others got stuck in the mud. When the generals worked out how to use them properly, they did make a great contribution - not least by being rolled into town squares across Britain, to persuade people to buy war bonds from 'tank banks'. But what really won the war was a greater capacity to endure. By 1918, Britain had so reorganised industry, so efficiently controlled food distribution and so effectively enforced the blockade of Germany that the balance of the war had tipped. The Allies toughed it out.

10 The war destroyed an entire generation

The First World War was an awful event. More than 720,000 young men were killed and many more were mutilated. Such a huge loss of life had serious effects - not least in advancing the course of genuine democracy in Britain. But the notion, as one schoolmistress put it in 1917, that the war had taken 'nine out of ten' of the young men her girls might marry, was just plain wrong.

The empty cradle was a staple anxiety of the post-war years, with Northcliffe sounding off about the country's 'two million superfluous women'. The Daily Mail proposed they be exported, rather than stay in Britain taking men's jobs and inciting adultery and lesbianism.

Many women lived on as broken-hearted spinsters. But a far larger number led conventional postwar family lives. There were more babies born in England and Wales in 1920 than in any year since, even though today's population is immensely larger.

What did seem to die was an idea of life. There were still young men writing letters home from the Front in 1918 talking about how they were dying for a roses-round-the-door idea of England, but by then the poets were dealing with altogether bleaker matters.

More books on Politics

You know this is a different sort of book about the First World War from the way it quotes Private John Scollen of the Northumberland Fusiliers. His words are from a letter to his wife and seven children, to be opened in the event of his death. It is reproduced almost in full and its third paragraph begins: 'My Joe, Jack, Tina and Aggie not forgetting my little bonny twins Nora and Hugh and my last flower baby whom I have only had the great pleasure of seeing [once] since he came into the world, God bless them . . .'

It ends with 249 kisses, rendered with modern-looking 'x's', and the words 'Good Bye my loved ones, Don't cry'. Every kiss is printed - they take up five and a half lines - and you can almost hear that big softie from Newsnight insisting on it to his editor.

Jeremy Paxman's point in all this is not to try to add anything to the century of grieving and finger-pointing that followed the war that H..G. Wells thought would end all wars. Far from it. He makes it clear at the start that one of his reasons for adding to an already bulging literature was his irritation with a teacher he once saw set a class an essay on the question 'How Does Wilfred Owen Show The Futility of War?' He does not accept that it was futile, and 280 pages later he is more convinced than ever that the widely accepted "retrospective narrative . . . [of] innocent conscripts, dullard generals and boneheaded battle plans" simply won-t do.

The question he sets out to answer is why on earth Private Scollen and 720,000 other Britons - if they were so poorly led - fought and died in such horrendous circumstances with so little complaint and so much of what their commanders would presumably have called pluck.

He comes up with plenty of answers, not all of them entirely convincing. In one he contrives to connect a 20th-century nation to the half-remembered commitments of its 19th-century leaders in a single sentence. Failing to honour the country's treaties (in this case the 'scrap of paper' signed in 1839 guaranteeing Belgium's territorial integrity) would not, Paxman writes, have fitted with the British people’s idea of who they were.

And what was that idea? It was of a proud, strong, trustworthy people used to leading the world by example. It was also, of course, a highly stratified people. Paxman is struck, as were many of the Americans who came over to help win the next big war, by the biddability of Britain’s footsoldiers, but he is even more impressed by the courage of their junior officers.

If Private Scollen was brave, whichever young subaltern led him over the top was even braver. No one went up to the front line with a shorter life expectancy than the new officer cadet. Hundreds came from Eton and Harrow, but thousands came from the minor public schools that, in their efforts to ape the major ones, drummed into their output an even more suicidal sense of duty.

Paxman works hard to give credit where it’s due rather than simply bash the usual suspects, but in the end the doesn't make the case against the narrative that he finds so tiresomely familiar, of myopic generals sending lambs to the slaughter. In fact he shows vividly that it still describes remarkably accurately the epic disasters at the Dardanelles (where his great-uncle died); at Passchendaele and at the Somme.

In other hands, this would be a problem. In Paxman’s it isn't. He writes so well and sympathetically, and chooses his detail so deftly, that if there is one new history of the war that you might actually enjoy from the very large centennial selection this is very likely it.

Who knew that Fortnum's did a brisk trade in picnic hampers assembled especially for the front, or that Harrods did a rather slower one in cocaine to ease the suffering there? Or that a group of terrified American tourists clubbed together to buy an entire ocean-going steamer to get them home rather than be stranded in Europe by the war? You get the sense that Paxman didn't until he stumbled on the information and seized it with the fascination of the journalist, which prevails here over the sententiousness of the historian. Thank goodness.

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