Sunday, 26 January 2014

Paxman's Great War

Actually, the title of the BBC's new "flagship" documentary series on World War I is Britain's Great War, and it begins on BBC1 in a few days' time.  No doubt most of you have already heard the criticisms of the selection of Jeremy Paxman as the series presenter, so we won't dwell on the question of whether he actually knows enough about the subject.  Paxman himself has weighed in on the side of historian Richard Evans in the great debate the latter has been having with the UK Education Secretary Michael Gove about whether "the Left" belittles the efforts of the British Tommy and his allies by going against the current trend of viewing the war as justified and inevitable.

We won't go into that either.  I have a pretty good idea of what members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship think.  Siegfried didn't hate the Germans; neither did he hate the generals, as some of his poetry might lead us to think.  His motivation for refusing to fight on in 1917 is fully described in the "Soldier's Declaration" and we need look no further.  He may have been suffering from what would now be called "post-traumatic stress", but he had not completely lost his reason.  The fashionable suggestion that we should view the bottom-up view of the war presented by Sassoon and Owen as somehow inferior by comparison with the top-down view presented in official histories is generally disregarded by our members. Ordinary people have, for many years now, been reading the poetry and memoirs of those who fought the war, and have found them simultaneously disconcerting and inspiring.  The fact that the authors were viewing the war from a particular perspective does not invalidate their views.

In the current issue of Radio Times, the BBC presents its schedule for commemorating the centenary of the war, and it is a combination of the predictable and the imaginative.  On Radio 4, you can listen to a 100-hour drama series, beginning in August, called Home Front.  37 Days, a three-part drama on BBC2, will chart the story of the events leading up to the war.  We can also look forward to the inevitable fictionalised portrayal of wartime nurses (personally I would have preferred a repeat of Testament of Youth), starring the BBC's current pet actresses and Charlie Chaplin's Spanish-born granddaughter.

Documentaries we can look forward to include Royal Cousins of War and Teenage Tommies, both on BBC2 - I think those titles speak for themselves.  Tommy and Jerry's Camera, on BBC4, will attempt to look at life in the trenches from both sides of the conflict.  Equally interesting to most Sassoonists, I suspect, will be the cultural contribution, though largely confined to radio (The Ballads of the Great War on Radio 2 and Music in the Great War on Radio 3).  Admirers of Andrew Graham-Dixon can, however, loo forward to Artists of War on BBC4; I see that he is "exploring the work of three British artists" and can't help thinking "what about all the others?".

The commemorative service at Westminster Abbey will be held on 4th August and broadcast live, as will the morning service at Glasgow Cathedral and the ceremony at St Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons.  The Battle of Mons marked the start of fighting in earnest between British and German forces.  Many of the British were reservists - new conscripts hadn't completed their training yet - and found themselves driven back by the sheer fire-power of the opposition.  Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment, the first British soldier to be killed in action in 1914, had died two days earlier and is buried at St Symphorien, as are George Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers and George Price, a Canadian infantryman, both of whom were killed shortly before the Armistice came into effect on 11th November 1918.  It makes this cemetery a particularly appropriate place to commemorate the war.

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