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World War One: A Timewatch podcast

Updated Monday, 20th October 2008

Does the end make a good starting point for understanding the First World War?

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Copyright The Open University


John Farren: Hi, I'm John Farren, Editor of the BBC Flagship History series Timewatch. In this podcast, we’re going to explore a little deeper some of the historical issues involved with the making of the programme, the Last Day of World War I. And with me in the studio to discuss this, I have Paul Reed, a Military Historian.

Paul Reed: Hello.

John Farren: Stuart Mitchell and Chris Williams, both Historians from the Open University.

Stuart Mitchell: Hello.

Chris Williams: Hi.

John Farren: In the programme, we followed the last soldiers fighting and dying on both sides of the Western Front, and we chose to do this through the lens of the television personality, Michael Palin. Not a historian but a well-known general personality. I'm going to talk a little bit about why we did that and then ask the panel whether they think it's kind of legitimate.

We were very interested in the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, and this programme came out as a result of a brainstormer. I have a producer who has a particular interest, John Hayes-Fisher in the First World War. He has strong personal connections. One of his antecedents was one of the donkeys, I think, a Cabinet Minister, and he said we've got to mark the 90th anniversary, and the BBC had no plans at this stage to mark the 90th anniversary and we started thinking that’s a shame.

And so we brainstormed about eight ideas, and the one that John suggested was the last day of World War I. He said I’d love to make a programme about this and nobody’s ever really researched what happened in the hours of the signing of the Armistice up to its actual implementation. And we started thinking about the only way you can tell that is by finding personal stories, and the obvious personal stories are the last casualties, the last man to die on each side, and that’s the form of narrative, a rather disparate narrative that we ended up with.

I think it works pretty well because you have a personality who’s telling you these personal stories but I'm interested, starting with yourself Chris, how did you think it worked?

Chris Williams: I think that worked very well indeed. I was particularly struck by, for example, the fact that the last Australian killed is some days before the end of the War, and what that brings into focus is the experience of the First World War that maybe a lot of us don’t appreciate is that it was a series of short intense bursts of combat. A division would be in the line for a certain number of days and then all being well they’d be pulled back out to recuperate. And by the end, when the British army’s working well and winning, they are planning the next phase of the advance and so the Australians had been rested to be thrown back into the fight a few days after that. I think that illustrated that point very well indeed.

John Farren: Paul, tell us a little bit about how you’ve approached World War I?

Paul Reed: My background is interviewing people that took part in it. I was lucky to interview over three hundred First World War veterans and also look at it from a primary source point of view from regimental records and diaries, and that’s how I’ve always approached the War. So, in doing that, you pick up on a lot of things that aren't in official histories or in secondary accounts of the War which many years later proved to be relevant to what you’re doing, and it was the same with this. We were able to slot in one or two stories in the lead up to the end of the War, which I researched many years ago, for example, the last Australians who died and the attack on lock number one, which features in the programme, when the Royal Sussex Regiment stormed the Sambre Canal.

And that really signalled the end of the First World War in terms, looking back on it now as an historian, we can see, and I mean I'm sure the soldiers at the time probably didn’t know that, and I interviewed someone who was there, and he was aware that the War was coming to an end but he didn’t realise that the battle that day would see the last seven days of the War, and no-one could have really, in the field, could have known that. So that was one example of material gleaned many years before suddenly becoming useful for something like this, and it enabled us to tell a story which is, that story is not written in any history of the War. So it means that in the programmes like this you can highlight incidents like that which in other mediums perhaps you wouldn’t always have the chance to do.

John Farren: Yes, certainly television, it's an emotional medium. We all know that that’s where its strength lies in its immediacy and it's in motion. Stuart, you were the historical consultant on this programme. How happy were you when I told you Michael Palin’s going to front it?

Stuart Mitchell: I was actually quite happy that Michael Palin was doing it, simply because he’s a useful brand. Of course, he has his personal connection, his great uncle died on the Somme and that actually personalises his narrative, his presentation of the programme. And because we can see that he has an emotional connection, it encourages, I hope it encourages, the audience to also look at their own family connections.

What was particularly piquant, I suppose, was the scene in which he takes the two grandchildren of Ellison to see their grandfather’s grave for the first time, and we can see there that the sort of deep and longstanding sense of loss actually manifesting itself. Now whether or not that will appeal to all of the audience, there may be those who think that’s too sentimental, but nonetheless this programme was made, in part, to commemorate the ending of the First World War.

So I think those types of stories are legitimate. Palin is a very sympathetic presenter for that type of thing. I don’t think you need a historian all the time because I think historians do sometimes get wrapped up in abstruse academic formulations and that can sometimes alienate an audience. Whereas Palin is instantly recognisable to the audience and he’s well loved and yet can still deliver a serious narrative.

Paul Reed: He gave it a bit of a human touch I think, particularly with something like that because many people watching that programme will think well that’s me, my relative died in the War, that could be me standing at his grave, and so I think it brings it home to them and probably, for many of them, it may well inspire them to go out and find that relative and visit his grave.

John Farren: Paul, you kind of do your research on the hoof for a programme like this, do you, or is it all preformed? Tell us a little bit about how that works?

Paul Reed: It's certainly not preformed because you never know which way it's going to go. I think that you’ve got an idea where your sources are going to be, and one of the great challenges for an historian working with television is then trying to visualise that - finding locations that will bring that story to life. And I suppose one of the benefits that I’ve had is twenty-five plus years of trudging around the Western Front. So when you’re going to be making a programme about the last day of the War, or the last period of a war, you’ve then got an opportunity to pluck a few locations that you know are going to look pretty good on the screen that will help explain events during the course of the programme.

John Farren: Stuart touched on the idea of sentimentality - I prefer to call it emotion myself - but Chris, where do you think the programme sat? Is it important that we don’t get sucked into sentimentality? Was there enough context?

Chris Williams: It depends on what you mean by sentimentality. At one point it's worthwhile remembering is that probably you’ll be very hard put to find a family in Britain today that didn’t have someone two or three generations back who either remembers fighting in the First World War, was lost fighting, a person was badly injured.

John Farren: Yourself?

Chris Williams: Yes, my own great grandfather, for example, was shell shocked on the Somme so that was the end of him. He’d lived to the forties but he was institutionalised for the rest of his life. And another great grandfather, great uncles, all over the place. And this is not exceptional is it? Not only that because, of course, outside Britain as well, you know, throughout the British Empire, to Senegal, to Morocco, to Poland, to Russia, and this was an experience that has sort of dissolved itself through the Europeans into I think the global consciousness. People that have ancestors, people who their parents knew or felt the lack of were only like two or three handshakes away.

So I think we can’t just say it's lines on a map because it does come down to personalities, it does come down to saying my father never knew his father, and that’s something which, if you care about your father, is important.

Stuart Mitchell: Yes, I would like to pick up on that idea that the programme actually shows perhaps in a way that we’re not used to in this country, the huge geographical spread. Not in terms of this particular topic because we’re talking about one particular segment of the Western Front, but in terms of who fought in the First World War. The programme’s very good at showing that this is not as the popular, I suppose, schoolyard myth would have it. It's not the Gerries against the Brits. This is something that involves a huge number of countries and we often forget things like the number of Commonwealth soldiers who were drawn into this conflict in support of the Empire - which, incidentally, shows us the enormous importance of the Empire to Britain’s self-image at that time as well.

Chris Williams: So we’re coming back to the fact that you can tell the story of a large incident by looking at individuals - so by the fact that we looked at the last Canadian to die impresses upon us the importance of the Canadians in 1918 in terms of that advance.

John Farren: Yes, that certainly shocked me that they were the go to guys on the Western Front, I had no idea.

Paul Reed: And I think when people go to the Western Front today, they’re actually surprised at how many Australian, Canadian, New Zealand memorials there are. Obviously this for them was a defining moment in their own histories in terms of this was the first occasion which large numbers of men from those countries participated in a big military event, such as a global war which this was. But also that all of those formations were at the forefront of the fighting in the last hundred days of World War I, and without the Commonwealth troops, without the infrastructure that the Commonwealth troops supplied us in terms of labour from the far-flung corners of what was then the British Empire, the First World War could not possibly have been won in 1918.

John Farren: It's interesting you mention when you go to the Western Front because, of course, a lot of people do go to the Western Front. It's probably one of the most visited, I don’t know if heritage is the right word, but it's a site where lots of people go. Why do you think that is and actually what can you do that connects you with the past there?

Paul Reed: I think one of the reasons why people go is possibly one of the reasons why you make programmes like this in the first place is that they’re curious, they want to know what happened but also, we’re now at a point ninety years after the end of the War in which there are only a handful of men that witnessed that conflict left alive and many people regret not having quizzed relatives or people they knew in times gone by. Now it's too late, they’ve all faded away.

People want to know what happened in the First World War. They know it was popular playground myth is slaughter, is poor generalship, mud, barbed wire, trenches and so on, and they’re looking to go on their own journey of discovery, in many ways like Michael Palin did, to try and find that out, and it takes them across to the battlefields because for many of them they think that’s the most obvious place to start.

Obviously, ninety years later, the ground is now very different but there are lots of things there that will give even the uninformed a sense of what the War was about, and one thing they’ll see more than anything is the huge numbers of cemeteries. Whether the losses were or were not justified, the sheer scale of losses in the First World War was something that you can visibly see like going out to places like Tyne Cot or the Menin Gate or any number of the memorials of the missing and just seeing these lists and lists of names. It's mind-blowing to some people.

John Farren: It's interesting because I’d never wanted to go until I watched this programme in the edit suite and I actually did go to Tyne Cot, and there’s one place that I'm going to go back to and it's the place where a Belgian-Dutch farmer shows Michael a recently ploughed field, it hasn’t been ploughed for ninety years and it is a harvest of iron as it is rather poetically described in the programme. Why do we, as people, respond so strongly to relics from the past? I mean it's archaeology of only ninety years ago. We can see those objects all around us, why is it so…?

Stuart Mitchell: Well there are two answers to that from my point of view. I suppose on the one hand, as historians, I respond to those as, if you like, a series of primary sources. That’s the evidence from the past, the physical evidence which you can’t necessarily get from the limited amount of film footage that we have of the First World War or from textual documents or descriptions in that way. That is the tangible hands-on stuff that is equally a part of our profession and craft as treaties and so forth.

But, for ordinary people, there is something in that which reconnects individuals, particularly things like the shaving kit that was found, the mess tin was found, and this reconnects, I suspect, the audience, let’s say, rather than ordinary people, to the, in some ways, utter sort of humdrum nature of parts of the War experience for those who were fighting it. Most soldiers didn’t spend the majority of their time fighting. They spent very little of their time actually fighting. They spent an awful lot of time being shunted around all over the place and they spent an awful lot of time sitting around eating, talking, smoking, whatever, and it's reconnecting the audience to the idea of almost a domestic life in the middle of this utter horror and carnage which occurs in these very brief but very brutal blips.

John Farren: Chris Williams, of the Open University, one of the things that surprised me was the difference in approach between the various protagonists that the Americans were still very, very gung-ho, throwing men into actions that were going to cost them their lives right up to the last minute, the French certainly contesting everything very bitterly at the conference table, everyone else kind of quite war-wary and the Germans, obviously, on the point of collapse. Is that something that tells us a bigger lesson of what’s happening between the super powers?

Chris Williams: Well that surprised me as well but I do think there are explanations for it. If you look, for example, which army is the motor of the War on the Western Front throughout the period 1914 to 1918, and the first two years, we remember the Mons, we remember the BS battles in 1915, but really they are side shows. It was the French doing the attacking, doing the defending. That the British arrive in numbers on the Somme and still the French are doing the big jobs. And they try a series of attacks in 1917 which failed miserably and knock the heart out the French Army.

And then, from 1917, those failures are mutinies. The French have this problem which is just to try and rebuild their army to a stage where it can start attacking again and bits of the French army are very good at attacking. They’re the ones who turned the tide in July 1918. But overall, it's an army that has suffered a million casualties and so they want to drive the Germans out of France but they don’t necessarily, each individually want to die as much as the others.

The British Army has done all the attacking. The British Imperial Army has done the attacking over the summer and the autumn of 1918. But they, of course, this comes from the horrible experience of having to learn how to fight a mass army is created, not a conscript army like the French one or the German but a mass army of volunteers, people who aren't soldiers, and so they’d been doing the fighting and advancing successfully since the summer of 1918. Many of them aren't going to move to keep going.

The Americans, on the other hand, still had more of the sense of one more heave, maybe we can do this ourselves, that the British had in 1916, that the French had in 1914, they have yet, collectively, to learn how to do things, if you like, and politically as well. Woodrow Wilson gives General Pershing an amazing amount of independence, and Pershing wants to make sure to build an American place at the conference table, the American army’s got to stay together, it's got to be the one that wins the War if at all possible. And, essentially, the Germans fold quicker than anyone is expecting.

Now Haig’s thinking about the victorious battle of March 1919, up until the beginning of October, it catches everyone by surprise. It's almost as if the Americans are looking forward to being the ones who actually do win the War rather than, as really happened, turning up and adding an important contribution but, essentially, the party’s over by the time they get there. The money’s important and the future’s important. The fact there are millions of them on the way is the crucial factor. But for the people fighting on the ground, they could see that the action was elsewhere.

And so I can see why this happened. Why the Americans were the ones who were pushing to the last minute. Other people pushed to the last minute as well, not just Americans but certainly there seems to be a tendency that that was going on.

Paul Reed: I think, as well, I think you’re dead right, I think as well that one of the aspects that occurred to me when we were doing this is that the Americans were very keen to fight right up to the last second because this was America’s last opportunity to put the American army on the world stage.

Chris Williams: Yes.

Paul Reed: That the Armistice technically was only a ceasefire but it almost certainly saw an end to the War. And I think you can explain the huge fatal casualties in the American Expeditionary Force on the 11th of November, at least three hundred, possibly over four hundred dead, compared to a fraction of that number in the British and Commonwealth forces, in that American commanders, there’s a direct correlation between senior officers and post-war political careers, and I think that if you were a senior divisional commander, core commander in the American army in 1918, at a future election, whatever it was, you’d want to be able to stand up and say I took my men to fight the enemy to the last second, the guy who’s opposing me didn’t and therefore I'm the better candidate. And I think people were looking in that direction, certainly senior officers within the American Expeditionary Force. Others made the decision to fight right up to the last minute for bizarre reasons, to capture bath houses and things like that, which defy belief or explanation ninety years later.

Chris Williams: But they do partly because we've moved on in a sense that we didn’t grow up in a culture where fighting for your country was rammed down your throat as being a fine and noble thing to do. Then go through four and a half years of essentially indoctrination and watching older brothers, watching fathers and uncles dying and thinking soon it’ll be my turn, what am I going to do? I think it's very difficult for us who see war as an essentially illegitimate tool maybe less than we did ten years ago, I'm not sure, and also see war as something which is fought by professionals. It's very difficult for us to think ourselves back into the minds of those people in the autumn of 1918 who have lived for and by war and done well or done badly and surprised that they were good or bad at this. You know, how they are feeling about this.

So, for example, I’ve just seen a letter by Freyberg, a New Zealand General in the Second World War, he’s a Colonel in the First World War. He writes a letter to Winston Churchill what we did on the morning - he had a marvellous time - we heard that the Germans were twenty kilometres away, if we do one last raid and at two minutes to we were galloping through the village shooting it up with revolvers. It's almost as if this war is party but what’s history done to these people.

Paul Reed: But if you take that to the level of Haig, I think the difference between Haig and Pershing is that Pershing knew that he could almost fully justify fighting up to the end of the War in a post-war world, whereas Haig probably felt that he couldn’t, given his troubled relationship with the Prime Minister. And I think that’s why you see a minority of British and Commonwealth units committed to battle on the last day of the War compared to the majority of American units.

John Farren: What surprised me, and made me very happy, was how much I learnt from watching this programme. The reason that I commissioned this programme is because we wanted to make people choose to remember on the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, and I'm just going to finish this off by asking the panel the one small thing that you take away from this. Is there an anecdote or a moment, just as a viewer, not as a historian, that you take away as a viewer from this programme, what would it be for you, Chris?

Chris Williams: I suppose it would be the accidental nature when it comes down to it. When you look at war on the level of individuals, when you look at the last individuals, just how incredibly random the whole thing is, how unplanned.

John Farren: Stuart?

Stuart Mitchell: I think it's probably the capacity of war to induce a sense of loss all these years later. It's actually the human side that the programme very accurately portrays and I felt myself choked at certain points during the programme.

John Farren: For example?

Stuart Mitchell: Well particularly the scene where Ellison’s two granddaughters see his grave for the first time. That’s living history, if you like. It's people experiencing history and finding a personal connection with family who went through these dreadful events.

John Farren: Paul, you walked through these graves yet again with Michael Palin. What was the single most - enjoyable might not be the right word but memorable moment?

Paul Reed: I think the most impressive one was the story of the last overall casualty, as far as we know, Gunter, the American, advancing into the fog on those last minutes of the War, gets hit by a burst of machine gunfire from a German soldier somewhere in the distance. He himself is of German descent, German against German almost, and he falls and as he falls, the second he hits the soil of France, the War ends, and that was probably one of the most tragic episodes of the whole campaign. How his parents could have rationalised that afterwards, we can only but imagine. It's one of those unending questions of the War and unanswered ones.

John Farren: Okay, Paul Reed, Military Historian, Stuart Mitchell and Chris Williams of the Open University, as ever, very interesting to talk to you all. My abiding memory of this will be the fact that we reconnected Michael Palin with his own family history, that he knew that he’d lost a great uncle on the Somme, but Paul was able to fill in the gaps in his family knowledge. If you’re listening to this, go and seek out your own story, you will have one.







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