The BBC's 1964 Masterpiece "The Great War"

Of all the events of the Twentieth Century, it is the First World War that has had the most dramatic and longest-lasting impact on the psyche of Western civilization, more so than all the events that followed.   For anyone with an abiding interest in that war, the 1964 BBC documentary The Great War is an invaluable reference to understanding.  Narrated by Sir Michael Redgrave, the 26-part documentary is a superbly-crafted work.  The tenor of the broadcasts reflects the erosion of the naïve hopes of the warring parties in 1914 into the grim fatalism that the years of slaughter evoked, and the upheaval that would ultimately topple the crowned heads of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Serbia.  BBC producers make excellent use of voice to read the actual words of the key participants such as Edward Grey, Bethmann-Hollweg, Conrad von Hotzendorf, Joffre, Haig, Falkenhayn, and others.  The series features remarkable and little-seen motion footage of the world of 1914-18, including the civilians, the politicians, the armies, and the great battles of that war.   The battle footage heavily emphasizes the two great killers of that war (in inverse order), the machine gun, and modern breech-loading recoil-dampened artillery.

Of note also are the poignant, and sometimes extremely moving, interviews with the participants of events of the great tragedy.  Some had been in the thick of the fighting, others young subalterns or staff officers at the sleeve of the decision-makers.   Most remarkably, the BBC managed to produce a documentary about momentous events that changed the world and yet also managed to allow the viewer insight into the inestimable human tragedy that these events summoned.   At the time of the release of The Great War, those events were closer in time to the audience than the beginning of the Vietnam War is to our contemporary world.   The twenty-six episodes are around forty minutes each.  Worth every second of the time spent.

Oh, and as the credits roll at the end of each episode, one can spot the name of a very young (19 years old) contributor named Max Hastings.

3 thoughts on “The BBC's 1964 Masterpiece "The Great War"”

  1. I’ve read quite a few books by Max Hastings. My favorite is Warriors: Exceptional Tales from the Battlefield. Lots of insights in that book.

    Of the many book on WWI I read, the most interesting to me was World War I: The African Front by Edward Paice.

    I’d also like to read about Hellmuth von Mücke, who was leading a landing party on Direction Island in the Cocos Islands group when his ship SMS Emden was sunk by the HMAS Sydney.

    He and his party escaped, and over 6 months traveled 11,000 km to return to Germany in 1915.

  2. I’ll have to start watching that. I’ve been feasting on books on the Great War of late, having read Tuchman last August (as pundits were saying we’d have to go to war in Syria to “maintain our credibility” following the “red line” statement) and reading Hastings in preparation for the Military Classics Seminar next Wednesday at the Ft Myer Officers’ Club. I’ve been a little derailed, as I got my hands on “Through the Wheat” as a followup to a battalion history of 2/6 in the Great War. Reading about the massive Marine casualties is sobering, as is seeing the 888,000+ poppies in photos of the Tower of London.

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