In Depth

First World War: 'the violent birth of the modern world'

Britain's newspapers reflect on World War One and the legacy of one of the bloodiest wars in history

One hundred years after Britain declared war on Germany, the country's newspapers are reflecting on the legacy of one of the bloodiest wars in history.

At 11pm on 4 August 1914, Britain joined a conflict that would continue for more than four years. The map of Europe was torn up and around 17 million soldiers and civilians were killed between 1914 and 1918.

"World War One changed Britain," says historian Dan Snow in The Sun. "It was the painful, violent birth of the modern world."

Writing in the same newspaper, Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledges that no-one reading the paper fought in the World War One and very few will have any memories of it at all.

But he highlights the importance of remembering the impact the war has had on us today. "The right of women to vote has roots in the Great War. Lives are saved thanks to medicines first used on the Western Front," he says. "And Britons stand tall and walk free because of the freedoms our ancestors secured." 

The question we ought to ask, says Jeremy Paxman in the Daily Mirror, is whether the country could endure a similar ordeal today, in an age characterised by an ever-increasing obsession with individualism?

"This idea of an individual's rights being above all else would have baffled the average adult of 1914," he says. "The incomprehension is mutual: the concept of duty – the idea that you lay aside personal concerns for a greater good – has been a notable casualty of the campaign for individual rights."

Foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, whose father served in World War One, wonders why we pay homage to the dead but ignore the lessons of their war. "For Little Belgium, Little Gaza. For Flanders poppies, Ukrainian sunflowers. It's not difficult to imagine what 'they' would have thought, the men we should – today – respect, love, remember, but finally leave in peace," he writes in The Independent. "For their Horatio Bottomley, we had Blair. For Woodrow Wilson, we have Obama; and Netanyahu, an Austrian Archduke facing a Serbian horde."

But Andrew Murrison, Tory MP and Cameron's special representative for the centenary commemoration, says he believes the government of 1914 "reacted reasonably" to events as they unfurled.

"The uncomfortable conclusion I draw is that it is murderously difficult for those shouldering the burden of national leadership in an uncertain world to know where ultimately their decisions will lead and that risk and contingency must therefore be drawn broad and wide," he writes in the Daily Telegraph. "All of a sudden a century seems like the blink of an eye and our settled order an alarmingly fragile thing."

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