The hundredth centenary of the Great War has been marked by the BBC with a huge quantity of retrospective coverage.  We have already had hours and hours of broadcasting.  Some people think it will all be over by Christmas, but it looks like the schedules have become gridlocked and it may be four years before we can return again to normal viewing.

But in the meantime the poor viewers are being subjected to the grinding misery of documentary after documentary dreamt up by distant TV executives who have never been near a screen and cannot comprehend the suffering.  A generation will grow up disillusioned and will no doubt start writing poems as a way of coping with their despair.

But being serious for a moment I was a bit surprised that despite the anniversary being marked with a plethora of offerings one thing that was missing was a straight forward series telling the background story.  This seemed like a big omission. But then I noticed that they were rerunning the one that was done to mark 50 years since the outbreak of the war.  I had watched this series when I was about 11 or 12 (when it was repeated a few years after first broadcast) and subsequently forgotten all about it.  But it quickly became clear why nobody wanted to do another one.  The bar was set high – I don’t think anyone would want to try and outdo this effort.

The series comprises 26 episodes of around 40 minutes each.   The narration is done by Michael Redgrave in the kind of authoritative voice that we hardly ever hear nowadays.  The script is mainly plain but powerful, but with frequent diversions for extensive quotes from written records by political participants, and interviews with people who took part in the events.  They tend to be middle aged people talking about their youth, and they generally use pretty clear and unemotional language as well.  Occasional quotes from poetry and Shakespeare are sometimes thrown in at the beginning and end of the episodes.

It doesn’t seem that dated considering it is five decades old.  It is in black and white, but given that all the footage is anyway that hardly matters.  Archive footage is run nearly all the time, with only talking heads and a few maps interrupting.   This has the effect of carrying you back to the period very effectively.  There is very little reference to the world that was contemporary to the making of the documentary, so that doesn’t get in the way of the history.

There is surprisingly little bias.  Germany’s responsibility for starting the war is assumed and not challenged or justified, but aside from that all the parties to the conflict get a pretty sympathetic treatment.  On the whole it is the standard view of the war that prevails – this is not a myth busting series.  There isn’t much that will shake your perception.

This doesn’t stop some of the details being very interesting.  For example the US army in 1917 was only 80,000 strong.  Belgium’s was probably bigger.  It was that year that the US started building up its military resources, a process that has continued until now and shows no signs of going into reverse any time soon.  That the US should enter the war at all was not remotely inevitable, and even which side it would line up with wasn’t a foregone conclusion.  It was only the slightly bizarre offer of an alliance with Mexico made by the German government with the promise to recognise the Mexican reconquest of parts of America that clinched it.

There are some surprising choices in emphasis.   The naval war is covered adequately but at nowhere near the amount that I would have expected.  The battle of Jutland is covered in about 10 minutes without concluding which of the participants came best out of it.  The Western Front gets the bulk of the attention which seems Eurocentric today.  But there are no obvious lapses into racism or sexism that would jar modern sensibilities.

So all in all, it is a considerable achievement.  The biggest problem is the shear numbing brutality and futility of the war that the series covers.  The Great War is a bit like an unsuccessful blockbuster movie in this respect.  The huge budget and epic scale don’t compensate for the lack of a satisfying storyline.  War, what is it good for?  It is a question that is often asked.  One thing is for sure, it isn’t to make the job of historical documentary makers easy.


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