The Necessary War; The Pity of War; David Attenborough's First Life

The Necessary War and The Pity of War were a pair of programmes from the BBC about the First World War that aired a couple of months ago. In The Necessary War Max Hastings put the case for WW1 being, ultimately, necessary despite the loss of life etc. And in The Pity of War Niall Ferguson argued that it was all a terrible and costly (in terms of lives) mistake - this programme finished with a debate. I found myself not entirely agreeing with either position, although I preferred Hastings's presentation as Ferguson was more than a touch smug and flippant. Both were looking at this from a very British perspective, the question wasn't so much "was the War worth it?" as "should Britain have gone to war in 1914?".

Hastings's main point was that at the time the decision to go to war was made it seemed the least of all possible evils. He argued that if Britain had stayed out of the war in 1914 then there was a reasonable chance that Germany would've overrun France, and then Britain would later have faced war with a much bigger Germany which would be more capable of disrupting British shipping (and thus the British economy and empire). So he suggested that at the time, and with hindsight, war seemed inevitable the only question was "now or later?". He also discussed how the atrocities perpetrated by the German army as they rolled over Belgium meant that this was the moral choice as well as the politically sensible one and that a Europe dominated by the Kaiser's Germany would not be a pleasant place to live. I was somewhat less convinced by his attempt to present the Versailles Treaty as a good thing just because it was better than what the German's would've imposed if they'd won (there's a lot of room between that and "good" after all).

Ferguson on the other hand thought that if Britain had stayed out of the war in 1914 then the world would've been a better place both in the short term and in the long run. But I'm afraid he didn't convince me at all, except that I do agree that with the benefit of hindsight the First World War was an appalling waste of lives and didn't even produce a lasting peace. His arguments were mostly appeals to emotion and he also used counterfactuals to illustrate what he thought would've happened if Britain had stayed out of the war. His key idea was that he thought the conflict would've remained European without Britain's intervention, and that a Germany that had conquered or otherwise overrun France and Belgium wouldn't have expanded further. There was a strong air of "who cares about the French and Belgians" although he didn't go as far as to say that - but having recently watched both The Necessary War and the series based on Hew Strachan's book about WW1 I was struck by his complete lack of mention of the way the Belgian and French civilians were treated by the advancing German army at the beginning of the war. It wouldn't've fit very well with his "playful" suggestion that a Europe "dominated" by the Kaiser's Germany would've been "just like our modern EU" (although he conceded that Angela Merkel is rather nicer than the Kaiser). He didn't come across as having much more than wishful thinking to back up his idea that peace and harmony would've reigned as soon as Germany finished conquering Belgium, breaking the back of France and defanging Russia.

The debate at the end of The Pity of War was both with experts, and with the audience for Ferguson's lecture (he lectured, Hastings did more of a standard documentary programme). No-one seemed to agree much with Ferguson and he got taken to task for his flippancy about the EU by a rather formidable woman in the audience too :)

In the end I think I agree with Hastings that the choice to go to war was the best one that the British leadership could see at the time. And I think without the examples of WW1 and WW2 we wouldn't all be as wary of global modern warfare - which doesn't make them good things at all, just sadly inevitable.


David Attenborough's First Life was a two part series about the origins of animal life on our planet. It goes before his series about the evolution of the vertebrates (which we watched last year), and so only mentioned vertebrates right at the very end. Although it was called "First Life" he really wasn't interested in anything except animals, and so we didn't get to see much about the prokaryotes (who were the first life) or even eukaryotes prior to the development of multicellular organisms. And plants were only ever mentioned in passing.

So in episode 1 he covered the evolution of organisms like sponges, and looked at the fossil record of a group of now long extinct animals which had a different body plan to our own. These were all sedentary and had grew by branching with each branch being a smaller version of the whole organism. These died out (Attenborough said "inevitably" but I'm not quite sure why), and the last part of that programme looked at the Cambrian Explosion which is the name given to the sudden rise of diversity of animals with a more familiar body plan. These were generally capable of movement and have head ends and tail ends to their bodies. And even teeth! Episode 2 focussed on arthropods, and in particular the insects and the colonisation of the land. In particular he looked at the way that the development of hard shells to fend off predators lead to being able to leave the water (because their bodies didn't collapse or dehydrate). And we were shown lots of awesome trilobite fossils from a particularly well preserved fossil bed in Morocco.


Other TV watched last week:

Episode 3 of Churches: How to Read Them - series looking at symbolism and so on in British churches.

Episode 1 of A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley - series about the popular fascination with murder in late Victorian & Edwardian times.

Episode 1 of Mud, Sweat and Tractors - series about the history of farming in 20th Century Britain.