“The First World War” aired in 2003 as a 10-part miniseries. Since then, this 500-minute history—which was based on a book by Oxford professor Hew Strachan and directed by Corina Sturmer, Marcus Kiggell and Simon Rockell—has been recognized as one of the best WW I documentaries ever made.
I won’t dispute that, though I’ll quickly add that it’s not perfect. But it does what a good documentary is supposed to do: it illuminates a subject, telling you things you didn’t already know and unveiling new archival footage. I don’t think I’m being arrogant when I say that I’ve read a ton of books about WWI and have seen almost as many films and documentaries, so I really didn’t expect to learn much when I started watching “The First World War.” But the strength of this series is that it approaches the war from completely different angles than most of the other accounts.
That’s both good and bad. It’s good for history buffs wanting to know about the complexities of The Great War that haven’t really been covered before, and for people like myself who don’t want to hear a voiceover drone on and on in dramatic fashion about the obvious, about things that we’ve all read in books. This series has fresh thesis after thesis. It’s a revelation, with every episode full of new footage or facts and perspectives about the war that will come as a surprise to most viewers. But that’s bad news for history teachers who are looking for films to show to their classrooms. The episodes aren’t neatly divided into established categories, like trench warfare, chemical warfare, war in the air, war in the sea, and key battles that create a virtual timeline for the four-year global conflict. All of those elements are here, but presented in broader context, as this series really gets at the “why” and the “how” of WWI history. We get, for example, a chapter that debunks the easy explanation of how the war began with a simple assassination, and we get a chapter on how the Ottoman Empire summoned all Muslims to Jihad—to overthrow the Allies in the Middle East. You know, complicated narratives that sprawl and elbow their way as they go.
There’s footage you’ve never seen before as well, much of it from newly opened archives in Central and Eastern Europe—like film of Kaiser Wilhelm hunting, or photos of a very, very young Winston Churchill. And when color photos of the troops are shown, it’s almost mind-blowing. Publicly, the impetus behind the U.S. entering the war was the sinking of the Lusitania. But privately? A telegram revealed that Germany was encouraging Mexico to attack the U.S.
Jonathan Lewis provides the voiceover, and the narration doesn’t mince words. “War for Europe meant war for the world,” he intones, and then we get proof after proof of how interconnected the world was, even then. “It was Germany’s idea to take the war beyond Europe,” he explains, and we get an episode about how the conflict quickly spread from the South Atlantic to Africa. If you thought concentration camps were an outgrowth of WWII, think again. If you thought that trench warfare was planned, catch the second episode. There’s a revelation in every episode.
From my perspective, the weakest parts of this excellent documentary are the shots of old battlefield sites as they appear now. There’s just such a disconnect between the voiceover narration and the visuals and what we see in color pales compared to the striking vintage black-and-white footage that you don’t savor these excerpts, you tolerate them until the next knock-your-socks-off archival materials flash across the screen.
As for strengths? This is a series driven by original research and theses, and “The First World War” feels like news. There’s plenty of previously unseen archival footage, and instead of the usual complement of talking heads and “experts” we get readings from actual memoirs and diaries—eyewitness accounts that, coupled with the archival footage, really pack a punch. There’s great variety, and included among them is an illustrated diary of a 10-year-old schoolboy’s record of the German occupation.
This three-disc DVD comes with a cover insert that gives a complete annotated description of each episode, presented here to give you an idea not only of the episode content but the scope and complexity of each installment, as much of the language is taken directly from the voiceover narration:
1) “To Arms.” The First World War shaped the twentieth century. It sparked the Russian Revolution, and it launched America as a world power. The fault lines from its failed peace settlement led to a second terrible world war barely twenty years later. We live with its unresolved consequences: in the Middle East, the Balkans and Ireland. It began as a clash in the Balkans, which grew to engulf Europe and the world. Britain joined in, more to protect her great empire than for the defense of small nations. The merciless pattern of the war was set early on, by Austro-Hungarian atrocities against Serbian civilians.
2) “Under the Eagle.” The first months of the war on the Western Front were mobile, fast and dangerous; casualty rates were higher than with later trench warfare. The Germans were halted by the Allies at the Battle of the Marne, fell back to high ground and dug in. The Allies followed suit. The resulting line of trenches stretched from the Channel to Switzerland. Now 11 million French and Belgian civilians were under occupation. German brutality was no myth. Resistance was ruthlessly suppressed. Civilians, including women and children, were massacred, used as human shields, and sent to concentration camps as hostages and forced laborers.
3) “Global War.” War for Europe meant war for the world. Germany gambled that Britain might risk everything to protect her Empire—even victory on the Western Front. So, to divert British resources, maverick German commanders led the British a dance: across the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. They became legends in Germany and Britain—men like Admiral Grav von Spee, who inflicted Britain’s greatest naval defeat for 250 years. The global war sucked in Africans, Chinese and Indians to serve in France. Meanwhile, the war in Africa exploited its people and left behind a wasteland, but sowed the seeds of self-determination.
4) “Jihad.” The Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally, summoned all Muslims to Jihad—Holy War—to overthrow Allied power in the Middle East. Turkey’s search for scapegoats after defeat by the Russians at Sarikamish led to the mass-deportation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps 800,000 Armenians died in all. The Allies initially thought Turkey—the “sick man of Europe”—would be a push-over, but Turkey tied up Allied troops across the Middle East for four years, winning triumphantly at Gallipoli with terrible losses on both sides, and then at Kut, south of Baghdad, forcing the British into humiliating surrender.
5) “Shackled to a Corpse.” The war on the Eastern Front was racial: Slav versus Teuton. It was highly mobile, fought across brutal terrain from the Urals to the Alps. It initiated many horrors of twentieth century warfare: chemical weapons, mass expulsions of civilians, and the persecution of Jews. The Italian front with Austria-Hungary was perhaps the bitterest of all. Soldiers lived and fought for years in the harshest environments, enduring avalanches and frostbite as well as relentless enemy action. Mistrust and contempt increasingly threatened alliances. Germany shored up her ally Austria-Hungary, feeling herself “shackled to a corpse,” which Austria-Hungry saw Germany as her “secret enemy.”
6) “Breaking the Deadlock.” Attrition, “lions led by donkeys,” the slaughter only ceasing for a brief truce one Christmas—old, mistaken views of the war on the Western Front. In fact there were constant tactical evolutions; hundreds of generals died in action; some men adopted a system of “Live and Let Live,” with countless informal local truces. The Germans tried new ideas at Verdun: 750,000 French and Germans died with little gain. After terrible failure on the Somme, the British used tanks at Cambrai, but the Germans clawed back lost ground. Victory on the Western Front would go to the side that learned to consolidate success.
7) “Blockade.” The British expected a second Trafalgar—but within days German submarines turned the North Sea into a no-go area for Britain’s great battleships. The British responded with a blockade of Europe to starve the enemy out. Germany launched submarine attacks against civilian ships, including the Lusitania with 1200 lives lost. America acted as arsenal and banker to the warring nations, but was deeply reluctant to join in. Then, top secret British code-breakers deciphered the Zimmerman telegram, which revealed that Germany was encouraging Mexico to attack America. Now, America joined the First World War.
8) “Revolution.” Increasingly governments faced the risk of their men mutinying, morale cracking, and civilians rising up in strikes and civil disobedience. As governments worried about containing unrest at home, they set agents working to foment revolution among the enemy. Britain sponsored the Arab Revolt through Lawrence of Arabia, Germany backed Irish independence with arms for the Easter Rising and funded Lenin’s Russian coup d’etat in 1917. Revolution became a weapon of war, hitting the enemy from within. When Lenin pulled Russia out of the war, it vindicated all Germany’s efforts to use subversion, releasing half a million German soldiers for the Western Front.
9) “Germany’s Last Gamble.” In March 1918 Germany launched a massive offensive on the Western Front—her bid to win the war before the Americans arrived. The mastermind was General Erich Ludendorff—a genius but unstable. Within days the British 5th Army was in retreat, Paris under shell-fire. Some Allies feared defeat. But Germany’s allies Ottoman Turkey and Austria-Hungary were starving and demoralized. The war-weary German Home Front was infected with dangerous socialist ideas. Then Ludendorff’s great offensive ran out of steam. It had stormed ahead without strategic aims or supplies. German soldiers slowed, exhausted and hungry. And then the Americans started pouring in.
10) “War without End.” The war’s last months were more destructive than trench warfare had been. Germany remained on French soil, believing herself unbeaten. The Armistice was the Allies’ bid to obtain—on paper—Germany’s unconditional surrender. At Versailles she was made to shoulder the blame for the war, to force her to pay for it. The war, with losses over 20 million, was later deemed as a senseless waste. At the time it was seen in positive terms. For defense against aggression. For glory. It curbed militarism, for a while, but was not the war to end all wars. Its terrible message to the century it shaped was that war can fulfill ambitions. That war can work.
Images are stretched to fit a 1.78:1 widescreen format, and for the most part you don’t notice any distortion. As with all archival footage the quality varies, but overall it’s quite good. My Blu-ray player upconverted it nicely, and contrast levels were excellent throughout.
The audio is as you’d expect: a fairly workmanlike Dolby Digital 2.0 that doesn’t enhance the visuals nor does it detract from them. It’s there, and it does the job. The featured audio is in English, with English SDH subtitles.
There are no bonus features. But with a documentary this good, who needs them?
If you think you know all there is to know about World War I, give this 10-part miniseries a try. It’s one of the best accounts of The Great War because it combines previously unseen archival footage with diary accounts (no talking heads) and a broader understanding of the war that was based on equally broad research.