As part of the Chavasse Family Lectures commemorating the St Peter’s College founders and their family’s role in the First World War, the college have started a lecture series on everything from faith in the trenches to medical treatment at the time. I was lucky enough to sit down with author, journalist, broadcaster and biting TV host Jeremy Paxman after his talk, ‘World War I: The War to End War’ to discuss the “war to end all wars” and how it relates to modern Britain.
Having skim-read a couple of books about the First World War for A-level History, I felt comfortable telling my famously knowledgeable guest that I quite liked World War 1 as a topic in history.
“You probably know more about it than I do”, he shot back, a shocking statement from a man who laughs at students who don’t know the complete works of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak.
The formality of the interview decreases quickly after this. Of course, Paxman is nothing like the man we see grilling politicians or mocking university students. He’s a much more mild-mannered, calm version of this, complete with a subtle version of that biting wit.
“Anyone can write a book”, he tells me, shrugging off any assumption of his knowledge on the war before launching in on the massive difference between the Britain of today and the Britain of 1914.
“I don’t think there are many parallels—in fact, virtually no parallels at all—between pre-World War I Britain and Britain today” he said. “It seems to me that the war just about made modern Britain, in that it was unimaginable after [the war] that you would have such a restricted franchise, that you would ever again prevent women from working and voting—albeit there were many years before full parity between genders. It seems to me that it changed medicine, science, the forces how politics ran: just about everything.”
None of my A-level history books had prepared me for this moment, and I was stuck offering odd, meaningless statements just to keep the conversation moving: “I had no idea”.
My lack of knowledge didn’t matter; he was riffing, now. “Yes, it’s true! It’s entirely different! In Edwardian Britain, you didn’t even need a passport. Most people didn’t even travel, though, so there was no real requirement. The contract, it seems, between government and people changed completely. Once conscription was introduced, the nature of the relationship changed hugely. It was the old power circumstances that were intolerable.”
At the same time, none of this really stood the test of time.
“People say there are many accounts of classes being broken down. I mean, on the Western Front, where everyone is working together in a hole in the ground, it’s very hard to maintain illusions about ‘them and us’. People say that, but in the end”, he pauses, choosing his words carefully. “I don’t know that ‘the shared endeavor completely broke down the illusions each had about the other’ is a merited story. It’s a difficult judgement call.”
The shared illusions of them-and-us, though, isn’t simply about rich and poor. It extends to the more than 1.5 million troops recruited from British colonies like India. As Paxman has most recently written on the ways imperialism changed Britain, I was interested to know his opinions of colonial troops fighting in the First World War. Were they erased from popular memory? Why did we ignore the contributions of so many to the war?
“I would be surprised if that was still true”, he said of whitewashing the history of colonial contribution. “Now, I don’t know the syllabus, but these things hugely changed the country, a country completely different to where we live now. I don’t find it surprising that history syllabuses lag far behind popular assumption or are doctrinally different. I would be surprised if it were the case that the contribution of colonial groups and civilians had been erased. If so, it’s a mistake.”
Changing course, we began to discuss how World War I, often called the war to end all wars, had not fulfilled that role, seeing an even larger conflict just a couple decades later.
“Well the Germans had believed there was an unjust peace put on them, and the mechanisms that were set up to try to establish new ways of settling disputes, while tremendous energy was put behind them, were deeply flawed institutions.
“The UN has struggled to prevent issues—consider, for example, the war in Syria. I do think that politics really matter. If we can’t solve our problems by talking, then the obvious recourse is fighting, which, as the First World War demonstrates, doesn’t solve anything.”
Interestingly, the Second World War occurred even after the sheer size and scope of the First had surprised and terrified its participants.
“Kitchener thought it would last three years. This was an enormous conflict, he said, but most people seem to have seen it as akin to other European wars, like the Franco-Prussian. No one ever assumed anything like the dimensions of the World War I”, Paxman said. “Everyone was affected by it: there was rationing; everyone had men they know who were serving; there were women who were serving; children were victims.”
The very pervasiveness that kept the war effort going in 1915, to Paxman, is also the reason it couldn’t happen now.
“We wouldn’t be able to put up with anything that resulted in the mass involuntary enterprise”, he said. “I just can’t see it happening today. That’s the source of my anxiety: we’re an atomised and hedonistic society, accustomed to serving itself.”
Paxman’s comments that the latest generation are “materialistic, self-obsessed, hedonistic” have attracted significant reaction and controversy. He has maintained that the current generation would never engage in a conflict like the First World War. His idea is that the notion of ‘For King and Country’ is long dead and has been replaced by a society exhibited by a lack of any sense of public duty.
Speaking at the Emirates Airline Festival in Dubai in 2014, Paxman argued that there are fundamental misunderstandings about how people reacted to First World War. World-famous poetry, such as that by Siefried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, was “part of the problem” because they fostered a narrative of armchair generals and wasted lives.
Accompanying his book, Paxman presented Britain’s Great War, the flagship documentary series for the BBC’s WW1 Centenary in 2014. Although reviews were generally favourable, there was furious backlash for naming those who refused to fight as “cranks”.
On October 1st, Paxman released his new memoirs, A Life in Questions, which charts his life from failing Maths O-level at school to his signature status presenting Newsnight, interviewing almost every major public figure in the UK.
Earlier this month, Jeremy Paxman revealed that University Challenge edited out scenes when students can’t answer questions. Speaking at the Henley Literary Festival about his autobiography, Jeremy Paxman said, “I’ll let you into a secret [about how] University Challenge is recorded.”
“If we get a run of questions, it doesn’t happen very often, say one show in seven or eight or 10 or something, you might get a run of unanswered starter questions, they all get edited out.” Paxman, who studied at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge became a fellow by special election of St Edmund Hall, Oxford and currently lives in Oxfordshire.