Why are we so fascinated by the first world war? As its 100th anniversary approaches, we’re already mired in arguments about whether for Britain it was a ‘just war’ or a ‘pointless sacrifice’ of millions of lives. I don’t see why it has to be one or the other. Surely this huge and horrific event held elements of both, and more. If ever there was a time when glory ran alongside absurdity, when courage marched lockstep with catastrophe, this was it. We’re looking back at the Great War as if it were a mental exercise — should it or shouldn’t it have happened? But maybe our fascination is emotional as well as intellectual. In our age of individualism and self-gratification, something about this time, when so many were willing to die for a bigger cause, intrigues us. Perhaps we’re not so much drawn to the ‘pointless’ as to the ‘sacrifice’.
When war broke out, Germany had an army of more than two million soldiers, while Britain, a naval power, had a professional army of 100,000-strong. This meant the British army had to rely on volunteers, who signed up at a rate of as many as 20,000 a day. From the outset, it was about private choice and personal cost, as Britain’s Great War (BBC1, Mondays), a four-part documentary presented by Jeremy Paxman, showed in its first episode. The series, the opening salvo of the BBC’s four-year commemoration of the war, was full of anecdotes from the home front as well as the front line, of individual lives caught in the crossfire of events. It’s as though Paxo, on whose book Great Britain’s Great War much of the show’s material was based, wanted to make this about small pictures, rather than the big picture.
He interviewed 105-year-old Violet Muers, seven at the time of the German shelling of Hartlepool, who recalled the initial confusion — ‘Me older sister said: “I think someone’s beating the carpets.”’ (Muers died last November.) There was a colourful, almost comical, section where Paxman sympathetically described how parts of the population were susceptible to exaggerated stories about German spies and German landings. Another section dealt with the men from the Indian army called to fight for Britain, the wounded among whom were treated at Brighton’s sumptuous — and surreal — oriental-style Royal Pavilion.
Even things that happened on a national level were given a personal flavour. Foreign secretary Edward Grey’s deliberations on the eve of war were evoked not with the use of some ministerial meeting room, but by the birdhouse at London Zoo, where he had engaged in lonely last-minute soul-searching. The second episode, of which I’ve seen a preview, continues in the same vein: the tragedy of the Lusitania is poignantly brought home by a ‘missing baby’ notice; the advancement of the suffragette movement by Lloyd George’s negotiations with Emily Pankhurst for women’s support of the war effort.
Paxman presents the series as you might expect — with assuredness and gravitas. I don’t suppose there’s any other way of presenting a documentary on such a subject, really. There were highly affecting moments — the black-and-white footage of young men cheering at the outbreak of war, of women working at munitions factories. It’s the details that make you pause: the cloth caps of the civilian men and the cruel smoke of the trenches, the mixture of carriages and cars — here was the ending of innocence and the birth of modernity.
A retrospective of the first world war is not about these people a century ago, but about us. How we handle it and present it reflects our society today. I can’t speak for everyone who’ll watch this documentary, so I can only say how I felt — a complicated mixture of horror, sadness and… yes, some excitement. There was something galvanising in the air. Might this have been what at first stirred so many people to answer the call to arms? Surely this early exhilaration can’t be a total mystery to us, even from our comfortable 21st-century perches?
The other argument that’s been taking place is whether the BBC’s four-year-long project, amounting to 2,500 hours of programming, is excessive. My own feeling is — yes. Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, and the Beeb’s undertaking is already under way. The commemoration will be longer than the war. Could it be that the BBC is comfortable doing what it does best: documentary-type programmes? Is war its safe zone?
A significant tribute to and study of such a world-changing event is appropriate, of course; but I’m afraid that going down all the nooks and byways of the Great War won’t prevent conflict from happening again. Sometimes the best way of remembering is to live for the future.