Gregg Nunney: So important to learn history

US troops of Zero Hour Company go over the top during trench warfare at an unknown battlefield in Europe during the First World War
US troops of Zero Hour Company go over the top during trench warfare at an unknown battlefield in Europe during the First World War

There are lots of things that I wish I knew more about.

I’d like to recognise classical composers after just hearing a few bars of their music, I’d like to be able to remember the Kings and Queens of England in order, and I’d like to know the how and the why behind some of the key events in history.

Take the First World War for example. Just before Christmas, when the media started to talk about the centenary of the conflict this year, I realised that I didn’t know the first thing about it.

I knew that we were fighting Germany, I knew that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was a catalyst, and I knew that it all finished at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Aside from that, I didn’t really know why it happened in the first place.

When the Radio Times edition previewing the BBC’s Great War coverage plopped on my mat back in January it seemed like the conflict was going to be reduced to the realm of light entertainment. The famous Lord Kitchener “your country needs you” poster had been reimagined with Jeremy Paxman’s face there instead.

This, of course, was to promote the fact that Paxman had made a series about the way the war affected Great Britain, and it’s one that I watched with intent. In fact, I was so enthralled by it that I read the book that accompanied the series.

I learned that, on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive, nearly 20,000 allied troops were killed. Twenty thousand people in one day.

That’s one third of the population of Corby. I learned all about how unprepared we were for modern warfare and about the human cost of the seemingly endless war.

So much of our history can get lost in the present, but it helps to remind ourselves every now and then, not least so it doesn’t end up repeating itself.