You could forgive Andrew Marr and Ian Hislop buckling under the weight of their poppies come Armistice Day. How does a popular historian tackle a subject as relentlessly researched as the First World War without staggering into the No Man's Land between rehashed old facts and obscure military arcana? Hislop, on Channel 4, was at least able to beaver away in Marr's shadow. Poor Andy is a brand these days, his name swinging awkwardly from the programme title, promising the Andrew Marr™ take on the war to end all wars, and the enormous changes it wrought on this country. Gulp.
Wisely, in Andrew Marr: The Making of Modern Britain, he knew precisely the effect of leavening the History with a bit of history. Such as addressing us from the first house – 16 Alkham Road, Stoke Newington – ever to suffer aerial bombardment. The shell was dropped from a Zeppelin, bounced off a chimney pot, and though it didn't explode properly, many others did. The airship attacks terrified a London populace that had only recently been introduced to the reality of powered flight, let alone death from the skies. Marr relishes these details: rubbing his hands with glee (and against the wind chill), he leaned into a north-easterly on the Yorkshire coast and reminded us that the warships of the "beastly Hun" killed more than 100 people when they shelled Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool early in the war.
Other, more widely known facts were dutifully cranked out: that David Lloyd George's "munitionettes" had not only helped to increase ordnance production tenfold in a year, but had also anticipated the emancipation of women in the 1920s by cutting their hair short, chucking out their whalebone and getting to grips with condoms. (Cue archive shot of woman polishing phallic looking shell.) But he was itching to show that, at certain key points, it was pure fluke that Britain emerged in quite the shape it did from the "meat-grinder war". The U-boats, for instance, had a stranglehold on the merchant shipping supplying Britain, and it was thought that a convoy system would turn into a turkey shoot. In the event, facing famine at home and consequent defeat to Germany, the Admiralty caved in: convoys were formed in desperation, and, according to Marr, turned the tide of war.
This is Marr at his best, the former lobby hack digging around for facts to reveal the confusion and panic behind the sombre façades of Whitehall. In 1914, Herbert Asquith, we learned, occupied himself during war cabinet meetings by scribbling billets-doux to his mistress. Later, Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, cracked up and was found holed up in a hotel in Charing Cross, gibbering about how he must have absolute control of the entire Royal Navy. Whatever misgivings Marr may have had about the forbidding scope of this programme, indeed this entire series, they were swept away in these moments.
If Marr was the dashing captain getting up the nose of his superiors, Hislop was the dogged subaltern, ensuring each got his due in the trenches. In Not Forgotten: Soldiers of Empire, Hislop's subject was the contribution of the Empire to the First World War effort. The statistics were dumbfounding: one in three of British infantry fielded at the outset of the conflict was Indian, and by 1918, 2.5 million from Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Australia, New Zealand and Canada had fought with the British. The willing volunteers from the West Indies, meanwhile, were deemed fit only for the digging of trenches and lugging of shells.
Hislop told the story simply, through the experiences of a Sikh, Irishman, Native American, Canadian and West Indian, and their descendants. Manta Singh had rescued his wounded commanding officer, Captain Henderson, with a wheelbarrow, and the Singhs and Hendersons are still in touch today. As for the Canadian "cow-puncher" Henry Norwest, he had gone on to become a sniper and one of the sharpest shooters in the war, claiming 115 kills. Yet what surprised and moved Hislop was how benignly the subjects and their descendants regarded service in the cause of Empire. Or, as Mahatma Gandhi wrote nearly a century ago: "If we desire its privileges, we should desire the responsibilities of this great Empire."