We’re getting closer to the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice, and over the past few days there have been two big TV documentaries about the end of the war.
On Saturday Michael Palin focussed on the last days of the war. His programme was big on irony – all those deaths happening even as peace was on its way. He also got in plenty of human interest – individuals killed at the last moment, descendants visiting graves.
History took second place to individuals, though it was good to see the respected Dan Todman popping up for a few sentences of analysis. The background was drawn in broad brushstrokes, and the main point made was that after the Americans joined in, with vast numbers of potential soldiers, the German effort was doomed – which is true enough, but not the whole story. Palin’s interest was in the individual stories, and he had some good ones.
The most memorable segment of the programme was about the treatment of men with severe facial injuries, and the development of reconstructive surgery. Dr Andrew Bamji made the point that it is easier to remember the glorious dead than to deal with those who have devastating injuries.
Armistice this evening, has a more definite historical thesis. It traced the progress of the war from a German perspective, and showed clearly how Germany managed to lose the war. The focus was mostly on Ludendorff, and the character flaws that made him a less than perfect commander. This was the cock-up theory of history with a vengeance, as in 1918 Ludendorff led his army first to a military disaster, and then to a political one.
This was well-told (though it was odd that Reynolds seemed to identify closely with this flawed man, and seemed compulsively to be imitating the general’s compulsive bread-crumbling habit). Once again, it was only a partial view of the story, however. Maybe it is possible for one man to lose a war, but only if an awful lot on the other side are working hard to win it.
To be fair, Reynolds made the point that by the second half of 1918, the British army had become a formidable fighting machine – but with little indication of how they had done this, or how their strengths were different from those of the Germans. Will we get a programme that does full justice to the British achievements of the last hundred days of the war?
As if answering Palin, Reynolds made it clear why generals kept fighting hard right up to the end (nobody could be certain that there would be an Armistice, and they certainly did not know that it would be a lasting one. If it was an Armistice in the usual meaning of the word – a temporary ceasefire – then it was important to reach the appointed time in as strong a position as possible.)
Now I wonder what other programmes are lined up for us…