Edinburgh Book Festival: Jeremy Paxman, War. Germany. Act., Review

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Jeremy Paxman with Peter Guttridge in the Chair
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Jeremy Paxman was at his absolute best for this Open University event which was entitled, "War. Germany. Act" and which allowed him to introduce his latest book, "Great Britain's Great War", which emanated from his excellent recent television documentary on the subject. Peter Gutteridge was nominally Chairman but he only had the task of welcoming and thanking the audience to this total sell-out event!

Paxman opened by claiming that the First World War was "the event that made modern Britain". People were changed as a result of what happened - people who had seen what the country was like before the war would not have recognised it afterwards. He confessed to having had an obsession with the Great War since his school days and that he had been moved by the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon which initially in 1914 was supportive of the war and then became increasingly embittered in tone. Why, he asked, did men who had become disillusioned by the war still want to return to their units and continue fighting? The reason he gave was because of the loyalty that these men felt for their close comrades - the man in the same or next trench and it was not necessarily a greater vision of loyalty to the country.

Paxman felt that statements of the type, "Heroes led by donkeys" and characters portrayed in the Blackadder series, did not really illustrate what the serving soldier felt. His view was that many of these things simply did not accord with reality; they make no sense of what were the true feelings of individuals, but the prejudices sit happily with the mood of some of the people at the time. However, when these things are researched in depth the claims do not stand up. Paxman said he had looked carefully at the views of soldiers, politicians, generals, wives and women in general to get a feel of their war experiences and how they felt about the war. His interpretation of these feelings was that people kept faith in the concept and the reasons for war.

Moving on he showed the audience a photograph of young men in training, which must have been 1914 or 1915 judging by the leaves on the trees and he said that one of the men in the picture was actually his Great Uncle Charlie who was killed on his first day in combat at Gallipoli in 1915. He was a working class man, a loom overseer, who left his home, having never been abroad and then was killed on the other side of Europe. He was a stretcher bearer as he had the red cross on one shoulder, but he died 'of wounds'. His life, his contribution is fading as Paxman's children, although they know about Great Uncle Charlie, do not hold him in as much esteem as their father does - nor does Paxman himself know as much about him as his mother did as she had actually been out to see his grave.

When war came one hundred years ago, it came from an unexpected source, as most people thought that any trouble would come from Ireland which was being particularly difficult. So why did the war start? Germany had a mobilisation plan to move through Belgium, but Britain had signed a treaty with Belgium to guarantee to support her if she was under threat - the treaty was signed in the first half of the 19th Century, so this should be a lesson to remember, it may not be your generation who has to answer the call and it may be many years on! So Britain declared war to firstly honour the treaty; second, there was a degree of realpolitic and lastly possibly some amour-propre - Britain was the leading power in the world and sometimes there are situations where you simply have to act as it is expected of you,. The United States is experiencing similar problems now.

Paxman turned to the state of the British Army, which although professional, was seriously under strength. Up to then wars were fought in distant lands and nowhere near Britain. Although there was great excitement and foreboding when war was declared the nation simply had to raise many more men.

At the time there was no Secretary of State for War as the previous incumbent had resigned and the job was being carried out by the Prime Minister, Asquith. Paxman gave the audience the somewhat bizarre story of how Kitchener was brought back from the ferry to France to London to take up the post. He had been in a great hurry to return to Egypt where he was serving at the time. Kitchener was not one of those who thought the war would soon be over and he expected it to last for at least three years. Recruiting was a priority and the famous poster of his face with the words, 'Your Country Needs You'. As some people have said - a terrible general but a great poster! There was great pressure on men to enlist and posters gave various messages such as, 'Your Country's Calling', 'Worth Fighting For - Enlist Now', 'Women of Britain Say - Go' and one to really put you on the spot, 'What Did You Do in the Great War Daddy?'

Paxman said it was easy to join the army, but not so easy to leave. So long as a man could inflate his lungs to 34 inches and had good teeth 'he was in'! So many volunteered initially that they had to have map reading exercises without maps and some were dressed in old Post Office uniform which was actually blue. At the start there were many of what became known as 'Pals Battalions' where the men from an area would join up; in Edinburgh we had the famous McCrae's Battalion which was composed of those who were footballers and who supported a football team - mainly Hearts. This created problems when the battalion was in action with so many being killed that it took a terrible toll on one area. However, most joined the existing regiments and found themselves with many people they knew.

Paxman said that in this environment men did not want to let down their friends that they shared the experience with - the impact was shared by relatively few and these men were those who lived and worked together. One has to ask why people like Siegfried Sassoon went back to the front line after becoming so embittered and possibly the reason was that he felt a keen loyalty to his men and to those he shared danger with.

The next picture was one of a soldier standing in knee deep water showing just how bad the British trenches were - the German trenches tended to be better as they were the occupying force and chose where to base themselves. In Flanders the water table was high so the British trenches were nearly always deep in water. In spite of the many privations morale kept high generally, with the daily tot of rum being a highlight for many - unless you were unfortunate enough to be in a battalion commanded by a teetotaller! There were several Naval Divisions who operated their own code of conduct - very Royal Navy! They could request to leave the line by asking to 'go ashore'! The Naval Divisions were looked down on by the army who felt that they had higher standards of hygiene and general cleanliness.

We were shown a picture of a young couple just after their wedding and it was striking how extremely young they both looked. Although many had volunteered it was still not enough as casualties were high so conscription was introduced. Many tried, some successfully, to avoid army service but a great number were brought into the army. One group that did very valuable service was the Quakers who acted as first aiders and stretcher bearers, gaining great respect from the rest of the army. With conscription in force it meant that many of the jobs previously done by men were now being carried out by women. On the farms, in the munition factories and simply everywhere women were replacing men. That well known army chaplain, 'Woodbine Willie' famously said when watching an artillery bombardment, "the hand that rocks the cradle wrecks the world". But now the Government was taking more and more control of the nation and finally it started to control what the nation ate by introducing rationing in 1917. What was also striking was that those who had lost limbs and had been wounded remained amazingly cheerful. Much wonderful work was done with plastic surgery.

The Germans drew on all their resources and launched one final offensive, but that failed; in response the Allies counter-attacked and the Germans then sued for peace. By the end of the war some seven hundred and fifty thousand men never came back and out of 16,000 villages only forty had all men returning who joined up initially - it was a terrible price to pay. But it changed the way Britain worked and things would never be the same again. Women received a vote and this was eventually made universal for men and women. The officer 'class' changed dramatically and by the end of the war included anyone who was capable of the task - a huge step forward. Generally there was a dramatic change in the way people regarded each other and this has paved the way for much wider and better understanding in society.
This was a brilliant hour and a master class in presentation and research. The book should be fascinating!