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Informative and well-written
on 15 June 2017
Celebrated British TV presenter and author, Jeremy Paxman, has some fascinating things to tell us in this well-written and highly informative survey of how World War One affected various sectors of the British population. He pays tribute, for instance, to the remarkable pioneering role of Harold Gillies, the inventor of plastic surgery, in reconstructing the often gruesomely shattered faces of badly wounded soldiers, enabling them to hold their heads high in public without undue embarrassment to themselves and others. He vividly narrates the infamous antics of some British women in harassing young males in civilian clothes (they wrongly assumed the latter hadn’t signed up to fight) - an experience my own maternal grandfather, an artillery officer, personally underwent while on leave from the Western Front). The transformative effect on the social complexion of the officer class resulting from the hopelessly ill-conceived Somme offensive of July to November 1916 (160,000 British fatalities, a disproportionately high percentage being upper middle class public (i.e. private) school educated young officers) - which necessitated the rapid infusion of hastily trained officer replacements from lower social backgrounds - is eloquently described. In documenting the squalor, filth and disease-ridden conditions of trench warfare, the author pulls no punches and brings home the horrific immediacy of such warfare.
In its coverage of leading participants in the War, Paxman’s book is, however, open to criticism. Weak and vacillating British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, (who, against his better judgement, let himself be bullied by gung-ho cabinet colleagues into rushing troops to France to oppose the invading Germans) and his flamboyant successor, David Lloyd George, (who shabbily sought to shield a family member from the fray with the offer of a cushy desk job - while at a the same time consigning tens of thousands of British military personnel to needless deaths), both inexplicably get a pass. The impulsive decision of Winston Churchill, then Secretary of the Navy and at 37 the rising star of British politics, to up the ante some three days before the official start of hostilities (and thereby make the outbreak of war almost inevitable) by ordering the main fleet to relocate from the English Channel to the North Atlantic gets barely a mention, despite the fact that the overall purpose of this naval activity – the imminent imposition of a North Sea blockade on German shipping - was instantly recognised by the Germans and correctly interpreted as a preliminary act of war. For the conduct of British generals in the field, their endless preventable blunders and appalling lack of imagination, Paxman offers the lame excuse ‘What else could they do?’ He seems oddly unaware of the principles of initiative and delegation so deeply instilled as a modus operandi in the German Army whereby every rank from colonel down to corporal was trained to immediately assume command of all those under him whenever superior officers were no longer available. Why did the British top brass never think of imitating this policy? Instead, in the event of critical officer staff becoming casualties, infantrymen were left (as happened particularly during the 1916 Somme offensive) to wander aimlessly about, lacking the authority and operational knowledge to exploit any momentary advantage gained on the battlefield. Regarding the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Paxman curiously omits to impart the extraordinary circumstance that Wilhelm was not only fifth in line to the British throne but that he also, since his mother was the eldest child of Queen Victoria, would have automatically become King of Great Britain had the rite of male royal primogeniture been rescinded (this had to wait till 2014) prior to the demise of playboy monarch Edward VII in 1910. Despite his bombastic outbursts, Wilhelm was an Anglophile at heart, his fundamental wish being to avoid war with Britain, an attitude most dramatically expressed during the immediate run-up to the start of the War in August 1914 when he desperately sought to dissuade his resolutely obstinate general staff from implementing the Schlieffen Plan (an utterly misguided strategy because its exclusive focus on winning the war in the west neglected all political realities, in particular the adverse impact on British public opinion of a German violation of Belgian neutrality). Instead, he unsuccessfully pushed for the much more realistic alternative of an offensive war against Russia in the east coupled with a defensive posture in the west. This strategy would almost certainly have paid huge dividends, resulting at the very least in a military stalemate and, even more likely, a complete German victory in the War.