AS the centenary of the First World War approaches, high-profile commentators have defended and praised the wartime upper classes.

TV presenter Jeremy Paxman argued that "it has been far too easy, for far too long, to live with comfortable prejudices about the war - that the soldiers were lions led by donkeys".

Conservative Education Minister Michael Gove dismissed programmes such as Blackadder for portraying the conflict as "a misbegotten shambles - a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite"; and historian Dan Snow challenged the notion that generals were all "upper-class buffoons" and that the wealthy got off lightly.

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It is true that many officers fought bravely and that a large number lost their lives.

But class was a significant factor in the conflict, and while the Second World War stimulated greater social and material equality, the First World War perpetuated existing social divisions.

Before 1914, Britain was a very unequal society with wealth and property in the hands of a small minority.

The army was rigidly divided between officers, drawn mainly from the upper classes, and the other ranks made up from the working class.

How did those who regarded themselves as social superiors treat their inferiors? In 1914, those who enlisted in response to the call to fight for Britain - or, in some cases, because they were unemployed and poor - expected a tough baptism.

They had heard about the discipline, the drill, the long marches, the bayonet charges.

What dismayed many was the shortage of food and clothes.

Letters to wives recorded that meals were insufficient and uniforms were delayed for weeks.

Field Marshal Kitchener admitted that "the recruits had been badly treated in the way of clothing, boots and other necessities".

Many slept on billet floors.

On top of this, they could be upset by letters from wives complaining that their promised army allowances were inadequate or late.

Once at the front, the troops certainly had uniforms, although soldiers' memoirs reveal that worn-out boots might not be replaced for weeks.

Life in the trenches was highly dangerous, not made any better by having to sleep in the mud and cold with inadequate washing facilities or toilets.

Although soldiers didn't remain full-time in the trenches, their breaks could be taken up by long marches through heavy rain to the next base.

Only commanding officers had horses and motor trucks were in short supply.

Food improved but was rarely sufficient.

Ronald Skirth, a young volunteer who was called up two months before his 19th birthday whose memoirs are published as The Reluctant Tommy, recalled the "standard iron rations" served at the front: "A tin of haricot beans, with a greasy lump of fat about three-quarters of an inch square alleged to be pork, floating on top of the gruesome fluid.

We got half a loaf of bread every second or third day; the rest of the time it was biscuits." Discipline was ruthlessly maintained.

In her foreword to Sylvia Pankhurst's The Home Front, Shirley Williams concluded that: "Soldiers and sailors were punished for minor misdemeanours, like being a few minutes late for roll call ...

They were shackled for hours to guns or carts, sometimes while bombardments were going on.

They were suspended on crucifixes or hung by the wrists, and, near death after exhaustion, flung into compounds surrounded by barbed wire to spend the night without bed or bedding." A court martial of a few officers could quickly pass a death sentence.

In his book, The Flowers Of The Forest: Scotland And The First World War, Sunday Herald diplomatic editor Trevor Royle writes that some soldiers were shot for desertion when they were suffering from shell-shock.

Private John Docherty of the 9th Black Watch was executed despite a medical diagnosis of neurasthenia. Royle records that of 346 soldiers known to have been shot, some 39 were Scots. But he also reckons some cases were "hushed up", and Sylvia Pankhurst cites evidence that far greater numbers were shot. In east London, Pankhurst met the parents of a 20-year-old who showed her two official letters.

One stated that he was ill, "suffering from wounds and shock (mine explosion)"; the other said he had been executed for desertion. Many officers, like ordinary soldiers, displayed outstanding bravery, some to the loss of their lives. But they were treated in ways which emphasised the social gap. Their accommodation, whether at the front or not, was more comfortable.

As well as higher pay and better uniforms they had servants and even grooms. Some rejoiced in showing their rank by shouting orders and abuse to which the victims could not reply. Certainly, they spent time in the trenches and led the advances. But at the end of hostilities they usually retreated to a roof over their heads and a batman to clean them up. When on leave they travelled first, not third, class. If they did show cowardice, deserted or voiced opposition to the war, they were rarely executed. Only three suffered such a fate. Their fellow officers found excuses for their behaviour.

Siegfried Sassoon publicly condemned the war, but after his friend and fellowpoet Robert Graves persuaded the army authorities that he was shell-shocked, he was sent to a comfortable hospital in Edinburgh rather than court martialled.

"They had the cushier life," wrote Ronald Skirth of the officer caste. "They rarely suffered the miseries and hardships of the rank and file. They saw our war but didn't live it." The army class system was closely related to the public/private school structure. In his book, Tommy - The British Soldier On The Western Front, historian Richard Holmes explained that "a public school boy who wanted a commission could scarcely fail to get one", but that even attendance at "a grammar school with a long and distinguished history did not count".

When historian AJP Taylor poured scorn on the "unimaginative" public school officers, he went too far. Some of them were able men. Yet the system allowed the appointment and retention of those whose incompetence led to massive loss of life. Trevor Royle gives examples. At the Somme, the 51st Highland Division suffered 3500 casualties in two attacks on heavily defended German positions.

He quotes an experienced soldier who recorded: "The want of preparation, the vague orders, the ignorance of the objective and geography, the absurd haste, and in general the horrid bungling were scandalous." To be fair, the new public school officers were often enthusiastic and brave.

However, they tended to be too young and inexperienced for the leadership thrust upon them. They rarely recognised their limitations and their elitist upbringing gave them an arrogance that they were the best leaders and a reluctance to listen to soldiers in the ranks who knew far more about the fighting. Gradually, as losses were heavy and officers were required quickly, some from humbler backgrounds were commissioned and, as Holmes points out, although they found it difficult to fit in with the officer grouping, their experience of being on the frontline alongside ordinary soldiers usually made them good leaders.

The notion that the troops were "lions led by donkeys" was epitomised by the case of Lieutenant General Sir Thomas D'Oyly Snow. A professional soldier educated at Eton, he was hailed as a hero, rewarded and decorated. Not until 2010 when Ronald Skirth's much praised war memoir was published did the truth emerge. He reveals Snow as incompetent, uncaring about his men and a fraudster. Heavy stuff, but his grandson agrees in his foreword to Skirth's account.

This is Jon Snow, the journalist and broadcaster, himself from a background of privilege and private education with a father who was a bishop and headmaster. Snow wrote that his grandfather "spent the battle of the Somme eight kilometres back in the comfort of a rural chateau writing to his wife about the beauty of the French countryside. On the day he wrote, 4000 of his men perished in a morning".

Another television personality, the historian and BBC presenter Dan Snow, is the great grandson of the lieutenant general. He tends to defend the performance of officers during the war. "A more maligned group of men in British history it would be hard to find," he wrote recently. Skirth was frequently in the lieutenant general's presence because he was highly skilled in calculating the position of targets for heavy guns. Snow had no understanding of the process and seemed to resent that someone in the ranks should possess it.

Skirth wrote: "In every conceivable aspect we were direct opposites: he the public school, Camberley Staff College 100% professional officer, me the grammar school 100% amateur, he the gentleman, me no more than a worm."

Skirth acknowledges that some officers were respected. Not Snow. Onduty, he drank whisky constantly and chain-smoked. "I never saw him smile," writes Skirth. "I never heard him utter one word of praise to anyone. I never saw him perform an act of kindness." In one attack, Snow rashly ordered an advance across heavy mud which entailed laying rail sleepers for heavy guns. The troops were mown down. For Skirth, this was "the only time in my life I ever wanted to kill another human being".

Not for the first time, Snow had needlessly sent troops to certain death. Towards the end of the war, Skirth came across an official report from Snow and another senior officer, which portrayed themselves as heroes and victors. He wrote that it was "false in every particular, and presented it to their superiors as historical fact. Not content with inventing an enemy attack, they had fabricated a battle ending in a glorious victory".

They received distinguished medals. Realising that Skirth must have seen the report, Snow told him that he too was to get a medal. Somehow, Skirth argued that his religious beliefs forbade medals. Later he declined a commission. Skirth's editor, Duncan Barrett, points out that as his respect for the officer gentlemen falls away so too does it for "the other great institutions: the Church of England, the government and the royal family".

This may not have been typical but my study of Woodbine Willie - an Anglican chaplain on the Western Front who made close contacts with ordinary soldiers - suggests it was not unusual. While the war reinforced class distinctions resentment about them may have grown. NOT all those from public schools used their backgrounds to maintain inequality.

Despite a wealthy background and public school/Oxbridge education, the social historian Richard Tawney was moved by his Christian beliefs to work with young people in London's east end. Once war came, he refused a commission, fought and was wounded. His identification with working-class troops persisted and he subsequently wrote the great book Equality, in which he argued for "the abolition of class differences". But men like him were the exception.

The war ended in November, 1918, and demobilisation started. As early as 1906, the Labour Party had called for "better conditions for ordinary soldiers" and demanded that the higher ranks should not be the exclusive preserve of the possessors of wealth, position and influence. But the upper ranks not only retained their positions, they were also richly rewarded. Field Marshal Haig received £100,000 plus an earldom. Army commanders became viscounts and got £30,000. Most public school officers could rejoin moneyed families and well-paid posts. By contrast, many working-class troops were greeted with unemployment and poverty despite the promise of "a land fit for heroes".

By 1921, two million were out of work. SIGNIFICANTLY, officers promoted from the ranks lacked the bank balance and social contacts of the public school officers. As Richard Holmes put it, they too became "organ-grinders, cabmen and railway porters" or begged on the streets.

Kerry Walters, an American professor who studied the period, wrote: "The government seemed reluctant to tackle the very real problems such as class privilege and poverty. It was the same old Britain".

In his TV series on the war, Paxman indicates that Britain was more equal after it. Not for the unemployed and disabled. Today, 100 years after 1914, material and social inequality still dominates Britain. The gap between rich and poor is widening. The less than 7% who attend public schools still provide 60% of the upper ranks in the forces, 68% of top civil servants, 63% of leading lawyers, and so on for finance directors, bankers and top journalists.

The Westminster Cabinet is virtually a club for former public school boys. I do not believe that greater equality is possible until these powerful positions are open to all. One reason I will vote for independence is that if a new Scottish Parliament reflects the present one at Holyrood, then its contingent of MPs will have social diversity. It is much more likely it will combat inequality than Westminster. I want a Scotland whose government rests with the people, not with a public-school elite. The lesson from the First World War is that inequality led to many more deaths than necessary and ensured that the rich remained rich and the poor gained little.