Survey reveals poor WW1 knowledge – but what can be done?

 In General

A recent YouGov survey of 1,955 British adults seems to indicate that there is a general lack of knowledge and understanding in Britain about even the basic facts of the First World War. Some of the headline results of this survey, taken on the eve of the centenary of the conflict, are certainly a little worrying:

  • 19% of people thought Britain declared war because Germany invaded Poland.
  • Only 13% of people knew Germany had actually invaded Belgium.
  • Less than half knew that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was a trigger to the start of the war.
  • 7% of respondants who were aged under 24 thought Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister at the time of the war.


To be honest, these kind of answers do not surprise me. I speak to hundreds of people a year about their family history and it is obvious from the conversations I have that basic general knowledge of the war is lacking. This is sad when you think about the huge implications and effect the war had on individuals and on families, as well as science, medicine, medical care and a raft of other areas of life.

The question we need to ask ourselves is why? Why, in 2013, smack in the middle of ‘the information age’ are people still confused about some of the basic facts of one of the most important eras in world history? Here is my take on it:


“It’s all down to poor history education in our schools”.

This is the argument put forward by many people. We are failing our kids because these kind of subjects are not taught properly in school. I understand this point of view, I think there needs to be a review of how we teach history in schools. Endless essays are not the way to engage teenagers. Hopefully schools and teachers can embrace some of the new technology that is out there to make history a bit more engaging and fun for the kid. BUT….. I was never taught WW1 in school, yet by April 2014 six books that I have written on the First World War will have been published and in the bookshops.  Learning shouldn’t stop the minute you leave school, we all have a responsibility to ourselves to keep learning, to keep seeking out new things and soak up new information. It’s not as if this information is difficult to access these days is it?


“All the books on WW1 are too long/difficult/boring…”

This is something else I hear a lot. It is true that some of the books out there on WW1 are 900 page epics that are probably not going to be read by your average man/woman in the street. However, a quick search for ‘WW1’ in books on Amazon UK reveals 12,796 results. Not every one of those are 900 page epics. There are some great books and ebooks out there that have been specifically written to appeal to your average plumber/electrician/care assistant/shop worker… those people that perhaps want to know the general facts and basic information but have no interest in understanding the minutiae of battle. The History in an Hour series is excellent, as is Norman Stone’s Short History of WW1, even my very own Layman’s Guide has been enjoying good sales and excellent reviews.


Do books matter anymore?

It is my opinion (backed up by absolutely no research or fact, just gut instinct and by asking people) that the art of ‘reading’ is slowly dying. People simply are not reading as much as the used to anymore. With the internet, smart phones, tablets, Xbox, Play Station and hundreds of television channels and social media we have massive amounts of information options. As a result the time we have in our day to curl up with a good book is getting more and more marginalised. Also, with the immediacy of information with 24hr news, Twitter and other outlets I also think we expect the answers to our questions to be given to us with out us expending much effort in finding them. With this in mind I do think that publishers, historians and broadcasters need to think about how they interact and engage with their audience. If people are consuming information in different places and in different ways then they need to adapt their own offerings to suit.

This has started to happen, there are some excellent websites that give a great overview of the war, plus more and more apps are becoming available on iOS and Android; interactive histories, infographics and general overviews are all available for your smart phone and tablet.


Is it all America’s fault?

I think it is generally accepted that the history of WW2 is better understood and known than that of WW1. That could be due to a number of factors; there is still a physical link to this war the surviving veterans. We can look these guys in the eye, talk to them about their experiences and by doing this they can help us understand what they went through. Another reason might be the fact that in WW2 there was a much larger American presence. This in turn spawned a huge amount of Hollywood films about the War. Some were brilliant, some were rubbish, some were historically so wide of the mark they were funny. But they were important in raising awareness of the conflict and as a result many millions of people are familiar with some of the major story lines and characters of the war. In contrast, America didn’t really make an impression in WW1 – at least not to the extent where Hollywood can make a film that suggests that ‘America won the war’. And because of this, Hollywood isn’t really that interested in WW1 blockbusters.

I am not saying we should try and trivialise the war with crappy movies, but, is there an argument that suggests that if there were more WW1 Hollywood blockbusters more people would be interested in the war and would be more inclined to read and search out information on their own?


A Lack of a proper baddy.

Everyone loves a baddy. WW2 had more than its fair share of baddies; Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Goebbels, Heinrich… the list is endless. Although there is no doubt that these were all nasty, evil individuals there is something about the human psyche that makes these kind of people strangely intriguing and interesting. Back to Amazon UK again, type in the word ‘Hitler’ and you will be presented 16.761 options. That is 4,000 more than the entire WW1 subject. The fact is there is a huge appetite for information on the Nazi’s and the leading characters of the time. The German army of WW1 didn’t really have such personalities.  The propaganda posters of the time tried to depict the evil Hun as the archytypal baddie and with gas and sword edged bayonests they succeeded in parts, but they didn’t have a Hitler. They had excellent military strategists such as Ludendorff and Hindenberg but they were not evil men. They didn’t have strong right wing political views, they didn’t go around beating and killing their political opponents and they definitely didn’t try and murder millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies and other so-called inferior races. They were just good-old-run-of-the-mill military men. Maybe there were just a little too normal to be a proper baddy?


I think there is no one thing that can be pointed to that is 100% at fault for the perceived lack of interest in, and knowledge of, the First World War. There is no doubt that the information is definitely out there. In books, ebooks, documentaries, websites, and apps there is a huge amount of information available on the First World War. It is a mixture of poor teaching of history in our schools, a lack of desire from the wider population to go out and learn it for themselves, a slow reaction from academics, broadcasters and publishers to react to the changing ways the broader population consume their information and perhaps a less interesting subject matter than WW2 which had many more ‘colourful’ characters and a powerful sub-plot (the Holocaust) which has helped capture the imagination of millions of people that would not have had much interest in a ‘normal’ war.


Despite this, on the eve of the Centenary, it is vitally important that authors, bloggers, academics, publishers, broadcasters and teachers work together to help raise awareness of the First World War. We should be proud of our history, it makes us who we are, but we can only be proud of it and understand it properly if we know what happened and why.

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  • Salvatore Compagno

    The merging of the Great War Society & the Western Front Association into the WW1HA-
    World War 1 Historical Assoication will be leading a recognition of the 100th anniversary of
    the war in all its manifestations. In conjunction with the World War 1 Museum in Kansas City,
    MO, we will be in a position to promote interest and concern about the war to the general
    public. Publicity is the name of the game- we will hold Symposiums, local chapter meetings
    and discussions about WW1. Furthermore we have a cadre of speakers whose specialities
    are various aspects of the war, The San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California has chapters which meet monthly to discuss various elements of the war. We stress the relevance of the war to todays events. Keeping the war’s consequences alive maintains a
    vivid attention to the war.

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