Showbiz news

The Village is just the beginning, it seems.
The latest centenary news is that the BBC will be marking Armistice Day next year with a five-part mini-series drama called The Great War.This will apparently follow two soldiers, one English and one German, through the War. Which is a not unreasonable idea, though potentially a bit schematic.
But the heart sinks at this comment from the scriptwriter:

The series creator Tony Jordan, a former EastEnders lead writer, said he realised the decision to give equal weight to both perspectives might cause controversy, but dismissed any critics as ‘cretins’.
He said: ‘If there’s a moron in Tunbridge Wells who thinks that what we’re commemorating is beating the s*** out of the Germans, then all I can say is these are the kinds of people who made the war happen in the first place.
‘Back then, no one knew what a world war meant. It was all going to be over by Christmas and so all the kids dashed in – it was the equivalent of an iPod craze.’

Is he really going to present the volunteers of 1914  as utterly stupid?
The style of his comment suggests that it may be a hasty and poorly-considered response to some telephone provocation by  Daily Mail reporters, but I think it’s worth sorting out a few of his misconceptions:
1. The idea that the War was caused by popular nationalism.
This really doesn’t hold water. The Kaiser was fairly indifferent to public opinion before the War. Britain’s entry was not caused by popular hatred of Germans; before 1914 there was a thriving German community living peacefully in London – most noticeably employed as waiters in many restaurants.
Rather than ‘popular nationalism caused the war’, it would be more accurate to say that the war created the popular nationalisms (which then made it difficult for democratic governments to arrange a compromise peace).

2. ‘No one knew what a world war meant.’
The Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) had shown clearly how vicious and destructive modern weapons could be. Everyone knew that any European war would be hard-fought and cruel. What was less expected was the trench stalemate which produced the long war of attrition. This was not the result of its being a ‘world’ war.

3. ‘It was all going to be over by Christmas.’
Did many people believe this? It’s quite difficult to find any commentator at the start of the war who takes this view. The Kaiser originally hoped that his Western campaign would be finished quickly, so that he could then turn towards a longer war with Russia, but after the Battle of the Marne (5-12 September) few on any side believed that there would be a quick solution to the problem.

4. ‘all the kids dashed in – it was the equivalent of an iPod craze’
The myth of mindless enthusiasm was thoroughly demolished by Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War. The great rush to enlist came not at the start of the War, but a few weeks in – when it became clear that the regular army had been in deep trouble after Mons, and when the Belgian refugees were arriving, with reports of atrocities. Enlistment was not a craze, but a principled response to the political situation. On the other hand, there were many who enlisted for economic reasons – especially those who lost their jobs in the slump at the start of the War.

Mr Jordan’s phrasing suggests that the volunteers of 1914 were mindless idiots, fighting for nothing. This is the kind of thing that happens when a writer of fiction starts from the premise that the War was meaningless and futile. To make sense of this, all participants have to be fools, rogues or dupes.

Mr Jordan could learn something from a lecture I found  on the useful Centenary News site, in which historian Michael Nieberg discusses the outbreak of war, with the intent of taking the participants ‘out of the stupid box’  and showing how events resulted from considered, though sometimes unfortunate decisions. (You may want to skip over the conference formalities at the beginning of the video. The lecture proper starts about sixteen minutes in. )

5 Comments

  1. Posted April 22, 2013 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    This is dismaying. There’s really no other word for it.

    I’ve often found that being keen on seeing new film and television treatments of the Great War is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s really not a lot out there to begin with when we compare it to the second war or even just to the 19th C. domestic sphere (people do love their costume dramas!). As it stands, when my friends ask me if I’d recommend a certain film or series about the war, I usually have to really stop and think — and even the answers that arise are not always the best.

    On the other, though, we need to accept that, if they’re going to be making new films and series about the war, *this* is probably going to be far and away the most common approach. They’ll be set on the Western Front (and perhaps fitfully on the Home Front), they’ll be almost tortuously “fair,” and they will emphasize as always the narrative of Mud, Blood and Futility in spite of decades of compelling work by military historians in refutation of it. Can you even imagine how many minor-key documentaries/docudramas we’re going to be getting about Wilfred Owen, George? I don’t know if I can count that high. I don’t know if anyone can.

    We will wait in vain for similar works about the (quite real) rape of Belgium, or Coronel and the Falklands, or the post-1918 Russian campaign, or the bombing of London, or even the Middle Eastern theatre. Why nothing yet about the Fall of Kut? They couldn’t hope to find something more grim and awful than that, or with a more apparently callous general involved (which they always love), and yet it seems to have been entirely ignored. Oh well.

    Anyway, thank you for the Neiberg lecture, too. Very well done.

    • xeoran
      Posted April 26, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Unfortunately, we’ll almost certainly never get those subjects in a British drama. They’re either foreign or too obscure for a mass audience.

      (The exception being the First Blitz, which is close enough to home and domestic enough that it would be feasible as a drama).

      In addition to which, most people working in the drama world are (a) not historians and (b) tend to a soft-Left Ben-Elton-esque view of the First World War.

      Historical scholarship takes a long time to seep into the mass consciousness, especially when it is trying to displace myths as powerful as those surrounding the First World War.

      I have a little experience in the TV world and I must say that ignorance is far more common than knowledge.

  2. Alan Allport
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    “A major BBC drama to mark the centenary of the First World War has infuriated veterans by giving equal prominence to British and German soldiers in the trenches.”

    Pretty remarkable, really, given that they’re all dead.

    But I suppose the Mail means ‘any old veterans that happen to be at hand’, the nature of their specific military experiences being quite irrelevant so long as there’s some faux outrage to be had at the BBC’s expense.

  3. Posted April 22, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    This is all very interesting, as purely someone who is interested in the Great War I usually have very low expectations of anything on TV. Most of it what I see produced is for the “Soap” audience, who want to be amused and entertained and take enlightenment and truth at face value.

    Still I suppose anything is better than nothing at all, the exception being “War Horse”!

    Your points on the attitude at the outbreak of war are excellent.
    In all the accounts I have read, English people had strong German affiliations, many families spent time on long holidays in Germany and there was many Germans enjoying life in England. I think there was little of no indication that before the war, that Germany was disliked.

    The idea it would be over quickly as you have said was not believed. The best I can come up with is that the British press and recruitment campaigns reported the Kaiser when he said to his troops – “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” Now I may be completely wrong with that, so any enlightenment would be interesting.

    Recruitment is just has you have said, in my home town Eastbourne the recruitment numbers in 1914 were

    Enrolled prior to August 28 – 12
    Enrolled between August 28 – Sept 5. – 370
    Enrolled on Monday 9th September – 158

    This was obviously when recruitment drives were under way and the territorial’s had left for the front.
    Once again thank you for thoughtful post it has been very helpful.

    • Posted April 23, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      Alan –
      Thanks for these Eastbourne figures, which sum up the situation precisely.


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