The Pity of War: A Review

Friday night saw the broadcast of Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, an interesting Question Time-style debate in which the historical nature of the war was discussed, often vigorously, both in the studio but also online via Twitter. This was an opportunity to present a counter to Sir Max Hasting’s arguments earlier in the week that the Great War was a necessary conflict that Britain was compelled to fight. 

Following on from last month’s battle over interpretations of the war, this debate saw Ferguson put his 15 year-old thesis on the war to a panel of experts, as well as attempting to orchestrate and manage a studio audience. There were some big names included, such as Gary Sheffield, Sir Hew Strachan, David Reynolds, David Stevenson and Heather Jones – though the panel could certainly have been more diverse.

For the programme itself, there was a curious set-up. Ferguson seemed to stand alone, putting his arguments to an audience and the substantial panel, many of whom had already refuted these in their own scholarship. Whilst the point of the programme was to bring these debates to a wider audience, at times it meant that the discussion seemed to lack spontaneity and appeared a little rehearsed – an unavoidable consequence when re-treading old and familiar ground.

Ferguson is undoubtedly a skilled orator to go with his fine scholarship that has allowed him to achieve his level of recognition, both in and outside of academia. However, at many times during the programme it appeared that he was standing alone, unable to elicit much support either from a panel that has previously rebuffed him in print and an audience (whose role was never fully clear) who were well-read and held opinions that did not match his own. By the end of the programme, he certainly seemed to have lost the bought on points – not surprising given the odds he faced!

In terms of a concept of television, however, The Pity of War was certainly an exciting step forward. Historical debate on primetime television is a cause for celebration, let alone the enthusiastic discussions taking place on Twitter alongside it. I would have preferred to see a proper debate though, rather than Ferguson holding chair. To my mind it could easily have been a historical Question Time, even with Dimbleby chairing, allowing big debates about the war to be discussed in greater detail than was otherwise possible.

I would still hope the format is replicated throughout the Centenary period. It would be great, for example, to see a debate about the Battle of the Somme in 2016, with issues such as leadership, tactics and success or failure (in particular thinking of William Philpott) being discussed. Rather than having one historian make his case, it would be ideal to have questions coming directly from the audience, making it a form of televised seminar.

The Centenary programming has already delivered some thought-provoking material and high-quality output, and we haven’t even reached July yet!  The bar has been set high so far, so let us hope that later efforts continue to live up to the standards set! 


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