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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