We put three questions to Jeremy Paxman, presenter of Britain's Great War:
- Why did you want to make a series about the First World War?
- Why is the war so important in the memory of the British public?
- Do you think war was avoidable?
Why did you want to make a series about the First World War?
I think the First World War is rather scandalously neglected, most people seem to think of it as nothing more than an occasion for poetry, anti-war poetry at that, and actually at the time, this poetry did not have wide currency, Wilfrid Wwen was not even published during the First World War, so it has really become something that people find they have a view about, regardless of knowing nothing much about it, so that's why I wanted to enquire into it.
Why is the war so important in the memory of the British public?
I think the First World War is tremendously important because nothing is the same after the war as it was before, and I think from that whether it be how people worked, how they thought about governments, what governments felt entitled to do, how much tax government levied, how people felt about authority, how people felt about art or literature—all manner of expression was completely changed after the war, so I think that this is the event that really makes modern Britain.
Do you think war was avoidable?
I'm not really sure war was avoidable, I mean of course we're all supposed to think that callous politicians and bone-headed generals sacrificed the lives of an entire generation, I know we're supposed to think that, but I just wonder, what Europe would have been like has we allowed Germany to have her way. It would have all of course been under German rule, that would have meant that the Channel coast was under German rule, that would have meant that Royal Navy's position—the Royal Navy was the guarantor of Britain's position in the world and her Empire, which at that point mattered a lot, I'm not sure there really was much of a choice, it was—once it had begun of course, it was a chapter of accidents and it unfolded with a horrifying rapidity, and at a horrifying scale, but I'm not really sure there was much choice at the start.