Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Great Britain's Great War — Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

Great Britain's Great War
by Jeremy Paxman
Published by London, Viking, 2013

Jeremy Paxman's highly readable study, which takes the form of a lively narrative history, recreates the conditions of World War One in vivid detail. It poses two important questions little addressed in historical studies of the war to date: Why did the British fight so willingly? And how did the country endure the war for so long?

Great Britain's Great War is based on a wealth of firsthand material in the form of letters, diaries, pictures, poetry, and extracts from magazines. It follows the day-to-day experience of the British over the course of the war, from generals, campaigners, politicians, and journalists to Tommies, pacifists, factory workers, nurses, wives, and children as it captures the mood and morale of all sections of the population. Life and identity were transformed forever during the war. With wit, humor, and penetration, Paxman demonstrates that courage, confusion, doubts, and dilemmas were the everyday and inescapable experience of many sections of the population.

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The BEF Arrives in France, August 1914

The fourteen chapters cover a variety of topics, including enlistment, early patriotism, pacifism, the war at sea, and the declaration of peace. Chapter Eight, "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Wrecks the World," is particularly insightful, as well as humorous, in its analysis of the position of the pacifist in World War One. Paxman notes, for example, how "in Manchester, one whiskery old soldier asked how the meek could inherit the earth if there was no one to fight for them." In the same chapter he describes a young pacifist who appeared before a tribunal in the Home Counties and began to explain a passage in his Greek Bible. The chairman responded, "Greek? You don't mean to tell me Jesus spoke Greek? He was British to the backbone!" The working of the tribunals is described in considerable detail, thereby filling a gap in existing studies.

Letters from soldiers at the front form an important part of Paxman's study. Particularly moving is a letter from Private John Scollen of the Northumberland Fusiliers, the penultimate paragraph of which reads:

My Joe, Jack, Tina and Aggie not forgetting my little bonny twins Nora and Hugh and my last flower baby whom I have only had the great pleasure of seeing once since he came into the world God bless them . . . I have put a X on top of this missive so you will know that I died in God's holy grace . . . . Now my dear wife and children I have not anything more to say only I wish you all God's Holy Grace and Blessing, so Good bye, Good Luck and think of me in your prayers I know . . . hard words for you to receive but God's will be done.
From your faithful soldier Husband and Father

Six lines of kisses conclude the letter. The unedited nature of the letter underlines not only its authenticity but also its pathos.

Paxman's study includes a copious bibliography and detailed annotations for each chapter. The challenge in his final paragraph is provocative and succinct — and an excellent starting point for a new study:

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The war is the great punctuation point in modern British history, the moment when the British decided that what lay ahead of them would never be as grand as their past; the point at which they began to walk backwards into the future.

There is a sense in which, like desperate parents who could not believe their son was dead, the entire nation has been conducting a form of séance ever since.

Great Britain's Great War is a valuable study for all interested in the effects of World War One on the British people. Scholarly and yet entertaining, Paxman's book provides both insight and pleasure in equal measure. Once started, it is hard to put down!

Jane Mattisson Ekstam


  1. This sounds like an excellent book on a topic that really interests me. Now I must get the book and read it!

  2. And it's beautifully written! A thoroughly inspiring book. Thank you for your comment. Jane.