Feature Articles - How the Great War Was Lost - and Found

"The Great War" TV series Nearly 40 years after its release, a famed television series is making a comeback, says John Hughes-Wilson.

Everyone loves to find buried treasure.  In 1964 the BBC produced a ground breaking television series called The Great War.

For 26 weeks it ran in grainy black & white and was a sensation.  For half a year, pubs thinned out for Wednesday evening.  With the rounded tones of Sir Michael Redgrave and Sir Ralph Richardson as the narrators, and previously unseen archival footage, The Great War was a television phenomenon.

Then overnight it disappeared.  Like so much of the BBC's early TV footage, it vanished into the cellars of Broadcasting House to join Terry Wogan's mythical collection of hidden gems among the cobwebs.  Fortunately, unlike so much of the BBC's classic early footage, The Great War did not end up in a Wood Lane skip.  Nor was it recycled to record some vital episode of Terry & June.

For decades, military historians prodded the corporation and its co-producer, the Imperial War Museum, to release the tapes.  For decades, the corporation somehow managed to find reasons for not releasing them.

German prisoners in a French campWhether it was the rights, the copyright of the archival footage, or just plain commercial inertia, the BBC did nothing.

As the years passed, the series faded from memory and became a legend, another of the fabled TV programmes lost in the mists of time.  Until now, nearly 40 years on, the series is about to be released as a series of video tapes in a joint venture between the BBC and Britain's leading military video company, DD Video.

And what a series.  Despite the distortions of time and memory, the programmes live up to their reputation.  Two thing stick out - just how differently the Great War was treated in 1964 and, much more significantly, just how the soldiers of 1914-18 talked about their experiences.

The veterans interviewed are not old men quavering on their dotage.  On the contrary, in 1964 they are astonishingly youthful.  They are vigorous, lively voices, alert, unsentimental and refreshingly candid.

Edward Spears, the British army's liaison officer to the French in 1914, comes across as frank and startlingly clear, reminiscing about the personalities of its giants like Haig, Sir John French, Joffre, Petain and Foch.  The voices of lesser-known soldiers, now long dead, remembering the greatest adventure of their young lives, are just as fresh.

The body of Archduke Franz Ferdinand lying in stateOne old soldier cheerfully agrees that the real reason that more than two-and-a-quarter million Britons volunteered to join the army in 1914-15 was 'for the excitement of it all..'  and another admits that the winter of 1917-18, after three years of war and casualties and the wastelands of the Somme and Passchendaele, 'morale in the BEF was terrible... we didn't  care which side won the war, so long as it was over...'

It has often been claimed that the series was the inspiration of Sir Jeremy Isaacs' The World at War.  Looking at the 1964 original, it is easy to see why.  The brooding images, more sombre for being in black and white, haunt the memory and the sound track is heavy with the bleakness of William Walton's score for Scott of the Antarctic, anticipating Carl Davis' music for The World at War.

But above all, it is the length of the series, with its ability to evoke mood by measured pace and repeated images, that is so different..  It is difficult to imagine any modern scriptwriter or commissioning editor even contemplating a 26-part series - half a year's programming - today.  The script was written by John Terraine and a young Corelli Barnett, the enfant terrible of British military history, fresh from his revelations about Montgomery.

Barnett reveals that the series first went on screen with only 6 shows recorded.  Unfortunately, as the weeks went by, this six-lap lead gradually faded until the final episode was actually  being frantically edited only 36 hours before its screening.

German ammo detail'It became a race against time, and we needed strong nerves' Barnett says.  'But not as strong as the producers and the BBC!'

Despite its age, the writing remains surprisingly undated, and it is easy to see why the pair won screenplay awards for their work.

Their writing still has an important contribution today, says Gary Sheffield, Professor of the History of Land Warfare at the Joint Services Command & Staff College.

'As television, it's a period piece, and we need to update its interpretation of the Somme and Passchendaele, particularly in the light of more modern research that relies on real history and not just on the war poets to understand the First World War.  But as a contribution to the understanding of military history, a documentary like this in the 1960's must have come like a bombshell...'

Richard Jones, the managing director of DD Video agrees.  'I have been trying to get this re-released for years.  It was the original military history series... a bit like the Holy Grail.  You can't overestimate its impact at the time'.

Some parts of the series do betray its age.  Nowadays, any documentary maker who reverses film images to put the Allies on the left and the Germans on the right is derided.  But at the time it was hard to get genuine film;  Kitchener would not allow cine-cameras in the front line until well into 1915 and glass-plate still cameras had an even lower survival chance in No Man's Land than an infantry subaltern.

German machine gun trenchSo it is easy to sympathise with cuttings from post-war 1920s films like All Quiet on the Western Front and The Big Parade being sneaked in for good footage.

Modern producers like David Olusoga, one of the BBC's up-and-coming  generation of history producers, agree.  Currently working on The Trench, which is trying to recreate the awful reality of the Western Front with live volunteers, he feels nowadays cinema verite techniques are essential for military history programmes.

Nonetheless, he believes that The Great War is 'still one of the great documentaries'.  'When I first got access to the BBC archives I spent a whole weekend viewing all 26 episodes' he says.  'My girlfriend was unimpressed.  But for anyone interested in the Great War, it is essential viewing.  It's one of the BBC's national treasures'.

Colonel John Hughes-Wilson is author of Military Intelligence Blunders (Constable Robinson) and Blindfold and Alone (Cassell)

The Western Front Today: Ypres Cloth Hall

Plumer of Messines, by General Sir Charles Harington, GCB, GBE

Flak was a term used to describe anti-aircraft fire.

- Did you know?


On This Day