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.
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.