Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman: Book Review

On the centenary of the First World War, a flurry of new publications have emerged detailing the events of The Great War, insuring that its significance in terms of the changes it provoked and the tragedies and deaths it amassed are not forgotten. Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Great Britain’s Great War’, which goes alongside his television programme of the same name, describes the war in terms of the people who lived through it at home. He tells the common man’s story of the war.

Paxman argues that the First World War sparked a series of changes in British society that have been steadfastly held and are recognisable today. When talking about this book at The Edinburgh Book Festival this year, he used the analogy of a Victorian time-traveller coming to Britain in 1924 and struggling to identify with it; compared to coming along in 1914 and being able to find some recognition with Edwardian Britain.

The important events of the war are signposted and reflected on, from the “lamps going out all over Britain” to the Christmas armistice, the Somme, the stalemate in the mud to the last hundred days and the eventual Armistice. Interwoven with the tales from the Western Front are the tales of anguish and turmoil of those left back at home. He prosaically narrates how the war affected them in terms of governmental crackdown and intervention. He argues that this was the beginning of the government taking an interest in the workings of everyday life for the first time. With censorship and rationing came the, limited, vote for women in 1918, the passport and growth of allotments. The story of the everyman back home in Britain is often overlooked, which is incredible giving that it is tantamount to understanding why British society was so radically altered post-1918. Of course, the Western Front account of the war is significant, and where would we be without the war poetry from the trenches? However, it is refreshing to read something which pays particular attention to the other side of the story.

Paxman’s history of the Great War in Britain is written to be digested by the common man. He makes the struggles felt by those during the war years very real and very vivid. I would recommend this book as a starting point for those who want to learn more about the war in Britain.


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