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A century on, World War I remains 'the Great War' for the Brits. Why?

The First World War occupies a singular place in Britain's identity and imagination, in part because the precise reasons for the conflict are still so hard to fathom. 

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Visitors speak with one another at a special World War One installation of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' in London on Feb. 20. The enlarged photo in the background is a reproduction of a postcard that was used by British troops for Christmas and New Year greetings between 1915 and 1918.

Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

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On January 1, 1914, Arthur Linfoot, a blithe 24-year-old British clerk, began writing a diary. The following year, he went off to war, fighting in the trenches of the Western Front for two and a half years. Through the horrors of the trenches, he never missed an entry in his pocket notebook.

Exactly 100 years to the day of the first entry, his 85-year-old son, Denis Linfoot, began copying the diary entries in a blog. Followers of the blog currently read about a life of choir practices, soccer, and theater trips in Sunderland, a city in the north of England; next summer, they will learn about the private soldier's courage on the Western front.

Though World War I started a century ago – and passed from memory into history with the death of its last surviving veteran, Harry Patch, aged 111, in 2009 – it remains the Great War in the common imagination of Britons.

As the country sets out to commemorate WWI's centenary over the next four years, the war’s place in the national consciousness is kept alive by personal stories, such as Private Linfoot's, and the literature of the time, especially war poetry, which conveyed the shocking brutality of the world's first experience of industrialized warfare.

"The diaries give a complete daily record, through the eyes of one ordinary – but perceptive and intelligent – provincial young man, of the transition from peace to what must have seemed a containable, almost a local war, and then its escalation to the apparently interminable, devastating mess which it became," says Mr. Linfoot, who has translated the diary from the shorthand in which his father wrote it.

Emotional impact

World War I had a seismic effect on both modern consciousness and the world itself. The Ottoman Empire was carved up by Russia, France, and Britain to make the new Middle East, and the conflict paved the way for an even worse catastrophe 20 years later.

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The late British historian Eric Hobsbawn saw 1914 as the beginning of a continuum of war – the "age of extremes" – which ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

But this is not why WWI haunts Brits' popular imagination.

"It was the first total war, meaning it affected the whole of British society, with millions mobilized both for military and civilian roles", says Matthew Brosnan, a historian at the Imperial War Museum in London, which was opened in 1917, while World War I was still being fought.

"It also tends to stick in the imagination because of the nature of the fighting, with the shock of modern firepower forcing armies to seek the protection of the trenches, and the first use of technology like planes and tanks to try to find a way to break through the trenches," Mr. Brosnan says.

Catriona Pennell, a historian at the University of Exeter, says the sheer scale of the killing – a million dead in the British Empire alone – coupled with the sense of futility that permeates much wartime literature, is what is mostly remembered today.

"The immense loss of life remains incomprehensible, all the more so because many British people, today, struggle to understand what the conflict was about," she says.

"In comparison to the Second World War, which was a much simpler conflict to comprehend, with clearly defined enemies and objectives, the First World War seemed confusing and pointless."

Though academic research has shed light on the factors behind Britain’s involvement in the conflict – suggesting a just war against a belligerent Germany and Austro-Hungary – the reasons are not grasped by most people, she adds.

"People struggle to understand what all the killing was for, and as such [it] retains a tight grip over the public imagination."

Political row

In recent years, some conservative historians have sought to counteract this popular understanding of World War I, in the belief that it has been unduly influenced by culture, high and low.

The great war poets, including Wilfred Owen, author of the famous poem "Futility," in turn influenced satires such as “Oh What a Lovely War,” a musical, and “Blackadder Goes Forth,” a TV comedy in which the warring generals were aristocratic buffoons and the deaths of millions senseless.

In January, British Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, tore crudely into "leftwing academics" who peddled "myths" about the war, making it seem "a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetuated by an out-of-touch elite."

Gove departed from the government's position that the commemorations should not attribute blame, arguing that Germany's "aggressive expansionism" of the time should be remembered.

He was savaged by historians, including Labour's shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, a respected academic, who accused him of "crass" political point scoring.

"Whether you agree or disagree, after the death of 15 million people during the war, attempting to position 1918 as a simplistic, nationalistic triumph seems equally foolhardy – not least because the very same tensions re-emerged to such deadly effect in 1939," he said.

Other historians said that Gove had simplified the debate. Niall Ferguson, a well known British historian, has argued that Britain could have lived with a German victory in the war and should have stayed out of the conflict, which he described as "the biggest error in modern history."

Remembering

 Such debates go over the head of most Brits, who are more likely to be divided by whether or not they consider the war a significant event worthy of remembrance.

"I think there are going to be many people, particularly the young generation, who are going to struggle to understand the emphasis placed on the war's centenary over the coming five years," says Ms. Pennell.

That, however, is not the experience of Hugh Macdonald-Buchanan, a former investment banker who now gives tours of battlefields for a living. Bookings for his tours of the fields of the Western Front in France are up for the next few summers, he says, as the centenary awakens an interest in Brits in what their fathers, grandfathers, and uncles experienced.

"Everywhere you go in Britain there's a First World War Memorial; we get used to seeing them," he says.

"But the centenary is making people think about their own families' experience. They might have Grandpa's diaries and want to get an idea of how his unit was involved in the fighting. It has been fascinating to see how gripped people are."

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