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The Pity of War
on October 3, 2013
As the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War draws near, we will see a flood of books about it, and Jeremy Paxman has got in early with this vivid account, in under 300 pages, of Britain's part in it. In his Introduction he writes that for us the Great War is as far distant from us as the Battle of Waterloo was from the men who joined up in 1914, that as a result many of us make the false assumptions that we understand it, and that we look at it through the eyes of our society rather than through those of that generation. I am not sure that this is entirely true, even of those who, like Paxman, were born five years after the end of the Second World War. I think the UNDERSTANDING of the First World War, and the accounts here of the politics and of the campaigns, would be fairly familiar to anybody who is interested in the history of the time. But Paxman has a point when he shows that the widespread present JUDGMENT that the World War I was a "pointless" waste of lives was not shared by the men who were prepared to sacrifice themselves or by their women folk who saw them going to war.
The considerable value of Paxman's book lies, in my opinion, not so much in seeing that war once more in its original perspective as in his own characteristic mixture of sympathy and sardonic observations, but above all in the many details he has culled from his source material. One early example: "postmen resigned their jobs rather than face the sight of yet another family in tears" as they received the dreaded telegram announcing the death of one of their loved ones. The enthusiasm with which young men volunteered for enlistment in 1914; the proliferation throughout the war of wildly invented stories about German atrocities; the attacks on shops owned by Germans who had long been resident in Britain; the way in which government censorship of the press did and did not work; the bullying jingoism of the Northcliffe Press; the tribunals which were set up after conscription had been introduced in 1916 to hear applications to be exempted from it; the breakdown of traditional sexual morals and its consequences; the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey - these and many other themes which are familiar in outline are here copiously illustrated with less well-known details. There are excellent portraits of politicians and generals, grotesque quotations from propaganda and exhortations, and moving excerpts from letters written home by the troops.
Paxman details the horror of living and dying in the trenches, and of the gas attacks of which 181,000 British soldiers died during the war (Germans, too, but we do not get the figures). There were 420,000 British and Empire casualties during the four months in 1916 of the Battle of the Somme, 275,000 a year later during the four weeks of the Battle of Passchendaele, and 250,000 during the six weeks of the last German offensive in 1918. Paxman marvels several times how men endured all this and why there were no significant mutinies in the British army, and not the least interesting part of the book is the great variety of psychological explanations he suggests. The quality of leadership played a great part - not from the very top so much as from the young subalterns who came from the public schools; and so, among all sections of society, did a sense of duty which, Paxman writes, is "today almost invisible in British society". But there was also the fear of being considered a coward, and, worse, of the courts martial which passed over 3,000 death sentences (though only about one tenth of them were carried out).
Throughout the book we see what immense changes the war wrought to the social structure of England - to the role of government, to class relationships (though these reverted to "normal" soon after the end of the war) and to the role of women (which were more enduring).