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The Great War debate


Over half a million British troops lost their lives in the First World War and it continues to shape much of the way we live our lives today. Yet, many young people know little about this watershed moment in our history.

Using the centenary to create a new sense of connection between young people and the First World War, The Great War Debate is just one in a series of initiatives the Departments for Education (DfE) and Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) are undertaking to engage more young people in First World War history. The series kicked off in Manchester in June and with the recent 100th anniversary of the end of the Battle of the Somme, DfE and DCMS are continuing the debates to get the nation, and particularly young people, thinking and talking about the events of 100 years ago.

The Great War Debate

Aimed at A-Level students and held at historically significant local venues around the UK, such as former military hospitals and recruiting offices, the Great War Debate is an ambitious series of interactive panel discussions featuring leading historians and academics aimed at helping to improve students’ knowledge of the causes and consequences of the First World War. By attending these events, a number of which will be chaired by Newsnight Diplomatic and Defence Editor Mark Urban, thousands of young people from across the UK will be given the chance to learn about, connect with and delve into the significant political, social and economic issues and impacts of this pivotal time. The series is supported by a comprehensive set of free, curriculum-linked resources to help and encourage young people to commemorate and learn from war on a major scale. 

The first of the lively discussions took place in Manchester in June, followed by further debates in London, Leicester and Brighton, in which topics such as Sir Douglas Haig’s reputation and whether Europe stumbled accidentally or went willingly into war were discussed. Further debates will take place over the coming months* 

Whilst the events are primarily aimed at students, they relate to such a significant milestone in world history everyone stands to learn from the topics and themes discussed – whether it is discovering more about the war’s most contentious issues, interpreting the actions of the past, or placing the the events of 1914-18 into context with today’s global events.

Below is the latest recording and a list of the past and upcoming debates - we will update this page with links to the recordings of each event as they become available. 

Listen to the latest debate

Haig: Incompetent or imaginative commander-in-chief of Britain’s armies on the Western Front? - Manchester Cathedral, 28 June 2016

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig has provoked heated debate ever since the First World War. Was he the callous incompetent portrayed in Oh! What a Lovely War! and Blackadder? 
The Great War Debate Manchester: Listen now

The outbreak of war: Did Europe stumble accidentally into war in 1914? - Imperial War Museum (IWM), London, 27 September 2016

The scholarly debate about the causes of the First World War has revolved around whether (a) Germany (or other countries - but especially Germany) planned and was solely responsible for war or (b) whether errors on the part of statesmen and generals across Europe brought a conflagration which nobody wanted.
The Great War Debate London: Listen now

War enthusiasm: Did Europeans go willingly into war in 1914? - Leicester Town Hall, 12 October 2016

Recent research on this topic has debated the phenomenon of ‘war enthusiasm’ in 1914. The debate will cover whether Europeans welcomes war and why – given so many regarded it a calamity – military mobilisation passed so smoothly across the continent and Britain. This concept of willingness to go to war resonates with recent votes on airstrikes in Syria, as well as conflicting opinion on the decision to go to war with Iraq.
Listen to the podcast now

Imperial War: To what extent was the 1914-18 conflict a genuine world war?Brighton Pavilion, 16 November 2016

This session examines the non-European peoples who took part in the First World War. It explores the impact on Africa, India, North America and Australasia. Can the decline of British / European imperialism to be traced to 1914-18? How did war catalyse African and Asian challenges to European domination and forge new nations in the Dominions?
Listen to the podcast now

Divided communities, divided war experience? Catholics and Protestants in Ireland 1914-18 - Clandeboye Estate, Bangor, 23 November 2016

This session explores how Protestants and Catholics in Ireland experienced the First World War. Was it inevitable that the conflict would lead to a divided island, independence and civil war? It examines how Catholics and Protestants served together at different stages of the war and considers key moments such as the Battle of the Somme and the split opened by the Easter Rising. 
Listen to the podcast now

Was the war on the Eastern Front a pointer and precursor to late Nazi plans of conquest and genocide? - Barry Memorial Hall, Barry, 6 December 2016

This session debates the link between German and Russian plans in Poland, the Baltic and Ukraine in 1914-18 and the later horrors of the 20th century. It explores occupation regimes, economic exploitation, mass population displacement and plans for racial re-engineering. Russia’s relationship with western countries today can also be referenced here as an ongoing issue of contention.
Listen to the podcast now


The Great War Debate, Barry Memorial Hall

The Middle East impact: Did the roots of today’s Middle Eastern instability lie in the First World War? - Discovery Museum, Newcastle, 25 January 2017

This session explores war between Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. It explores the Ottoman declaration of ‘Jihad’ against the western powers, the heavy fighting in the Middle East and the legacies of Anglo-French imperial politics for Jews and Arabs in the region. This topic is particularly relevant to today given the growth of Jihadist groups and the impact of this on western societies.

The face of battle: Loyalty, national pride, fear – what were the real motivators for soldiers on all sides to fight? - National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1 February 2017

Was it a ‘great cause’, loyalty to comrades or simply the fear of being ‘shot at dawn’? This session explores the ideological, social and coercive motivations for the citizen-soldiers who fought the First World War. It also explores related issues like desertion, mutiny and ‘shell shock’.

Social impact of the First World War for women: Did an awful, bloody conflict turn out to be an essential catalyst for female emancipation? - Royal Albert Museum Memorial (RAMM), Exeter, 8 February 2017

This session explores the changes to British society imposed by the First World War. It highlights the new roles adopted by women, and explores to what extent their new rights and social standing survived the war.

The modern state, security and war: To what extend did state control during the First World War influence the notions of security, liberty and censorship? - Churchill Archives, Cambridge, 22 February 2017

This focuses on the development of the modern state techniques for controlling populations. It explores the (still highly relevant) problem of security vs. individual liberty. The Official Secrets Act, internment of suspect populations and censorship and propaganda all came out of the crisis of 1914-18.

Peace settlements: Did the Western Allies win the war but lose the peace? - Council House, Birmingham, 7 March 2017

This session debates the 1919-23 peace treaties, exploring how fit they were to create a stable, democratic Europe of nation-states. It examines the idealistic ambitions and butter fears behind the treaties. 

*If you are a teacher in any of areas where debates will be taking place and would like further information about an event, or are interested in registering your students to attend please visit or contact

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