Jeremy Paxman rekindles debate with Michael Gove over how to mark the WW1 centenary calling the latter a “charlatan”

Corporal Stuart Gillies of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland plays bagpipes amongst tombstones at a WWI memorial
Corporal Stuart Gillies of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland plays bagpipes to honor the men who are buried at the WWI memorial (Photo: Reuters)

The World War I centenary is drawing closer by the day. A century after the outbreak of the war, debates center on how the day should be remembered.

Many politicians, presenters and members of the academe have varying and contesting views on the matter. The most recent of the scuffle which surfaced at a conference was how schools should best mark the centenary.

Jeremy Paxman, one of the most vocal personality in the dispute, fuels the already fiery debate by branding the Education Secretary Michael Gove a “charlatan”. He further went on to accuse the secretary of engaging in “point scoring at a time when the vast numbers who died commanded respect instead”.

The broadcaster of Newsnight again called the Prime Minister an “idiot” for trying to call for “street party” celebrations as part of the commemoration of the anniversary of the Great War.

The conference was held in the Methodist Hall, Westminster. It was organized by Wellington College and Wellington Academy as part of the preparation for schools to teach their pupils about the Great War.

“[The First World War] is the most important event in the modern history of our country; the event that made modern Britain. That is the reason we need to understand it and that is the reason we need to commemorate it.

“Now I’m not going to talk about the outbreak of the war. There are many others arguing about it now – some of them reputable historians, some of them charlatans, who could have been great historians, making a political point,” Mr. Paxman said.

The broadcaster did not name names. However, the audience responded with laughter leading the media to conclude they knew exactly to whom he was referring to. Michale Gove’s side has yet to comment on the matter.

The known broadcaster also of BBC also lambasted the Prime Minister last year after David Cameron made a statement that claimed the marking of the centenary should be similar to the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. He further said that “only a moron would ‘celebrate’ war”.

Blackadder star Sir Tony Robinson also made snide remarks against Michael Gove last January when the latter said the “left-wing academics” were using the ironic humor of the historical show to “feed myths” about the First World War.

Mr. Paxman also made previous statments that he had no problems with teachers using episodes of Blackadder Goes Forth in school to teach their pupils about the war. But, this is “as long as it was not taught as fact”. He also expressed his criticism on Mr. Gove for “willfully misquoting” Cambridge historian Sir Richard Evans over a debate. 

Mr. Paxman admitted that he did not know how best to acknowledge the World War One which resulted to the deaths of almost one million Britons who either died or went missing.

He said, “There has been an awful lot of nonsense talked on the subject. I think at the very least we owe these men and women a duty of respect and remembrance. I don’t have brilliant ideas that this should be celebrated with school parties as some idiots have suggested but a quiet reverence is the very least we owe these people.”

Conservative Defense Minister Andrew Murrison, a former Royal Navy surgeon, said he is was “Blackadder’s biggest fan” and that the legacy of the First World War “must be about better understanding of the causes, conduct and consequences of the touchstone event of our modern history”.

Mr. Paxman further said that a war of the same propensity could not possibly happen now. The youth of today, he said, lacked the same “sense of duty” which their ancestors once burned with fervor during the war.

He said, “I don’t think the causes of war were necessarily as noble as is sometimes suggested,” having earlier referred to Belgium, which Germany invaded in August 1914, as “an inherently pointless country”.

He further added, “There were 16,000 villages at the end of the war in England and Wales. There were 40 of them to which all those who volunteered or were conscripted never returned. There was scarcely a corner of the land therefore that was not affected by this experience.”

He went on to say that the “difficult question” it raised was as to how a country given its distance from the people living today can best commemorate the event.

Author and playwright Michael Morpurgo also spoke about the legacy of World War II on his family. He related the experience of his two uncles. Peter and Francis Cummings. The former was in the Royal Air Force and was killed during the war at 21. The latter was a communist and pacifist who took a new course of life after “everything changed” upon hearing news of the death of his brother.

Mr Morpurgo said, “He joined the Special Operations Executive and went away and did extraordinary things.”

The author of War Horse also said that the events such as the Holocaust and the Somme were “too massive to comprehend” when it boils down to academics. He said that the horrors of the war can be taught to children through the individual stories such as Anne Frank’s diaries.

Mr Morpurgo, a former teacher and soldier, said although fiction had the capacity to “touch people’s hearts”, he stressed that “it’s important that children have access to the people who were there. What they said or wrote, letters home or poetry, if that’s the foundation of what we’re passing on then I think it’s fine.”

The Independent reports that the author also received two letters, the first from Harry Patch, “the last Tommie”. He died in 2009 at the age of 111. Another letter originated from Raymond Briggs, a children’s books author. He also had childhood recollections of the war’s legacy which will be part of the book, Only Remembered, edited by Mr Morpurgo.

Mr. Patch wrote his experience on the “PBI – Poor Bloody Infantry”. The letter read, “We weren’t heroes. We didn’t want to be there. We were scared, we all were, all the time. Any man who tells you he wasn’t is a damn liar. Life in the trenches was dirty, lousy and unsanitary. The barrages that proceeded battle were one long nightmare and when you went over the top it was just mud, more mud mixed with blood and you struggled through it with dead bodies all around you, any one of whom could have been me.”

Mr. Patch further criticized the politicians for suggesting a commemorative service that year for the survivors of World War One. He wrote bitterly, “What for? It was too late, too late. Why didn’t we think of doing something for the boys when they came back from the war bloodied and broken? It was easy to forget about them because for years after they never spoke about the horrors they experienced.”

The Exchange of Words During the Preparations of the WWI Centenary

Jeremy Paxman

“There has been an awful lot of nonsense talked on the subject. I think at the very least we owe these men and women a duty of respect and remembrance. I don’t have brilliant ideas that this should be celebrated with school parties as some idiots have suggested but a quiet reverence is the very least we owe these people.”

Michael Morpurgo

“I grew up, like so many families, with an understanding of the wretchedness the war had left behind… it’s important that children today have access to the people who were there, which now means through documents, writings, poems. Every child should go to war graves of both the Allies and Germany. It’s important for us to know where we came from.”

Andrew Murrison MP, Special Representative for the Centenary Commemorations of the First World War

“This is an opportunity to establish the educational legacy [of the war]. The legacy must be about a better understanding of the cause, conduct and consequences.”

Ian Hislop, writer of The Wipers Times, the 90-minute drama about the satirical newspaper from the front line

“The Wipers’ criticism came from inside the war and there are not many people like them. Their war experience gave them the right to be critical. Their flippancy, for which they were criticised, was absolutely calculated and determined. It was a response to the war to say ‘I will carry on being the person I want to



Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE