The war that changed everything and nothing

It was all supposed to be over in a matter of weeks. That’s what the men who marched off to war in the summer of 1914 said to themselves.

That’s what the relatives who waved them off believed. The reality that unfolded was grimmer than anyone predicted: by Christmas massive armies were locked in a conflict that lasted for four long years. An estimated nine million lives were lost, and more than 20 million people were wounded, in what became known as the Great War.

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In a series of three public lectures at Cambridge University during the first week of February, the eminent historian and author Margaret MacMillan will look at the political, social and economic context in which the First World War erupted with such devastating consequences. She will consider, in particular, contemporary thinking about war, how governments planned for military confrontation, and how the nature of conflict in Europe changed radically in the hundred years leading up to the declaration of war in July 1914.

The lectures are: European Society and War (3 February), Thinking about War before 1914 (4 February), and Planning War before 1914 (6 February).  Open to all and free of charge, with no need to book, the lectures start at 5pm and will be held in Cambridge University’s Law Faculty. There will be a concluding symposium (7 February) in which MacMillan will respond to points raised by invited historians and a public audience. This event is also free and open to all, but requires advance registration at

MacMillan is a Professor of International History at the University of Oxford, where she is also Warden of St Antony’s College. Born and brought up in Canada, she has a distinguished career in academia spanning both sides of the Atlantic. She is author of Women of the Raj; Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War; Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao; and The Uses and Abuses of History.  Her most recent book is The War That Ended Peace.

She is talking at Cambridge University as the Humanitas Visiting Professor in War Studies for 2014, a position hosted by CRASSH (Centre for the Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) as part of its role in bringing scholars and practitioners together from across disciplinary and institutional boundaries, to bring new insights to bear on the major questions of the day.

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MacMillan’s lectures represent a chance to hear first-hand from an historian who urges us to look beyond the commemorations planned for the next four years and look again at views of war and how these have shifted with time. In an article written for the Financial Times last month, she warned against the temptation of viewing the First World War through the narrow prism of the battles that have become iconic whether in terms of catastrophic loss of life or triumphant victory.

In the 100 years since the start of the First World War, the narratives teased out of it have been told and retold – in poetry and literature, films and television dramas – and our views correspondingly shaped. As MacMillan wrote: “We should be aware that views of the war have changed dramatically over time and those who experienced it directly often saw it in ways that we would find astounding. Memories and remembrances are more plastic that we like to think, changing over time and under the influence of current preoccupations.“

MacMillan’s strength lies in her determination to revisit the past and challenge accepted views and glib assumptions. Today the prevailing view of the First World War is that it never should have happened – that it achieved nothing at huge cost to those involved. But people living in Europe at the time thought they were fighting, and sacrificing their lives, for a just cause.  As MacMillan asserts: “It is condescending and wrong to think that they were hoodwinked. British soldiers felt that they were fighting for their country and its values; French, German and Russian soldiers felt much the same.”

Her insistence on academic rigour, and her ability to communicate her subject to a wide audience, has led to many invitations to speak to the media and, in particular, to contribute to the debate about the teaching of history in schools.

Humanitas is a series of Visiting Professorships at Oxford and Cambridge intended to bring leading practitioners and scholars to both universities to address major themes in the arts, social sciences and humanities. Created by Lord Weidenfeld, the programme is managed and funded by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue with the support of a series of generous benefactors, and co-ordinated in Cambridge by CRASSH. The Humanitas Visiting Professorship in War Studies 2014 has been made possible by the generous support of Sir Ronald Grierson.

Contributing Source : Cambridge University

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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