WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed


BBC Our World War: Review of Ep1 – Mons

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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New WW1 Books from Pen & Sword

This months new releases from prolific military publisher Pen & Sword books.

Spirits of the Somme edited by Bob Carruthers (Pen & Sword Military 2014, ISBN 9781473822757, 141pp, illustrated, £16.99)

This book accompanies a television series of the same name which as yet has not been broadcast and is part of a wider series of books called ‘Eyewitnesses from the Great War’. An introductory chapter by the author looks at the battle and then there are six accounts from men who took part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Several of them are from well known authors such as Sir Philip Gibbs and Geoffrey Malins but the others are lesser known. They are highly readable and the book serves as an excellent companion on the Somme battlefields as well as a great read for some insight into those who took part in a battle that has become a by-word for the Great War. Available here.

Londoners On The Western Front: the 58th (2/1st London) Division in the Great War by David Martin (Pen & Sword Military 2014, ISBN 9781781591802, 214pp, illusrated, £19.99)

The 58th (2/1st London) Division is a forgotten London formation of the Great War. Histories were published of its sister divisions but never of the 58th despite the fact that it took part in some of the most important battles on the Western Front from 1917 and was also present in the defence of Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918, a vital turning point in the fortunes of the German offensive on the Somme in 1918. The book is very well researched from archive documents in the National Archives to battalion histories as well as personal accounts. There are some useful appendices and leads to further research. A really excellent divisional history and one the 58th has deserved for a long time. Recommended. Available here.

Images of War: The Russian Army in The First World War by Nik Cornish (Pen & Sword Military 2014, ISBN 9781848847521, 144pp, illustrated throughout, £14.99)

The announcement earlier this year that Russia will recognise the sacrifice of ordinary soldiers in the Great War as part of the centenary has put the often forgotten role of the Imperial Russian Army back into the headlines. Russia was Germany’s great fear before the conflict and there are few books in English. This excellent account from a well known expert on the subject brings together much useful and fascinating information as well as a host of photographs, many of them not seen before. A superb book on what is a little known subject but deserves to be – and this account fills a massive gap in our popular knowledge. Highly recommended. Available here.


The Courage Of Cowards by Karyn Burnham (Pen & Sword History 2014, ISBN 9781781592953, 134pp, illustrated, £16.99)

The Great War did not just take place on the battlefield and the events on the home front are sometimes overshadowed by the big battles. Not every man was a soldier either and for many military service was a matter of concious – and this new book looks at the untold stories of First World War concious objectors. It covers a wide range of subjects for the terrible treatment some of them received to those who served in the Non Combatant Corps and Friends Ambulance Units. It is a very readable and accessible book with some good first hand accounts from COs and for anyone who is unfamiliar with the subject it is a very good introduction. Available here.



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WW1 DVD: Somme – 1st July 1916

The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916, in many ways dominates our popular understanding of the Great War. Eager volunteers walk into machine-gun hell in No Man’s Land with huge losses. But a subject that looks straight forward is far more complex, as a quick read of any book on the 1st July will demonstrate. What can a film on the day tell us?

In contrast to the Mons 1914 DVD I reviewed today, this is a very different film made available by Pen & Sword Digital. It is clear as soon as it starts that this is a film made by someone who understands how television works. It is presented by a professional presenter, which makes a great deal of difference, and the contributors talk well, in a way a general audience will understand. The focus of the film is about the story, with much less about the structure of the army and its units. In this way it presents the material well, with clarity and understanding. The film is well shot and the sound is excellent as well. It will appeal to the WW1 enthusiast of course, but is much more suited to a general public who want to understand more about the First Day of the Battle of the Somme and learn how it may have affected their ancestors.

Highly recommended from me and well worth the £16.99 price.

The DVD can be purchased from Pen & Sword: Somme 1st July 1916.

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WW1 DVD: Mons 1914

Mons 1914 coverThe Battle of Mons is an iconic engagement of the Great War when soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fired the opening shots in the west for the British Army. This 90 minute film follows the story of Mons from the mobilisation of the BEF in August 1914, to the first casualties, to the area where the fighting around Mons took place. Much of the filming is on-site in Belgium, seeing the famous locations from 1914 as they are today, interspersed with contemporary footage and interviews with experts.

The film was made by Battlefield History Television (BHTV) on behalf of Pen & Sword Digital. BHTV is a specialist video production company made up of largely retired British Army officers who are members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides, many of them working battlefield guides. At times the production is quite amateurish with video microphones on display, poor sound and some odd camera work. A few of the interviewees talk like they are on a Sandhurst staff ride with one commenting, for example, “the Germans continued their fighting in echelon” which will not mean much to most people. There are also too many references to Brigades, Divisions and Corps, which again means little to a general audience. Having said that, some interviewees like Paul Oldfield, Mike Peters and Ed Church do bring some of the stories to life and talk in terms most people can understand, and do it well.

This is the crux of this particular DVD: it is not really a film aimed at the general public, more the WW1 enthusiast. In that respect it does a good job in telling the Mons story and the 90 minutes are entertaining and interesting, covering some lesser known stories as well as the famous ones. The DVD retails for £16.99 but is currently under special offer on the P&S website.

The DVD can be purchased from Pen & Sword: Mons 1914.



Jeremy Paxman: Britain’s Great War

Tonight Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War starts on BBC1 at 21.00. It is being scheduled as the BBC’s flagship series for the WW1 Centenary and is certainly the start of a whole scope of programmes associated with the Great War which the BBC announced on their special WW1 Page.

I worked on this series for eleven months, with all four producers and of course Jeremy himself. My contribution was just on the WW1 battlefields themselves at locations like Mons, in Flanders, on the Somme or the Hindenburg Line. It has been interesting to read some of the comments about the series, mostly by people who have not even seen it yet. Was Jeremy the right one to present it? Why not an historian? Television is a costly process and networks want to ensure that as many people as possible watch the end result, which is why many of these type of programmes are presented by people like Jeremy Paxman. But Jeremy is a serious and enquiring journalist, certainly well read on the Great War from my experience, and from my own involvement in it, Britain’s Great War will bring some fresh perspectives and – more importantly I hope – many new people to the subject of the First World War, which can only be welcomed.

Britain’s Great War will no doubt not please everyone, and many will ask why aspects of the war have been included seemingly at the expense of others, but the next four years are about interpretation. No two people ever agree about almost any aspect of the Great War and no single programme or series will ever represent a global view of the subject; could it ever? But television like this will get an audience talking – whether people realise the merit and value of that remains to be seen.


WW1 Centenary: Blackadder A War Crime?


Only a few days into 2014 and the WW1 Centenary has very much been part of the news. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education began with a pronouncement that people’s misconceptions about the war had been fuelled by drama, fiction and the theatre.

“But even as we recall the loss and commemorate the bravery of those who fought, it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict. The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War!, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.”

It is that last sentence, the attempt to politicise the approach to studying the Great War, that prompted the storm which followed Gove’s remarks. Professor Gary Sheffield stated in the Independent:

“Mr Gove’s politics and mine are pretty different but the view he has put forward is right. What he was wrong about however is that there is a left-right split – there isn’t.”

And that’s the real shame behind Gove’s attempt at bringing party politics into the debate; in some respects he is right. There is a common perception of the conduct of the Great War which has been re-enforced to an extent by drama and fiction, almost all of it published since the 1960s. But that is not the debate here. Gove’s comments have proven to be a veiled attempt at teacher-bashing which was soon picked up by one of the Blackadder stars, Sir Tony Robinson:

“I think Mr Gove has just made a very silly mistake; it’s not that Blackadder teaches children the First World War.

When imaginative teachers bring it in, it’s simply another teaching tool; they probably take them over to Flanders to have a look at the sights out there, have them marching around the playground, read the poems of Wilfred Owen to them. And one of the things that they’ll do is show them Blackadder.

And I think to make this mistake, to categorise teachers who would introduce something like Blackadder as left-wing and introducing left-wing propaganda is very, very unhelpful. And I think it’s particularly unhelpful and irresponsible for a minister in charge of education.”

So has the use of Blackadder become a war crime in the classroom? There is plenty of evidence from history teachers on Twitter that they use it, but not in the way Gove suggested. Many show episodes to demonstrate in a visual way the historiography of the First World War. That for many decades there has been a popular belief that all Generals were bumbling fools like General Melchett and that men like Baldrick and Blackadder were somehow victims. They then contrast this with more modern studies from historians like Professor Sheffield and the work he has produced on Haig and the Victories on the battlefield in 1918; indeed some also contrast it with some of the fine writing about the war from those who were actually there. From this it would appear that our history students are better informed than the popular media would have us believe.

Blackadder is a comic satire. It has never pretended to be anything else and when it was first shown in the late 1980s, the handful of WW1 veterans I knew who were still alive said that they had found aspects of it funny. One, a former artillery officer, said it reminded him of a modern version of the Wipers Times. None of them ever believed it reflected the real war they fought and in years of guiding groups on battlefields I have never encountered anyone who believed the series was anything but comedy. Again this is where political commentators seem to forget that people are quite capable of making these decisions themselves.

The real tragedy here is that the portrayal of the British High Command in the drama mentioned by Gove – Blackadder, Oh! What A Lovely War and Monocled Mutineer – could have prompted a worthwhile discussion on the generalship of the conflict but instead academics like Professor Sheffield have found themselves debating the political Zeitgeist rather than the subject itself. This is not a good start to the WW1 Centenary and one hopes that politicians will get increasingly less involved in the debate, although as the 2015 election is now clearly on the cards, this may be unlikely.


Antiques Roadshow WW1 Special

A recent One Show on BBC1 indicated that there will be a Great War special of the popular BBC Sunday evening show Antiques Roadshow. It is planned to film this on the Somme over the summer of 2013 for a 2014 broadcast. The following details are on the programme’s website:

Following the highly successful Antiques Roadshow Remembrance programme in 2011, we are now planning a special edition to mark the centenary of World War I. We’ll be recording the episode around the Somme battlefields next summer and are looking for family stories linked to an object that tell personal accounts of the Great War.

Series Editor Simon Shaw says: “We were overwhelmed by a remarkable reaction to the appeal to our Remembrance programme which resulted in a very moving edition of the show. Inspired by that we’re now keen to find fresh ways of looking at both the conflict and aftermath that affected men and women of many nations on land and at sea. Perhaps a poignant postcard from the trenches that speaks loudly of Grandfather’s experience, or it could be a painting that captures one of the first depictions of modern warfare, we’d be fascinated to see what people have in their collections”.

If you think you have a potential item contact us:

Email: antiques.roadshow@bbc.co.uk

Post: BBC Broadcasting House, Whiteladies Road, Bristol, BS8 2LR