Why Jeremy Paxman's Great War deserves a place on your bookshelf

Plus: When women's football attracted tens of thousands

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

Great Britain’s Great War Jeremy Paxman

Viking, pp.368, £25, ISBN: 9780670919611

Fighting on the Home Front Kate Adie

Hodder, pp.416, £20, ISBN: 9781444759679

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 non-combatants.’

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.

There are few photographs or documents concerning the Dorset netmakers, because highly secret anti-submarine nets were also being made in Bridport; installing nets at harbour entrances was one of the main tasks of the Wrens. This secrecy has meant that the contribution of the Bridport women has never been acknowledged, unlike the efforts of the ‘munitionettes’ or the Women’s Land Army.

Adie’s well-organised book devotes each chapter to a different aspect of female activity in wartime. The upheaval catapulted women into areas they had never or rarely entered — roadmending, billposting, delivering (often unwelcome) mail, railway work, policing and firefighting. Clothing and social behaviour adapted accordingly; Land Girls were chastised for continuing to wear their comfortable, practical trousers when off duty. One girl remembered being told in her village that they hoped ‘my trousers wouldn’t alter my life’.

But, of course, they did. Though the end of the war meant that most of the female workers bowed out to make way for the returning men, women’s lives had been radically reorganised. Most obviously, and most famously, the Representation of the People Act enabled women (over 30, and subject to other conditions) to vote in the first post-war election; the vote was, felt the writer Dorothy Peel, offered ‘rather as a biscuit is given to a performing dog who has just done its tricks particularly well’. But it was a significant biscuit.

The tricks had, indeed, been performed particularly well. Most of the women emerge from Adie’s account with flying colours. The problem is, one longs to know more — about Flora Sandes, for instance, who as a sergeant-major in the Serbian army was the only British woman to serve as a soldier; and about Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker with their first-aid post on the front line; and about Lena Ashwell, whose troupe of actresses performed entertainments for the troops under bombardment.

Paxman has the same problem. He narrates with brio, but we can’t settle for long enough on any part of his complex story, nor identify closely enough with the characters of whose exploits he provides thumbnail sketches.

We’re not short of books about the Great War at the moment, but I think we can find space for these two. Paxman conveys the texture of the times. His details range from the familiar (the Unknown Soldier, Kitchener’s pointing finger) to the novel. Did you know that 11 spies were executed in the Tower of London? Or that a member of the Lords, worried about the laws of heredity, objected to the clocks being changed to save on artificial lighting (powered by precious coal) because a mother giving birth to twins as the hour went back might find her second-born becoming ‘older’ than her first? I didn’t.

Nor did I realise, until I read Adie’s book, that women before the war had not been allowed to read the lesson in church, let alone preach, or that in the absence of men, ladies’ football attracted crowds of 10,000, reaching a level of popularity that it is only just regaining today.

Both authors are better on the details than on the overview; their linking observations can sound flimsy or bland, but both write with clarity and sympathy, and provide new angles on an old subject.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Great Britain’s Great War is available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20, Tel: 08430 600033.

Fighting on the Home Front is available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16 Tel: 08430 600033.

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Show comments
  • MikeF

    Nor did I realise…ladies’ football attracted crowds of 10,000, reaching a level of popularity that it is only just regaining today.” If you came from the North West you very likely would have heard of Dick, Kerr Ladies from a factory of that name in Preston who actually attracted even bigger crowds in the immediate post-war years before the Football Assocation decreed that professional football grounds could not be used for the women’s game. There was even a BBC documentary about them a couple of years or so ago.

  • ADW

    What exactly are Paxman’s credentials as an historian? His infamously terrible interview, in which he revealed among other things he did not know Kitchener’s fate, rather suggests a group of student flunkies doing all the work and him just stringing it together. Virtually any member of the Western Front Association would have vastly superior credentials, yet it is Paxo who has been chosen by the BBC for its flagship series …

    • macks30

      exactly are Paxman’s credentials as an historian?, when I read your post it
      reminded of this chap, his name is Osborne, It started me thinking !! , what
      are Osborn’s credentials as the chancellor/accountant. people seem to able to do what the hell they want these days, but I quite like Paxman.

  • pearlsandoysters

    There are three books by Paxman sitting on my book shelf. Though his style is elegant and there’s logic behind his musings, there’s a complete lack of deep historic insight whatever is that he tackles. Andrew Marr is much better when it goes about history, though both of them are very representative of the good journalists trying to reflect on history. Both of them do their best obviously, yet in a very journalistic manner.