One of the most widely-known stories of the first world war is the Christmas truce. The British soldiers hear the Germans singing ‘Silent Night’, they venture out into no-man’s land, exchange gifts and have a game of football. Much of this story appears to be true, though it is important to remember that the front was long, and the truce only took place in certain sections. There is less in the record about games of football, but there is at least a little evidence for this too.
Another journey back in time with original recordings from the year 1903. This episode features sounds from as far afield as Tanganyika, Moscow, Kyoto and New York, and songs about cars, ducks, and bread and marmalade. Introduced by James Errington.
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As part of their BBC WW1 Centenary commemorations, this excellent series covered events as they occurred, exactly 100 years in the past. And then, after 49 days, they stopped, which is a huge shame all round. I want this to be a permanent feature.
The date was Bank Holiday Monday, 3 August 1914, and it was destined to be a day of final, irrevocable and fateful decision. Even as the camera shutter fell, preserving this carefree scene, the larger issues of peace and war continued to hang in the balance… Nearly thirty-six hours later, Britain would declare war on Germany. Life for many of the men and women on this river excursion would never be the same again.
Having been through a fair few of these books about years, this is the first one which has completely lived up to my expectations, but strangely enough it’s by having a narrow, selective focus that it manages to provide the wide scope it aims for. Each chapter tells a story from the time, ranging from national news to private affairs, and from the leaders of the country to its most lowly inhabitants. Woven through this is an incessant drumbeat of approaching disaster. The way Mark Bostridge weaves this element into the fabric of the piece seems a little counter-intuitive, an odd way to capture the supposed innocence of these times, but these memories are already stained by what happened, and the examination of those stains is, after all, why we are here.
On September 1st 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon in existence died. Three hundred years before, when the first settlers were arriving in North America, it was the most common bird in the continent, with up to 5 billion individuals. The story of the passenger pigeon is that of colonial destruction and contempt for the natural world writ large, and a reminder that for all the horrors taking place in Europe, mankind was already wreaking destruction of various kinds.
The sudden slide from the tranquil Indian summer of the Edwardian age into a state of chaos previously inconceivable is quite the tale, but telling it has always been hard. It’s not only that it’s a complicated story, it’s that much of the work in piecing together what happened was done well after the events themselves, and even when you see these pieces, none of it seems to fit. There is naturally a bias at play – we know where these foolish actions and reactions would end – but even so, believing that supposedly rational human beings in charge of powerful countries could let all this happen, it all seems somehow wrong.
It’s a great credit to the makers of 37 Days that they managed to weave all of this together into a piece of work which pulls these characters into suddenly clear focus – from Ian McDiarmid’s Edward Grey, the sanest man in the room who puts too much faith in the forces of reason, to Rainer Sellien’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, pandered to by competing officials, all keen to make him feel that their plan is his plan.
There will be a lot of coverage here of the early part of the first world war, as there are so many fantastic resources available. The BBC in particular launched into the project of making something new about these years with such a degree of creative enthusiasm that it set vastly unrealistic expectations for the rest of the four years.
This series presented by Christopher Clark goes over the feverish 37 days which took an almost entirely peaceful continent into all-out war, and it’s absolutely one of my favourites – he really gets inside the heads of all the disperate parties experiencing this historical vertigo all at one. None of them can believe that this is really going to happen until it’s too late – and frankly, I find it hard to believe too – surely they can stop this madness before it’s too late? It’s testament to the quality of the programme that even knowing how it ends, there is a genuine sense of suspense.