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‘War. Germany. Act.’ – Jeremy Paxman, 24 August 2014

Jeremy Paxman walked into a full house on Sunday morning for the Open University event ‘War. Germany. Act’ which enabled him to introduce his new book, ‘Great Britain’s Great war’. The book is based upon his recent BBC1 television documentary ‘Britain’s Great War’. Peter Gutteridge was Chairman of the event, however it was clear from the outset that Paxman was going to use the entire hour to talk and tell the stories of some incredible people during the Great War.

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He began his talk by stating ‘If you want to know my conclusion overall, well World War One was the event that made modern Britain’. He followed on by describing his interest in the Great War and how his ‘obsession’ had grown through the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. He described the loyalty of these poets to their comrades and how, although bitter in some poems, these men wanted to stay loyal to their team and their comrades within the war.


He jokingly spoke of Blackadder and the modern-day portrayal of the war and stated that ‘This is not the reality of World War One… We still have prejudices about the war’. He believes that many modern depictions of the war do not illustrate the true feelings of a soldier and do not portray the reality of what it was like to be a soldier in the war. His talk was brought to life through the utilization of visual aids, photographs of men and women in the war. Each photograph was as unique and as interesting as the next. The first photograph shown was a photo of Paxman’s Great Uncle Charlie who was sadly killed on his first day in combat in Gallipoli in 1915. Jeremy found out a lot about his great uncle’s war experiences and explained them within his documentary series: ‘He joined a field ambulance unit and was attached to a division that was sent to Gallipoli. He was a young man from Yorkshire. He had previously never left his county – let alone this country – and he ended up dead on the other side of Europe. He was less than 24 hours in battle. Every family has stories like this. Great Uncle Charlie was my inspiration. I wanted to understand how it was that this could happen – that this young man who had never left his county could be dead on the other side of Europe in less than a year of the break out of war.’


He spoke of how it had been 100 years since the war occurred and that ‘nobody expected the war when it came’. Why did the war start? In summary, Britain held a treaty with Belgium that was signed in the first half of the 19th century, and when Germany planned to move through Belgium, Britain had to act to honor the treaty. Paxman then stated, with war ‘it may not be your generation who has to answer the call; it may be many years on!’

He then spoke of the story of Kitchener, more famously known for his ‘Your country needs you!’ poster, who was brought back to Britain to serve in the War. Paxman then moved on to say ‘as many people have said about Kitchener: terrible general, but great poster!’


Paxman described how easy it was to join the army, but how difficulty it was to leave. If a man was between the ages of 18-34 and could inflate his lungs to 34 inches, ‘he was in’. Additionally, he spoke of how you had to have ‘good teeth’ to join the army as this was ultimately a very good indicator of good health; to which many said: ‘what are we going to do – bite the Germans?!’ Which received uproar of laughter from the audience as Paxman announced this. Most soldiers within WW1 were placed in battalions with people they knew, which ultimately led to loyalty and companionship with the friends they shared their experiences with.

The next photograph we were shown was of a soldier in a British trench, knee-deep in water, illustrating how bad the conditions of British trenches were. The daily drink of rum was a highlight for many in these conditions, Paxman said. The Germans were the occupying force within the war so their trenches were better.

We were then shown a photograph of a young couple at their wedding, Paxman commented on ‘just how young they look’. Many men in the war tried to avoid army service, and by late 1915 volunteers were low. There was a total of 16,000 conscientious appeals in world war one, and as Paxman commented ‘contrary to common belief, they were not killed, they were jailed’. He also touched on the fact that some were shot for cowardice or desertation.

The audience was shown a photograph of the ‘Womens Land Army’: most munitions were made by women by the end of the war. Paxman then quoted ‘the hand that rocks the cradle wrecks the world’.


In 1917, rationing was introduced in Britain so that the Government was able to control what the nation was eating. Paxman then focused on a photograph of two men, both of whom were amputees and both were surprisingly cheerful. Paxman said to this photograph ‘what strikes me is the falseness in their smiles’. However, great work was done with plastic surgery within the period of WW1 and this is something that was touched upon within the talk, particularly the differences between plastic surgery then, and plastic surgery now.

At the end of the talk, Paxman finished just as most would by remembering the men who had given their lives for the war. He spoke about the 750 thousand men who never came back to Britain from the war. He also spoke of a set of villages in England and how out of 16,000 men who left from the villages, only 40 men returned.

The war changed Britain; women received the vote and generally people appreciated each other more. As he stated in the beginning of his talk: ‘World War One was the event that made modern Britain’.

It was an insightful and genuinely interesting hour with Jeremy Paxman, not only have I loved his work for years, but I now cannot wait to read his new book.

His new book ‘Great Britain’s Great War’ is available to buy now here.


‘Catastrophe: Europe goes to War 1914’ – Max Hastings, August 17th 2014

Sir Max Hastings is a British journalist, editor, historian and author- most famously known for his work as a foreign correspondent for the BBC who reported from more than sixty countries and eleven wars for BBC TV’s 24 hours current affairs programme.

Hastings entered the main Baillie Gifford Theatre to a full-house this morning and upon arrival received a very warm welcome. His talk and Q&A was chaired by Al Senter, an arts journalist and broadcaster.

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Sir Max began his talk by stating “every great historical event becomes shrouded with myths over time; 1914 is no exception”. His new book ‘Catastrophe’ which has already been named ‘History book of the Year’ by The Times was the main focus of the event itself with the main question presenting itself as; what happened to Europe in 1914? 

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Hastings then went on to state that in the 21st century, people are still confused about the First World War, including the one aspect that war itself was a usable incident of policy at the time. His talk focused on many of the battles in World War One including the Battle of the Somme on 1st of July 1914 and the Battle of Ypres in October of 1914. He described the Battle of Ypres as “the first true trench story of the war”. 

He moved on to discuss the role of women in the war and how women’s role in western society had ‘changed completely’ following the war, however  as he humorously added (they) were ‘initially confined to knitting, including knitting mittens that would fit baby elephants’- which through the seriousness of the talk, brought resounding laughter from the audience.

German politics at the time was touched upon and Hastings spoke of how Germany could have prevented the war in 1914 by communicating with Vienna and telling the Austrians to stop invading Serbia, however as was the case the Germans did not. He believes, as do other historians particularly in Germany, that if Germany had not gone to war, the continent would have been under German control by peaceful means, as it was a hugely advanced country at the time.

He then spoke about the amount of killing that happened within the war and stated “an enormous amount of killing had to happen for one side to prevail.” It was a shock for myself and a few others in the theatre when he spoke of the sheer amount of losses that happened within Great Britain at the time. Over the course of World War One, over 700,000 British Isles men died fighting for their country. As Winston Churchill was quoted by Sir Max Hastings at the end his talk “no part of the great war compares in interest with it’s opening… moreover in the beginning our faculties of wonder, horror and excitement had not been cauterized and deadened by the furnace of years”.

There was time at the end of the talk for a couple of questions, during one answer Hastings gave a quote that I believed ended the entire event fittingly:

“Wars begin when you will, but do not end when you please” – Niccolo Machiavelli. 

Overall, Sir Max Hastings provided a delightful Sunday morning for many in Edinburgh. His stories and his knowledge of the Great War were incredibly insightful and interesting. You can order his book online at: Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914

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