‘World War One: The Centenary Collection’ Remembers, But Does Not Memorialize, the War

Rather than recapitulating the faux sentiment of veterans' poppies, BBC's Centenary Collection gives viewers a chance to really understand WWI.

The First World War, which has now reached its European (and colonial) centenary, remains a problematic topic in popular history. A major turning point in the development of the modern world, it nonetheless remains poorly, or at best partially, understood. As the UK entered the formal phase of centenary commemorations, soundings were taken of attitudes and knowledge of the war; the results did not impress. In polling commissioned by the think tank British Future, less than a half of respondents knew that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked the conflict. Even fewer people were able to say that Indian troops fought alongside British ones, fewer still knew that Russia was allied to both. A third of people could not place the beginning of the war to 1914.

Opinions were measured at specially organized research workshops at which participants were invited to express their views on the content of the commemorations. The majority agreed that the centenary should be a time for reflections on the loss of life and on the value of peace. The precise composition of the commemorations proved more challenging. “It should cover the beginning and the end,” agreed one group. “The major battles, too.” “Yes,” added one participant, “especially D-Day.” No one corrected him.

This is one element of the problem with understanding the First World War; it has been all too easily overshadowed by its sequel. The Second World War has the dubious advantage of being wider in scope, more varied in its prosecution and with more obvious baddies. The First is a little too complicated and static. The trite way of putting it is that the First World War just doesn’t make as good movies as the Second.

If you were to ask the man on the street his opinion of the causes of the Second World War, you’d probably get an answer that features a variation on the theme of “stopping Hitler”. Ask him about the First and you might get a blank look and a response that mentions something to do with Franz Ferdinand. A more informed, but still insufficient answer would track the answer given by Captain Blackadder in the satirical sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth (1989):

You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war, two great super-armies developed. Us, the Russians and the French on one side, Germany and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea being that each army would act as the other’s deterrent. That way, there could never be a war… there was one tiny flaw in the plan. It was bollocks.

The “it was bollocks theory” of the First World War abides in the public mind. Frequently, the war is seen as a purposeless disaster; a murderous folly of which the only tangible result was death. The conflict was prosecuted beyond any reasonable ambition by callous and foolish generals who would rather send thousands of men to their grisly deaths than admit to the failure of their plans. It’s a reductive explanation that is grounded in an essential truth, but which makes it all too easy to dismiss any subtlety or nuance in the conflict. Indeed, it has almost become taboo to even attempt to do so. The common response to the war is funereal; it’s OK to be seen to be grieving, but it would be somewhat inappropriate to start asking too many questions about how the poor man died.

It’s a death thing. The focus has been on those who were killed, now almost exclusively referred to as “the fallen”. We are called every November to remember the fallen, to focus on the ultimate sacrifice that they gave. This is surely important. But it is also important to remember that eight in every ten men who went to war came home again, often to much harder circumstances than they left. Did they not make sacrifices, too? Those who survived the war were as much part of the conflict as those who didn’t, but had the unenviable task of rebuilding themselves, and the world.

It’s therefore possible to discern two key strands to the British approach to the First World War; the Memorialization approach, which demands a solemn but unquestioning act of remembrance, and the Learning approach, which is prepared to treat the war as a historical event and address it as a lived experience for those that were there. In presenting their findings, British Future strongly advocated the second approach. Its report noted that there are approximately 13,000 people in Britain today who were alive during the war, none of whom were combatants. The eldest, Ethel Lancaster (b. 1900) was just 14 when the first shot was fired.

It would be a mistake, therefore, to regard the commemoration as an act of remembrance; it is instead an opportunity to learn. Many of the grassroots commemorative projects (and there are many; The Imperial War Museum, which is tracking the progress of the commemorations, lists over three thousand on its database) represent attempts to do just that. A constellation of plays, readings discussions and lectures are being held nationwide and questions are not only permitted, but welcomed.

For the most part, the large organizations of officialdom have stuck to the Memorialization strategy. Political leaders, perhaps not wishing to dwell too heavily on the actions of their predecessors, have largely confined themselves to solemn wreath-laying and platitudes about “sacrifice”. From August to November, a stream of ceramic poppies have been progressively spread across the moat at the Tower of London. Once completed, the installation, entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, comprises 888,246 poppies; one for every British fatality. The eight or so million who survived their service are not represented, nor are any dead or maimed civilians.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The installation has been phenomenally successful, attracting over four million visitors, more than the London Eye brings in over an entire year. It has become the done thing for public figures to be seen at the Tower, gazing mournfully across the blanket of red. On his visit, the UK Independence Party leader and populism revivalist Nigel Farage was seen to be wiping away a tear. Dissent is perilous. When the art critic Jonathan Jones described it as “trite” he unleashed a wave of opprobrium. He was, apparently, “smug, condescending trash that should know better.”

The poppy has become a trope apart. Ostensibly the symbol of the veterans’ charity the Royal British Legion, millions of paper ones are sold each autumn for the purposes of fundraising. A decade or so ago, wearers of the poppy all sported the same design, small enough to fit noticeably but unobtrusively on clothing. There has since been an arms race to wear ever larger and more ostentatious versions. It has been some time since the wearing of them was reserved for Armistice Day itself. They now start to appear in mid-October.

Indeed, it’s increasingly difficult to escape the suspicion that modern remembrance poppies are more about the wearer than the recipients of the charity. Not that you need to wear them any more: poppies now adorn the liveries of buses, they appear on buildings and on social media avatars. On 5 November, Guy Fawkes night, a firework display featured a set that resembled a poppy. The image is stitched into soccer jerseys (and woe betide the team that runs onto the pitch without them).

The Legion has a royal charter but it remains a private charitable organisation, no different at an institutional level from, say, Cancer Research UK or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Its symbol has become indistinguishable from a national emblem in some quarters, declining to wear one, particularly for public figures, is considered tantamount to treason. In 2012 a newsreader was subjected to a torrent of abusive messages after she elected not to wear a poppy while on screen. A supporter of the Legion in private, she explained that she didn’t agree with a particular charity receiving undue prominence.

Rumors, usually of spurious origin, abound every year of this or that interest group seeking to ban the poppy. They are invariably found to be false or the result of a misunderstanding but not before calls for boycotts or the appearance of demands for retributive violence, spread via poorly spelled and emotive Facebook posts.

The memorializing approach is mawkish, emotional and pathologically incurious. Soldiers, sailors and airmen rarely appear in the imagery, except through the safety of sepia. It’s as though people can’t look them in the eye. The poppy is cleaner, less dramatically obvious. People want to remember but they don’t want to be reminded. When Jones decried the Tower installation, he suggested that a more accurate and thought provoking work of art would substitute the ceramic poppies for barbed wire and bones. It was this that really hit a nerve.

DVD: World War One: The Centenary Collection

Network: BBC

Distributor: 2Entertain

UK release date: 2014-10-20

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/s/sel-ww1centenarycollection-cvr-200.jpgWhatever the appropriate method of commemoration, it’s axiomatic that a national event of this scale includes the BBC. As the keystone of British cultural live, the BBC has a contribution to make to the memorialization approach. As a source of education and information, the corporation has an even larger responsibility to attend to the learning approach. So far, it has been completing this second task rather well. Across the four years of the centenary, the BBC is operating the functionally named BBC Centenary Season. It will include 130 newly commissioned radio and television programs, totaling over 2,500 hours of broadcast time, including more than 600 hours of new content. It also has one of the world’s finest broadcast archives to draw upon.

Consequently, the early boxset, The World War One Centenary Collection represents a mere fraction of the corporation’s commemorative output. It’s still a wide collection, perhaps best considered as a sampler, albeit a very thorough one. Spread across the set’s nine discs is a combination of general documentary, authored documentary and drama-documentary. The emphasis on the factual is necessary and to be admired. The collection is firmly of the Learning Approach. Even the performed elements are taken from original testimony; the diaries, letters and official records that form the corpus of First World War literature.

The re-purposing of these texts, the common thread that unites these films, is their treatment of the war as lived experience. They cover the personal, the public, the wealthy, the poor, the horror, and the joy.

Much of the set’s 21 hour running time is given over to dramatized reconstruction of the impact of the war on ordinary lives. 14 Diaries of the Great War follows men and women from either side of the conflict as they navigate their way through the war years and observe the changes that they wrought. Their stories play like tragedies in a minor key.

We meet Charles Edward Montague, a journalist for the Manchester Guardian who finds that his advanced age doesn’t diminish his “appetite for danger” and who persuades a recruiting sergeant to admit him to a regiment, where he remains even after his romanticism is brutally excised by the realities of life on the front line. A wealthy Scot, Sarah McNaughtan, volunteers with the Red Cross in the hope that her “patented patriotic smile” will serve as sufficient disguise against her real feelings at arriving in “an atmosphere of bandages and blood”.

Like the best diaries, these dramatized texts reveal wider changes as well they do personal ones. The German Käthe Kollwitz records the entrenching of nationalistic feeling that took hold, noting that ‘we, dedicated social democrats, are hanging up the Kaiser’s flag’. In London, 24-year-old Gabrielle West, a well-to-do munitions worker, looks at a sky pregnant with Zeppelins and documents the insecure feeling that “England is no longer an island”.

Our World War was initially broadcast on BBC Three, the corporation’s dedicated channel for the 16-34 age group — and it shows. A three-part anthology series, the dramas follow young men in key moments, including the first engagements in August 1914, the advent of the Pals’ Battalions and the introduction of the tank. Intense and frenetic, each episode mixes personal drama with animated maps in an effort to explain the often confusing situations. Kinetic camera work and an anachronistic soundtrack (including at one point, Teenage Kicks by the Undertones) create a sense of vivid urgency that may annoy the purists but goes some way to reminding us that the war itself was loud, exciting and full of the immediacy of violence.

A pair of documentaries, the feature-length Churchill’s World War and the two-part Royal Cousins at War offer top-down history, the war as the personal soap opera of the aristocratic class. Churchill, a man whose life has long read better in retrospect, had a disastrous (at the time) First World War. He began the war as the First Lord of the Admiralty, a position that gave him political control of the Royal Navy. Convinced, with no little arrogance of his superior military mind, he masterminded the disastrous Dardanelles campaign and went in search of redemption to serve as an enlisted man. Royal Cousins at War begins by noting that in 1914, ten European states had direct descendants of Queen Victoria at their head and reimagines the war from the point of view of an especially bloodthirsty family dispute.

The authored pieces are more interesting. In Women of World War One, the BBC’s former Chief News Correspondent Kate Adie, no stranger to war zones herself, tells the story of the war from a female point of view and examines what the war changed for women and what it left the same.

In The Pity of War Harvard historian and gleeful controversialist Niall Ferguson presents his case for why the war should be considered a mistake. Taking an odd format of interactive lecture, The Pity of War gives Professor Ferguson a platform to make his point, assisted by colossal digital graphs and archival footage before he turns to a selected panel of experts for their take. Ferguson’s argument, which he arrives at via his familiar method of counterfactual history, is that had Britain not entered the war, it would have been limited in scope; a strictly European war that Germany would have swiftly won. Their resulting dominance of the continent, he asserts, would have resembled the modern European Union. It’s a fantastical argument, which includes noted experts Professors Gary Sheffield and Sir Hew Strachan.

Where Ferguson’s case enjoys the most merit is in its assertion that the entry of Britain to the war fostered an escalation of hostilities that swiftly turned into stalemate. Part of the raising of terms was in Britain’s naval strength, unmatched at any prior moment in history and in Germany’s land power. The two sides were not quite evenly matched. Indeed, as Ferguson points out via colossal digital graphs, Germany was a smaller force that was simply more efficient at killing. Every German killed cost the allies £7,500 GBP. Germans managed to kill their opponents for a much more reasonable £2,300 GBP.

What the Allies lacked in efficiency, they made up for in imperial strength. In 1914 The European powers between them controlled 40 percent of the globe, and it was this that truly turned the war from a European one into a world one. The greater part of the imperial possessions were held by Britain and France, whose empires were looked on by German eyes that were initially envious, then fearful and finally opportunistic. In the excellent two-part documentary The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire, the Anglo-Nigerian historian David Olusoga examines this imperial aspect.

One of the highlights of the box set, is that it takes the perspective of colonial encounter, investigating the cynical exploitation of colonial forces by the British and French and the brutally racist cries of “not fair” on the part of the Germans. In the second part, Olusoga explores German attempts to foment uprisings in the Arab world and the genocidal activities of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the military commander in German East Africa, who ran Askari forces against British soldiers. The British brought Indian soldiers to East Africa, prompting the spectacle of Indians fighting Africans on African soil on behalf of Europeans. These intense skirmishes and his defeats of British forces turned Lettow-Vorbeck into a “Teutonic hero” in Germany; his reputation is less polished in Africa, where his actions cost three quarters of a million lives, many through starvation as a result of his raiding.

These engagements were significant for those who took part in them and for those countries whose nascent independence movements received a shot in the arm as a result of such naked exploitation. It is telling, however, that Olusoga has to begin his account by making a case for examining the global aspect at all. He points out that the first British shot of the war was fired by an African in Africa, emphasising the global nature of the war, while still necessarily placing it in a European context. Not for the last time would a domestic European argument involve the neighbours.

The deserved centrepiece of the set is I Was There, which collects interviews, conducted and filmed in the ’60s, with veterans of the 1914 generation. Originally produced for the 26 part series The Great War, over 250 interviews were conducted, a selection of which have been restored and digitized for presentation here. The interviews are honest, raw and, while filled with emotion, absent of the mawkish sentiment that characterizes modern retellings.

That is not to say that they aren’t heartfelt; several of the accounts are filled with powerful emotion; a woman’s story of life without her husband is particularly so, but they have the honest feeling of lived experience rather than the ersatz emotion of unrecalling “remembrance”.

Appropriately for such a comprehensive war, the testimonies cover a wide range of topics. The agonising wait for the call to go over the top is one; “The longest hours and the shortest hours in life,” says one interviewee; “I never knew that even borrowed time could last so long,” says another. Also examined are the tactics of aerial warfare. “Dogfights were too dangerous an occupation. We preferred stalking,” one speaker says.

One respondent even breaks a cardinal taboo by admitting that at times, the war was rather fun. At those times, the war resembled “a sort of out of door camping holiday with the boys,” he says. “with a slight spice of danger to make it interesting.” There are tales of raucous times on leave, flirting with French waitresses amid throaty renditions of “The Mademoiselle from Armentieres”, the full lyrics of which he decided were too risqué to recall in peacetime.

What is most striking about the interviews is how vivid they are. When faced with unspeaking gravestones it becomes too easy to forget that, for good and for ill, the war was the most exciting time in its participants’ lives and that for them, it wasn’t a pious hymnody but the dirty, funny, frightening and heartbreaking reality of their youth. The biggest shock of the war wasn’t any particular battle or any specific loss, but its eventual ending. Many didn’t know what to do. Says one man of the war, “For some of us it was practically the only life we’d known.” It was life, though, and we would all do well to remember that.

Splash image: Old barbed wire from Shutterstock.com.