The 1st. World War is a ten part series that was first broadcast on Channel 4 in 2003 and in currently being reshown on BBC4. Produced and narrated by Jonathan Lewis and based on Hew Strachan’s universally admired 2001 book, this is quite simply the definitive series on the war.
On the one hand, and unlike so many contemporary programmes, it’s based entirely around one man’s views on the topic. So instead of bolstering its polemic with the views of various other academics, or worse, feigning impartiality by presenting a so say balanced view, what you have instead is a good old fashioned, God’s eye view that fans of John Grierson and the BBC of old will be familiar with.
And on the other, it tells its clear and wonderfully concise narrative through a combination of the letters that the individual soldiers sent back home to England, Germany, Russia, Japan and Africa, with rare archive footage, and easy to follow graphics that walk us through the peaks and troughs of the various campaigns.
So episode 3 for instance (last week’s episode) explained how what had begun as a regional power struggle quickly escalated into a global war.
Germany had encouraged its ally Austria to take revenge on Serbia for the assassination of its Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June of 1914. Serbia was allied with Russia, and Russia had signed a treaty with the French. When then the Germans attacked France via Belgium, they gave Britain the excuse it needed to weigh in, as the British were the guarantors on Belgian neutrality.
Thus Britain, France and Russia were drawn up against Germany and the Austro Hungarian Empire, and inevitably the Ottoman Empire to the East was soon involved. So Germany decided to distract the British, French and Russians by threatening their interests in the far flung reaches of the globe in the hope of diverting their resources from the Western front. And a succession of campaigns were conducted by rogue German military mavericks in China, the Americas and on the coasts of Africa. In this way, a European conflict became a genuinely global one.
Impressively, the programme managed to maintain a delicate balance between telling a gripping story of the struggle for power between competing global empires, and the effect that that struggle had on the lives of ordinary Africans and Asians who were thoughtlessly used as their fodder.
This obviously is entirely dependent on the reliability of your guide. Happily, Strachan is as authoritative a pair of eyes as you could wish for. The book which the series is based on was originally commissioned by the Oxford University Press and is the first part of what is planned as a trilogy. You can read Robert McCrum’s review of it in the Observer here, which was just one of a slew of stellar reviews it got.
Refreshingly, and in stark contrast to either Sir Max Hastings or Niall Ferguson, both of whom had programmes on the BBC last week, and both of whom wear their biases as a badge of pride, whatever Strachan’s personal prejudices are on the War, he keeps them firmly in check. And what he produces instead is the definitive overview of the events that shaped the 20th century.
The 1st World War is a combination of all the very best that the medium of television is capable of. And don’t worry if you’ve missed the first few episodes. Each individual programme is themed and is designed to stand alone. You can catch up with it on Tuesdays on BBC4.
Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!