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Jeremy Paxman: 'We must teach the First World War not as a moral lesson but as a historical event'

Jeremy Paxman, former Newsnight presenter and author of Great Britain’s Great War, writes:

In the one hundred years since it began, the First World War has slipped from fact to family recollection to the dusty shelves of history, too incomprehensible in its scale and too complicated in its particulars to be properly present in our minds. In the generations after, we have come to see the war through the eyes of Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth, written in 1917: "What passing-bells for those who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns".

Is this adequate as a reading of the entire war? Stuck with the default conviction that it was an exercise in purposelessness, we end up teaching the war not as a historical event with many – often conflicting – layers, but as a moral lesson: not merely was this particular war pointless, all war is pointless. Engaging with cultural reflections rather than the experience itself, it seems to have become much easier to understand the ‘Great War for Civilisation’ as poetry rather than history, and as anti-war poetry at that.

It won’t do. By glorifying the suffering of the soldiers in the trenches, poetry fails to take us beyond the trenches of the Western Front – it fails to answer the really interesting questions. We must challenge the received version of these vast and complicated events – the common man ordered to advance into machine-gun fire by upper-class twits sitting in comfortable headquarters miles away – to understand the fuller story. Teachers must ensure students comprehend that poetry is one interpretation of the war, that Blackadder was written by someone who didn’t experience the war first-hand, and that "futility" was not the prevailing view of the time.

Indeed, at the outbreak of war headmasters acted as recruiting sergeants and pupils from famous institutions joined by the hundred. Many public-school teachers served in the frontline themselves, while the National Union of Teachers ran a fund to send books to the trenches. Schoolchildren, too, embraced the war effort: Boy Scouts ran messages and stood sentry on railway tunnels and cliffs, and girls knitted socks and practiced their bandaging skills on unfortunate classmates. The High Master of Manchester Grammar School even reported that some of his pupils were manufacturing artificial limbs in school workshops.

The First World War is the great punctuation point in modern British history, as consequential as the Fall of Rome, the French Revolution, the invention of the nuclear bomb or the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center. The carnage that accompanied four years of bitter fighting took the lives of 750,000 British men, as well as many women and children. Throughout it all, the resolve of the British people did not weaken. They endured to victory. To understand how this was possible, we need to get beyond the trite observations and recognise why so many people at the time believed the war to be not only unavoidable but even necessary.

Unquestionably, teachers must engage students and endeavour to make this history feel relevant and real. But we’re in danger of seeing the war through twenty-first century convictions, in which ideals of duty and sacrifice have very different roles.  Owen, after writing his celebrated denunciations of battle, returned to the Western Front to continue fighting, and, furthermore, described himself in his last letter to his mother as "serene". It was, he said, "a great life". The greatest of all war poets, Owen was killed before he ever had to explain it himself. We need to cast ourselves back into the minds of these men and their families, and of their leaders, to try to inhabit the assumptions of their society rather than to replace them with our own. Above all, we must reject turning the First World War into an episode of history that is more felt than understood.

Jeremy Paxman is the author of Great Britain’s Great War. His publishers, Penguin Books, are sending a copy of the paperback edition, which has just been published, to every head of history in the country in time for the start of the academic year in September.

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