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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).
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The year 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WW1, or "The Great War", as it was known til another world war came along and gave "The Great War" a different title, this one with a numeral. British writer and newsman, Jeremy Paxman, has written a wonderful book on the British participation in the war. It is only available in the US in its Kindle form at the price of $28.99, which seems excessive to me, so I ordered the real book copy from Amazon/UK for 13BP ($20) plus shipping, which was cheaper than the Kindle copy. But no matter in what form you read it, Jeremy Paxman's book, "Great Britain's Great War" is well worth reading.

As a long-time history buff and voracious reader of history, I've long thought that some of the best history books are those whose authors take a small "bite" off the larger pie and present a slice of history. Now it may mean more reading to learn the whole picture with this approach, but the books that are written this way represent an excellent method of learning history. Jeremy Paxman takes the period of 1914 to 1918 (and a bit later) and examines the war and the effect it had on Britain and the colonies (later the Commonwealth countries). Using the scattered-but-written-as-part-of-a-whole style, he writes about the war in both political and military terms. He highlights both the Battle of the Somme and the Gallipoli campaign as examples of wrong-headed military tactics, compounded by bone-headed political decisions. He is particularly scathing about the usually stupid military commanders, who "lead from the rear" as young men - both officers and enlisted men - are sent into enemy fire as lambs sent to slaughter.

But while concentrating on the political and military aspects of WW1, Paxman doesn't neglect the "Home Front". Why did so many young men join up in those heady days of 1914? And, on, too, for the next year or so, til the wholesale slaughter in Flanders and France made conscription necessary to fill the ranks. Some families lost two, three, even four sons in the war. What was happening on that "Home Front" which kept peoples' spirits at a relatively high point of accepting the sacrifice that comes with a long, hopeless war? And what of those poor men who were grievously injured? Who cared for them? Paxman looks at those men left faceless and the doctors who practically invented plastic surgery to give those soldiers a chance at a post-war life.

Jeremy Paxman has written a hell of a good book about WW1. It is history writing at its best. (My only complaint is the lack of maps. I could only find one, that of the "Western Front", which didn't do me much good when reading about the Gallipoli campaign.)
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on March 5, 2015
Very much a popular history of the war, and therefore written in an engaging, clear way. It's hard to get everything about Great Britain and the Great War into a paperback of this size. This tends to be organized by topic, and is an enjoyable read; if you're looking for a book that explains what happened month by month as the war went on, John Keegan could provide that kind of book.
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on November 30, 2015
Written in a way that will keep you reading, while providing insight snot only to WWI itself, but how it shaped British Society and essentially modernized the United Kingdom both socially and politically. Excellent read.
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on April 5, 2014
Jeremy Paxman comes at the huge topic of World War One from a different direction. He puts the war in the context of current individualism and sceptic ism to explain why millions of British and Empire soldiers gave up their lives en masse going 'over the top' without question seemingly. He makes clear that WW1 was a conflict that began for stupid reasons but the people caught up in it were better than those who started it. An excellent read.
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on December 14, 2013
Brought back some of the stories I heard on my grandfather's knee (Harvey John Bevan RIP). The details capture the spirit of that age and the commentary the insights of the present.
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on November 9, 2014
Provides a heartbreaking insight into the stupidity, carnage, agony, decision making of a war that maimed, murdered and destroyed the men women and children of Western Europe. The incompetence of the leadership absolutely overwhelms.....
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on July 18, 2014
Mr Paxman writes an interesting and unbiased account of how WW1 was experienced in Britain. As my knowledge of this event is fairly limited I found it a useful means of getting a better insight to the why this event actually took place and why it went on so long.
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on October 18, 2015
In my humble opinion, as an ex-service man, this book should be compelled reading for children aged over eleven years
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on March 29, 2016
I like the book a lot. I believe that at times his detail is much more than I need or want.
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