"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields."
- "In Flanders Fields" (1915), by Canadian veteran John McCrae
The first series about World War One to interview the veterans
The fiftieth anniversary of the "Great War" - a.k.a. "World War One" - saw two great television documentaries being made to commemorate it - one by the Americans; and one by three British Commonwealth nations (Britain, Canada, and Australia), working together to make this series. In virtually every way, the one made by the British Commonwealth nations is better; although there are a few things where the American-made series distinguishes itself; so I will intersperse some commentary on this as well, in this post primarily focused on the British-made series.
"The Great War" DVD (made by British Commonwealth countries)
"World War One" DVD (made by American CBS)
Comparisons with an American series made about the same time as this one
The BBC series was some 17 hours long, while the American series was only 10 hours long - something which makes it harder to go into depth on things. The BBC also uses talented voice actors to read quotes, while the American series limits its voiceovers entirely to Robert Ryan's narration - which is a good narration, but would have been better with some voice acting interspersed throughout (as the BBC does). The BBC also has studio sound effects for crowds, battles, and virtually everything else - something the American series does not bother to do, as it limits its background sound entirely to music; and does not add any sound to the silent footage of the time, but rather lets it stay silent. (Not the most compelling television - on an entertainment level, at least - and the series has to rely entirely on its background music.)
HMS Invincible blowing up at the Battle of Jutland, 1916
U-14, a German U-boat - circa 1910-1915
This series interviews the veterans of the war
But most importantly, the BBC - and its counterparts in Canada and Australia - also interview the veterans of the war, which is something that the American series wasn't able to do. (I imagine the lack of American interest in World War One made a much lower budget seem appropriate for American CBS, so I won't criticize the CBS series too much for this; but nonetheless, the higher budget for the British series definitely shows, and it is probably the superior series in most respects.) Nonetheless, the CBS series still distinguishes itself in talking about a number of particular issues; such as the sinking of the Lusitania (which is of greater interest to Americans), and the American involvement in Mexico (which is actually quite relevant to this subject, since the Germans tried to keep the Americans involved there longer, in an attempt to keep them out of the war in Europe.) The CBS series also gives better coverage of the Battle of the Argonne (which is of greater importance to Americans than to many other nations); and surprisingly, even some better coverage of the Battle of Jutland - which had no Americans at all, but only British and Germans - making one think that the British series would have covered it better, but it is (ironically) better covered by the American series. (Although in fairness to the British series, they did interview some Jutland naval veterans, while the CBS series did not - something that distinguishes their coverage here somewhat.)
Ruins of the library of a Catholic University in Belgium, after the Germans destroyed it in 1914
Destroyed city of Leuven - Belgium, 1915
Whom did they interview? (Anyone who speaks English)
And the interviews are not limited to Royal Navy sailors - they also interview both soldiers and civilians (including a number of women on the British home front), with the most notable civilian interview (perhaps) being a Belgian woman, who was present in Belgium during the German atrocities there in 1914. They interview people of a few different nationalities (including some Frenchmen and even some Germans), although there were no interviews with anyone in Russia - perhaps because at the time this series was made in 1964, the Cold War was still going on; and interviews with anyone in Russia required going behind the Iron Curtain; which was a difficult task, to say the least. Their interviews with people anywhere outside the British Commonwealth, really, are all somewhat limited, because of their decision to interview only English-speaking eyewitnesses, which are somewhat harder to find outside of the English-speaking nations. (This is something that they did not do as well as a later series that they inspired, which was "The World at War." They also did not identify interviewees with text at the bottom of the screen, which is another thing that "The World at War" did better; although "The Great War" did set the template for this later series, so I won't criticize it too much.)
Irish soldiers at the Somme - France, 1916
British wounded at the Somme - France, 1916
Many of these interviews could never be done again, since they're all dead now
Nonetheless, the interviews that they did do are extremely compelling; and many of them could never be done again. (The people they talked to are all gone now, and no longer able to be interviewed - making these some of the only interviews we have of the World War One veterans.) This was the first documentary series to interview the veterans; and in 1964, many of the veterans were still in their sixties and seventies, and were able to give compelling accounts of their experiences. The bulk of the interviews are with the soldiers from the three British Commonwealth nations represented here (Britain, Canada, and Australia); and their research in this area is remarkable - their comments are far better than any actor would be.
German dead in a trench destroyed by a mine explosion - Flanders, Belgium 1917
German dead scattered in the wreck of a machine gun post - Guillemont, France 1916
How do they depict generals and politicians, when most of them were already dead even then?
But many of those guys could not be interviewed, even then - the generals, admirals, and political leaders tended to be of the older generation, and thus died much sooner than the surviving young soldiers on the front lines. Thus, whenever they wanted to quote people from higher up, they used talented voice actors to read the quotes, in a style that would later be used by Ken Burns - the next best thing, when you can't interview them personally. My main criticism of the voice acting is that even when the characters are of non-British nationalities, they use British-sounding actors for virtually every nationality (except for some American parts) - which sounds funny when the actor is a Frenchman, a Russian, or even a German. Although the actors they chose are clearly very good ones, because the lines are read in a very compelling way - there is great power in good acting. (It is also noteworthy that there is a literary - and even poetic - quality to many of these episodes, perhaps comparable to Ken Burns' "The Civil War"; and the skillful narration by Michael Redgrave also adds much to the series.)
British trench at the Somme - France, 1916
Austro-Hungarian trench in the Italian Alps, Italy 1917
Some of the diverse topics that this series covers
The first two episodes give a good and detailed coverage of the buildup to the war, although there are no interviews until the third episode - which is somewhat surprising, given that some interviews on the prewar stuff could have been helpful. But in the third episode, they interview a number of people (including a British reconnaissance pilot, who is one of the few pilots that they interview); and the interviews are interspersed throughout most of the remaining episodes. They even interview veterans of chemical warfare attacks, which were some of the first of these kinds of weapons to be used; as well as eyewitnesses to the explosion from the tunnels beneath the trenches (a failed attempt to break the stalemate). Interestingly, they also interview eyewitnesses to the Christmas truces of 1914 - the inspiration for the movie "Joyeux Noel," which I have not seen. The bulk of the episodes focus on the Western Front, it must be noted; but a number of episodes also cover the Russian front, the Italian front, the Balkans front, and even the Middle Eastern front - including the British invasion at Gallipoli (dramatized in still another movie), and the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire (which inspired the movie "Lawrence of Arabia"). The "Lawrence of Arabia" movie may well be the most famous World War One movie of them all, although one whose connections to World War One are not as well-known as those for other movies - such as "All Quiet on the Western Front," perhaps the movie most identified with this war. (The peace treaties that ended the war may be as controversial today in the Muslim world as they are in Germany, since they partitioned the mighty Ottoman Empire into little pieces - much closer to the modern map of the Middle East.
Ottoman machine-gun team at Gallipoli, Turkey - circa 1915
British artillery during the Battle of Jerusalem, 1917
Comments about their coverage of the United States involvement in this war
I should mention that as an American, I was prepared to hate the BBC's coverage of the buildup to American involvement in the war, since the common British refrain of today is "Why didn't you Yanks get involved sooner?" (This is a fair question, I must admit, but it gets somewhat tiresome after the millionth repetition.) Surprisingly, though, they are actually quite fair to the Americans, explaining the reasons for their isolationism candidly, and presenting a positive portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt (who was an advocate of earlier American entry into the war). They even interview a few American veterans, which is something that the American series did not do - an irony that would not be lost on the British, in any comparison of these series' merits. The only American they really diss much is then-President Woodrow Wilson (who deserves every bit of it), and they summed him up quite well in saying that this former professor understood little outside the confines of the college campus. A self-described "idealist," he did not possess the necessary spine to be an effective world leader, and his idealism had an element of utopian fantasy to it - like a number of recent Democrat presidents I could mention. (My only criticism of their coverage of America is, again, their not spending more time on the unstable situation in Mexico, and the degree of American military involvement with the events south of its border is mentioned only in painful brevity. But in fairness, one can't have everything - and a later documentary by PBS went in-depth on the Mexican Revolution of this time, and showed what happened there. I have a blog post about this, for any that are interested.)
Pancho Villa expedition - United States expedition into Mexico, 1917
(which was, for a while, more important to the United States than the war in Europe)
United States Army field hospital - France, 1918 (after the Americans entered the war)
Comments about their coverage of the communist revolution in Russia at this time
And one other strength is also deserving of mention, which is their in-depth coverage of the Russian Revolution of 1917 (which was during this time). This revolution (really two revolutions) had the effect of getting rid of the czar, and bringing communism to Russia. I've not done much research on what other documentaries are available on this revolution; but I suspect that as the longest television documentary on World War One, the BBC series is probably the best at placing the revolution in the context of this war, which is sometimes omitted in the focus on the other parts (like the rise of communism). Not surprisingly for a Cold-War-era series, it characterizes the communist revolution as a "virus" (an accurate description), and does not paint the rise of Bolshevism sympathetically. (Although it does present antipathy towards the czar in a sympathetic light - and rightfully so - as few critics of communism have ever claimed that it wasn't a reaction to real problems; but only claimed that the "solution" it provided was not a solution at all, but a transition from a bad government to a still worse one; whose effects were keenly felt when this was made. I don't plan to stay on my soapbox much longer than I already have, but suffice it to say that the Russian Revolution was a disaster; which had reverberations throughout both the Second World War and the Cold War - extending far beyond the context of the Great War.)
Russian troops awaiting German attack in trenches, 1917
Russians fighting czar's police during "February Revolution" (actually March in our calendar), 1917
The series doesn't cover anything that happened after the war, unfortunately ...
The biggest omission of the British series, though, is the postwar situation, since the series doesn't go very much beyond the famous armistice in the railway carriage, and so omits the entire negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles (and the other treaties, for more specific areas like the Middle East). This is the biggest area where the American CBS series distinguishes itself, since it gives extensive coverage of both the treaty negotiations at the war's end, and the complicated situation in Russia after the war's end - since Russia continued to be embroiled in revolution and civil war, even after the armistice in the West was signed. The Americans actually intervened in the Russian Civil War by sending troops to the region, in an attempt to prevent the communists from winning and establishing control of Russia. This intervention, of course, did not work; but only gave the communists something to resent when they finally took control of Russia in 1922. (This was a sensitive issue in Soviet-American relations for many years afterward, actually.) As you might imagine, this is covered in some detail by American CBS, but it is not even hinted at by the BBC, which ends its series at virtually the moment the armistice in the West was signed. (This omission is somewhat curious, given the pains that they took to depict both the war itself, and the buildup to it in the prewar episodes.)
Armistice at Compèigne, France - November 11, 1918
Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918
Nonetheless, this series is incomparable, and may be the definitive documentary on this subject
But the BBC series is incomparable in its depiction of the war itself; and its coverage in this regard may make it the definitive documentary about World War One all by itself. At 17 hours long, it certainly has tremendous depth; and it's almost on a par with "The World at War" in its thoroughness. I could mention any number of other important elements - such as the German U-boats, for example, and their interviews of the naval war veterans - but this post is already getting somewhat long, and I don't want to tax the reader's patience any more than I already have. Suffice it to say that the BBC probably made the best series that has yet been made on the "Great War" - and, with its unique interviews with veterans, perhaps the best such series that will ever be made. If you're a World War One buff, this series "The Great War" is for you, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the First World War.
Footnote to this blog post: Getting this series on DVD is probably not your best option, unless you happen to have $300 to spend. (That's right, $300 at the time I write this - making me wonder why it's so expensive!) You can get it on VHS from Britain; but even this way, it can be somewhat pricey; so I recommend watching it online if you can. Thus, at the risk of having my link expire after I insert it below, I will provide the link to the first episode on YouTube, and leave it to the interested to find the rest. Wikipedia's episode descriptions will help you know the order of the episodes.)
American CBS series at Amazon USA (standard United States & Canada video coding)
BBC series on DVD at Amazon USA (caution: North Americans need special DVD player to watch it)
BBC series on DVD at Amazon Britain (caution: North Americans need special DVD player to watch it)
BBC series on VHS at Amazon Britain (caution: North Americans need special VCR to watch it)
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Spanish-American War 1898 program (then the last war fought by the United States)
Mexican Revolution 1910 program (which continued during World War One)
My Russian Revolution 1917 post (a major event for World War One)
Woodrow Wilson movie (then the president of the United States)
The World at War miniseries (a similar series about World War Two)
First episode on YouTube