The 1964 BBC TV Series The Great War may sometimes feel a bit hokey and outdated in its narrative style, but with the centenary over and done with, it looks like its position is still unchallenged as the definitive documentary of the conflict. Beyond anything else, it’s priceless in its collection of original accounts from men who were then barely of pensionable age, and therefore still are able to vividly recount their experiences. You can’t help but wonder what they made of the rest of the 60s.
The whole thing is available now on Youtube. Here is the first episode.
Not only is there no defending The Birth of A Nation in 2019, it’s wildly offensive even for 1915. A film made to glorify the Klu Klux Klan by claiming that they saved the USA from (appalling racist caricatures of) unruly black people, it was picketed by the NAACP on release, but was enough of a hit to inspire the real KKK to return from semi-retirement to murder thousands of black people. It would be hard to imagine another film doing as much to harm humanity as a whole, and beyond any other considerations, this should clearly mark it as a bad film.
Inconveniently it’s also a landmark in filmmaking history – not the first feature film, but the one which was big enough to get everyone else making them, and a spectacle so vast and varied that it wouldn’t be matched in scale for decades. Director D.W. Griffith was a leader in the field already, but the release of the film shot him into superstardom, and he took the sleepy Californian community of Hollywood with him.
So I watched Birth of A Nation, all three hours and thirteen minutes of it, to find out if there is anything to salvage.
In terms of writing, no. The script is a hackneyed bunch of racist cliches muddled with sentimental war stories and bad political fantasy. In terms of acting, also no. Lilian Gish puts in some fairly decent work as ever, but the horrible blackface performers undo everything – the public in crowd scenes are no worse than most of the other actors. But in terms of cinematography, in the first half of the film at least, there are some moments of sublime beauty which this piece of trash does not deserve in any way. These don’t really come across in still images, but I’ll try.
Part of it is awe at the scale of everything, but I can’t deny there was some real talent wasted in making this film.
If you want to judge this for yourself, the whole thing is available on Youtube.
If you’re looking for stupid, pointless wastes of human life in the First World War, you really are spoilt for choice, but, even among such inauspicious company, the Gallipoli campaign manages to stand out as particularly stupid and particularly pointless.
To sum up: The Ottoman Empire sort-of-accidentally entered the war on the side of the Germans, the allies were at a complete stalemate and Winston Churchill suggested trying something a bit different. In theory this meant smashing through a passage to Russian Black Sea ports to the Mediterranean, in practice it meant sending shiploads of conscripts to disembark on exposed beaches and get shelled by Turkish soldiers.
One memorable account has a party of British officers arranging a conference with local Ottoman officers, whose first question is “Why are you here and why are you letting us shoot your men?”
James Errington takes you on another journey back into the forgotten history of recorded sound, this time joined by Liam Higgins, playing cylinders and shellac all from the year 1904. Aside from the usual brass band, banjo and proto-ragtime and barbershop music, you can listen to the last castrato, find out what a ‘gamp’ is and hear a lengthy excoriation of the worst Olympic Games of all time.
Listen to the show on 105fm in Cambridge, on DAB digital nationwide, on the Cambridge 105 website here, or on any good radio apps. Or if you missed it, which you probably did, you could just stream it here:
I read The Trial and everything else I could find by Kafka while living a couple of tram stops away from his grave in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague in 2004. The New Jewish Cemetery was opened in 1891 as the Old Jewish Cemetery was full – the vast open space in the lower half of the grounds tells a story more grim than anything found in pre-war fiction. But anyway.
The Trial isn’t my favourite Kafka (that would be The Castle) – but it sums up a lot of what keeps me coming back to his books. What I love most of all is the complete repudiation of free will and meaningfulness in the universe. It’s something many writers play with, but I can think of nobody else who accepts it so completely, and without any sense of melodrama.
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Franz Kafka’s novel of power and alienation ‘The Trial’, in which readers follow the protagonist Joseph K into a bizarre, nightmarish world in which he stands accused of an unknown crime; courts of interrogation convene in obscure tenement buildings; and there seems to be no escape from a crushing, oppressive bureaucracy.
Kafka was a German-speaking Jew who lived in the Czech city of Prague, during the turbulent years which followed the First World War. He spent his days working as a lawyer for an insurance company, but by night he wrote stories and novels considered some of the high points of twentieth century literature. His explorations of power and alienation have chimed with existentialists, Marxists, psychoanalysts, postmodernists – and Radio 4 listeners, who suggested this as our topic for listener week on In Our Time.
If you’re looking for coverage of the First World War in podcast form then the obvious first stopping point is the Blueprint For Armageddon series of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, and since I’ve listened to the whole thing, twice, I should really write something about it here. But what exactly? Was it good? Well, yes, I suppose so, it was certainly an immersive, meticulously researched, astonishingly in-depth description of the war, and Dan held my attention through each of its three-hour-plus episodes, but from time to time I did think about how this was a man making a very forceful speech about the deeds of other forceful men from a century ago, and it did seem like an example of much of what is wrong with the world of podcasts. What saved it was Dan’s genuine horror at the scale of suffering, this cut through the form completely and was the reason I listened again. Do I recommend it? Um…
Often it seems that the past is artificially kept as a distant country. Concerns over accessibility, commercial interests and worries about keeping things “relevant” and “relatable” mean that primary sources are relegated to secondary concerns. So it was wonderful to listen to this series on BBC Radio 4 which used archive interviews to explore the events of the First World War in the original words of the people who lived through it.
“Looking back in hindsight, 1915 appears to be a saga of such horrors, of such mismanagement and muddle, that it is easy to see why it coloured the views of succeeding generations and gave rise to prejudices and myths that have been applied to the whole war. But it was a year of learning. A year of cobbling together, of frustration, of indecision. In a sense a year of innocence. Therein lies its tragedy.” – Lynn Macdonald – 1915: The Death of Innocence
Nobody is likely to make the case for 1915 as a marquee year in the history of recorded music, and, to be frank, I am not going to change anyone’s mind on the issue today. Certainly there is a lot of good music being played, somewhere, the recordings of the next decade didn’t just spring up from thin air, but with the downturn in recording due to the war, coupled with the dissipation of the hot ragtime craze, everything has an odd air of being either too late or too early to the party.
The stars of this mix are in a sense unlike those we’ve encountered before, in that nobody is apparently interested in writing a glowing biography of Eugene Jaudas or Henry Burr. But dare I suggest there is something sort of here? With the bigger names either out of the game (James Reece Europe will be back in 1918) or past their best (even Bert Williams is by this point sounding a little tired of the game, and we don’t even have jazz yet!), acts who would usually be also-rans are given a chance to flourish. Whether they deserve this chance is moot, I at least have them to build a mix around which doesn’t have to sound like it’s going through the motions.
Eugene Jaudas was a bandleader, violin soloist and director of music at Edison Records, and seems to have decided to cash in on the success of Europe’s Society Orchestra by launching his own knock-off version. As might be expected, the frenetic pace and inventiveness have been largely done away with – however in their place there is a very professional sort of energy which works well on its own terms. The transformation of the raw sound of hot ragtime into a formalized pop discipline begins and ends here – in two years everyone will be trying to play jazz instead. Accidentally this fairly cynical cash-in attempt therefore led to music which is more-or-less unique. The mediocre jazz-age Jaudas recordings are evidence that the genre was probably a dead end, but for now this sounds sort of exciting in its own way.
Not all of the artists from 1915 disappeared in the 1920s. Patrick Conway managed to become the leader of a very successful radio orchestra. Novelty vaudeville saxophone group Five Brown Brothers, or even Six Brown Brothers, turned their blackface into clown make-up and retconned themselves (with some justification) as jazz pioneers. And Fred Van Eps, now eclipsing Vess L Ossman as the banjo soloist of choice, continued recording all the way to the 1960s.
All of this may seem beside the point in the year of Galipoli and Ypres, and perhaps it is, but where this human experience resides we have only a void in the audio record. This isn’t to say that the war is not covered here – only that it’s viewed from afar, and with a great deal of suspicion. The biggest hit of 1915 by some counts is I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier, a rehashing of the old sentimental wayward soldier boy trope, with the twist being that he hasn’t gone off to war and he won’t. Not that it stops it being sentimental, of course, but directing such mawk in the direction of pacifism is strangely effective, especially when considering as horrible and pointless a war as this one. We also have the spin-off song, essentially the same deal, titled ‘Don’t Take My Darling Boy”. Some of these same singers would change their minds apparently at the same moment as Woodrow Wilson, whose campaign slogan in the 1916 election was to be “He kept us out of the war.”
Judge for yourself what you think of 1915, but be assured, this world is about to be swept away.
0:00:16 George Formby Snr – All of a Sudden it Struck Me
0:02:38 Miller R. Hutchinson – Transcontinental Telephone Message
0:03:11 Irving Kaufman – Listen to That Dixie Band
0:05:23 Jaudas’ Society Orchestra – Pick a Chicken
0:09:27 National Promenade Band – Paprika
0:11:25 Bert Williams – I’m Neutral
0:12:56 Henry Burr – I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier
0:14:54 Peerless Quartet – I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier
0:15:36 Cal Stewart – War Talk at Punkin Center
0:16:55 Henry Burr & Peerless Quartet – Don’t Take My Darling Boy
0:18:26 Charles Crawford Gorst – Laughing Love
0:19:59 Billy Murray – Which Switch is the Switch, Miss, for Ipswich?
0:21:51 Joe Hayman – Cohen at the Real Estate Office
0:23:08 Joseph A. Phillips – My Lady of the Telephone
0:24:55 Patrick Conway’s Band – Ragging the Scale
0:27:50 Five Brown Brothers – Independentia and Billboard
0:29:49 Bahiano – O Meu Boi Morreu
0:32:25 Dúo Ruiz Acuña – Corazones Partidos
0:35:03 María Conesa – Ni Una Palabra Más (2ª Parte)
0:37:09 David K.Kaili & Pale K. Lua – Honolulu March
0:39:43 Fred Van Eps Banjo – Omena Intermezzo
0:42:37 Harry E. Humphrey – An Old Sweetheart of Mine
0:42:59 Isidore Moskowitz – a Flower of Italy
0:45:48 Harry E. Humphrey – Antony’s Address Over the Body of Caesar
0:46:02 Sangit Vidyarnab Gopeswar Banerjee – Sitar Instrumental- Kafi Tetala
0:48:29 Abe Elenkrig’s Yidishe Orchestra – Nit Ba Motin
0:50:21 Vladimir Mayakovsky – Naval Romance
0:50:33 Victor Military Band – Booster Box Trot
0:53:05 Six Brown Brothers – Chicken Reel Comedy Medley
0:54:46 Ada Reeve – Foolish Questions
0:57:37 Collins & Harlan – Mississippi Barbecue
0:59:26 Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh in a Barber Shop
1:00:11 Harry Fay – They All Do the Charlie Chaplin Walk
1:01:44 Eugene Jaudas Society Orchestra – Carnival One Step
1:03:18 Guido Deiro – Put Me to Sleep With an Old-Fashioned Melody
1:04:44 Bert Williams – Indoor Sports
1:06:19 Right Quintette – Exhortation
1:09:30 Enrico Caruso – Cielo Turchino (Ciociano)
1:11:51 Arvid Paulson – Karolinas Tråkigheter
1:11:58 The Premier Quartet – Moonlight Bay
1:13:57 Vess Ossman’s Banjo Orchestra – Universal Fox Trot
1:15:39 George Formby Snr – All of a Sudden it Struck Me (Outro)
January 1 – The Royal Navy battleship HMS Formidable is sunk off Lyme Regis, by an Imperial German Navy U-boat, with the loss of 547 crew.
January 13 – The vezzano earthquake shakes L’Aquila in Italy, with a maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). Around 30,000 are killed.
January 17 – Russia defeats Ottoman Turkey at the Battle of Sarikamish
January 24 – The British Grand Fleet defeats the German High Seas Fleet at Dogger bank, sinking the armoured cruiser SMS Blücher.
January 25 – The first United States coast-to-coast long-distance telephone call is facilitated by a newly invented vacuum tube amplifier, is made by Alexander Graham Bell in New York City and Thomas Watson, in San Francisco
February 8 – The Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith, premieres in Los Angeles. It will be the highest-grossing film for around 25 years.
March – The 1915 Palestine locust infestation breaks out in Palestine; it continues until October.
March 10 – In the first deliberately planned British offensive of the war, British Indian troops overrun German positions at Neuve Chapelle in France, but are unable to sustain the advance.
April 11 – Charlie Chaplin’s film The Tramp is released
April 22 – At the start of Second Battle of Ypres Germany makes its first large scale use of poison gas on the Western Front.
April 24 – The Armenian Genocide begins, with the deportation of Armenian notables from Istanbul.
April 25 – A landing at Anzac Cove is conducted by Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and a landing at Cape Helles by British and French troops, to begin the Allied invasion of Turkey
April 26 – Italy secretly agrees to leave the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, and join with the Triple Entente, in exchange for certain territories of Austria-Hungary on its borders.
May 5 – Forces of the Ottoman Empire begin shelling ANZAC Cove from a new position behind their lines.
May 7 – The British ocean liner RMS Lusitania is sunk by German U-boat U-20 off the south-west coast of Ireland, killing 1,198 civilians en route from New York to Liverpool.
May 9 – German and French forces fight to a standstill at The Second Battle of Artois, German forces defeat the British at the Battle of Aubers Ridge.
May 22 – Quintinshill rail disaster in Scotland – The collision and fire kill 226, mostly troops, the largest number of fatalities in a rail accident in the United Kingdom.
May 25 – China agrees to the Twenty-One Demands of the Japanese.These demands would greatly extend Japanese control of Manchuria and of the Chinese economy.
July 1 – German fighter pilot Kurt Wintgens becomes the first person to shoot down another plane, using a machine gun equipped with synchronization gear.
July 22 – The ‘Great Retreat’ is ordered on the Eastern Front, Russian forces pull back out of Poland (then part of Russia), taking machinery and equipment with them.
August 5 – Hurricane Two of the 1915 Atlantic hurricane season over Galveston and New Orleans leaves 275 dead.
August 8 – The Allies mount a diversionary attack timed to coincide with a major Allied landing of reinforcements at Suvla Bay.
September 6 – The prototype military tank is first tested by the British Army.
September 25 – British forces take the French town of Loos, but with substantial casualties, and are unable to press their advantage. This is the first time the British use poison gas in World War I.
October – Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) is first published in Germany.
October 15 – Austria-Hungary invades Serbia. Bulgaria enters the war, also invading Serbia. The Serbian First Army retreats towards Greece.
October 19 – The U.S. recognizes the de facto Mexican government of Venustiano Carranza
October 23 – The torpedoing of armored cruiser SMS Prinz Adalbert results in 672 deaths, the greatest single loss of life for the Imperial German Navy in the Baltic Sea during the war.
November 24 – William J. Simmons revives the American Civil War era Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia.
November 25 – Albert Einstein presents part of his theory of general relativity to the Prussian Academy of Sciences.
December 12 – President of the Republic of China Yuan Shikai declares himself Emperor.