WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed

BBC Our World War: Review of Ep1 – Mons

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Having read a lot of negative press in the Great war Community about the BBC3 series Our World War, even before it was broadcast and no-one had seen it, I was very interested to finally watch it. With rumours of indie pop, odd camera angles and ‘Call of Duty’ style graphics I had feared the worst but actually… I really rather enjoyed it. In fact second only to the superb ‘The Somme: From Defeat To Victory‘ this is a very fine piece of docudrama from the BBC and a fitting addition to their WW1 Centenary season.

The film is sixty minutes of television and does raise a lot of points; I don’t intend to discuss them all here but I will make a few.

The Filming: this I thought was one of the things that made it for me. Far from odd camera angles the use of cameras giving different perspectives was very effective and much like ‘helmet cams’ as seen in Afghan war documentaries in recent years; I suspect that was the inspiration for this and in my opinion it worked. The graded colour was also a clever touch and gave the film a ‘dirty’ look, which again I think added to the structure of the film. The ‘Call of Duty’ style aerial graphics were clever too and well used; and will be recognisable and understandable to a generation looking at a WW1 docudrama perhaps for the first time. All of this made it a powerful film indeed.

The Music: yep, it was indie pop (rather nice to hear some PJ Harvey, who actually put out an album inspired by WW1 btw). Was it suitable? That will be up to personal taste but I think it certainly fitted in to the ‘modern’ approach the film makers took. The film was raw and so was the music.

The Sets: this aspect of it did not always work for me. The bridge at Nimy was a fair copy of the one there today but nothing like the low stone parapet railway bridge that was actually defended by the 4th Royal Fusiliers in August 1914. I know a little of this as I was contacted by the programme makers who were desperate to find some vaguely suitable bridge in the UK to film it. Unfortunately I couldn’t help and the one they did end up using, in a wooded setting with no buildings, was nothing like Nimy 1914 but I don’t think detracted too much from the drama, even if it did from the history. The Head Quarters the runner went back and forth to was the most disappointing of the sets as it looked far too ‘English’; I presume it was probably filmed at Chatham Dockyard? But even with this drama I think budgets were limited and for a general audience it would have worked, and few would have noticed.

Uniforms: for many who watch programmes like these misdemeanours in the costume department do get people hot under the collar. There were a few here, but only a few, and things that most would not notice. Did the officers of 4th Royal Fusiliers really wear Other Ranks shoulder titles on their tunics; probably not? Dease was wearing an Imperial Service badge above his right tunic pocket, only worn by Territorials and not regulars like him. Wrist/bracelet style identity disk were not common place in 1914 (Godley is seen wearing one) and I would go as far as saying probably not worn at all by the BEF. Told you these were small points! But otherwise the actors looked at home in their uniforms, they were dirty and well worn, and the soldiers were dirty too with far from perfect appearances and teeth. They really did look like soldiers of the BEF.

The Characters: for a drama this is one of the few that has made Great War soldiers appear as real men. There were not many stereotypes here and the language, with plenty of swear words, was well constructed. Officers and men were more familiar than the army of 1914 would have been, but I suspect this is a modern take on it. I liked the Australian character and at first wondered why he had been used but in fact he was based on a real person Lieutenant (later Captain) Frederick Wilberforce Alexander Steele, an Australian who served with the regiment as the AWM website shows. Whether he would have had a slouch hat and drover’s coat; that is another matter! The runner character I thought was excellent and gave an insight into a side of the Great War few consider; battlefield communications. I also liked the device of showing Godley as an under-performing soldier who came good, as that reflected what often happened in the midst of battle, but I fear there is little evidence of that in the story of the real Godley. Having said all that these were all believable characters and people you quickly got interested in; which is the sign of good, professional drama.

The History: at times good, often very good and occasionally bad, but for me not so bad as to diminish the impact of the whole film. A full rifle company supported by the battalion machine-gun section defended the real Nimy Bridge, but the film made it look like a skirmish at times. Dease was in command of the machine-guns not the company and that part of his relationship to the story was a little confused I felt. As was Godley’s; he was a soldier in a rifle section who had been trained on the Maxim gun and as I thought was the story only stepped in to help when others had been killed and wounded. The Sappers blowing the bridge at Jemappes was weak historically as it looked nothing like urban Jemappes and the constant use of ‘Sir’ for a Sapper addressing a Corporal was odd indeed; and their conversation, body language and actual language when speaking to a Royal Engineers officer earlier in the film way off the mark for 1914. The final comment about Mons being a ‘humiliation’ for the British was unfortunate, and not really explained. It was a shame as no doubt this will spoil it for many.

Yet despite all this the first episode of Our World War was for me a moving insight the British Army’s first engagement of the Great War. What it set out to do was re-tell this part of the war in a modern way, from a modern perspective. And that’s where many will have issue with it. It set the men in the film not as hapless pawns but real characters, real heroes and real soldiers. Ending it with Steele’s original recommendation for the Victoria Cross and the recording of Godley was a brilliant touch.

This was a good start to this series; and we can only hope it continues in the same vein.

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Author: ww1centenary

Military Historian & author who works in Television: visiting & interpreting battlefields all over the world. Currently working on WW1 projects for 2014-18.

9 thoughts on “BBC Our World War: Review of Ep1 – Mons

  1. Absolutely agree about the general tone of whole programme being compromised by final comment that Mons was a “humiliation” for the British Army…the BBC has often tried to diminish the achiements of British Armed Forces in the past,and given that German sources of the time speak of Mons as almost a defeat,this was a strange and plainly inaccurate comment.

  2. Thanks Paul I thought the film was riveting and raw… and moved a Great War battle from sepia photos, clips and text into a tangible and uncomfortable experience for the modern viewer. Loved it. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  3. A few points to make in regard to this program which I just watched online Tonight In Australia.

    1) It was in fact quite common for Aust and NZ Members serving in UK units in both wars to wear a combination of dress such as shown here.
    While I am unable to Comment on the stockman’s coat as worn in the production, the ‘Slouch’ Hat was also worn by UK Troops as much as AIF (in either war).

    My own main interests due to a relation being Killed on Lancasters in 1945 (Ian Ross RAAF 18839 617 RAF Sqd 12 Jan 1945) is Australians in the RAF or RAAF Airmen who flew with RAF Bomber Command.

    Several examples of nominally RAF Members (from either Aust or NZ) wore their RAAF or RNZAF Tunics in battle or around base.

    Some of the more prominent examples would be W/C Don Saville (Aust Stirling Pilot Always flew in his RAAF Blouse but was Pre War RAF), Les Clisby (Hurricane Pilot France 1940 killed Also known for Flying in his ‘rather battered and oil stained RAAF Blouse’), John ‘Bush’ Barrey (Served RAF 1938 – 1970s (Relation) brother KIA HMAS Sydney 1941 awarded AFC DFC DFM and survived over 150 Ops on Kittyhawks, Blenheims and Mustangs in North Africa and Italy who as a Sgt Observer always flew with a RAAF half wing on his uniform despite never joining the RAAF (later retrained as a Pilot).

    Then from New Zealand you have people like Cobber Kain (also killed) who operated with his RNZAF Blouse on at all times.

    The Slouch Hat was worn by UK forces from the Boer War period onwards, and in many cases has lead to UK or AIF forces being confused for the other such as in the case of AIF forces accused of looting Singapore in 1942, which were in fact later shown to be UK units (Noted Australian Historian and Singapore/Malaya/Borneo Expert and Official 8 AIF Div Historian Lynette Ramsay- Silver has dealt with these matters in her own highly recommended works such as The Bridges at Prait Su Long).

    So while it may have seen unusual it would have been quite possible that he would have worn the slouch hat.

    Australians were also known for flouting rules in regard to uniforms quite regularly much to the UK senior ranks displeasure.

    When a senior RAF Air Vice Marshall Wanted to know why Clisby was dressed in such a sloppy manner, they were told that he had worn the uniform he had on since jumping by parachute in Australia from a crippled aircraft and surviving (he still hold the distinction of being listed as the first successful parachute jump in Australia – 24 April 1936), that when in France and damaged during several brushes with ME 109s and 110s he still came back in one piece and it was his lucky blouse and he would wear it til he died.
    Which he did.
    He was killed 15 May 1940 with 1 RAF Sqd in France, by which time he had earned the DFC and shot down 16 Aircraft (some say 20).

    Bush Barrey wore the RAAF Wings of His Younger Brother Ray who was the Seaplane Pilot on Board HMAS Sydney in 1941 when she was sunk with all hands off Western Australia.
    He even got away with wearing them in that way upto the 1950s.

    Several Officers on board HMAS Sydney such as the RN Observer who joined the Cruiser prewar (Lt Cmd JC ‘Jack’ Bacon RN) also wore a mix of Australian and UK Uniforms.
    Jack was once described by his pilot upto 1941 who was relived by Ray (F/L Tom Price DFC RAAF) as being more Aussie then Pommy – he was married to an Australian Girl he met in Sydney and planned to settle down after the war there with her. The RN tried to recall him on a number of Occasions, but each time he said thanks but no thanks I’m happy here – and the RAN needed observers badly so they also wanted him to stay.

    Jack was seen in a slouch hat ashore more then once and he was also known for wearing a RAN ratings cap a few times in Jest – much to the displeasure of his Section Head!

    The point is in battle what ever works, is lucky or sentimental is often allowed.
    Esp in a battle or series of campaigns where the chances of coming home were so remote such as with RAF Bomber Command or UK/ANZAC/Indian Forces in France in the ‘Great War’.

    2) The Battle of Mons was in a word a monumental case of overconfidence leading to an even greater cock up (or as I teach in SCUBA Courses – one small screw up can become a life threatening incident if not spotted and dealt with).

    Mons or Malaya/Singapore in 1942 (‘All Japs wear glasses and cant see at night’) or France (1940) or any number of other battles such as The losses to RAF Bomber Command Wellingtons and Blenheims in Daytlight attacks in 1939 – 1940 (Pre France) where ‘the bomber will always get through’ was the mantra or equally RAF Bomber Command underestimating the Luftwaffe NJG so badly in regard to Berlin 1943 -44 Battles – all have one thing in common – Overconfidence.

    At Mons it was the Nothing can stand up to the Regulars – something that the Boers demonstrated was far from the truth.

    I also agree with the end line it was a Disaster for the BEF, Just like Ambon or The Netherlands East Indies Battles were for Australia (or the bloody slaughter of the Nek, or Poizeres or Gaza etc et al).

    There were undeniable acts of bravery on both sides on that day, much as the ‘Battle of Lone Pine’ was for the AIF, Mons saw several VCs earned for actions of undeniable courage.

    But as in battles to come the Average soldier was let down badly by the senior ranks.

    My Dad was in Vietnam (3 Years) plus Borneo and Malaya, he always said that he had more respect for the US NCOs (he was a Corp by then) and some of the junior ranks – but that the senior ranks were idiots of the highest order who thought that everything could be done with air strikes or Arty fire and who had NO IDEA of the importance of ‘Hearts and Minds’.

    Better stop now before i bore you too much….

    I also agree a great show.

    Stephen.

    • Thanks Stephen, I appreciate that another Australian knows the history of the slouch hat and that it isn’t a work of complete fiction to use it on a historical character at Mons, though I will agree that in choosing to us it on him, I didn’t find any images of the real character ‘Steele’ wearing one.

      As an Australian costume designer, it was enjoyable to be a part of creating this character within the series.

    • In 1914 Australia just didn’t HAVE a famous tradition of soldiering, it did by end 1915, but not at this point. Further, young Australians educated at private schools tended to sound like poms at the time. In India where Fred Steele initially served he would not have been expected to fit in and look like all the other young officers.

      Sorry, but it doesn’t fit.

  4. I’m certainly no military expert, but the just-broadcast 3rd episode of the BBC’s ‘Our World War’ was honestly amongst the most stunning and brilliant cinematic realisations of combat that I have ever seen.

    The film is based on the written memories of a surviving member of one of the last tank-crews to make it through the crucial Battle of Amiens. It was both terrifying and strangely uplifting, chaotic and yet at times as calm as a lucid dream, showing the helpless vulnerability and fear of the soldiers right alongside their astonishing – and for the spectator humbling – human fortitude and dignity under fire.

    The sheer monstrous majesty of the technical recreation of the wierd and indeed, at that time, futuristic experience of fighting in one of the new ‘tanks’ was breathtaking. Then there was the meeting of the crew of the stalled and isolated tank with a lost and scared young German boy-soldier, whom they find it impossible to kill, once they all find themselves briefly brought together in a sort of neutral fugue, a kind of psychic No-Man’s-Land beyond the madness of military automatism. The tank-Commander’s admonishment to his men, before the battle, that their alloted role must be merely as an assemblage of cogs in the machine they are to crew, further emphasises for us the sense that they are forced to occupy this mechanical embodiment of the implacable impersonal character of war. Nevertheless, despite this they still retain their sense of common humanity on that brief occasion when they are able to safely step out of their mechanized killing machine, and recognise another vulnerable human being.

    Thankfully, there was also absolutely none of that tendentious Marxist ‘agit-prop’ which was too often so inevitable in earlier views of the Great War – just an honest and humane sense of the pity of it all, along with a new – or let’s hope a renewed – respect for the very ordinary heroes who rose so magnificently to the horrific challenge which came so very unbidden upon them all.

    However, while no facile political narrative was imposed, there was certainly no kind of inappropriate romantic glorification of war in this film, either. It ended with that quiet sense of swelling gratitude which remains long after the guns have fallen silent: a sense of an imperishable memory that survives the ruin – but this is the simple glory of the suffering human spirit, that somehow still shines through the muck of Death. This is glory seen in the humble light of common decency, and not some tub-thumping aggressive, trumpeting triumphalism, after all. The true glory of these soldiers of the Great War is to have, in some sense, triumphed over their suffering.

    The modern songs and music, if surprising, were also refreshing, and provided a touching spiritual tribute from our Today, unwilling as we are to abandon that tragic age to the outmoded strains of what was already its moribund Edwardian twilight; hence the remarkable visual segue of the ending, which sweeps us on from the bereaved war-widow’s terraced home and down the street of today: In the passage of inhabited years, 100 is just a street number – these people are our close neighbours, not Edwardian ghosts, and they should be allowed to live amongst us, not left forgotten in the mud of that foreign country, the past.

    The writers and all concerned with this fine production have realised what has always been realised by the most sensitive people in all ages: that time is an illusion which cannot separate our generations, since the same human heart continues to beat in our breast.

  5. Humiliation, you werent there, I knew people who were. You the BBC enemy of Britain and of children, have been humiliated in the eyes of the British people, you are a disgrace. Liars.

  6. This 3 episode series was just released for streaming viewing via Netflix in the USA, and I must admit that I’m enjoying them. Admittedly, the use of modern, alternative music for the background was at first jarring, I must applaud the production company in being creatively different in the application of music as well as for the camera use. In addition, the way the soldiers were portrayed resonated with me, and brought an emotional response from me. Kudos to the production crew et al in producing this fine series.

    Ivor
    Wheaton, IL USA

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