My List Of First World War Documentaries

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At some time in the last ten years, I became interested in the various wars that have taken place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From the American Civil War, through the Boer Wars, the Franco-Prussian War, and the First World War (sorry for the Western-centric bias, I’m no expert, and it’s all I know). And to my mind, the First World War is the one that shaped the modern world more than any other event in mankind’s long and torrid history. There seems to be no part of the world that was not affected, and there is an astonishingly rich, disturbing, and compelling photographic record of a time when men were first able to use modern technology to settle old scores.  The films and photographs strip away any heroism and glamour that was traditionally presented in depictions of war.

War documentaries can be difficult to watch. Some people claim that modern films have hardened us to violence and suffering, but things are much different when you know you’re watching something that really happened to real people. I think each of us owes it to ourselves to find out as much as we can about our past – why we are where we are. Forget the heroism of the war films, and make the effort to understand just how brutal wars have always been. There are lessons for all of us here.

There aren’t, as far as I know, very many World War One documentaries out there. So I’ve made a short list of the ones I have found, and my hope is that someone will come along and add to it, and maybe even discover something they’ve not seen before.

The First World War
Based on the excellent book by Hew Strachan, The First World War is the one that I think is the best presented. Rather than showing us old footage by itself, this documentary often shows us what the places where the events took place look like now, reminding us that we are still very much living with the (often unresolved) consequences of something that can otherwise seem rather distant. The ten episodes are each based around a single theme; however, since it would surely be impossible to completely describe events within such a framework, there is much necessary deviation. In all, the excellent presentation makes this one my favourite documentary on any subject, not just the First World War, and the one I keep watching again and again.

The Great War
This epic 26-part BBC series is still very watchable. It deals simply with the facts, from beginning to end in linear fashion, with very little extension or speculation. TV budgets weren’t then what they are now, so it consists of mostly contemporary footage, with some interviews. If this is the sort of no-nonsense, authoritative presentation you like, I can highly recommend it.

The Battle Of The Somme
A silent film from 1916, this one is fascinating because it was presented to the British public at the time, who were somewhat shocked to be presented with the real horror of war. This film is the source of what is probably the most commonly shown staged scene, where a group of soldiers go ‘over the top’, with one appearing to be shot, and sliding back down rather unconvincingly.

The Last Day Of The First World War
A fascinating documentary that deals with the very last hours of the war. Even after the armistice had been negotiated, the cease fire was not scheduled to take place until 11 O’clock on the 11th of November. In spite of that knowledge, many men were still sent to their deaths, almost as if there was an attempt to get in as much killing as possible before the end. The indifference to the lives of the fighting men is nowhere better illustrated.

The First World War From Above
This documentary shows contemporary aerial reconnaisance footage. The views of the trenches from the air are not often seen elsewhere, and the unexpected geometric patterns are rather surprising. Aerial images of the destruction caused by millions of shells are, frankly, astonishing.

The First World War In Colour
This contains footage that you’ll probably have seen elsewhere. Someone has somehow programmed a computer to add a small range of colours to the images. It will probably most interest those people who find black-and-white footage ‘too boring to watch’ (yes, they do exist), but if you’ve seen the footage before, it will seem interesting at first, but not exceptional.

The Century Of Warfare
I’ve run out of documentaries that deal solely with WWI, so I’ll mention this series. The Century Of Warfare discusses (as you’d expect from the title) the Wars from the beginning up to the end of the 20th Century; which, it has to be said, is revealed as an especially turbulent time in our already turbulent history. Several episodes are devoted to WWI, and the content consists entirely of old footage, accompanied by what I’d describe as an authoritative and unspeculative narration. Again, very good if that’s what you’re looking for. The presentation has been described by our transatlantic cousins are ‘rather dry and British’. But what sort of criticism is that :-)

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