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Jeremy Paxman


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Many of us have a stereotypical idea of the First Word War, shaped largely by films, books, and even television comedies (Blackadder). We think of it as an immense collective folly that afflicted the whole of Europe, in which millions of brave soldiers were killed or maimed owing to pig-headed generals who stayed safely at the back out of harm's way (lions led by donkeys). We find it incomprehensible that so many men could serve, willingly in many cases, in the appalling conditions of trench warfare.

In this very readable account Paxman reveals the reality behind the myths that have accumulated around the war. His book is not just a history of what happened during the fighting; it is also a social history of Britain at that time, in which he shows how people acquired a different view of themselves and their country. Many things we take for granted today—democracy, passports, vegetable allotments, and British Summer Time, for example—had their origins in the war.

Throughout, Paxman includes first-hand descriptions of people's personal experiences both abroad and at home. As a result the book is vivid and never tedious, while Paxman's dry sense of humour provides a welcome relief at times from the pervading horror.

The first chapter describes the events that led up to the British declaration of war. Was this inevitable? Perhaps not: it is conceivable that Britain could have remained neutral; the Cabinet was divided.

Was there a choice? It remains one of the great what-ifs of our history. Since the Entente Cordiale was not a formal mutual defence treaty with France it might have been possible for London to ignore the desperate cries from Paris. Yet to have abandoned France to its fate would likely have left most of Europe under German control, and domination of mainland Europe by a single power had been a nightmare the British had fought and schemed against for over 300 years.
Anyway, whether France could be ignored or not, Belgium was a different matter, for Britain (and Germany or at least Prussia) had guaranteed its neutrality in a treaty signed 75 years earlier. For Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, there was no choice; both honour and self-interest demanded a response. And matters now took their inevitable course.

Declaration of war was immediately followed by a vast influx of volunteers eager to sign on to fight. Paxman provides a good analysis of this, to us surprising, enthusiasm. In part this was due to ignorance of what a modern war would be like and also to widespread confidence that the fighting would be brief (all over by Christmas).

As to why men volunteered to take part in such carnage, the short answer is that they did not; the war they went off to fight in 1914 was nothing like the war of even one year later.
Another factor was sense of duty; as Paxman remarks more than once in the course of the book, this quality, much in evidence before the war, is all but extinct in modern Britain.

In 1914, Paxman says, it was easier to volunteer than to keep out of the war, so great was the pressure to join up. The problem the authorities faced at this stage was catering for the numbers of new recruits, who needed to be fed, housed, and trained. Later, as the demand increased, conscription was introduced, though this decision was taken with reluctance in 1916 and not all coalition members were happy about it. Paxman thinks that this precedent was to make profound alterations in British society.

By the end of the war the state was involved in determining not merely who wore uniform, but what people ate and drank, where they worked, how much they were paid and who was entitled to a pension.

A counterpart to the initial enthusiasm for joining up was deep suspicion of anyone who was German or thought to be German, together with an obsession with spies. Even the war secretary, Richard Haldane, was suspect in the eyes of the press because he spoke German, had attended a German university, and was an intellectual. When a coalition was formed in 1915 Haldane was no longer in post. There were many German waiters working in hotels in Britain and the Daily Mail said that loyal British guests should refuse to be served by them. In fact, only eleven spies were executed in the Tower of London in the whole course of the war.

Much of the book is naturally concerned with the long years of trench warfare. The appalling slaughter that occurred in the protracted battle of Mons in 1915 was followed later by the equally appalling battles of the Somme in 1916 and Paschendaele in 1917. By the end of the war the respective positions of the armies had hardly shifted.

We are often told that this futile killing was due to the incompetence of the generals, but while there was indeed incompetence at times, especially in the Dardanelles campaign at the start of the war, it is not easy to see what else they could have done in the circumstances prevailing in trench warfare. We have to remember that it was practically impossible to communicate quickly between the front line and headquarters. Wireless was still too primitive to be useful and telephone wires were easily broken, so the remaining possibilities came down to visual signalling, pigeons (which often couldn't or wouldn't fly), and runners, who might be killed en route. The nearer a general was to the fighting, the smaller the sector he could command. Even so, many generals were killed in the course of the war, so allegations that they kept out of danger are misplaced.

Before the war British strength was thought to depend more on its navy than its army. The Germans, too, had been building up their navy, and the two forces met in the battle of Jutland in 1916, which, the British hoped, would reduce the German navy to insignificance. Although both sides claimed victory, the British suffered the bigger losses. But there were no more major engagements after this, because, somewhat ironically, both sides had invested so much in their battleships that neither felt able to risk losing them in action. The main German seaborne threat now came not from battleships but from submarines, which came close to winning the war for Germany by blocking the import of food. Eventually this necessitated the imposition of rationing.

Although the Germans finally signed the armistice, this was only after they staged a major offensive in 1918 which very nearly turned the tables on the allies. Russia was by now out of the war and this left the Germans free to attack in the West. After an enormous artillery bombardment on the Somme, in which more than a million shells were fired in five hours, the advance began over a 50-mile front. The British were outnumbered three to one and had to retreat; this was probably the worst reverse they suffered in the war. It looked likely that the Germans would reach both the Channel and Paris, and the government in London contemplated withdrawing the army.

At this point the Germans had won ten times the amount of territory that the allies had taken in 1917. But they had suffered almost a million casualties in the process, and those soldiers who remained had outrun their supplies and were as much interested in finding food as in fighting further. Now the Americans had entered the war, and British production of armaments increasing enormously. A series of counterattacks by the Americans, French, and British (who had received large reinforcemnts) brought about the end of the war.

It took a considerable time to bring the troops home after the Armistice. Lloyd George had promised them a country fit for heroes, but the reality was different. Britain had changed enormously. When men were demoblised they received four weeks' leave, a railway ticket, and a ration book. Then they were on their own. Jobs were scarce and the former soldiers were often up against younger men fresh from school. Ex-officers might be grateful for menial jobs, if they could find them.

For Paxman, the real conclusion we should draw is not the pointlessness of the war but the failure of the politicians.

It is precisely because [the war] changed so much that we understand it so little. Before it 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 fifty years of being told we can make up our own minds about almost anything. … Even the idea of 'sacrifice' which would have been entirely acceptable at the time, has been lost to us, discarded along with religious belief and replaced with the cost-benefit analysis which demands the inseparable adjective 'pointless'.
A monumental amount has been and will be written about the war in this, the centenary year of its outbreak. No one book can encompass everything that needs to be said about it, but this is likely to prove one of the best.

3 August 2014

%T Great Britain's Great War
%A Paxman, Jeremy
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 2013
%G 97806709106235 ISBN
%P 356pp
%K history
%O paperback edition
%O map, notes bibliography, index
%O halftone illustrations

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