Jeremy Paxman's Great War is great. But is 2,500 hours of WW1 programming too much?

A hundred years on, we're still conflicted about the conflict — and it shows

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

Why are we so fascinated by the first world war? As its 100th anniversary approaches, we’re already mired in arguments about whether for Britain it was a ‘just war’ or a ‘pointless sacrifice’ of millions of lives. I don’t see why it has to be one or the other. Surely this huge and horrific event held elements of both, and more. If ever there was a time when glory ran alongside absurdity, when courage marched lockstep with catastrophe, this was it. We’re looking back at the Great War as if it were a mental exercise — should it or shouldn’t it have happened? But maybe our fascination is emotional as well as intellectual. In our age of individualism and self-gratification, something about this time, when so many were willing to die for a bigger cause, intrigues us. Perhaps we’re not so much drawn to the ‘pointless’ as to the ‘sacrifice’.

When war broke out, Germany had an army of more than two million soldiers, while Britain, a naval power, had a professional army of 100,000-strong. This meant the British army had to rely on volunteers, who signed up at a rate of as many as 20,000 a day. From the outset, it was about private choice and personal cost, as Britain’s Great War (BBC1, Mondays), a four-part documentary presented by Jeremy Paxman, showed in its first episode. The series, the opening salvo of the BBC’s four-year commemoration of the war, was full of anecdotes from the home front as well as the front line, of individual lives caught in the crossfire of events. It’s as though Paxo, on whose book Great Britain’s Great War much of the show’s material was based, wanted to make this about small pictures, rather than the big picture.

He interviewed 105-year-old Violet Muers, seven at the time of the German shelling of Hartlepool, who recalled the initial confusion — ‘Me older sister said: “I think someone’s beating the carpets.”’ (Muers died last November.) There was a colourful, almost comical, section where Paxman sympathetically described how parts of the population were susceptible to exaggerated stories about German spies and German landings. Another section dealt with the men from the Indian army called to fight for Britain, the wounded among whom were treated at Brighton’s sumptuous — and surreal — oriental-style Royal Pavilion.

Even things that happened on a national level were given a personal flavour. Foreign secretary Edward Grey’s deliberations  on the eve of war were evoked not with the use of some ministerial meeting room, but by the birdhouse at London Zoo, where he had engaged in lonely last-minute soul-searching. The second episode, of which I’ve seen a preview, continues in the same vein: the tragedy of the Lusitania is poignantly brought home by a ‘missing baby’ notice; the advancement of the suffragette movement by Lloyd George’s negotiations with Emily Pankhurst for women’s support of the war effort.

Paxman presents the series as you might expect — with assuredness and gravitas. I don’t suppose there’s any other way of presenting a documentary on such a subject, really. There were highly affecting moments — the black-and-white footage of young men cheering at the outbreak of war, of women working at munitions factories. It’s the details that make you pause: the cloth caps of the civilian men and the cruel smoke of the trenches, the mixture of carriages and cars — here was the ending of innocence and the birth of modernity.

A retrospective of the first world war is not about these people a century ago, but about us. How we handle it and present it reflects our society today. I can’t speak for everyone who’ll watch this documentary, so I can only say how I felt — a complicated mixture of horror, sadness and… yes, some excitement. There was something galvanising in the air. Might this have been what at first stirred so many people to answer the call to arms? Surely this early exhilaration can’t be a total mystery to us, even from our comfortable 21st-century perches?

The other argument that’s been taking place is whether the BBC’s four-year-long project, amounting to 2,500 hours of programming, is excessive. My own feeling is — yes. Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, and the Beeb’s undertaking is already under way. The commemoration will be longer than the war. Could it be that the BBC is comfortable doing what it does best: documentary-type programmes? Is war its safe zone?

A significant tribute to and study of such a world-changing event is appropriate, of course; but I’m afraid that going down all the nooks and byways of the Great War won’t prevent conflict from happening again. Sometimes the best way of remembering is to live for the future.

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  • peter6218

    Paxman has presented a superficial WW1 history as it would appear in the Daily Mail ;Gove must be so proud of him. Conscientious objectors were cranks, the Germans were intent on taking over Britain, the passengers on the Lusitania were ” murdered ” by the Germans.
    This is not a serious history it is a repetition of WW1 propaganda bordering on a hatefest.

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      They always fail to mention the British naval blockade of Germany which led to an estimated 700,000 deaths including many children due to starvation. (Admittedly food was prioritised for the army, but even if this had not been so, children are always those who suffer most from a lack of food). Also the Lusitania was carrying artillery and ammunition and as such was a legitimate target. Blame rather the folly of the English and American authorities who allowed civilians onboard.

      • children are always those who suffer most from a lack of food

        Really? I dislike charity drives that always feature the children, as if adults don’t need calories, too. And though adults deserve to live in their own right, regardless of whether they have children or not, there will be no children if there are no adults to raise them.

        • ClausewitzTheMunificent

          Adults are physically tough and grown, and independent. Moreover they are fairly resistant to disease. Children are none of these things. I don’t really get what point you were trying to make, or why you were trying to make it. As an alternative, you might have tried saying that by having the government and companies constantly evoke the “mental image” of children, to attempt to exploit our justly-founded empathy for commercial gain, the consequent over-stimulation might lead to a concrete drop in our ability to feel for the plight of real children, which is an interesting point, though still wholly irrelevant to the discussion either in the article or the comments.

          • I can’t remember the context but you made a claim I didn’t agree with and still don’t. Lots of adults are *not* tough: they are dealing with a lifetime’s worth of injuries and often malnutrition, and they sacrifice goods for their children which means they ain’t getting enough of what *they* need. Fairly resistant to disease? That all depends. The Indians wiped out by smallpox were not resistant just because they were ‘grown up’, and my mother had a worse case of chicken pox than we kids did because she had not had it in childhood. Many diseases only occur in adult populations. Similarly, your claim of ‘independence’ is too vague and general to have any real meaning. People locked into a subsistence way of life or ordered about by a regime are hardly ‘independent’ of any circumstances that oppress them.

  • Simon Fay

    “we’re already mired in arguments about whether for Britain it was a ‘just war’ or a ‘pointless sacrifice’ of millions of lives. ”

    The arguments for WW1 being a jolly good thing are just chatterati theatre staged by court historians and Michael Gove (hoping to catalyse the formation of a Foreign Legion attached to the IDF, probably). They might just as well eulogise Harold Shipman’s bedside manner.

  • Thomtids

    Paxman is excellent and delivers his script with credibility. He touched upon the issue of the “obligation under Treaty” for Britain to enter the hostilities but failed to make clear that there was no obligation. Contrary to my 1960s O level History syllabus “The Great Powers 1875-1911 which taught that we were obliged to join in The Great European War, our decision was voluntary and based upon the protection of our, then recently-acquired, Oil Empire. I conclude that Paxman did not write nor did he have editorial powers in the script he delivers as I am sure he would have stressed the point he made, but sotto voce, so as not to “insult” the memories of dead and injured maimed not for the protection of the Belgians but by the crassness of politicians.
    Another point Paxman failed to make, by allowing the script to damn the Conscientious Objectors, was the role undertaken by those who voluntarily joined, as did my grandfather, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Friends’ Ambulance Service. He had no obligation to do so as conscription would have been unlikely to have called upon him. He was too old, married with a young family. He was badly gassed at Ypres in 1917 and with badly damaged lungs died aged 47 in 1923.
    Given that Britain was also conned into the Second World War, just as badly as we were by Blair into the Iraq War, it seems that whoever tries to inveigle us into another major conflict is going to have to come up with propaganda but stronger than allegations of Rape, child-murder, etc. sexed-up dossiers. Syria obviously didn’t do it as the MPs didn’t reckon their voters would put up with it and The Mandarins couldn’t think up a really convincing lie to provide any comfort for a lot of soon-to-be ex-politicians voting politically with other people’s lives. Like they did in 1914.