“I think Historians role is essentially to inform, but also to clarify, to develop proper understanding of the war, to actually show people that what they think they think they might know about the First World War might actually be a rather narrow perspective.” Professor Philpott
Arriving at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London to Interview Professor William Philpott, who has published widely on the First World War, I was expecting to have many of my preconceptions about the war overturned. Professor Philpott’s book ‘Attrition: Fighting the First World War’ has been published recently and is being warmly received by the critics.
The First World War is ubiquitous within public memory, perhaps only the Second World War can claim to be more ubiquitous within the public imagination- after all- who today speaks of the Boer War or Crimean War? The First World War has shaped so much of our current culture and attitudes that the centenary of its outbreak was always going to be a big event.
Yet despite this, research conducted by the British Council and published as part of the ‘Remember the World as well as the War’ project, which looked at public knowledge of the First World War in seven countries, found that less than half of British people knew about the First World War beyond the Western Front. Of 1081 people questioned, 38% of respondents were aware of North America’s involvement in the War, 34% knew about the Middle East, 21% about Africa and 22% knew about Asia’s involvement in the War.
The findings are astonishing given the prevalence that memory of the Great War enjoys. An estimated 16-20 million people died during the First World War with Britain losing close to a million. But unbeknown to many, over 100 countries were involved, when Britain and France went to war, they brought their empires with them. But this was not only a war fought in Western Europe, it was fought all over the world. Anywhere, between 3 to 5 million Turks died in the War, 2 million Austrians and millions of Germans, French and Russians too.
It is widely understood that the War was a mass futile loss of life and little was achieved by it. However, while Professor Philpott agrees that the War was futile from the perspective of the loss of life, he also asserted that the popular perception of the futility of war is a misconception. “We (The general public) dwell on the poets’ war, one small group of individuals left a cultural perspective of war.”
It struck me during our conversation that while it’s true that more is known about the Western Front than the War in other parts of the world. There is still so-much that we still do not fully understand about the war in the west. The biggest trouble with our understanding of the First World War is the fact we look at it through the prism of the Second World War and this only adds to the sense of futility of the Great War.
But I think the main thing I will take away from the interview, is how history is told, is a reflection of contemporary society and arguably more reflective of contemporary society than the societies of the past being debated. The war veterans have largely passed, but the finial chapters of the War have not yet been written, because we have not written them yet. The War has much to teach us, but we must be open to learning more about it and learning about how other societies learn, teach and value the memory of the Great War. The First chapters of the Great War were about the generation that the veterans belonged too, the last chapters are about us.
The full interview can be found below.