Viking, £25; Hodder & Stoughton, £20 or order at a discount from The Independent Bookshop

Book review: Great Britain's Great War, By Jeremy Paxman
Fighting on the Home Front, By Kate Adie

Beyond centenary rituals, we still need to grasp just how the First World War shaped the present

At its outset the First World War was regarded as, in what now seems a tragic cliché, the "war to end war". The question of why hundreds of thousands of men and fewer women volunteered their lives to fight in a pointless war may be wrong-headed.

Get this book at the discounted price of £16 from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

Instead, argues Jeremy Paxman in the spin-off book from his BBC television series, Great Britain's Great War, it is a prism through which we can begin to understand a generation irrevocably changed by its events. It's an intriguing and important perspective for an introduction to the Great War and its significance: as Paxman writes, "it is precisely because it changed so much that we understand it so little".

Rather, contemporary readers and television audiences gearing up for next year's 100th anniversary are like the poor souls attending séances in an attempt to commune with the dead: "we lack the means to imagine what they thought they were doing".

Paxman does his best to cover the huge territory of the war's historiography. He counters the contemporary view that working-class Tommies were led by a posse of old men intent on imperial glory, to be mown down in the mud. The political realities in 1914 were that the British political class believed that it had a special destiny in the world and could not allow Germany to realise its imperial ambitions. To remain neutral in such a conflict was unthinkable.

Britain's politicians (and the German ambassador) were aware of the potential for a ravaging conflict and Paxman disputes the comforting notion that there was widespread public dissent. Instead, he offers an insight into a population brought up ideals of "privilege and obligation" which made them respond to "the call of duty".

The book explores how soldiers like Paxman's great-uncle Charlie, who enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps and died in 1915, faced superior German technology and numbers to die in botched operations stretching from Ypres, the Somme and Vimy Ridge into the Balkans.

There is a central driving question, thoughtfully posed, about why the men continued to fight through such horrific conditions. It is only partly answered by the men themselves through their letters, diaries and testimonies, who suggest that it was a commitment to their fellow soldiers and sense of duty that drove them forward. As one veteran recalled: "Rough, often foul-mouthed and blasphemous, we were tied by the string of our experiences, past, present and future."

Paxman's argument, that this made Britain's fighting forces of the Great War unique, isn't entirely satisfying since other military historians, most notably Joanna Bourke in An Intimate History of Killing, have identified this sentiment in conflicts elsewhere. But this is an intelligent frame to examine the bigger questions about the war and its consequences that places Paxman's book beyond most coffee-table TV accompaniments.

It is a little disappointing then that Paxman, despite his attention to issues such as the post-1918 dismissal of feminist causes, says relatively little about women's wartime experience. However, the antidote to this oversight won't be found in Kate Adie's Fighting on the Home Front. Although Adie does explore women's domestic and frontline contribution at home – from the Land Army to munitions workers to the Volunteer Aid Detachment – her coverage is sorely lacking in detail.

Adie breezes through such a vast number of examples that their meaning to women then, and for the country's later fight for gender equality, remains opaque. A case in point is Flora Sandes, who moved from her post as a Red Cross volunteer nurse in Serbia to serving as a combatant in Albania in 1915.

Although Adie's version has Sandes asking "the Serbian officer next to her if she might take up a rifle", it seems a missed opportunity to take up Paxman's quest to interrogate the significance of such episodes. For the Serbs, their new recruit's skills at marksmanship, at riding and nursing, along with her British nationality, far outweighed considerations about her gender.

As the anniversary approaches and with it almost 40 years of a feminist historiography on the war, a compendium of women's role on the home front really isn't good enough. If television presenters rather than historians are going to top the bestseller lists, one hopes that they possess Paxman's awareness of what we still fail to understand about the Great War generation.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'