Home » Posts tagged 'World War I'

Tag Archives: World War I

Ideas on putting the First World War on Film

1) iTunes U. 45-90 seconds “It could have been you …”


Putting you In the picture – my great-grandfather – in his shoes.

Duration: 45-90 seconds.

Use motion capture to place four or five men of the appropriate age into the ‘Battle of the Somme’ footage.

Pre-shoot, or, with permissions, from ticket holders, ideally for the event, picking this/these people out on the ‘KissCam’ ala Baseball USA.

Point: ‘A hundred years ago it would have been you in there’.

A 15-32 year old put in the picture, literally.

For example:

Satisfying the brief:

Suitable for cinemas and music festivals

Secondary audience: 16 to 24

Motivation to investigate further.

Enjoyment and inspiration for history and its contemporary relevance.

DOES NOT – give causes and conseuquences, nor the course.


1/2/3) 45-90 seconds, x12 one minute, 10-15 minutes

A set of 12 ‘The history of the First World War in One Minute’ Then cover causes, course, consequences, challenge myths with moment for enjoyment, appreciation and reflection.


Parts to include:


  1. Putting you in the picture

  2. In their footsteps

  3. Might have been you 100 years ago

  4. Before – preparations

  5. During

  6. After – prisoners and the aftermath

  7. The ambulance service

  8. Who else: French, Commonwealth, Germans, Nurses (Women).

  9. Animals in war

  10. What else is missing – actual combat and night time movement and action

  11. Myths

  12. Relevance


Meeting the brief


Primary and Secondary audience

Covers deeper understanding of the causes, course and consequence.

Challenges myths about the era.

Reflect on reonance and significance of their current lives and the world around them.

Find enjoyment and inspiration for history and its contemporary relevance

Aware of the IWM as the main lead.

1-2)  iTunes U. 45-90 seconds /< 3 Mins Song – ‘One in a Million’


As Schindler’s List  (1993) pick out occasional characters in colour and tell their story before, during and after 1916.

Duration: 10-15 minutes picking out 3-5 stories of plausible, if not actual recognition.

As Schindler’s list but adding through motion capture people from the 21st century …  your brother, your father … also like a single poppy in a field of wheat.

< 3mins as part of BBC Places.

The relatives or one or two of the identifiable people from the Battle of the Somme footage.

Satisfying the brief:

Suitable for cinemas and music festivals (extended version in break-out venues)

Primary audience: Independent adults 25 to 40.

Motivation to investigate further.

Enjoyment and inspiration for history and its contemporary relevance.

Course of the First World War on the Western Front using the Battle of the Somme as some kind of ‘tipping point’ or key event.

DOES NOT – cover causes and consequences which would require extended coverage before and after the footage unless part of x12 one minutes.


2) < 3 Mins Song: “It could have been you …”


Duration: 3 mins. Longer if pre-shot and edited.

Pop Video using a variety of techniques to put a contemporary audience into the picture.

Place barriers and other obstacles at an outdoors musical festival so that a crowd moves and behaves as footage, intercut.

End line. In their shoes, in your shoes … when a generation went to war. Your kid brother, your father.


For example, shots of:

  • Marching

  • Eating

  • Resting

Satisfying the brief:

Suitable for cinemas and music festivals (extended version in break-out venues)

Primary audience: Independent adults 25 to 40 … pick the right festival, there’s classical music events too.

Motivation to investigate further.

2) < 3 Mins Song / Music Video – not ‘two tribes go to war’

A singer songwriter moved by this exposure and experience and the song that results. Anachronisms of rock in history – think Baz Lurman and ‘Romeo & Juliet’ or ‘Moulin Rouge’ with the songs of Elton John.


A ballad, or anthem. May be ante-war, would be controversial, could get huge views.


Metallica have had nearly 64 million views and the comments run to over 63,000 since they posted ‘One’ on YouTube on 9th May 2009.


Satisfying the brief:

Suitable for cinemas and music festivals

Secondary audience: 16 to 24

Motivation to investigate further.

Enjoyment and inspiration for history and its contemporary relevance.

3) 10 – 15 minutes.

Three to Five ‘Places’ news reports.

People with a relationship to this footage.

Release as an Open Educational Resource (OER). Include sound effects track.


Expect copyright infringements with mash-ups.

See ‘My Boy, Jack’ and the YouTube Harry Patch mash-up. Possibly watermark or box the content somehow. Probably impossible.

Invite a billion people, of whom a few hundred, or a few thousand, will do something of their own with the content, for classes, but also set to music or to make a statement.

Expect controversy, debate and significant activity online and in the regular press.

Satisfying the brief:

Suitable for cinemas and music festivals and live screen venues

Any of the ‘your story’ or ‘in their shoes’ pieces as 1-3 minutes duration, as single items or a compilation. Mix in live (or as live) interviess from the venue. What do you think?

Primary and Secondary audience

Motivation to investigate further.

Enjoyment and inspiration for history and its contemporary relevance.

Offered as a set of 3 minute reports so that promoters can play them as they see fit.


4) TV Documentary  < 45 minutes


Two to three part special:


i) “The bigger picture”.


Duration: 45 mins (first of two parts)

Drama reconstruction with the footage, actors in key roles,

possibly interviwed as if it were 1916.


May include archive voice over from veterans.


What’s going on around the cinematographer? Put them in context.

Becomes the one in a series on ‘shooting war’ – the opportunity afforded by the technology and skills of the personnel, then what to put in or leave out and the politicization of war footage.


Satisfying the brief:

Less suitable for cinemas, at music festivals in break-out venues. Series offered to show on at different times.


Secondary audience: 16 to 24

Motivation to investigate further.

Enjoyment and inspiration for history and its contemporary relevance.

Covers causes, curse and consequences of war.

Likely to require additional material.


4) TV Documentary  < 45 minutes


Two to three, even a six part special

ii) Audience Response


Duration; 45 minutes (Part two of two). Drama resconstruction picking three to five people, say mother and daughter, son and younger brother … some of the 20 million who saw the film. Putting it in context, their story, circumstances and response. Not least to dead combatants, especially to recognition.  May use a cinema from the period with actors, re-enactors and the public.


(or one of two programmes, ‘the bigger picture’ then the audience story.


In 1916, audience of non-combatants and future recruits having queued, then the impact of the footage and how it would make them feel – horrified, in the picture, worried, brutalised, heart broken, determined … and impact on recruitment into army, ambulance, nursing and other services.

4) TV Documentary < 45 mins

iii) The history of shooting war.



From the Crimea to Syria via the Somme.

What price authenticity?

What to show and what to leave out?

Risk to life and limb.

Why does Ypres look less authentic?

We know it is faked and the ‘acting’ is worse than the gurning in ‘the Somme’.

Hexacopter drones with a GoPro cam on a gimbal.

Shooting HD via remote control. POV cams on helmets and drones.

Authenticity over narrative (myth, legend). History over fiction.

UK Forces Afghanistan


Further parts:


  1. The ambulance service

  2. Preparations

  3. Prisoners and the aftermath

  4. Who’s missing: French, Commonwealth, Germans, Nurses (Women).

  5. Animals in war

  6. What’s missing – actual combat and night time movement and action

5) TV Event: A hundred and one questions for the 100th anniversary.


Duration: 45-90 minutes. A live TV special or well prompted online event hosted by the IWM as a webcast/seminar.

Shown as reels or excerpts with opportunities to take questions from the panel, floor and Twitter feed.

Draw in questions posed in real time from Twitter @WW1 fast paced, unpredictable, controversial.  As excerpts and stills. Link to IWM social media campaign.

Where are the French? Where are the women? Where are the dead? Where is the battle? These are rushes, not a narrative.


Satisfying the brief:

Suitable for cinemas and live screen venues – as an event piece screened at venues to interested audiences with opportunities to tie local and regional links and associations with the national story.


Primary and Secondary audience


Covers causes, course and consequence.

Challenges myths about the era.

Find enjoyment and inspiration for history and its contemporary relevance.

5) < 75 minutes


100th Anniversary Release


Sound additions. If the filmmakers had recorded sound what would they have heard?

In fact, fill the blanks, actual battle, with BBC Radio drama standard SFX to ‘create a picture’. Even present ‘The Somme’ as a Radio programme or drama. Re-release the enhanced 2006 Battle of Somme Film with superior sound effects.


Potentially available on a Creative Commons License as an Open Education Resource – like given people access to a National Park, rather than them only being allowed to look over the fence.


Add a Rock track, just as for the 90th there is a classical rendition.

5) Comprehensive TV Event Series

‘A century of conflict coverage’  – BBC, Open University and IWM joint production


Duration: Six x 45 minutes. A series on the history of War Coverage from the Crimea to Syria

Gripping TV documentary, live event and Q&A, OpenLearn content, OU/IWM product, OU and other courses with support for GCSE, A’Level, Undergraduate and Graduate study. As 50th Anniversary ‘The Great War’ with Michael Redgrave brought into the 21st century.

  • Trailed using much of what has already been considered.

  • Short clips for Social Media

  • Long length for OER and YouTube

  • Series of compelling documentaries

  • Debate forming a live debate

  • Follow up with release of Battle of the Somme footage with sound effects track

  • Open Learn modules

  • Actual undergraduate and graduate courses

  • Actual resources for school students – possibly tied in to the national curriculum.


9) Feature Length Movie or TV Film of the characters who took the film



Malins and McDowell … or just Malins.


A 90 minute TV movie as:

Birdsong (2012) Sebastian Faulks

Regeneration (1997) Pat Barker – influence her to take an interest in these characters as a novel, then see that the BBC buy the rights and make it into a TV movie.


Including audience, press and official response.

What else …


Connected world.


“Blended’ – mixed or multi-media, cross platform, live or pre-recorded, discussed and shared online.


Links potentially with:


Help for Heroes

Western Front Association

Scout Movement


History departments of universities

International broadcasters and partners



Identifying veterans of the First World War: Putting names to faces, and faces to names.

 Fig.1. ‘Poster’ constructed using a combination of ‘Brushes’ (to layer several photos in one) and ‘Studio’ a simple graphics app that provided the overlays and text. Images and screen-grabs cropped and saved into Picasa Web Albums. 

Created for the Open University module H818: The Networked Practitioner – towards a poster to illustrate a conference demonstration of an interactive mobile learning platform aimed at sourcing the involvement of many collaborators to enrich our understanding of this period in history.

The QR code should work, the YouTube video does not – it’s a screengrab. The video clip, under 2 minutes, is there.

In fairness to my grandfather I edited around 8 minutes down to 2 minutes, keeping one story about a young woman who came down from London to meet up and otherwise to compress the kind of circuitous conversation you can have with someone in their nineties.

Fig. 2. Jack Wilson (1896-1992) talks briefly about his few weeks military training at RAF Hastings in May/June 1918. Features several of his photographs from these weeks that he sent home to his mother in Consett, County Durham. (As YouTube doesn’t embed on OU platform, link to YouTube)

 Fig.3. The simplest of SimpleMind mind maps to remind me what the poster still requires and is certainly missing. 

And as a reminder to me there is 2500 words to write too.


If you or your relatives have old photos from the First World War how about sharing them and let’s see of collectively we can bring these characters back to life by researching then telling them story. If you are seeing family over the holiday try to find out what you have in that battered box in the attic: photos, an ID bracelet, his watch? A pay book, or log book? An Webley Revolver!! A gas-mask. A piklehaube helmet.

I’m always very interested to hear from people with a similar interest in the ‘Great War’ especially when it comes to the Machine Gun Corps and the Royal Flying Corps where my grandfather and great uncle served.

The project above relates to RAF, formerly RFC Hastings. Cadets were sent for military training in batches of 30 or so, six weeks at a time. They got military training, fitness, map reading and meteorology. Time off was spent on the beach, on the pier, in the outdoor pool and cinemas, and in a RAF club in Wellington Square. After this they headed for Clifton College, Bristol (Douglas Haig’s old school) for Morse Code, navigation and mechanics (basics) and machine gun training. Then to Uxbridge for bombs and finally off to an aerodrome for flight training. I don’t even know if they all went off together. I do recognise one other face here, a man who shared a room with my grandfather. They had a valet between them. Some change for my grandfather, the son of domestic servants, finding himself in the Officer’s Mess with schoolboy Etonians and all sorts of others.


Recruits to the Royal Flying Corps took military training, map reading and meteorology at RAF Hastings


During the First World War the Royal Flying Corps – renamed the Royal Air Force in April 1918, put recruits through military training in Hastings – this included a fitness regime on the South Downs and swimming in the sea. Jack Wilson transferred from the Machine Gun Corps at the end of 1917 having served some 18 months across the Somme and Ypres Salient. His memoir runs to some three hours though it remains incomplete – who are these people alongside him the the cadet photographs. The picture on the left was taken by the Queen’s Hotel and would appear to include the entire intake with the Commander in the centre. The second picture was taken outside a club then in a building known as Howard House – it is 20 Wellington Square just a five minute walk from the Queen’s. Seen on BBC South East someone thought they recognised their 19 year old father Benjamin Dawson.

Help would be appreciated trying to identify all the characters in these pictures. The National Archive at Kew proved unhelpful. Where are records of those serving in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force kept?


Sir Douglas Haig by J P Harris (2008)


Created in SimpleMinds. get in touch if you’d like a copy. Download the SimpleMinds App for free.

Douglas Haig and the First World War (2008) J P Harriss

Nearly 600 pages that follow a chronology that is familiar. Insights on Haig are limited – perhaps reading Haig’s diary and a biography at the same time would help. This is written by a military historian with judgement of Haig’s command key. We get little insight into the man – if there is much a a personal life to probe. His diary appears to reveal little. What does come over is how often Haig was to blame for actions that were unlikely to succeed in doing much other than expending a good deal of munitions and men – time and time again he planned an offensive that would lead to a break-through, require cavalry support and put tens of thousands of men against barbed wire, machine guns and shrapnel. His greatest skill was to climb and keep climbing the ladder of promotion and to tread carefully around events which might have led to his being passed over for promotion … or his resignation asked for, or accepted.

My first read. A second read possibly to follow unless I can be pointed to a biography.

Notes as iPhone/iPad pictures with  annotations (Studio) and a mindmap (SimpleMinds)

Britain had been preparing for war with Germany as is clear from manoeuvres, in this instance with both France and Russia, in 1912 (Harris, 2008:51). Perhaps the re-organisation of the Army to have the Expeditionary Force, however small, was part of an anxiety and vulnerability – had Britain not also contemplated conscription?

As the nature of artillery changed – longer range, great accuracy and a diversity of shells types from high explosives to shrapnel it is staggering that proper thought wasn’t given to how destroyed the land was over which the armies would have to travel.

Typo alert! Actually there are a couple more but I so no value


Where tactics have failed to deliver why did Haig persist? How could more of the same possibly get better results next time? What part of his mindset made him stick to this? Does he lack imagination? He appears emotionally dry or aloof – his relationship with his wife and family hardly suggests a person with a close emotional attachment.

Haig’s greatest skill and purpose was to climb to the top of the Army ladder – what he did or could do when he rose to the top was another matter. This isn’t what makes a great leader – he is like a career civil servant. But what would a hot headed, womanizing, gambler of a man done with this power? If Haig made mistakes they need to be considered and compared with other leaders on the Western and Eastern Fronts. Had Britain a leader like Foch, Neville, Falkenhayn or Holweg … or the Russian aristocrats would we have fared better or differently? And if we’d had Robertson rather than Haig?

History written by a military historian is different to history or biography – the audience here is expected to learn and potentially apply at staff level the lessons from past battles. Haig’s diary is revealing because in this supposedly private moments he is reveals so little: statements of the weather, not what this could mean, statement of events without reflection on what he did well or badly. Self-control in both his public and private life.

To understand Haig then we need to know who the alternatives might have been and whether in reality they could or would have behaved differently: Robertson, Du Can and Rawlinson are different men.

My impression is of a deluded fantasist with no one able or willing to stand up to him … not even Lloyd George. Haig, with Royal patronage and few competing for his role, could and would do as he pleased. He resented having to play second fiddle to the French. In the early stages of the war he ignored orders or requests with potentially dire consequences yet he got away with it.

Haig’s tactics: more munitions, human dynamism and officers of the ‘thruster’ type – people who would risk all regardless. Is there anything we can learn from Haig’s achievements as a polo player from this? What does it require to win at polo?



Haig pressed on with tactics that would leave many thousands dead for little gain and he wasn’t able or willing to question what he could or should do differently.

How clear did failure have to be to get Haig to change his tactics?

Failure of this kind should surely have seen Haig replaced? To what extend did his ‘moral fibre’, his otherwise untarnished character, make it less easy to remove him?

Overexcited, overoptomistic, blind to failure, forever looking beyond the horizon, convinced cavalry had a role, yet able to try gas and tanks … anxious for his peers and superiors to shower him in praise and his subordinates to be fawning …

Self-righteous and self-assured – did his religious beliefs permit his unstinting view of the world? He had the image of someone who deserved authority and respected it. He was fit, sober and in a stable marriage. He worked hard and played the game well. Born into a different age could he have survived? He lacks the flair of Montgomery or Churchill. Described as taciturn, to what degree might or could his asthma have been a controlling influence?

He looked the part and was fastidious about his health – what else could as asthmatic do in the early 20th century? Did he know what the triggers were, or had he learnt from experience to avoid certain foods and situations – not least smoking? Was he prone to chest infections?

Whilst those around him realised all talk of a ‘break-through’ was unrealistic, this is what Haig constantly planned for and expected. Or was it simply wishful thinking?

Step by step is what occurred … as a result from efforts to breakthrough? A case of shoot for the stars and hitting the moon? That in Haig’s eyes step by step would have equated to inconsequential nibbling?

Obsessive, selective, fixated, God-guided, controlling, cavalry-orientated, driven obdurate, blind … consistent, controlled, tempered, magisterial … aloof and with tunnel-vision.

Able to comprehend, but unable to bend? Unable to think of any alternative. The world around him changed, but Haig stayed resolutely in the 19th century.

Chance the way the leaders played off against each other? Men like so many bullets or sandbags, simply a resource to count then stack in the knowledge that there would be great losses but that these could be shored up?

He didn’t like to have his feather’s ruffled. He wanted the game played in his way with him in charge.

A hypocrite who would fail to come to the aid of others … yet others to come to the aid of him. Too good or important to warrant risking his men, or putting his men under another’s control and willing only at the last minute to seek help when things looked desperate and he had no choice.

A firm rock in the shifting sands of socialist …

In 1964 the script on the Great War could have been written a hundred years before … especially the ‘gay hussars’.

But a male script for a male audience.

Her and her .. sides against each other.

Interviews anything but … without exception they appear to have learnt set lines or be reading from a script, so lacking authenticity.

Removed from the front line, so much so that we could be describing an international chess tournament. IN 1964 tens of thousands of veterans were still alive. In 2013 there are of course none.


Machine guns that ‘devour’

So the very choice of words grossly conditions the feelings we are supposed to have.

Better then to have the celebrity historian to take us through.

Then a female ‘interview’ and in 45 seconds she rambles through lines that have so clearly been pre-written, or learned because they are so word perfect.


The Great War – 50 years on

Fifty years on from the BBC’s ‘The Great War’ the immediate issue is the choice of voice overs – the choice of the grandest. most pompous and celebrated voices of the age is a statement. We have ‘Sir Ralph Richardson’ doing the voice of ‘Douglas Haig’ – who was, or had been, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig.

So our ‘ACTORS’ felt themselves better than our leaders in the Great War?

By 1964.

The tone and construction is of its time … which is more 1954 or earlier. It sounds so archaic.

All voices are male.

All voices are male and old.

All voices are voices – not their view, opinion or research, but reading words they have been given by the experts – in this case more male historians managed by male producers.

There is a distinct male tone.

So we never get the view of any woman …

It was, from this perspective, an utterly male world.


The Pity of War (1998) by Niall Ferguson – towards a comprehensive book review

A review by J F Vernon of ‘The Pity of War’ (1998) Niall Ferguson

‘[The Pity of War’, despite its personal, gentle and engaging introduction seeing the war through  the experiences of a long dead grandfather, is not a deliberately popular narrative of the First World War – it neither covers the chronology of events, nor the detail of particular battles as so many other books do. Although written, in some hurry, to come out in time for  the 80th Anniversary of the November 1918 Armistice, ‘The Pity of War’ hardly cashes in, as it is a serious, in-depth, closely referenced and at times a specialist read.

Fig.1. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+

‘The Pity of War’ is thoroughly research, meticulous, and often original, it is weighty and shows that he is very well read. It is referenced every full-stop of the way. He may show a bias to having studied in German in Germany.

The audience for ‘The Pity of War’, you imagine, is the graduate historians, or economic historian or the well-read Western Front buff. ‘The Pity of War’ flips with intricate relish some of the myths that have arisen in relation to the First World War while the toughest and most specialist read at the core of the book is a study of the financial health of the combatant nations. Needless to say, there is an overwhelming wealth of insightful detail, all of it meticulously referenced.

Fig.2. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+ Reading an eBook on the Kindle platform ‘KL’ refers to ‘Kindle Location’

Some of the content covered:

  • Cinemas and newsreels, filmmakers, newspapers,

  • Workers wages, productivity and strikes, the choking off of imported fertilisers and the damage this did to the ability of Germany to feed itself, the shambles of procurement,

  • Writers and academics for the war, a militarised Monopoly,

  • British espionage,

  • Domestic morale, an army of incapable of improvisation, beauty in death and how mustard gas putting paid to the kilt.

  • The two Ks ‘Maynard Keynes and Karl Kraus’

  • Surrender as the outcome

  • Shilly-shallying of Grey and the cabinet

Fig.3. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+ The yellow lines related to the myriad of ‘insightful’ points picked up while reading the book.

  • It’s all like a big picnic, announced one Officer bored with his life at home,

  • Blockading Germany,

  • The real rivals were Britain, Russia and France,

  • Military travel plans,

  • Cannae and Schlieffen, the aftermath,

  • Bethman’s bid for neutrality, homosexuality,

  • The international bond market and the cost of the arms race which was low,

Fig.4. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+

  • The Anglo-French Cordiale April 1904,

  • Egypt,

  • French loans to Russia from 1886,

  • Reichstad’s control of military expenditure, the Weimar economy, wrecked itself, not war reparations, a Pyrrhic victory, losers all, a soldier’s comforts,

Fig.5. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+ Here are some of the myths that Ferguson aimed to rebut or debunk.

  • Ambivalence to the war,

  • not donkeys but hindered by deference to superiors,

  • The AEF did no ‘win the war’ and relied on outmoded tactics,

  • overwhelming naval superiority,

  • the desire for war by the public and politicians

The greatest value of ‘The Pity of War’ may be as a reference guiding those with particular niche interests in the poets, art of films of the war, on the Keynesian economics and finance of the Germany, of bankers, as well as politicians and generals, on the literature since the war and the rebutting and debunking of many of the myths and misconceptions that have developed over the many decades as new generations have interpreted the war to suit their own sensibilities.

Fig.6. Grab from a detailed mindmap created using SimpleMinds+ In orange some of the many historians, authors and commentators who are cited. 

Historians, commentators and writers referenced include:

  • Alan Clarke
  • John Terraine
  • J.M.Bourne
  • Martin Samuels
  • Theo Balderston
  • Martin van Creveld
  • Correlli Barret
  • Laffel
  • Paddy Griffith
  • Martin Holmes
  • Lidell Hart
  • Norman Stone
  • Gudmanson
  • Travers
  • Graham
  • Michael Howard
  • Karl Kraus
  • Hew Strachan
  • Michael Geyer

Ferguson has a formidable reputation as an historian, academically he is attached to two of the leading universities in the world: Oxford and Harvard while as a presenter and commentator he has a presence on television. He gained his MA and D.Phil in History from the University of Oxford, spending several years studying and researching at the University of Hamburg, where his interest in the personalities and mechanics and international finance in the early part of the 19th century developed, in this respect his focus naturally tends towards Germany at the expense say of France and Russia and the Balkans. Ferguson confounds what might be the ground rules of historical study by liking to second guess events, these ‘counter factuals’ imagine what might have occurred ‘if?’ Do these offer insight, or do they confuse, especially where at times Ferguson is emphatic that events would have gone a certain way if x or y had or had not happened. He edited and write for an anthology of such ‘counter factuals’ so clearly believes they are a valid way to gain insight, though it may also show an interest in literature and fiction, rather than just the nots and bolts of the professional historian.

Ferguson is a driven, passionate, even obsessive historian determined to make his point or counter-point with a relentless catalogue of evidence. His modus operandi in this text is to get at his ‘truth’ of the First World War by addressing common questions and myths. He undoes several and turns others on their head, often in a convincing way, though sometimes doubts remain, though further pursuit of the references should help the reader come to their own conclusions. The crudest structure of the book is to take ten difficult questions and query their validity – you then wonder if this has been akin to setting ten tough graduate assignments, and that answering them in his own professorial voice.

He is a mighty white, British middle-class intellect, who acknowledges the humble background of his council-house dwelling grandfather – the First World War veteran, shares with us his own grammar school education, then brushes up against the Oxford Union types of his alma mater and reveals a tone regarding officers in the war that is critical of what public schools produced at the time and is anti the British gentry of the period too.

‘The Pity of War’ receives glowing reviews in the Press and professors from leading universities have reviewed it, enjoying the challenge of meeting him square on, applauding some of his insights, but offering criticism of other conclusions.

There is no doubt ‘The Pity of War’ adds substantially to a broader and deeper understanding of the First World War, though it should be seen as a book that complements, rather than replaces texts that provide the chronology, conflict and causes in a more systematic, and less judgmental manner.

Ferguson’s authority can become a barrier, certainly there are parts of his thesis where it is a struggle to take on board the evidence that requires some understanding of international finance and economics. Where there are few, if any, similarly informed authorities it is difficult to know how to challenge some of his views – was Germany really more efficient at killing people? Is it creditable to put a price on a combatant’s head? Money, Ferguson argues, tells a different story to that offered by historians in the past. Easier to comprehend and therefore to engage with are his portraits of men with ambitions and efforts to blame.

The title ‘The Pity of War’ says little about the book’s contents.

The words are not those of the author, but rather taken from one of the war poets. The ‘war poets’ are one aspect of the misconceptions that have developed around the First World War, hijacking how people felt about the war at the time with a post-war negative and sentimentalized view.

Ferguson picks out ten questions to scrutinise, myths to unwind, misconceptions to set straight, as well as original views of his own. Like a postgraduate making his case at the Oxford Union, Ferguson that strips out the facts and attacks each in turn often in meticulous detail, all referenced and from a single perspective. Ferguson doesn’t sit on the fence, he has an opinion and makes it forcefully. For example, when he states that, ‘without the war of attrition on the Western Front, Britain’s manpower, its economy and its vastly superior financial resources could not have been brought to bear on Germany sufficiently to ensure victory’ (KL 10193) is stated as an absolute with a counterfactual offered as the alternative – Britain would have had to comprise rather than fight on in any other way.

Fig.7. Grab from an annotated page from the eBook version of ‘The Pity of War’ (used the App ‘Studio’)

The references is often dense, not a sentence on a page without a footnote or citation.

Ferguson puts the loosest of chronologies at the core of the ten questions he addresses and makes no apologies for avoiding where other authors have already been, indeed he offers a reading list for those wanting a chronology of events or the minutiae of the fields of conflict themselves. The arguments he makes are not always convincing – he appears at time to be contrary for the sake of it. There is little doubt that the book is a personal journey that though multifaceted is not comprehensive; as well as a lack of narrative or of conflict there is little said on women, on the Home Front, on the technology, not equally fascinating facets of the war from underage soldiering and the execution for cowardice of deserters. There are nonetheless some fascinating insights: Germany’s actions where founded on fear of their weakness, not belief in their strength; the Allies were not as gung-ho for war as the Press in particular suggested at times, it was surrender, rather than economic failings or the appearance of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF)  that lead to Germany’s defeat, a nation that clearly relished viciousness more so than the allies whose leaders were want to take repeated all or nothing gambles.

Fig.8. Grab from ‘The Pity of War’. The citation may be correct, but the author cited did not take these photographs. They are either still from the ‘Battle of the Somme’ or copies of photographs taken by the photographer who accompanied the ‘cameraman’.

Had as much care been taken with the images as the words then Ferguson would not have fallen into the trap of giving credit to Tropical Film Company Battle of the Somme film footage grabbed as stills by other authors in the past and offered as their own photographs.

Ferguson touches on, cites and lists a comprehensive range of historians, authors, dramatists, economists, poets and artists making ‘The Pity of War’ a desirable stepping off point, even learning design for a taught masters degree.

Fig.9. Grab from mindmap featuring possible errors in ‘The Pity of War’

He doesn’t always convince and there are errors that escape his eagle eyes (or those of his researchers). It is conjecture to say that Grey et al. exaggerated the threat of Germany despite intelligence. He suggests that a Tommy gets angry with a Jerry prisoner in the Battle of the Somme film without seeing that the man is injured and a prisoner inadvertently bumps into him, and regarding footage from this film shot he continues the calumny of authors who claim stills taken from the film footage or photographs taken by a photographer who travelled with one of the cinematographers, as Hart does, are part of their own photographic collection. Ferguson treats the movie ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ as biography, when its author Remarque saw little of the front line and it is conjecture to suggest that the EU would have resulted had Great Britain been late or stayed our of the war.  The argument that the central powers were somehow better at killing, maiming and taking prisoners ignores that they were largely on the defensive in conflicts which favoured defense. And that the loss of skilled workers to troops hugely impacted on the economy and our ability to wage war when hundreds of thousands of perfectly able women proved how good they were.

Fig.10. Grab from mindmap featuring possible bias in relation to the public-school educated landed gentry of the First World War era. 

Ferguson reveals some bias when he talks about Grey, Churchill and their ilk, from their public-school educated and landed gentry backgrounds. He has a dig at a public school type suited to Empire because of their qualities of leadership and loyalty when in truth young men in these establishments are a heterogeneous lot. And with Grey he has a go a cod psychology by trying to relate Grey the fly fisherman to Grey the foreign minister, in one particular incident thinking that Grey describing the challenge of landing a heavy salmon on lightweight tackle is at all like dealing with Germany on the brink of war. In such instances Ferguson is pushing it too far, it would make amusing TV or a witty point in a live debate at the Oxford Union, but it lacks conviction on the page.

Fig.11. Grab from mindmap suggesting that Ferguson is something of a dilettante, though he gives little time to the media ‘trivia’ that has emerged regarding the First World War on TV and in films. 

Ferguson is dismissive of media events such as as ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’, ‘Birdsong’ and ‘Gallipoli’, and goes light on the War poets and memoirs from veterans.  Though he shows a magpie dilettantism with mentions of invasion stories, art history and Penny dreadfuls.

Fig.12. Grab from mindmap that lists some of the authoritative historians Ferguson refers to.

‘The Pity of War’ by Niall Ferguson should be on any reading list the calims to be from the authorities on the First World War, alongside:

  • Barabara W. Tuchman ‘The Guns of August’

  • AJ P Taylor ‘The First World War’

  • Christopher Clark ‘The Sleepwalkers’

  • Trevor Wilson ‘The Myriad Faces of War’

  • Hew Strachan ‘First World War’

  • Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker ‘Understanding the Great War’


There are errors in ‘The Pity of War’. Here a picture taken by Ernest Brooks is misattributed. This happens surprisingly often – either stills from film footage are claimed as the authors or photographs taken by other people.  Does Richard Harte Butler claim to have been the photographer?

The correct attribution is to Ernest Brooks, and in this instance to a book on the shooting of the “Battle of the Somme’ film in 1916.


Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push


Whilst specialist second hand book shops may from
time to time have specific books or partwork on the First World
War, today one off reprints from digitized catalogues make it
increasingly possible for the amateur hsitorian to research online
then purchase a book that interests them and have it infront of
them in a day or two. It may not have the look or feel of something
that would otherwise be over 90 years old, but its contents are
nonetheless fascinating. Reading a variety of sources has become
like switching channels. In time I have spent writing this I was
able to locate an eBook that ident is som of the combatants and
reer to it directly myself. ‘The Great Push’ makes extensive use of
stills or ‘grabs’ from film footage shot by Geoffrey Malins of the
Battle of the Somme. Partworks such as these fed an understandable
hunger for insight and news, whilst the hidden agenda of seeking
support for the conflict and its justification is obvious from the
ebullient language. With 50th, 90th and now the 100th anniversary
if these events upon us new generations of historians and amateur
sleuths are able to add yet more to the images, both still and
moving, that were captured at the time. As well as revisiting and
identifying the spot where a picture was taken, every effort is
made to identify any of those featured in the pictures. With the
power of tens of thousands via the Internet it is reasomable to
believe, that even 95 or more years on that yet more combatants
will be named and in so doing, as the relevant archives are so
readily available, to say who more of these people are – where they
were born and went to school, where they worked and where they
joined up, what service they have seen to date and how the war pans
out for them. The national habit has been to remember those who
died in combat, but of course all are now dead and the opportunity
therefore exists to remember a generation, not only those who took
a direct part, but those on ‘the home front’ who faced their own
trials and tribulations. I believe it is in this spirit that the
BBC is marking the events of 100 years ago. 20131017-030335.jpg

Keep died on the 17th July 1917 in the Ypres,
Salient. He was 24. As we can identify him, we can surely provide the names of his platoon and in doing so might others look through newspapers as well as their own family photographs to see if more names can bedpntdtocfacesc97 or more years after the event?


Not only do you often come across images taken from the film ‘The Battle of the Somme’ that make false claims to their content, but authors try to confer their copyright to the material. Whilst it was common practice of the times to quite crudely add black or white highlights to a photograph in an attempt to improve clarity. In an era of Photoshop these efforts look clunky.


‘That’s nothing compared to Passchendaele”.


Fig.1. The dead and unidentifiable of Passchendaele, 1917

Reflecting on his training and service in the Machine Gun Corps during the First World War, veteran Jack Wilson MM commented on the regional news piece on TV which showed a soldier of the Durham Light Infantry in the Gulf before the first Iraq War to free Kuwait.

“You see these lovely rations they’re getting”, he said, adding, “and I look back at the stuff our lot were getting – it was terrible.”

He summed it up with in a sentence: ‘That’s nothing compared to Passchendaele”.

He described the food at the training camp in Grantham as “B.A.’ for “Bloody Awful”.


I remember being in the brick factory on the Somme at Trones Wood. There was this huge crater, this was in 1916.  I was trying to boil some water. I’d set up a bit of a fire with a couple of bricks and a canteen. The smell was dreadful. So I pushed my bayonet in and there’s a dead body.

When they started the war Jerry had those helmets with a brass peak. One day I saw this spike sticking out of the side of this communications trench and I thought it would make a nice souvenir and I got my bayonet out and dug the earth away to get hold of it. My fingers came away with skin and hair and all the rest of it. It was a dead German.

I got one in the end.

%d bloggers like this: