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One’s first impression of the First World War should be the right one

Fig. 1. All Quiet on the Western Front

A student’s first impression of the First World War should be the right one.

Life was largely spent out of the trenches rather than in: on field marches, labouring, resting, training … or filling the time out of boredom. I only recently came across ‘Tartans’ – detailed charts showing week by week where a battalion were … for many it was months out of the line then a week or two in and out of the line.

Blackadder cannot and does not get close to ‘living’ in a trench: the constant threat of death, atrocious conditions, friends being injured and dying horrible deaths. Soldiers learnt and knew the sound of every kind of shell going over to fill the time. And whilst communications with High Command could not be direct there is a largely excellent rapport between infantry and officers.

Nor were the only ‘posh’ public school idiots. Many staffers applied for and get commissions in the trenches – begged for it. Yes, the five minutes of the last episode are moving, better though to show ‘For King and Country’, or ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ …. even ‘Johnny Got his Gun’ or the extraordinary Metallica video and rock song to that film. I hope ‘Testament of Youth’ does the job.

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Johnny got his gun

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Few films have left me so moved and shocked. I saw this film in passing, perhaps twice when I was in my teens. Half-hearted attempts to give it a name failed until I clicked through an IMDB list this morning. It is gripping, moving and wonderfully told. You can never again lie awake in bed at night and not imagine how you would cope with such a nightmare. It poses so many questions about what it means to be alive, violent conflict, war, nursing and treatment and the right to live or die – even the 21st century question of what defines ‘to be alive’ and ways today to communicate through brain wave activity when there is nothing else to monitor. This should be seen by anyone with an interest in the First World War alongside documentaries, thrillers, romances and comedy about conflict on this scale. Indeed if you have an interest in any conflict that results in lasting, significant maiming without death then this is a story to read and view. It questions what it means to be alive and whether we or others have a position when it comes to letting us live or die.

An odd poster which totally misrepresents the story. Without arms or legs, without any senes at all or ways to communicate – yet aware and able to feel the sun on what is left of his face.

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