Hew Strachan’s “The 1st World War” on BBC4 is Unmissable.

Hew Strachan's 1st. World War on BBC4.

Hew Strachan’s 1st. World War on BBC4.

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.

The balance of power in Europe in 1914.

The bal­ance of power in Europe in 1914.

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.

The Battle of the Falklands in December 1914 where the British finally caught up with the brilliant Maxamilian von Spee.

The Bat­tle of the Falk­lands in Decem­ber 1914 where the British finally caught up with the bril­liant Max­a­m­il­ian von Spee.

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.

Maxamilian con Spee and his two sons eventually went down with their crew at the Battle of the Falklands.

Von Spee and his two sons even­tu­ally went down with their crew at the Bat­tle of the Falklands.

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.

The book on which the series is based.

The book on which the series is based.

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.

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  1. Bang on, super series, have been watch­ing avidly. Have tweeted your excel­lent review.

    • It’s great isn’t it? And it’s com­pletely changed my per­spec­tive on it. They didn’t sleep­walk into it. They were a group of com­pet­ing empires pur­su­ing their God given inter­ests. Plus que ca change and all that. Thank you kindly sir, always appre­ci­ate your inter­est and sup­port! A.

  2. cig­a­rette Hew Strachan’s “The 1st World War” on BBC4 is Unmiss­able. | Anthony O’Keeffe’s Blog

  3. John Graham says:

    Does any­one know what is the music in this series is please?

  4. e-cig liq­uid Hew Strachan’s “The 1st World War” on BBC4 is Unmiss­able. | Anthony O’Keeffe’s Blog

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