More top viewing, and the pity of war

13 Jan

I am sure you get the Wilfred Owen allusion there.

ABC1 is running documentaries of various vintages in the Monday 8.30 slot usually occupied by Four Corners. Last night we had the 2005 docudrama The Somme, using similar methods — biographies + personal documents + archival footage + reenactments — to those used in The First Australians. Done well it is an effective way to bring history to life.

World War 1’s Battle of the Somme, fought from 1 July to 18 November 1916, was a turning point in history. It was a modern battle of such prehistoric brutality that its horror is hard to comprehend. Brave patriotic men eagerly volunteered to fight for what they saw as a great and honourable cause, only to find themselves used as cannon fodder by their military and political leaders. Whole villages and communities marched to their deaths.

Narrated by Tilda Swinton, The Somme is a docu-drama which follows a group of young men through the first day of battle – a day when a whistle blow sent British and French soldiers ‘over the top’ and towards an almost certain death. Through reconstruction and historical records, the fates of several genuine officers and nurses who fought or served at the Battle of the Somme are followed. This was a battle fought by civilians on unfamiliar territory.

Private Cyril Jose, at the age of only fifteen, had lied on his conscription papers to join the swelling ranks of young men sent off to fight for their country. American heiress, Mary Borden, had left Chicago at the start of the Great War to work for the Red Cross, and by 1916 she had selflessly set up her own field hospital behind the British lines on the Somme. Captain Charlie May was only too aware of the impending slaughter and wrote a letter of farewell to his wife and baby just before going over the top. The planning of the battle was left to British General Rawlinson – a plan that would send thousands of men marching straight into the German machine gun posts.

Through the friendships and the fear, this moving film is told through the diaries and letters of men in the field – many of whom would never be reunited.

Jose survived and, we were told at the end, became a communist after the war. Not mentioned in the ABC summary above was the famous economic historian R H Tawney, whose story is also told: “During World War One, Tawney served as a Sergeant in the 22nd Manchester Regiment. He turned down an offer of a commission as an officer as a result of his political beliefs. He served at the Battle of the Somme, where he was wounded twice on the first day and had to lie in a field until the next day for evacuation. He was transported to a French field hospital and later evacuated to England.”

It is impossible to exaggerate how long a shadow was cast by World War I. You could say we are witnessing it right now in Gaza, since our current Middle East is entirely the product of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire at the end of that war, and of the arrangements made by the victors in its wake.

Personally, I recall visiting some maiden ladies in Shellharbour NSW in 1959 with my parents and grandfather, who that year was in Shellharbour participating as the then oldest surviving headmaster in the school’s centenary celebrations. The sitting room in that house was kept in darkness, and on the mantel were memorabilia of a brother killed in World War I. In the mid 1970s I had occasion to attend the Lady Davidson Home in Sydney, a veterans’ facility. There I saw men who had been institutionalised during World War I and were still there.

The pity of war indeed.

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Posted by on January 13, 2009 in 1950s, best viewing 2009, History, TV


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