The Road to 1914 Began Nearly Half a Century before; Historian JOHN SADLER, in the First of an Occasional Series on the First World War, Says the Origins of the Conflict Go Back Much Further Than 1914

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THE New Year promises to be a big one in terms of historical commemoration. There can be few alive who are unaware that this year will mark the centenary of the Great War 1914 - 1918.

We will also remember some significant 70th anniversaries of key events from the Second World War; Monte Cassino in Italy, Kohima in Assam, then D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, Arnhem and 'the Bridge too far'.

Finally, the Ardennes or 'Battle of the Bulge' in December, primarily fought on the Allied side by American forces but (grudgingly) under Montgomery's overall command.

When I was a boy, admittedly a long time ago, many of my grandfather's generation, then in their seventies, had served in the Great War. Remarkably few were able to share their experiences - horror locked away like the mad woman in the attic, the whole subject was regarded as too horrible for words, a statement of bitter and blood-soaked pointlessness.

The first challenge or interpretation of this I recall, was John Terraine's seminal television series, first aired, if I remember right, over 26 weeks from September 1964, probably now way beyond the attention span of a modern TV audience.

Since then, there have been numerous revisions of the revisionists.

The 'Lions led by Donkeys' school - named after an apocryphal utterance from General Ludendorff, and championed by the late Alan Clark (generally a very good military historian), promulgated the view that the war was fought by incompetent, out-of-date public school duffers.

Echoes of this are evident in Stephen Fry's superb character 'General Melchett' in Blackadder Goes Forth, complete with brylcreem and bristling Kitchener moustache.

Gordon Corrigan in his Mud, Blood and Poppycock challenged the stereotypes, a cudgel since picked up by the late Richard Holmes and indeed your present correspondent.

John Lewis-Stempel in his 2010 reassessment, Six Weeks, championed the vital role undertaken by public school educated junior officers, stressing the commitment, heroism and sacrifice involved. No doubt the pendulum will continue to swing.

In this and subsequent features I propose to set out what will, hopefully, be an accessible guide to the countdown for 1914 and the early events of the 'War to end all Wars', a pious hope like the 'Land fit for Heroes', both of which turned into bitter irony. …