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Leveraging mobile technologies and Web 2.0 tools to engage those with an interest in the centenary of the First World War in the stories of the people of the era using strategically placed Quick Response codes.

Jonathan Vernon at the Design Museum. J F Vernon (2011)

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Fig. 1. Lewes War Memorial, East Sussex, England     J F Vernon (2011)

The problem with war memorials is that those named on them risk becoming forgotten words on a list.

By using the Web we can find out who these people named on the war memorials were and where they lived; we can try to put a face to the name and a story to the name  … and then we can share what we find.

There are more than 54,000 war memorials in Great Britain, most of these put up after the First World War. There is barely a community without one. Significant interest already exists, especially as we approach the centenary of the First World War making this initiative a potentially easy one to add to what is already taking place.

Fig. 2. British Legion Poppy featuring a Quick Response Code

In his 2011 book ‘The Digital Scholar’ Martin Weller  shares the thoughts of Brian Lamb to describe those technologies that ‘lend themselves to … the networked and open approach’ as ‘fast, cheap and out of control’.

It was with this in mind, taking an interest in the centenary of the First World War and obsession with war memorials that I started to think about using Quick Response codes as a personalized entry point to the Web that anyone could generate in order to share a story about someone who served in the conflict, and to do so both online and on the street.

Quick Response codes are fast, they are free and their potential in learning has yet to be realised.

Worn in this way, featured in the center of your commemoration Poppy, you can share directly with others the person whose life you wish to remember, as well as directing people to the content online and inviting them to ‘adopt’ a name from a war memorial themselves. Though exploiting the Web, this is designed as a ‘blended’ experience that uses face-to-face, community and classroom experiences, as well as taking people outside to monuments, buildings, streets and battlefields.

                                                                                  Esponsorvik (2014 )

Fig. 3. Toyota Quick Response Code and Using a TV remote control Espensorvik. Flickr

‘QR codes’ are a product of the car manufacturing industry. Faced with increasingly complex components, Denso, a supplier to Toyota, came up with what is a 2 dimensional bar code in the 1990s (Denso, 2010). Made free of patent, and using free software anyone can now generate their own unique QR code. You can even print them out on standardised sticky label stationery.

Fig. 4. Google Search ‘Quick Response Codes Education Images’ (2014)

There are a myriad of uses for QR codes, from embedding information that is read and stored by the device to a quick link to rich content online. Barrett, 2012). The interest here is to use QR codes to link to learning resources, in mobile, or ‘m-learning’ contexts in particular and for users to both read and write such context.

I liken QR codes to using your phone as a remote control to click to a TV channel (Fig 3) . You point a smartphone, or tablet at the QR code to read it and go instantly, pretty much, to a web page.

Their use in education in the last decade has been limited. ‘Refereed (sic) papers are few’ (Gradel & Edson, 2012), but between these and other published reports, suggestions can be made regarding their strengths or weaknesses.

If QR codes are to be used successfully then champions need to be identified to take up the cause in schools, colleges and local associations. Whilst QR codes use the power of the Web to connect people to rich content, that they may create themselves, a good deal of thoughtful planning will be necessary ‘in the classroom’, not just explaining how to make use of QR codes, but also working them in, where appropriate to current learning schedules where QR codes used in this way will meet clear learning objectives. Support online could be provided in a short eLearning module.

What has been shown repeatedly, in museums and ‘out in the field’, is that simply ‘put out there’ the QR codes are ignored (Gradel & Edson, 2012). An innovation such as this requires considerable promotion and support.  This makes the idea of wearing your own QR code on a Commemoration Poppy all the more appealing, as each person becomes an ambassador on the ground, for that nugget of information, especially if they are responsible for creating and hosting that content.

The opportunity exists, therefore, mentored and guided by educators, with support online, for schools, colleges and associations to engage people in bringing the stories of those named on our war memorials alive. In this way a deeper and more meaningful connection is made with the past and our relationship to it.

Copyright © 2010, The New York Times Company. Photography by Jim Wilson

Fig. 4. Handheld curator:  IPod Touches and visitors at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (The New York Times)

According to the 2009 Horizon report (Horizon, 2009) the following would be of growing significance in teaching: mobile devices, clouding computing and the personal web. As an innovative approach, QR codes exploit all three of these developments.

Use of QR codes in learning however has had mixed results. Simply putting a QR code in front of a museum artifact, as they’ve done at the Museum of London and did at the Design Museum does not work (Vernon, 2013)  – there is plenty already, there is little to attract or promote their use, not everyone has a smartphone or tablet of course and the technology is often not robust – ‘out of use’ signs are familiar. Outdoors QR codes added to signs in the South Downs National Park, for example, barely received a view a day during a three month trial and in some instances there was no signal at all (Kerry-Bedel 2011; South Downs, 2012).

Where QR codes have been successful is in targeted learning experiences in schools (Tucker, 2011; Gradel & Edson, 2012), where the affordances of the QR code have been exploited to form part of an engaging, constructive and collective learning experience. To be effective this initiative with war memorials requires galvanizing people to take part in a joint exercise – easier with a class in school or college, less easy with the general public unless it is through a national, regional or local community association or interest group.

Examples where QR codes work include where participants are ‘equipped’, and where they can take an active role, such as in ‘on the spot’ surveys or quizzes, where they are prompted into cooperative learning and where timely ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ are given. (Awano, 2007: Information Standards Committee 2008; So 2008; Robinson, 2010; Hicks & Sinkinson, 2011; Ryerson Library & Archives, 2012.)

K Lepi (2012)Copyright 2013 © Edudemic All rights reserved

Fig 5 . A Simple Guide to Four Complex  Learning Theories. Lepi (2012)

The theory behind the idea of using QR codes in a mobile and open way, is that in the digital age ‘connectivism’ is the ‘modus operandi’. In this diagram (Fig. 5)  from Edudemic (Edudemic 2012) traditional and digital theories are concerned. All are relevant, each has its place, with the digital environment offering new and additional approaches to learning.

Whilst traditional learning methods have their role in schools, lecture halls and with mature students too, the complete learning package requires a level and quality of interaction and connectedness that can only be achieved on the Web and be effective where the body of learners is large and their approach is open and shared so that knowledge acquisition comes through the challenges and rewards of such intercourse.

Connections won’t occur however unless they are nurtured. By way of example, wishing to support and promote the combat memoirs of my late grandfather John Arhtur Wilson MM (Vernon, 2012) a number of organizations will be approached up and down the UK in relation to his experiences in the Durham Light Infantry, Machine Gun Corps and Royal Air Force. The Web will both help identify, forge and maintain and develop first and subsequent connections in what would hopefully be, to be effective, a two way, shared, open and reciprocal relationship. The beauty of having content  already online is that others can quickly view it and images, text and sound files, even video, adjusted to suit different audiences, or uses – and used freely where appropriate copyright permissions are given.

JFVernon 2010 from statistics from Jakob Nielsen (1999)

Fig 6 . Creators, commentators and readers – how use of the Web stacks up. Vernon (2010) after Nielsen (1999)

This degree of connectedness does not come naturally. Just as there can be no expectation that people will use a QR code because it is there – they won’t. With an innovative approach such as this promotion is crucial. Significant time, thought and effort need to be put into letting people know what is taking place and supporting their participation.

Only a fraction of a population are naturally inclined to generate content.

Jakob Nielsen (1999) would suggest that as few as 1% create content (Fig. 6). If content is therefore to be created by participants then very large numbers need to be made aware of the initiative. Online, openness helps when it is massive. Participation is improved where it is supported and moderated. Creators, commentators and readers each have a role to play.

The balance needs to be found between the qualities of a tool that is fast and cheap and where out of control means that something isn’t used in a way to benefit a formal learning requirement. On the one hand those who want to generate content can be encouraged to do so, while in a formal setting the intention would that everyone generates content of some form in order to receive feedback and assessment.

Fig 7. The Newcastle War Memorial by Sir William Goscombe John RA                                              J F Vernon (2011)

The potential weakness of using QR codes are the requirement for participants to have a suitable device, say a smartphone or tablet and the possible communication fees when connecting away from a free wi-fi source – which is likely to be the case at a war memorial (Gradel & Edson, 2012).

Reading from and using a smartphone or tablet may also present accessibility issues, from the need for dexterity and reading content that isn’t offered in alternative forms, such as text sizes and background or audio alternatives.

There are many examples where local councils feel a war memorial or building is so important that they have invested in information placards on site (Fig. 7). As commemoration of those who served and died in the First World War is of local and national interest funding is potentially available to help support initiatives such as these through the Heritage Lottery Fund, while organizations such as the Western Front Association have funding for branch activities too.

If permission is required for personalization of a British Legion poppy using a QR code, then alternatives may be required, from working with other suitable groups such as the Imperial War Museum or Western Front Association to putting the QR code on a badge instead.

Where used in the field it is likely that a teacher would put out sets of QR coded markers in advance and collect them afterwards. Where a photograph in a town featuring before and after views permission may also be required if any kind of QR coded plaque or poster is to be put up. Other inventive ways to use a QR code would be to attach them to an obstacle course like trench experience where each code triggers elements of a task, sound effects or narrative in keeping with the setting.  By way of example, at the ‘In Flanders Museum’ in Ypres a number of exhibits require the visitor to duck, crawl or crane their neck before supporting audio or lighting is triggered by a Near Field code in a bracelet.

Fig. 8. The memoire of a Machine Gunner and RFC Fighter Pilot. ‘That’s Nothing Compared to Passchendeale’

  J F Vernon (1989-2014)

In his 2011 book ‘The Digital Scholar’ Martin Weller shares the ideas of Robert Capps (2009) who coined the term ‘the good enough revolution’ – in relation to creating and sharing content in an open culture. This precludes being prescriptive or from expecting perfection.

Whilst output on the First World War from the BBC, the Imperial War Museum or the Open University should understandably attain a certain professional standard, the kind of creation required of those research names on war memorials should take inspiration from that is more than just ‘good enough, from ‘pinning’ names from a war memorial to a home address, to ‘pinning’ submitted World War One photographs to Google maps over former battlefields, as well as numerous inventive YouTube videos and memoirs presented as blogs.

REFERENCE

Awano, Y (2007). Brief pictorial description of new mobile technologies used in cultural institutions in Japan. The Journal of Museum Education, 32(1), 17-25

Barrett, T (2012). 50 Interesting ways to use QR codes to support learning. (Last accessed 6th Feb 2014  https://docs.google.com/present/edit?id=0AclS3lrlFkCIZGhuMnZjdjVfNzY1aHNkdzV4Y3I&hl=en_GB&authkey=COX05IsF

Denso (2010a). QR Code Standardization. (Retrieved 6th Feb 2014, from http://www.denso-wave.com/qrcode/qrstandard-e.html )

Edudemic. Traditional Learning Theories. (Accessed 19th April 2013) http://edudemic.com/2012/12/a-simple-guide-to-4-complex-learning-theories/

Gradel, K., & Edson, A. J. (2012). Higher ed QR code resource guide.

Hicks, A., & Sinkinson, C. (2011). Situated questions and answers: Responding to library users with QR codes. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 51(1), 60–69.

Horizon Report 2009 (2009) Educause (Accessed 14th Feb 2014 http://www.educause.edu/library/resources/2009-horizon-report )

Information Standards Committee (2008) Section 3: QR code, Synthesis Journal. (From http://www.itsc.org.sg/pdf/synthesis08/Three_QR_Code.pdf )

Kerry-Bedel, A (2011) Smartphone technology – the future of heritage interpretation: Its in conservation (Accessed 14th February 2014 http://www.kbstconsulting.co.uk/QR/images/ITIC.pdf )

New York Times. The Best Tour Guide May Be in Your Purse. Article by Keith Schneider. 18 March 2010. Copyright © 2010, The New York Times Company http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/18/arts/artsspecial/18SMART.html

Nielsen, J (1999) Web Usability

Robinson, K. (2010). Mobile phones and libraries: Experimenting with the technology. ALISS Quarterly, 5(3), 21–22

Ryerson University Library & Archives (2012). QR codes. Retrieved 6th Feb 2014, from http://www.ryerson.ca/library/qr/.

So, S. (2008). A Study on the Acceptance of Mobile Phones for Teaching and Learning with a group of Pre-service teachers in Hong Kong. Journal of Educational Technology Development and Exchange, 1(1), 81-92.

South Downs (2012)  Use of QR Codes (Accessed 14 Feb 2014 http://southdownsforum.ning.com/forum/topics/signposting-and-qr-codes )

Tucker, A. (2011). What are those checkerboard things? How QR codes can enrich student projects. Tech Directions, 71(4), 14-16.

Vernon J.F. (2012) (Blog Post)  (Accessed 14th February 2014 http://machineguncorps.com/jack-wilson-mm/ )

Vernon, J.F. (2013) (Blog Post) Mobile learning at the Museum of London: QR codes and NFCs (Accessed 14th February 2014) http://mymindbursts.com/2013/11/10/molqr1/

Weller, M (2011) The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice. 5% Loc 239 of 4873

NOTES AND LINKS

The teachers guide to copyright and fair use.  http://tech4classrooms.org/2013/02/16/the-teachers-guide-to-copyright-and-fair-use-edudemic/

Lepi, K (2012) A Simple Guide To 4 Complex Learning Theories. Edudemic eMagazine 24th December 2012. (Accessed 14th February 2014. http://www.edudemic.com/a-simple-guide-to-4-complex-learning-theories/ )

LINKS

The Newcastle War Memorial by Sir William Goscombe John RA

http://www.victorianweb.org/sculpture/john/31.html

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Why the BBC series ‘The Great War’ (1964) has not withstood the test of time.

Fig.1 Freeze frame from the ‘Great War’ title sequence

The Great War’ television history series produced by the BBC in the early 1960s has not stood the test of time and so does not warrant broadcast 50 years on. I can give four reasons why it is dated; 1) as an artefact; 2) because of the social context in which the BBC produced and transmitted the series fifty years ago and, 3) how it compares to series produced to mark subsequent commemorative First World War milestones and 4) coverage planned by the BBC for the period 2013-19.

If ‘the work of the historian closely mirrors the society in which he works’ (Carr, 1991) the ‘The Great War’ needs to be seen in the context of the early 1960s when there was an outburst of publications as well as radio, TV and theatre on the First World War. Whilst ‘The Great War’, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the First World War, stood out for the reception it received and audience sizes it should not be seen in isolation.

The BBC producer, Tony Essex, who conceived of and produced ‘The Great War’, was not an historian, but a hands-on filmmaker. (Hanna 2002:02) He devised the thematic approach of ‘The Great War’ and demanded a literary style from its writer (Hanna 2002:35). He saw the series as an epic tragedy, a story ‘as great as that of the Bible. (Hanna 2002:38). He personally ensured the inclusion of ‘the war poets’ even suggesting that a poem commissioned from Siegfried Sassoon would feature in the opening sequence of every episode (Hanna 2002:36). As a ‘creative’ producer his intentions are most clear in Episode 17, where ‘Passchendaele’ is told as a horror story with music that would be fitting in a Hitchcock thriller while the narration describes the hideousness of the worst nightmare – being wounded and slipping off the duckboards to drown in the mud. This is the tragic story that Essex wished to tell; the emotional appeal too strong for a reasoned and object history. The few seconds that is the title sequence, was designed by the producer to be an ‘Alice in Wonderland-like’ tumble down a rabbit hole that lands you on a snarling skull attached to a flesh and cloth tattered body is evocative of what follows, Hanna (2002 pp.38-45). For viewers in 1964, Essex preached to the converted, fuelling the view that the war was a futile waste of young heroic lives. Essex aimed to ‘proselytize, if not instruct’. Hanna (2002:32) writes that the visual and emotional impact carried by the images ‘cemented … war myths already embedded in Britain’s cultural landscape’, something that greatly frustrated the lead writer John Terraine as, overwhelmed by the film’s images and music, audiences missed his revisionist views of Haig and his interpretation of the Somme and Passchendaele as an historian. John Terraine was the lead writer who wrote thirteen of the 26 episodes and co-wrote another two. Keegan (1978 pp. 664-5) describes Terraine as ‘the Enoch Powell of British Military Historians’. The historical adviser Liddell Hart fell out with Terraine and quit the series., Hanna (2002:32) Liddell Hart published his complaints in an open letter in The Times disagreeing with how Terraine portrayed Haig and wrote about the Somme and Passchendaele. Strachan (1991 pp. 41-67) While Danchev states that Terraine is the author of a ‘prevailing orthodoxy’ (Strachan, 1991). Perhaps Correlli Barnett, one of the writers on ‘The Great War’, was right when he said that ‘television history is too superficial and ‘précised’ to be anything other than popularisation.’ Barnett (2006:7)

John Terraine said that writing for TV was different to writing history for print (Hanna 2002:51). Television, especially as broadcast in the early 1960s in Britain was to sit down to view a passing event (Moran, 2013). This rarity helped lodge it in the national psyche. Television is no longer like that.

According to Grieves (2002), Terraine drew largely on the official histories and quasi-official memoirs and according to Hew Strachan, Terraine only saw the war in terms of a ‘westerner.’ For a western audience then, and a British one, in 1964, the lessons and experiences of ‘The Great War’ as expressed satisfied the prevailing beliefs; these would not satisfy the views of a British audience in 2014 that is better educated, increasingly professional and multi-cultural.

It is the interplay of images, music and words that delivers the ‘epic tragedy’ that Essex desired, the impression left with viewers not always that desired by the writers. In Episode 9, whatever John Terraine wanted to say in revisionist terms about Haig fighting a war of attrition, the ‘literary’ prose dramatized by the narration of Sir Michael Redgrave and backed by music composed by Wilfred Josephs that sounds like a pastiche of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for strings Op. 11 leaves viewers with this sense of ‘futility and loss’ (Hanna, 2002:7) – the overwhelming feelings experienced by audiences. For an historical perspective, although ideas such as ‘Britain’s new army was growing old and wise in battle’, (Disc 4) were well grounded, the choice of images from the archive footage that the production team were limited to, made it are hard idea either to show, or to convince others of, for this different production techniques and approaches would be required, for example the conflicting views of historians openly debated, something future programmes on the First World War would do. Only through pausing and replaying a DVD can you wonder about such lines as these: ‘Every citizen fought his private war of independence when he decided to uproot from Europe’, which rather ignores the population that was already there, or African-Americans who had been taken there as slaves; or how to stirring and patriotic Elgar-like music we learn of the role of the US ‘Making the world safe for democracy’ and ‘Fighting for the Anglo-Saxon race to save the world.’ In 1964 the cold war threatened the world, and such lines would be evocative for audiences then, that they could be in 2014.

In 2014 the audience, not the press are the ‘produsers’ – (Bruns, 2006) they both ‘produce’ and ‘use’ digital media; they are the reviewers and where they find fault or points of contention they will stop, review, scrutinise, compose their thoughts and share online. If broadcast ‘The Great War’ would generate considerable debate though it is doubtful that viewers would conclude, with the exception of A.A. Gill and his Sunday Times readers, that it has ‘stood the test of time’. A.A.Gill is critical of anything on the First World War that is not ‘The Great War’. (Hanna, 2002:55) For the fiftieth anniversary of the First World War, as for subsequent anniversaries of note, ‘The Great War’ was commissioned as public commemoration on Britain’s public service TV channel – it also made history as a piece of programme making. (Hanna, 2002:10) Four component parts equate to the experience of viewers fifty years ago: the words, the images, the music and where viewed.

The words, spoken and brought to life by benighted British Thespians such as Sir Michael Redgrave give it an ‘establishment’ tone worthy of a sermon from the pulpit. The audience are supposed to listen and not question the facts or the views. These words are evocative of a different era. The words jar to modern ears, for example, in Episode 13, Terraine wrote:’ ‘The British regiments marched to catastrophe. These were Lord Kitchener’s volunteers. The eager, enthusiastic, physical, spiritual elite of the British race.’ While in Episode 15, Gordon Watkins and John Williams wrote: ‘The Senegalese, their chocolate faces grey with cold, were unable even to load their rifles. Caught between German artillery and their own fire they fled the field.’ And in Episode 16, Alistair Horn writes of: ‘Fighting for the Anglo-Saxon Race to save the world”. While in Episode 22, the soundtrack features bombastic trumpets as the bombardment starts ahead of the Americans going in with John Terraine’s words ‘A blood transfusion on a scale never dreamt of now began’.

These are words narrated by actors, not delivered by broadcasters or from the mouth of a subject matter expert. Where there are interviews some of the participants appear to have been schooled or to have learnt their lines; effort by some is made to speak in a Reithian ‘BBC English’. Over the last fifty years regional accents have been celebrated and authenticity in interviews, especially in documentaries or news reporting, managed and edited so as not to suggest any tampering with the words spoken or opinions expressed.

The images were limited to those from the era – indicating why so little is said on the Royal Flying Corps, as there was little to show. (Hanna, 2002:47) This may also suggest why so little is said about the soldiers as conscripts rather than volunteers – they made up 50.3% of the British Expeditionary Force. (Hanna, 2002:48) Finding footage to fill nearly seventeen hours resulted in compromise – the producer is left being unable to say what cannot be illustrated. Episode One, for example, suffers from either starting or indulging the view that Europe was basking in a tranquil summer – the calm before the storm. Since 1964 the techniques for historical documentary making have developed so that greater credence can be given to the history. The BBC co-production 1914-18, (Hanna, 2002:54) transmitted in 1989, had a panel of historians advising and writing for a shorter series that is Euro-centric and puts the conflict in context in a more objective, informed and open manner. It’s approach that shows how the history documentary genre has moved on, especially having international markets for the programme in mind and so implying that ‘The Great War’ has not stood the test of time. In Episode 19, we are shown a curiously drawn Map of the world that self-evidently gives more significance to some countries and less to others … a dubious representation of the actual geographical the world as the narrator reads while the narrator reads ‘It was a world war now, few countries of any stature were able to stand aside’. Such views would jar with a British audience in 2014. Some subsequent TV productions have done worse, for example, ‘World War One in Colour’, (Hanna, 2002:56) but ‘The Great War’ used footage shot to cover the Somme in 1916 to illustrate events across the period 1914-18. For editorial reasons ‘The Great War’ says nothing of the Armenian genocide and glosses over the French Mutiny, by doing so the orientation taken by Essex is clearly a British perspective.
As an historic artefact ‘The Great War’ was corrupted by the production process. For example, footage shot to cover the Battle of the Somme, from soldiers going into the trenches, to the wounded returning and prisoners of war, is used repeatedly to illustrate the events of 1914–18 not just of 1916 – an approach that would be considered unprofessional today and open to criticism. Filming was limited by access to the action and tainted as the authorities banned, then permitted, then censored the content that was processed, edited and distributed to cinemas. (Fraser et al. 2009) Here we enter the debate of history as truth against reflecting the views of its authors and the age, even to the worthiness of history on TV. Corelli Barnett argues that presenting the stories to millions via the TV medium is a worthwhile compromise. (Fraser et al. 2009) The music, composed by Wilfred Josephs, (Hannah, 2002:38) evoke specific emotions as one would with a drama series is often overpowering, much to Terraine’s frustration it was a combination of the images and the music that people recalled which left an impression not of a necessary endeavour, but of a futile and horrific waste of life. (Hanna, 2002:51) Music supporting the moving image controls and influences mood. In ‘The Great War’ consideration of the opening title sequence alone and its impact on audiences indicates what impact it can have. Wilfred Josephs composed music is gut wrenchingly sad, fully of tragedy, horror and drama. He went on to compose for TV drama series such as ‘The Prisoner; and ‘I, Claudius’. Throughout the 26 episodes of ‘The Great War’ the images and music play off against each other in way that is far closer than that achieved by the words as the composer worked to the edited images, whereas the writers, under instructions from Essex, were kept from looking at any of the rushes chosen from the era in order to write to his demanding literary standard. (Hanna, 2002:52) As a televisual experience this is a compelling attraction of ‘The Great War’ as a piece of emotional storytelling and for this reason some would say it has ‘stood the test of time’. The impact from the choice of images and demanding music was greater than that of the words. (Hanna, 2002:35)

The sitting room was part of the experience – a tiny screen (by today’s standards) showing a fuzzy black and white image in the corner of the room, the curtain closed, the family gather to watch together with Mum knitting and the kids look up from the floor. (Moran, 2006) The technological changes to the way TV is viewed in Britain 1964-2014 significantly impacts on whether ‘The Great War’ has stood the test of time. Is Charlie Chaplin still broadcast? In Britain, in 1964 there were two channels delivering 425 UHF or 650 VHF black and white analogue set, while in 2014 we enjoy multiple digital HD and 3D channels viewed when we like on a multitude of large or small screen static or portable devices that are linked to the Web.

‘The Great War’ set in motion a great swathe of subsequent BBC productions, from Alan Clarke’s ‘Civilization’ (1968) to David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’ (1972) and Jeremy Isaacs ‘World at War’ (1974), (Hanna, 2002:52) but this is why it is difficult to view outside its historic context – it is not as a piece of programming that would be palatable to a contemporary audiences because of its dated production techniques, its preachy and overly dramatized story telling and at times its inaccurate, Anglo-centric point of view.

Both BBC radio and TV had in different ways looked at the events of the First World War. A J P Taylor had delivered a series of radio and TV lectures. (Hanna, 2002 pp. 17-18) On BBC radio ‘The long, long tail’ used popular songs of the 1914-1918 era, re-versioned for the stage as ‘Oh What a lovely war’ that in turn became an enduring movie.

Britain was still a colonial, if not a global power. Baby boomers were growing up. TV was still a British, even an English dominated medium, whereas cinema had long been taken over by Hollywood and the US. The class divide of the British population is immediately apparent in the Great War TV Series owing to the use of actors as narrator and voices of prominent First World war figures – there is an onus on ‘received pronunciation’ and ‘the Queen’s English’, even those interviewed speak in a clipped, scripted way with regional accents so watered down they are almost indistinguishable – the early 1960s was an era when the working class took elocution lessons if they wished to ‘rise above their station’ – to call upon a phrase of the First World War generation.

In 1961 only 19% of the population were in professional or managerial and technical jobs, whereas by 2011 this has increased to 49%. In 1964 there were over 100,000 veterans in their early 70s and 80s as well as a larger population that had lived through 1914-1918. The audience in 2014 is different because it is better educated and wealthier. Their views are different and less divided by class. In 1964 there was however a prevailing orthodoxy. (Danchev 2002:273) The audience for ‘The Great War’ was captive and predisposed to the interpretation.

A documentary series of this scale was new to British Television; the format of ‘celebrity’ subject matter expert delivering in situ to camera and conducting the interviews was yet to establish itself, drama–reconstruction was frowned upon – old and established formats still reigned, for an example, with the transmission of a series of history lectures by A.J.P. Taylor. (Hanna, 200 pp. 17-18) The skill of scriptwriting documentary for a visual medium came from cinema and the newsreel. The Great War reflects a transition between the newsreel and the narrative documentary. (Hammond and Williams, 2011)

The 1960s is not reflected in the ‘The Great War’. This was a decade of increasing antiestablishmentarianism, where the generation of ‘baby boomers’ began to assert themselves in programmes such as ‘The Week that Was’. Views of the First World War fell into four camps: respect, derision, attempts at objective interpretation that could only be fully informed by with the release of official First World War papers between 1968 and 1972, (Danchev, 2006:270) and opinion that ranged from the bias of a Marxist-Leninist view to fictionalised, largely anti war storytelling such as ‘King and Country’ and ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’.

Respect and a received point of view, inevitably came from official points of view of the war, the historical record had been written by the ‘victors’ in Soviet Russia, the French Republic and a Great Britain whose empire was in tact between the wars but described as ‘fizzling out’ by the 1960s while Germany still struggled to assess objectively both the execution and outcome of the First War and its role in leading to the Second.

Thirty years on from ‘The Great War’ the BBC marked the 80th anniversary of the conflict with a re-versioned US series 1914-18. Without bombast, shock or sensationalism this series, though there have to be gaps and précis, took a gentler, more nuanced and considered view of events including episodes that ‘The Great War’ missed, from the Armenian genocide to the experience of African troops, to the role of women and close analysis of the personae dramatis of the French mutiny. The debate about Haig is introduced but not tackle and new themes are introduced, such as the role of national honour to fuel the war.

The choices made are considered and the product of working with a panel of historians with different specialism. It may gloss over the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, but profile of the Kaiser Wilhelm II closely while the debate regarding Haig is stated as such and then left. We gain the Armenian genocide, the role of women with profiles of Vera Britten, an American nurse and munitions workers in Britain, but there is still, as in previous television series, little on the ‘war in the air’ no doubt for want of suitable footage showing how the images may still dictate the stories that are told. The poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are closely scrutinized and there is greater social, political and cultural history. It is a ‘people’s story’ with the profiles of the likes of Jean Jaurès preferred over the leaders covered in previous histories. The inclusion of the African story is refreshing.

We don’t watch TV the way we did in 1964, this is reflected in the planned output by the BBC to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War: every kind of genre, across platforms, for audiences from nursery school to Newsnight via Children’s BBC (CBBC) and the Open University (OU) with 2,300 hours of TV, Radio and Online content.

In many different ways, this addresses the issues and events comprehensively for distinct audiences rather than the family that would have been expected to sit down and view ‘The Great War’ in 1964.

Historians are ‘people of their time’. (Evans, 1997 pp. 257-261) The 2,300 hours of TV and Radio output from the BBC between 2013 and 2019 will reflect the way in which multiple voices, and in particular the voice of the viewer is heard. There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it rights or fails to write (Carr (1991:43).

‘The Great War’ is best seen as an artefact, of historic interest for what it is. Indeed, UNESCO accepted ‘The Battle of the Somme’ documentary footage shot in 1916, into its Memory of the World register in 2005 (UNESCO, 2005) – the rushes of which feature throughout ‘The Great War’. In turn ‘The Great War’, created from 844,800 feet of archive footage and over 20,000 photographs, paintings, posters and contemporary newspapers from twenty countries and compiled by 33 staff. Viewing the ‘Great War TV series’ in 2014 would best be achieved in bite sized form on YouTube on a handheld device, picking selective moments to suit the time and place – perhaps contemplating the sacrifice of soldiers in front of a memorial to the dead or on a battlefield ‘pilgrimage’. The audience, without any living experience of the events, will view it through the lens of subsequent and current wars and how these are reported. They will, by choice, or prompted to do so, form an opinion by drawing on multiple alternative sources and most significantly ‘sit forward’ to share and form views on social platforms rather than taking the views of the original authors as gospel.

A television series is different to the printed word yet the temptation is to compare ‘The Great War’ to individually authored histories, part works or other ‘epic’ volumes on the events or encyclopaedic official histories. The challenge in 2014 and pertinent to the question of whether ‘The Great War’ has stood the test of time is how technology, especially digital formats on large screens and in our pockets, that allows instant sharing, feedback, and meaning construction through networking. If, as Marshall McLuhan (1962:8) suggested ‘technology extended senses’ then the technology we hold, pocket and wear today, are a prosthesis to our senses and to the manner in which the product of these senses is stored, labelled, interpreted, shared, re-lived, and reflected upon. For this reason ‘The Great War’, if its authors, and the owners of the copyrighted footage wish to galvanise and interest a 21st century audience, it should be posted online as an open education resource.

In 2001 Badsley spoke of ‘two Western Fronts: the Western Front of literature and the popular culture and the Western Front of History’. Badsey (2001)

In 2013 we have multiple Western Fronts because of the Internet and Web 2.0 where the individual, with a second screen, sitting forward, creates, shares, and in the context of the First World War exploits what Sobchack 2002 described as ‘mediaophemes’ – a bite sized nugget of impression and meaning that renders itself easy to view, post, mash-up, comment on and share.

Though ‘The Great War’ has not stood the test of time, it nonetheless set in train the development of the television history series. Ironically, with the advent of YouTube, the kind of lecturer that A J P Taylor gave in the 1950s and 1960s on radio then TV is exactly what is suited to the Web as a TED lecture. Other transformative platforms online include discussions around book reviews on Amazon and the massive expansion of family history. (Dixon and Porter, 2001)

To view the series an unopened DVD box set from 2002 will cost around £100 through Amazon. Instead go to the BBC World War One Centenary website and plan you listening, viewing and reading over the next five years.

REFERENCES

Badsey, S. (2001) ‘Blackadder Goes Forth and the Two Western Fronts Debate’, in G. Roberts and P.M. Taylor (eds), The Historian, Television and Television History. Luton University Press (2001)
Barnett, C. (2006) ‘John Terraine and Television History’, Stand To!, 2006 75 PP. 7-8
BBC ‘The Great War’ (1964) Special Edition 6 Disc Boxset. (Simply Home Entertainment 2009).
BBC, The Great War (1964) Special Edition 6 Disc Boxset. (Simply Home Entertainment 2009) Disc four. Episode 17 ‘Surely we have perished’ by John Terraine.
Bruns, A. and Jacobs, J. Use of Blogs. (Peter Lang Publishing. 2006)
Carr, E.H. (1990) What is history? (Penguin History 1990 [1961])
Danchev, A. (2002) ‘Bunking’ and Debunking: The Controversies of the 1960s in B. Bond, B ed., The First World War and British Military History. (Reprinted hardback edition, Clarendon Press Oxford: 2002) pp. 263-288
Dixon, B and Porter, L (2011) ‘‘How Shall We Look Again’? Revisiting the Archive in British Silent Film and the Great War’, in D, Porter and H. Williams. (eds) British Silent Cinema and the Great War. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)
Evans, R.J. (1997) ‘The History of History’ in ‘In Defense of History’ (Granta Books, 1997)
Fraser, A.H., Robertshaw, A and Roberts, S. (2009) ‘Ghosts on the Somme. Filming the Battle, June-July 1916 (Pen & Sword, eBook, 2009)
Grieves, K. (2002) ‘Early Historical Responses to the Great War: Foretescue, Conan Doyle, and Buchan’, in B. Bond, B ed., The First World War and British Military History. (Reprinted hardback edition, Clarendon Press Oxford: 2002)
Keegan, J (1978) ‘Whole Stunt Napoo’, New Statesman 17 November 1978
Hammond, M and Williams, M. (2011) British Silent Cinema and the Great War (Palgrave Macmillan 2011)
Hanna, E. (2009) The Great War on the Small Screen: Representing the First World War in Contemporary Britain (Edinburgh University Press, 2009) p. 52
McLuhan, M (1062) The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man; (University of Toronto Press 1962)
Moran, J. (2013) ‘Armchair Nation: an intimate history of Britain in front of the TV. (Profile Books, 2013)
Strachan, H. (1991) ‘‘The Real War’: Liddell Hart, Cruttwell, and Falls’ in B, Bond, ed., The First World War and British Military History. (Clarendon Press Oxford. 1991)

Can a veteran’s story be believed?

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As the grandson of a veteran of the First World War I took my grandfather’s stories to be accurate to the letter – though how I visualised his antics as I grew up bore very little to the reality, but rather a boy’s perceptions from his surroundings, TV and books in the 1960s and 1970s.

As I study for an MA in British First World War studies the chance exists not only to entrench my research into his journey through the Machine Gun Corps and the fledgling RAF but to consider the accuracy of any veterran’s account – as the years pass their stories can be coloured by what they read and hear so that they may say what people expect to hear.

The opportunity may also exist to do some original research, even to be in touch with the relatives of those featured in his story.

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Is it possible, for example, to put names to the faces in a set of photographs of the RAF cadets who were barracked at the Queen’s Hotel, Hastings in May and June 1918?

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And where he marked the spot where he buried his mates Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld is it feasible to look for them or leave a permanent stone?

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