The enduring war

The First World War continues to haunt us. Why? A new TV series attempts to separate the myths from the bloody reality

As we approach the end of the century, a war from its beginning still exerts an extraordinarily powerful hold on the public imagination. Even though most people who took part in it are now gone, the First World War is burnt deep into our consciousness. Why is that?

Richard Holmes, professor of Military and Security Studies at Cranfield University and presenter of an absorbing new six-part BBC2 series about the war, Western Front, has thought about this question more than most. "I'm haunted by the First World War, and I think we all are," he says. "It has marked our century. When there was the possibility of a ground war in Kosovo, I'm sure that the Somme and Passchendaele were somewhere deep in the folk memory."

But more than that, he continues, "we see the First World War as a sundering, as the end of an era. The old world of Ascot and Henley and village greens - which Siegfried Sassoon writes about so movingly in Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man - was blown apart in 1914. Things were never the same again. The First World War marked a peculiar transition from a society feeling confident about itself and its place in the world to a sense of quite extraordinary poignancy. All that we'd fought for had turned to ashes, and men wearing First World War medals were on the dole.

"Also, Britain mobilised one quarter of its adult male population for the First World War. It was the first time since the Saxon age that military service had been a unifying factor across the community. Military service touched everyone, and it still touches us today whenever we go to a village church or see a war memorial on a village or a line in our family-tree stopping abruptly in 1916."

Perhaps our strongest impression of the war, however, is of its sheer futility. There is a popular conception of remote and arrogant generals sending millions of young men to be pointlessly slaughtered. Holmes thinks this image may not be entirely fair - and pins its perpetuation on another television programme.

"The First World War has been hi-jacked by Blackadder Goes Forth. Now, I love Blackadder and had tears rolling down my cheeks at the end of the series. But I get upset that the sufferings of our grandfathers are reduced to the picture of the Army trying to move Haig's drinks cabinet a couple of inches nearer Berlin. Blackadder hits the truth, but never slap-bang in the middle."

For Holmes, the war was "not exclusively about stupid generals and politicians - although they played their part. It was not the conspiracy that many people think it was. It was merely a tragic accident - from which the British Army emerges in better shape than it has been given credit for. The man on the Clapham omnibus will remember the Battle of the Somme but forget that in the last 100 days of the war, even in the opinion of the French, the British Army were at the top of their game. There was value and dignity in the war. That deserves recognition."

The fact that it hasn't is because, according to Holmes, "we need someone to blame. We can't accept that something as awful as this could have happened without anyone being put in the dock for it. It's hard not to imagine the generals as creatures from another planet ordering our nice young boys off to get killed. In fact, 60 generals died. It was more dangerous being a general in the First World War than the Second."

Holmes found making Western Front a deeply moving experience. "When you walk down the trenches near Ypres, it's impossible not to feel a connection with the men who fought there. The idea of `the lost generation' is not a myth. The First World War pruned many shoots that would have bloomed across Europe.

"Private Snodgrass did not have a choice about fighting," Holmes concludes. "It's not something to remember with bombast, but with pride and dignity. We owe those soldiers a debt. It may sound mawkishly sentimental, but at the end of the series, I crouch beside the grave of the Unknown Soldier and say `the least of these men was as much a man as I am'."

`Western Front' begins on Thur at 7.30pm on BBC2

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
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.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world