This isn’t a gif from a fiction movie – it’s actual footage from the first world war which has been cleaned up, extra frames added to bring it up to 26 per second, and then colorised. It’s the kind of thing which sets new standards for how we can use original sources to bring the past to life, something which Centuries of Sound obviously is in favour of. The scenes towards the end with the worst effects of the war are so shocking and visceral that I can’t imagine I’ll ever forget them.
The film, directed by Peter Jackson, is not perfect. I liked very much how it operated entirely on the personal level of the soldiers, but inevitably this led to a nagging feeling that there was a lot being missed. This is something which cannot be helped, though, and as far as two-hour documentaries about the war go, it’s surely unsurpassable.
The 1964 BBC TV Series The Great War may sometimes feel a bit hokey and outdated in its narrative style, but with the centenary over and done with, it looks like its position is still unchallenged as the definitive documentary of the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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.