Magazine article The Spectator

All Together Now

Magazine article The Spectator

All Together Now

Article excerpt

Great Britain's Great War by Jeremy Paxman Viking, �25, pp. 368, ISBN 9780670919611, Spectator Bookshop, �20, Tel: 08430 600033 Fighting on the Home Front by Kate Adie Hodder, �20, pp. 416, ISBN 9781444759679 Spectator Bookshop, �16 Tel: 08430 600033 The Great War involved the civilian population like no previous conflict. 'Men, women and children, factory, workshop and army - are organised in one complete unity of social resistance, to defend themselves both by offence and by ordinary defence, ' said Ramsay MacDonald. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the popular army padre nicknamed 'Woodbine Willie', declared 'There are no noncombatants.'

This premise underpins both these books.

While Kate Adie specifically addresses 'the legacy of women in World War One', Jeremy Paxman discusses more generally the state of the embattled nation, its press, its political, industrial and social life, its assumptions and priorities. The strengths and weaknesses of both offerings are surprisingly similar.

Both are of a similarly manageable length; and both are eminently readable. Both marshal a procession of fascinating details culled mainly from secondary sources, but both also puff an enlivening blaze of individuality to catch the reader's interest.

Paxman uses the story, or non-story, of his Uncle Charlie, one of many thousands of recruits whose lives were lost (in Charlie's case, at Gallipoli) and whose brief biographies are contained in small bundles of effects. A 'broken-sided cigar box' holds all that remains of Uncle Charlie: the army form reporting his death, a mass-produced letter of condolence, the 'Dead Man's Penny', a bronze plaque announcing that 'he died for freedom and honour'. Maybe, maybe not - but how, exactly, did he die? The family were never told.

Paxman doesn't, as they say, 'milk' his great-uncle's sadly unrecorded fate.

He posits him as an exemplar of the loss that affected virtually every British family, and surely he is right to do so; it's all those old cigar boxes, all our Uncle Charlies, that keep our communal memory enthralled to the unparalleled trauma of the Great War.

Kate Adie draws on her own experience as a war reporter to illuminate her narrative; for instance, she understands the importance of tobacco in war zones - 'It's communal, comforting, calming' - and that leads on to an interesting discourse on 'Lady Denman's Smokes for Soldiers Fund', the switch from pipe-smoking to cigarettes (men carrying kit in wet and dangerous conditions had no time to fiddle with loose tobacco), and then on to the introduction, by the Carreras Black Cat brand, of patriotic cigarette cards bearing morale-boosting anti-German drawings.

Adie is particularly good on the chain of cause and effect.

Take Bridport in Dorset, centre of rope-making since the 13th century. Much of the work was carried out by women and children in their cottages. Now, incredible numbers of nets and ropes were suddenly needed for the army - lanyards, pull-through cords for rifles, hay nets for horses. The women of Bridport, though grossly underpaid for their huge labour, were recognised by the government as essential war workers and exempted from recruitment into the Land Army.

They were joined by Belgian refugees, dispersed from London. When hemp ran low - German submarines disrupted supplies - the hay nets (the War Office asked for a million of them) were made out of manila twine, which unfortunately the war horses found delicious. …

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