Jeremy Paxman: “The war finished Britain off in many respects”

Ahead of his new series exploring the experiences of people in the First World War, Jeremy Paxman talks to Matt Elton about his views of the conflict and why he thinks that Britain has been struggling to recover from it ever since

Troops on a night raid during the First World War

This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Why do you think Britain’s leaders took the country into war in 1914?

The shorthand version is the assassination in Sarajevo. The Austro-Hungarians decide to hold Serbia to account: Serbia’s in an alliance with the Russians, Russia’s in an alliance with France. The Germans have given the Austrians a blank cheque: they have a war plan – the war plan necessitates invading Belgium.

But that question – why on earth did we go to war to protect the territorial integrity of a basically pointless country like Belgium – I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I think it was about the worth of your signature on a treaty, in this case the 1839 Treaty of London. If you were a great power – and Britain was the greatest power in the world – you had no choice, if you wished to be taken seriously, but to honour the treaty.

Why did you feel the need to tell Britain’s story during the conflict?

BBC History Magazine feeds on an appetite to know what happened in our past. The people that read it are distinguished, but in a minority. All of us, those interested in history, are in a minority. People don’t, by and large, know very much about history any longer. The First World War is at the point now where it has firmly gone from family memory into history. Furthermore it’s a history seen through a particular coloured prism of the 1960s social revolution, with the satirical musical Oh! What A Lovely War! and Blackadder in the 1980s and irreverence generally – a belief in individualism, general truculence with governments, distrust of authority and the rest of it.

I think that when you look at the country generally, this is the event after which Britain begins walking backwards into the future. That is our characteristic stance: “We aren’t what we were”. But an excessive preoccupation with former greatness is probably something that we need to discard, and recognise that we are just another European nation. This obsession with past glories is combined with a profound historical ignorance – and I’m not sure that it’s terribly helpful in trying to forge a future. I think we Britons need to understand where we’ve come from in order to know how we got to where we are now.

What most surprised you about British society before the outbreak of the war?

How insular and ignorant of the outside world it was, despite the fact that it sat at the centre of an enormous empire. How innocent it was in very many respects. How stratified it was… I mean, we can go on. We live in a very solipsistic – many people would say selfish – sort of society now, and that is one of the reasons that we find it difficult to understand the collective enthusiasm in those early days of the war, and then the collective experience of wearing a uniform, eating, sleeping, going to the lavatory, alongside other individuals. I don’t want to suggest that people enjoyed the trenches – clearly, they were horrible – but shared endeavour is something that is extremely unusual in our society now.

Did you learn anything new about life in the trenches?

Everybody knows about the rats, I suppose. But I love the remark of a corporal who talks about how you could walk down the trench after dark and kick a rat every two paces. There are other horrible descriptions, too. Supposing your friend is shot out in no-man’s land and that he has a lingering death. You may not be able to get him back because of the intensity of the fire and he dies, and you’ve got all that trauma to go through. And then you can’t even retrieve the body.

There are accounts of uniforms moving because there are rats inside. It’s not surprising that there were a lot of mental casualties, not just shell shock. These are awful experiences.

I think that once you start thinking about the reality of it – even, for example, how were men in the trenches fed? From containers of food that had been carried up from the support lines, by which time it was cold. The sheer tedium of Maconochie Stew or plum and apple jam and bread must have been awful.

Do you think the idea of incompetent generals and noble but doomed servicemen is true in any way?

One only has to pause for about three seconds to decide whether that is entirely believable. Alan Clark’s 1961 book The Donkeys casts a long shadow, although he was never able to produce an entirely plausible source of the “lions led by donkeys” quote. The accusation is repeated, for example, in Blackadder Goes Forth. Blackadder and his men are being sent over the top and General Melchett says “I’ll be right behind you,” and Blackadder mutters, “Yes – about 35 miles behind”.

Well, what general wishes to fight a battle that he knows that he will lose? The idea of setting out to throw away the lives of your men and make defeat more likely seems so asinine that it defies belief. There were perfectly good reasons for generals not being in the front line, mainly because in the front line you had absolutely no idea what was going on. Radio had been invented, but they were large installations – it wasn’t portable radio. Telephones depended on lines being laid, and you can’t do that in the middle of an attack. You’re relying upon runners, messenger dogs, carrier pigeons – really crude and unreliable. You need a place where you can get a bigger picture than you would by sitting in the trench yourself. So you had to be that far back.

Why do you think that the battle of the Somme was allowed to continue, after the carnage of the first day?

Firstly, the full scale of that catastrophe took a little while to become clear. Secondly, it seems to me that a characteristic of that war and the way it was fought was just ignorance. Nobody knew how many more men it might take to achieve the breakthrough. We now live in a society in which one death is one too many, but people had to suppose that, in the end, the British Army would endure and, with its allies, would defeat the Germans. There comes a point where you can’t spend too long counting the cost, as long as it’s still doable.

You write that, as a society, we now feel the First World War more than think about it. How can we rectify this?

Well, you could read my book! [laughs] There clearly is work going on in schools, because you see letters or essays being laid on graves in Flanders. So there are some teachers who are trying to get their pupils to understand the experience of a local lad joining up. That’s probably quite a good way of doing it, but there’s not enough of it being done. It seems to me to be taught very much at a macro level, and the only way that we’re going to get to grips with it is to look at it through the eyes of individuals at the time.

I don’t just mean education in schools – I mean all of us. There are grandparents who have grown up with a very distorted, sentimental view of what it was all like. The idea of sacrifice was clearly understood at the time and there is no need to couple it with the adjective ‘pointless’, which is where we have been for more than 50 years.

Do you think that the idea that the war was a failure needs to be tackled?

Well, it was a failure in that it cost a tremendous number of lives, but there were positive things that came out of it. I’m not saying it was worth the cost. But, you know, in the end the Germans lost that war. And people always go on about how the Versailles settlement was one of the main causes of the Second World War, but who knows what might have transpired in Europe had it all been run from Berlin, which would have been the consequence of a German victory? We just don’t know. It finished Britain off, in many respects, but troops did endure, and they endured to victory. That, at an appalling cost, I think is worthy of respect, and far better than damning them as gullible fools.

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Jeremy Paxman presents BBC Two’s Newsnight. His previous books include Empire (Viking, 2012)