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Survey reveals poor WWI knowledge

Large numbers of Britons have only a hazy knowledge of the facts about the First World War, according to a survey carried out on the eve of the centenary of the conflict in 2014.

Some appear to find it difficult to tell the two world wars apart, with more people (19%) thinking Britain declared war in August 1914 because Germany invaded Poland - as was the case in 1939 - than Belgium, chosen by 13%.

The same number (9%) thought that Winston Churchill was prime minister at the start of the 1914-18 conflict as correctly chose Herbert Asquith. Fully 1% of the 1,955 adults quizzed by YouGov for thinktank British Future - and 7% of those aged under 24 - even told the pollsters that Margaret Thatcher was PM in 1918.

While a large majority (81%) knew that Germany was an enemy of Britain in the war, 14% said they did not know and 3% - rising to 8% among under-24s - thought that the two nations were allies.

Some 47% of those questioned knew that the war was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but there was a big gender gap, with just 39% of women knowing this, compared to 58% of men.

British Future said that the poll showed that understanding of the First World War was "rather shaky", but suggested that there was "a remarkable public appetite" to learn more during the centenary year.

TV comedy Blackadder is now "among the most significant sources of public knowledge (or myths) of the Great War", said British Future director Sunder Katwala and director of strategy Matthew Rhodes, in a pamphlet entitled Do Mention the War.

"If we believe it is important to have a shared history, we may first need to learn what we want to remember," they wrote. "Most people do know that there was a war in 1914, and four out of five of us that Germany was an enemy then. Most can identify France and America as allies too. Almost everything else is minority knowledge.

"Beyond images of mud, trenches and barbed wire - and troops playing football during a Christmas truce - the fog of war descends, the First World War getting lost in the Second."

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