Edinburgh Book Festival: David Reynolds, The Great War's Grand Legacy

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David Reynolds with Andrew Franklin as Chairman
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Andrew Franklin introduced David Reynolds as a distinguished historian and the Professor of History at Cambridge University who had made several television programmes with the BBC and toured America on several occasions.

The author of eleven books and winner of the Wolfson Prize in 2004 for his book on Winston Churchill, Reynolds had now written The Long Shadow which assesses how the First World War shaped the following century.

Reynolds struck a familiar note when he said that we all tended to remember the First World War through the images of remembrance and the Poppy Appeal, images of the trenches and the poets - Sigmund Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, brought together at Craiglockhart where they were both convalescing.

There are the terrible facts: seventy-two thousand died on the Somme and we have the picture of the graves of the unknown, marked with Kipling's phrase, 'Known unto God' of those who gave their lives; as Trevelyan said, 'They were once as real as we are'. The power of remembrance is very strong.

The First World War was certainly a huge human tragedy for Britain, but Reynolds suggested we should look at the contrasts that there are with the Second World War, where we had what is termed, 'Our Finest Hour'.

In the First World War we were not exposed to the threat of invasion, nor were we bombed to the same extent as we were during World War Two, so there were contrasting differences. The Second World War ended in the complete and utter devastation of Germany and the collapse of the Nazi regime.

Reynolds added that our view of the conflict in 1914-18 was now much coloured by the more recent experience of 1939-45. What was known as 'The Great War' became 'The First World War' and the period of the 1920s and 1930s became 'the inter-war years' rather than 'the post-war years'.

Reynolds said that in retrospect, the years after the First World War were actually reasonably prosperous, but two things marked Britain out from the other nations on the Continent of Europe: the way we dealt with democracy and nationalism.

For democracy, there was the 'big bang' on the continent which rather back-fired. The democracy of Lenin and Stalin in Russia led to less freedom and the advent of the Hitler regime in Germany led to disaster.

In Britain we had no 'superman' who would take charge of the nation; rather, it was very much the 'Politics of the Ordinary' with two men who Reynolds felt were now reviled, Ramsay McDonald and Stanley Baldwin.

For Baldwin, democracy had 'come at a gallop'. There were the beginnings of change in the way men and women were regarded in the workplace with women starting to have a much greater impact.

Although this was a prosperous period for some, Reynolds stressed the collapse of several industries such as shipbuilding, leading to many being unemployed with the Jarrow Crusade march. Reynolds mentioned the Daily Mirror cartoon which was reprinted in 1945 of the soldier with the wreath of victory in his hand and the caption, 'Vote for them'.

Of course, he said, we then saw the Atlee Government which was arguably one of the most significant in the history of Britain.

Turning to nationalism, Reynolds felt that the treatment of the nationalists by the British Army had led to many who were actually supporters of the link to Britain becoming disillusioned and demanding independence. Reynolds felt it turned 'fringe zealots' into National heroes in Ireland.

He gave two illustrations: the Ulster Tower on the Somme where twenty thousand men died on the first day and the 36th Ulster Division - which was mainly Ulster protestants - lost a third of its strength, and the 'Peace Tower' in Belgium which commemorates the many Irish nationalists who died fighting for Britain as they thought that this was the best way to secure independence.

The important contrast is that the Peace Tower was not built until 1998. He mentioned that, of course, there were several other national monuments such as the 51st Highland Division memorial and the monument to the Welsh Division. However, he stressed the huge contributions by the other Commonwealth nations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.

Of course, while most European nations were shedding colonies, Britain was beginning to mould the Commonwealth and Reynolds reminded the audience of Smuts who first spoke of the concept of a shared identity and the 'Commonwealth concept'.

This was a really excellent and rather different view on the First World War and Reynolds managed to bring a new slant to the period. We must be very grateful to him for giving us a fascinating hour and to the anonymous benefactor who made this possible.