Stephen McGinty: First World War history in making

The BBC top brass has sanctioned a mammoth 2,500 hours of broadcasting but it is doubtful this will result in any change to our perception of the First World War, writes Stephen McGinty
The predominant concept of the First World War is brutal trench conflict. Picture: ContributedThe predominant concept of the First World War is brutal trench conflict. Picture: Contributed
The predominant concept of the First World War is brutal trench conflict. Picture: Contributed

THIS week the BBC unveiled plans for what I believe will be a long, arduous war of attrition. In the early months of next year one of the corporation’s big guns, presenter Jeremy Paxman will be rolled out to set the scene for an all encompassing media campaign.

Great Britain’s Great War is a four-part prime-time documentary to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War. This will be but the opening salvo, for what follows over the next four years is an incredible 2,500 hours of programming across radio, television and the internet designed to chronicle a conflict that began with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the summer of 1914 and ended, after the deaths of 16 million soldiers, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

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Will the public have the appetite for such a vast array of programming on a subject of which they know so little? I’m not so sure. For despite its chronological right, the First World War has always been of secondary interest to its successor and understandably so. The Second World War has the foulest villain in human history at its heart and, in the Holocaust, the darkest deed. There was also a nobility and justness in the fight against the Nazis during the Second World War that is absent in its predecessor. When we think of the Second World War we think of victory, of an evil vanquished, regardless of the appalling acts required to achieve the goal. When we think of the First World War we think of mud and death and a collective failure.

As our national broadcaster, the role the BBC has set itself is to tease out the conflict in a myriad of different ways. Neil Oliver will be documenting the devastating effect of the modern machine gun and its effect on a family from Skye. Radio Scotland will tell 100 stories drawn from across the country and both the home and western front. The depth of programming is such that there is even a 30-minute radio documentary on Eric Bogle, the Scot who emigrated to Australia and helped to heal the wounds of Gallipoli with his ballad Waltzing Matilda. A live highlight will be the service that will take place at Glasgow Cathedral on the 4 August, 2014, the day after the close of the Commonwealth Games, when the Queen will join heads of state in remembrance of the decision to go to war.

A century ago Scotland was on the verge of home rule. A century later Scotland could be on the verge of independence. For in May, 1914 a Home Rule Bill had successfully passed a second reading in the House of Commons and was backed by the Liberal government. Had the outbreak of war not swept it from the constitutional agenda, it would surely have passed. We will never know what that might have meant for Scotland

What we do know is that ties that bind Scotland to the First World War are blood red. As a nation we lost 149,000 men during the conflict between 1914-1918, proportionally more than twice the number of other parts of Britain. From a population of less than 30,000, 6,712 men from Lewis signed up to serve and 17 per cent never came home, one of the highest proportions in the UK. Glasgow sent 200,000 men to the Front and lost 17,695. Dundee lost 4,213 men and to this day, each year on the 25 September a light glows from the granite obelisk in Law in memory of the men who died in the Battle of the Loos in 1915.

As Trevor Royle points out in his excellent history of Scotland during the First World War, The Flowers of the Forest, when the Scottish National War Memorial was opened in Edinburgh Castle in 1928, the novelist Ian Hay wrote: “big England’s sorrow is national, little Scotland’s is personal.”

In almost every corner of Scotland there are curious pieces of the jigsaw that collectively reveals our nation’s involvement in the First World War. A German Zeppelin raided Edinburgh in 1916 which led to the area around Turnhouse Farm being converted into an airfield. Employees at the North British Rubber Company in Fountainbridge made over a million pairs of boots for those in the Western Front. One of the most important contribution’s Scotland made to the war effort and, I would argue, to all soldiers was the revolutionary treatment provided to shell-shocked soldiers at Craiglockhart Military Hospital For Officers, a decaying former health spa on the outskirts of Edinburgh where in a delicate operation requiring patience and understanding the “stiff upper lip” was carefully dismantled. Dr William Halse Rivers pioneered a “talking cure” for shell-shocked soldiers. He realised that instead of being ordered not to talk about their fears and ignore them it was crucial for soldiers to come to terms with their guilt, fear and anxiety and in so doing he pioneered the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder still in use today. When Jeremy Paxman was filming his new four part documentary series on the First World War he travelled to Edinburgh specifically to examine Rivers’ work and its legacy. As the presenter writes of Rivers in his new book, Great Britain’s Great War: “He had divined a basic truth of psychiatric therapy, that ‘what you resist, persists.’ The significance of this recognition – which is still the basis of post-traumatic therapy – cannot be exaggerated.”

Yet there was another side of Scotland during the First World War that has largely been forgotten and this is the militancy of Glasgow workers such as Tom Bell, John Wheatley and John Maclean who organised a spate of strikes in 1915 and 1916 against rent rises and the employment of women in heavy industry. The government was unwilling to tolerate what they viewed as proletarian belligerence at a time of war and cracked down with a heavy hand arresting James Maxton and John Muir, but it was John Maclean who bore the heaviest load when he was sentenced to three years on the 11 April, 1916 at the High Court in Edinburgh. Others were banished from Glasgow to Edinburgh. However these rent strikes and industrial unrest were to form the cradle of Scottish socialist idealism and the rise of the emergent Labour Party.

It is also a legacy that the Jimmy Reid Foundation would like to see marked next year. They have contacted Glasgow City Council to request that a plaque be erected to “write back into history” these socialists and pacifists who saw the conflict as workers bleeding for the rich and affluent of rival empires. It would be a fitting act and one that would chime with many.

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There will be those who are concerned that the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the First World War could be used to tighten the bind of Britishness. To point out to those anxious for independence: “But look what we achieved together?” And if the referendum was taking place in 2039 on the 100th anniversary of the Second World War then that would be a more realistic concern, for then people would look back to see a nation united to defeat the monstrous evil of Hitler, but today looking back at the First World War, no-one sees achievement, everyone sees waste, a generation wallowing in the mud of the Somme then falling with spurts of poppy red.

Historians like Max Hastings may argue, as he does in his new book, Catastrophe 1914 that a triumphant Germany would have swept away democracy from Europe and that, by failing to hold in check their partners Austria, they and their militarism bear ultimate responsibility for this human cataclysm, but I genuinely doubt that even the dedication of the BBC and their 2,500 hours of commemorative programmes spread across every website, television and radio station will deepen the average member of the public’s perception beyond the image of a body on barbed wire. The pity and the waste of war.