Magazine article The Spectator

Television the End of Innocence

Magazine article The Spectator

Television the End of Innocence

Article excerpt

Why are we so fascinated by the first world war? As its 100th anniversary approaches, we're already mired in arguments about whether for Britain it was a 'just war' or a 'pointless sacrifice' of millions of lives. I don't see why it has to be one or the other.

Surely this huge and horrific event held elements of both, and more. If ever there was a time when glory ran alongside absurdity, when courage marched lockstep with catastrophe, this was it. We're looking back at the Great War as if it were a mental exercise - should it or shouldn't it have happened? But maybe our fascination is emotional as well as intellectual. In our age of individualism and self-gratification, something about this time, when so many were willing to die for a bigger cause, intrigues us. Perhaps we're not so much drawn to the 'pointless' as to the 'sacrifice'.

When war broke out, Germany had an army of more than two million soldiers, while Britain, a naval power, had a professional army of 100,000-strong. This meant the British army had to rely on volunteers, who signed up at a rate of as many as 20,000 a day. From the outset, it was about private choice and personal cost, as Britain's Great War (BBC1, Mondays), a four-part documentary presented by Jeremy Paxman, showed in its first episode. The series, the opening salvo of the BBC's four-year commemoration of the war, was full of anecdotes from the home front as well as the front line, of individual lives caught in the crossfire of events. It's as though Paxo, on whose book Great Britain's Great War much of the show's material was based, wanted to make this about small pictures, rather than the big picture.

He interviewed 105-year-old Violet Muers, seven at the time of the German shelling of Hartlepool, who recalled the initial confusion - 'Me older sister said:

"I think someone's beating the carpets." ' (Muers died last November. ) There was a colourful, almost comical, section where Paxman sympathetically described how parts of the population were susceptible to exaggerated stories about German spies and German landings. Another section dealt with the men from the Indian army called to fight for Britain, the wounded among whom were treated at Brighton's sumptuous - and surreal - oriental-style Royal Pavilion.

Even things that happened on a national level were given a personal flavour. …

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