“The First World War started almost by accident.” So we are informed, early in this outstanding ten-part documentary. Bald statements and startling facts are peppered throughout this series, not the least of which is: “More British, French and Italian soldiers died in the First World War than in the Second.”
Often overshadowed by the World War II 20 years later, the Great War remains, in many sad ways, the yardstick for futility, pointlessness and waste. For viewers curious about the conflict, The First World War: The Complete Series is an outstanding primer on this multi-faceted conflict, presenting both the general contours of the war as well as many subtle, less-well-known nuances.
A series of ten one-hour episodes sketches out the war in roughly chronological terms, with detours and digressions as needed to follow a particular storyline to its conclusion. Episode 1, “To Arms”, outlines the precarious circumstances that ignited the conflict: a series of alliances and tensions that would lead nations into war almost against their will. At the heart of it lay the powerful empire of Austria-Hungary, riven with sectarian and nationalistic strife: Serbs, Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, Turks and other ethnicities living together amidst tension and infighting. When Serb nationalists assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary wanted a war with neighboring Serbia as retribution.
Serbia, however, was allied with Russia, making this a dangerous course of action. So Austria-Hungary sought, and found, their own ally in Germany… and so the escalation began. Italy was already an ally of Germany, as France was with Russia. No one knew what would happen if war flared up among these aligned powers, but they would find out.
When Germany mobilized troops to invade France, hoping to stamp out resistance on that front before the advancing Russian army arrived from the east, Britain committed her troops, as well. The scene was set for disaster, even if an unintentional one: “Germany hadn’t looked for a fight”, the documentary points out, “but if it was going to happen, better sooner than later”, before Russia was fully mobilized and its army industrialized. Astonishingly, none of the combatants involved had any clear aims for the war. All sides were convinced that they were fighting in self-defense.
Subsequent episodes of the series delineate the war’s tragic arc. “Under the Eagle” focuses on Germany’s initial advances into Belgium and France, as well as giving much-needed (for Americans, anyway) background that helps explain what motivated its actions. Here as elsewhere in the series, rare archival footage makes for riveting viewing, while animated maps ensure that the conflict’s complex maneuvers remain comprehensible to non-specialists. Horrifying tales abound of all-too-modern phenomena such as scorched-earth policies toward civilian populations, and using those populations as human shields; 6,500 Belgian and French civilians were killed in the first month of the war.
The episode “Global War” details the expansion of WWI into non-European theatres, as Germany attempted to divert England’s attention away from the Western Front and toward protection of her Empire. As a result, fronts opened up throughout Africa and Asia: in Tsingtao in China, the Bay of Bengal, the Falkland Islands, the Suez Canal, Tanzania. Much of this episode concerns the small German navy and its hit-and-run tactics, and brings to light often-forgotten catastrophes, such as the 1914 sea battle that saw more than 1,600 British seamen die in an engagement off the coast of Chile. It was “Britain’s worst naval defeat in over 250 years.”
The recurring theme is of European empires sending their colonial troops to fight: Turks and Africans battling on behalf of Germany, Indians and Africans and Japanese fighting for the British. This war-by-proxy remains an under-reported phenomenon in the West, which tends to portray WWI as a war of trenches in France.
Episode “Jihad” continues in this theme, as Germany tried to foment holy war in the Ottoman Empire as a way to destabilize the Allies. The assault of Gallipoli, which saw a half million Turks, Australians and New Zealanders dead within a few months, was perhaps the most tragic outcome of this policy. In turn, the Armenian slaughter, carried out by Turkey against its own citizens, remains equally infuriating and senseless. (It must be said that Turkey denies to this day any official culpability.)
Other episodes focus on the better-known (to Americans) Western Front, with its meat-grinder battles of Verdun and the Somme, its trench warfare, gas attacks and rattling armored innovation, the tank. Later, “Germany’s Last Gamble” brings to light the great German offensive of Spring 1918 when, the Russians having pulled out of the war, Germany was left with the chance to attack along a single front, nearly winning the war. Its ultimate failure to do so has less to do with America’s late-in-the-game entrance than with Germany’s own inability to maintain supply lines and clear military objectives.
American patriots might be surprised to find that the US is barely a footnote in the conflict. Sure, the entry of the US in 1918 spurred Allied morale and helped push the Germans back, but the vast bulk of the war had already been fought, and decided, by troops from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Unlike WWII, the American presence was not a game-changer, at least as presented here.
The First World War is a vitally important documentary set for anyone with an interest in WWI—and for everyone in need of a history lesson. Its closest counterpart is probably the WWII doc The World at War, a landmark of reportage. While this series does not quite measure up to that, it’s still an excellent primer on the causes (often muddled) and outcomes (often disputed) of the 20th century’s first global conflict.
Produced in 2003, the series holds up well today; extra features are absent, but that scarcely matters. With nearly eight and a half hours of programming, the series is plentiful enough, containing everything that needs to be included. This series is a very, very important, and a fitting memorial to all those who died in this senseless conflict.