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The Making of Timewatch: Last day of World War I

Updated Monday, 1st October 2007
The Producer and Director of the Last Day of World War One, John Hayes Fisher reveals how the programme developed, the key people involved and the events along the way which brought to light personal stories of a global war

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1 October 2007

I have been asked to make a programme about the last day of World War One for Timewatch. I’ve been interested in the Great War since I heard Lyn Macdonald’s wonderful radio documentary about Passchendaele in the mid 70s. With both my grandfathers serving in that conflict – one as a Lieutenant at Gallipoli and the other as a doctor on the Somme – I’m pretty pleased to be able to tell this story for Timewatch.

4 October 2007

I have chosen Paul Reed as my historical consultant for this programme. Paul is a writer and battlefield guide and he and I have worked together on two WW1 documentaries; The Forgotten Battlefield about the excavation of front line trenches to the north of Ypres in 2001 and then a couple of years later on Gallipoli- the First D-Day a programme about the 1915 Dardanelles campaign. This will be the fourth documentary I have now made about World War One.

16 October 2007

It’s our first recce to find filming locations in France and Belgium. Paul has taken me to a small communal cemetery to the south east of Mons as he wants to show me something. In the middle of this tiny cemetery are 9 headstones of soldiers from WW1. We see that 4 of them are men who died on 11th November 1918, almost certainly in the taking of Mons in the last hours of WW1. What is remarkable though are the 5 headstones in front of them from August 1914. These are the graves of soldiers killed in the opening weeks of WW1; the first engagements that later became known as the ‘retreat from Mons’. It’s just extraordinary thinking that these two sets of graves represent the start and the end of the war. Paul reckons that no-one knows about this place and this will certainly be the first time it’s been featured on television.

02 November 2007

I have heard today that the broadcaster and writer Michael Palin has agreed to present our documentary. I can’t think of a better person to front the programme. He is not associated with WW1 but I know that he has narrated an internal film for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission so I guess he must have something of an interest in the subject area. What I also know is that someone of his standing will bring viewers to the programme, perhaps viewers who might not usually tune into a documentary about World War One.

17 November 2007

Recce number two. We are now down in the Argonne region which is just over 20 miles north of Verdun way over in eastern France. It’s here where the Americans fought in the last 10 weeks of the war and where they suffered dreadful casualties, particularly on that final day of that conflict. Today we met local historian Jean-Paul de Vries who has a great museum in the small village of Romagne. Jean-Paul has amassed over 40,000 artefacts which he has recovered from the ground over which the Germans and the Americans fought. Jean-Paul shows us a German trench in the woods - still clearly visible and also a German WW1 bunker which is now frequented by wild boar! In the ploughed fields around the village we find evidence of the fighting from shrapnel to cartridge cases both American and German, just lying on the surface of the fields which have been ploughed. Paul even discovers a button from an American battle tunic from the time. Apparently it’s very rare.

In Jean-Paul’s village is the massive Meuse Argonne US cemetery which contains over 14,000 graves of soldiers from WW1 including over 100 from 11th November 1918 and what makes it worse is that the war was over by 11 in the morning. Poor fellows. The place is deserted and It seems that no-one visits this cemetery as its off the beaten track and yet it is far bigger than the US cemetery above Omaha beach in Normandy which has over a million visitors a year.

11 December 2007

I woke in the middle of the night when it suddenly came to me that I have to interview the author Joseph E Persico who wrote a book a couple of years back on the last day of the war. Joe is a writer rather than a historian and takes an interesting slant on the story claiming that there were over 10,000 casualties on the final morning of WW1 on all sides. Although people have written about the Armistice, no-one has put it into context the way he has, questioning the fact that people died unnecessarily. My only problem is that Joe lives in New York and heads south to Mexico for the winter and I have to fly there for the interview next week returning within 24 hours on the overnight flight to London. Who says making tv is glamorous!

15 December 2007

Just before midday I receive a phone call. Yes! After some weeks of searching we have found the grand-daughter of George Edwin Ellison, the last British soldier to die in World War! I knew Ellison’s family lived in Leeds when he was killed so I made an appeal on a BBC Yorkshire radio station hoping that the family were still living in the area, and following an appeal in York we eventually reached Ellison’s granddaughter. It appears that the family were aware that George was one of the last soldiers to die in WW1 but they knew very little more and have never seen a photo of George.

20 January 2008

A contact of Paul Reed has now found a photograph of George Ellison in a local Leeds paper from December 1918 the last British soldier to die in the Great War. We are trying to get a better copy from the British Newspaper Library as it’s a poor quality copy from microfilm. This is certainly a first as I have never seen a photo of Ellison before and I’m sure that next year when the programme goes out, this photo will be picked up by the newspapers which is good publicity for our documentary. We now have photos of the last British Soldier, the last Canadian, the last Frenchman, the last Belgian and the last soldier to be killed in action in WW1 - American Henry Gunther. And we have his photograph too!

5 February 2008

It’s the first day of filming with our presenter Michael Palin and we are at Compiegne where the Armistice negotiations took place that November of 1918. We film in the Allied supreme commanders Marshal Foch’s carriage. It’s not original because during WW2 the Germans took the original back to Germany where it was bombed later in the war. However the table, chairs, pens and inkpots on it are original. No-one is allowed to wear shoes in the carriage so we film everything from chest height to avoid showing Michaels shoeless feet! Rain cuts the ‘outside-filming’ short and then it’s a long drive to our next location with a brief stop for a warm pizza-like-sandwich in the back of the van. Slightly embarrassed but then I expect Michael has had worse lunches on his world travels and he certainly doesn’t complain!

12 February 2008

Today we are filming in the town square of Mons in Belgium, which the Canadians took on the final day of World War One. To our horror we find a Belgian TV outside broadcast truck right in front of the town hall where we were going to film! It seems that our filming has clashed with the Belgian ‘festival of love’ and we are competing with the Belgian’s for access to the town hall. I have sympathy with the Belgian tv producer who has to light the hall for the big press conference happening later that morning, but we manage keep one step ahead of the love-team and just about finish as the ‘beautiful people’ for the festival arrive!

13 February 2008

Today is a pretty significant day as ‘the Ellison’s (as I call them) have arrived. We have given Marie and Catherine the opportunity of visiting their grandfathers grave for the first time and understandably they are quite apprehensive. We have a discussion about them seeing the grave with Michael as we film and they are concerned - I think because they are quite emotional about seeing the place where their grandfather is buried. They are well aware that their father was just six when his dad died and this is almost certainly the first time any member of the family has visited the grave.

Catherine and Marie arrive at St Symphorien cemetery. It’s bitterly cold, but they have bought a beautiful bouquet of lilies for the grave and it all goes well. Michael is very sensitive with them and yes it is a very emotional experience I think for all of us. They are very dignified particularly realising that their father never managed to make it here to see his own father’s final resting place.

18 March 2008

Michael has returned to France with us for several PTC (pieces to camera). Paul has done some research on Michael’s great uncle Harry who was killed on the Somme in 1918 and we want to make the point in the film that almost every family in Britain was affected by World War One, so we are going back to the place close to the spot where Michael’s great uncle is commemorated. Paul shows Michael the field where Harry Palin was killed and he spends some time taking in the atmosphere, if that’s the right expression.


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