Elegy for a lost generation

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
1914-1918 BBC2 Mondays November 11 to December 23 7.00 - 7.50pm

It would be hard to overestimate the significance of the First World War for the history of Europe: the events of those four years undermined so many fixed assumptions and re-drew so many boundaries. The British monarchy was the only one to survive, among those of the major powers involved, the empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary ceased to exist altogether - but even in Britain, the impact on mentalities was immense.

Blaine Blaggett and Carol Sennett's seven-part series for BBC Education covers the whole conflict, from origins to aftermath, in five hours and 50 minutes (so this time it really will all be over by Christmas).

It gives an account of the war through a compilation of archive film and other contemporary documents (diaries, poems, letters, photographs, paintings), illustrated with scenes from the battlefields as they are today or using a montage of objects as an evocative background. Experts, including Jay Winter and John Terraine, develop aspects of the story. The linking commentary is excellent, particularly the account of the origins of the war, which could hardly have been more lucidly explained.

Inevitably, there are gaps: the states of the Austro-Hungarian empire vanish after the first programme and Italy does not feature at all until the final one; the participation of Australian troops gets barely a mention, even at Gallipoli. But more interesting are the changes of emphasis from earlier histories: the importance given to the experiences of women munitions workers and African soldiers, for example, and to socialist efforts to prevent war by mobilising the working classes.

This is an account of the first "total war", exploring its social and cultural impact. The strictly military narrative, placing the action almost entirely on the Western Front, reduces it to a few highlights: the Somme, Verdun, and there is little about the mechanics of war. But then, we have just seen the BBC series on great battlefields and decisive weapons.

What endures, out of it all, is the suffering. "I could see no tears, except my own," a newspaper correspondent wrote from Paris; but there were more than enough tears to come and they are well-evoked here.

Appropriate then, that the series should begin with a letter from an officer to his mother, written in a smoke-filled dug-out a fortnight before the end of the war, in which he talks of his feeling of comradeship with the men around him and the "ghastly glimmering" of the shells as they burst outside. The officer, one of the last casualties, was Wilfrid Owen, 25-years-old and the greatest poet of the Great War, who saw as clearly as anyone, the futility of it all.

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