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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
Friday 18 October 2013
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.
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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.
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