The Great War (TV series)

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The Great War
A photograph of British soldiers in a sunken road
Image from the Imperial War Museum photo archive, part of the opening titles.
Written by
Voices of
Narrated by Michael Redgrave
Theme music composer Wilfred Josephs
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of episodes 26
  • Tony Essex
  • Gordon Watkins
  • John Terraine (Associate Producer, Britain)
  • Ed Rollins (Associate Producer, Canada)
  • Tom Manefield (Associate Producer, Australia)
Running time 40 minutes
Production company(s)
Original network BBC1
Picture format Black-and-white
Original release 30 May – 22 November 1964

The Great War is a 26-episode documentary series from 1964 on the First World War. The documentary was a co-production of the Imperial War Museum, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Broadcasting Commission. The narrator was Michael Redgrave, with readings by Marius Goring, Ralph Richardson, Cyril Luckham, Sebastian Shaw and Emlyn Williams. Each episode is c. 40 minutes long.


In August 1963, at the suggestion of Alasdair Milne, producer of the BBC's current affairs programme Tonight, the BBC resolved to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War with a big television project. The series was the first to feature veterans, many of them still relatively fit men in their late sixties or early seventies, speaking of their experiences after a public appeal for veterans was published in the national press.[1] Those who appeared in the series included Edward Spears,[2] Henry Williamson,[3] Horace Birks,[4] Benjamin Muse,[5] Gustav Lachmann, Melvin Krulewitch,[6] George Langley,[7] Keith Officer, Douglas Wimberley,[8] Charles Carrington,[9] Egbert Cadbury,[10] Euan Rabagliati,[11] Robert Cotton Money,[12] Norman Demuth, Walter Greenwood and Cecil Arthur Lewis.[13] Others who were interviewed by the BBC but not featured in the series included Norman MacMillan,[14] Mabel Lethbridge,[15] Edgar von Spiegel,[16] Edmund Blunden,[17] Martin Niemöller,[18] John Shea,[19] Hans Howaldt,[20] William Ibbett,[21] Marthe Bibesco,[22] Philip Joubert de la Ferté[23] and Eric Dorman O'Gowan.[24]

Title sequence[edit]

The series title sequence used a rostrum camera to create a montage of three images, the first showing a silhouetted British soldier standing over the grave of a comrade, the camera first focuses on the cross, where the almost imperceptible words IN MEMORY are glanced, the second shows a uniformed, skeletal corpse by the entrance to a dugout. The final image shows a lone British soldier, looking directly into the camera apparently surrounded by corpses, which is a montage of several images combined for dramatic effect.[25][26] The original image of the staring soldier, showing him surrounded by fellow soldiers rather than corpses, was taken from photograph Q 1 in the Imperial War Museum photograph archive but has been described as having quickly become symbolic of the First World War.[27][nb 1] This title sequence was set against the series theme music, composed by Wilfred Josephs and performed by the BBC Northern Orchestra.[28]

Episode listing[edit]

The episode titles are taken from quotations, the origins of which are shown in parentheses. With few exceptions, successive blocks of episodes are devoted to each year of the war: episodes 1–6 to 1914, 7–10 to 1915, 11–14 to 1916, 15–19 to 1917, 20–23 and 26 to 1918.

No. Title Original air date
1"on the idle hill of summer... (A. E. Housman)"30 May 1964
2"for such a stupid reason too.... (Queen Mary)"6 June 1964
3"we must hack our way through (Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg)"13 June 1964
4"our hats we doff to General Joffre (1914 jingle)"20 June 1964
5"this business may last a long time (Rudolf Binding)"27 June 1964
6"so sleep easy in your beds (Admiral Fisher)"4 July 1964
7"we await the heavenly manna... (Nikolai Yanushkevich, Russian General)[29]"11 July 1964
8"why don't you come and help?! (David Lloyd George)"18 July 1964
9"please God send us a victory.... (soldiers prayer)"25 July 1964
10"what are our allies doing? (Russian General)"1 August 1964
11"hell cannot be so terrible (a French soldier)"8 August 1964
12"... for Gawd's sake don't send me (1916 song)"15 August 1964
13"the Devil is coming... (German soldier)"22 August 1964
14"all this it is our duty to bear (Lord Lansdowne)"29 August 1964
15"we are betrayed, sold, lost (French soldier)"5 September 1964
16"right is more precious than peace (President Wilson)"13 September 1964
17"surely we have perished (Wilfred Owen)"20 September 1964
18"fat Rodzianko has sent me some nonsense (Czar Nicholas II)"27 September 1964
19"the hell where youth and laughter go (Siegfried Sassoon)"4 October 1964
20"only war, nothing but war (Clemenceau)"11 October 1964
21"it was like the end of the world (German soldier)"18 October 1964
22"damn them, are they never coming in? (F. S. Oliver)"25 October 1964
23"when must the end be? (Hindenburg)"1 November 1964
24"Allah made Mesopotamia – and added flies (Arabian proverb)"8 November 1964
25"the iron thrones are falling (British officer)"15 November 1964
26"...and we were young (A. E. Housman)"22 November 1964

Two "Extra" episodes exist (only on the dual layer DVD edition):

  1. Voices from the Western Front
  2. The Finished Fighter

Musical score[edit]

The music for the series was composed by Wilfred Josephs. It was performed by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Hurst. His expressive yet unsentimental score was widely acclaimed at the time and many have recalled the strong contribution it made to the series: in August 2007, Guardian columnist Ian Jack remembered how at the start of each episode Josephs' 'ominous music ushered the audience into the trenches'.[30] Much use was made of 20th Century symphonies, including Shostakovitch's 11th and Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica'.


Each episode of The Great War was seen by an average audience of over eight million people, a 17 percent share of the estimated viewing population. The fourth episode, the most popular of the series, reached an audience of over eleven million (22.6 percent of the audience).[31]


Following transmission of the series by the Republic of Ireland's national TV station, Telefís Éireann, The Great War won a Jacob's Award at the 1964 presentation ceremony in Dublin.[32]

First World War centenary[edit]

On 16 October 2013, fifty years after the release of the series, the BBC announced that unshown interview material, recorded during the making of The Great War, will be used in a new programme, My Great War, to be shown as part of the BBC's programmes during the First World War centenary.[33] The programme was first broadcast on 14 March 2014 and entitled "I Was There: the Great War Interviews".

DVD releases[edit]

There appear to be two releases as of mid-2007, both in the UK, both Region 2. The audio has been remastered. The first shows copyright 2001 and consists of five volumes, each housing two DVDs (single-layer). On the cover descriptions[34][35][36][37][38] there is no mention of the Extra episodes The other shows copyright 2002 and consists of seven DVDs – six containing the original 26 episodes and one with the two Extras. These discs are dual-layer. It is distributed by DD Video. In October 2007 the Daily Mail distributed the series on DVD to its readers as part of a promotion.[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The other two photographs were also taken from the Imperial War Museum photograph archive. The first, of the soldier standing over the grave, was Q 2757 and the second was Q 2041. The photographs were taken by Ernest Brooks, a British Army official photographer.


  1. ^ Hanna 2007, p. 95.
  2. ^ "The Great War Interviews: 12 Edward Louis Spears" (Adobe Flash). (Subscription required (help)). 
  3. ^ "The Great War Interviews: 3 Henry Williamson" (Adobe Flash). (Subscription required (help)). 
  4. ^ "The Great War Interviews: 10 Horace Leslie Birks" (Adobe Flash). (Subscription required (help)). 
  5. ^ "MUSE, BENJAMIN (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  6. ^ "Krulewitch, Melvin L (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  7. ^ "Langley, G (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  8. ^ "Wimberley, Douglas Neil (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  9. ^ "The Great War Interviews: 6 Charles Carrington" (Adobe Flash). (Subscription required (help)). 
  10. ^ "Cadbury, Egbert (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  11. ^ "Rabagliati, Cuthbert E C (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  12. ^ "Money, Robert Cotton (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  13. ^ "The Great War Interviews: 4 Cecil Arthur Lewis" (Adobe Flash). (Subscription required (help)). 
  14. ^ "The Great War Interviews: 13 Norman MacMillan" (Adobe Flash). (Subscription required (help)). 
  15. ^ "The Great War Interviews – 7. Mabel Lethbridge". BBC. 
  16. ^ "Spiegel, E von (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  17. ^ "Blunden, Edmund Charles (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  18. ^ "NIEMOLLER, MARTIN (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  19. ^ "Oral history". Imperial War Museum. 
  20. ^ "Oral history". Imperial War Museum. 
  21. ^ "Ibbett, William (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  22. ^ "Bibescou, Marthe (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  23. ^ "Joubert de la Ferte, Philip Bennet (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  24. ^ "Dorman O'Gowan, Eric Edward (Oral history)". Imperial War Museum. 
  25. ^ "YouTube" – via YouTube. 
  26. ^ Hanna 2007, p. 97.
  27. ^ Hanna 2007, p. 101.
  28. ^ Hanna 2007, p. 99.
  29. ^ Lloyd George 1933, p. 389.
  30. ^ Jack 2007.
  31. ^ Todman 2002, p. 29.
  32. ^ Irish Times 1964.
  33. ^ BBC 2013.
  34. ^ " / DVD / The Great War Disk 1–2 / front". 
  35. ^ " / DVD / The Great War Disk 3–4 / front". 
  36. ^ " / DVD / The Great War Disk 5–6 / front". 
  37. ^ " / DVD / The Great War Disk 7–8 / front". 
  38. ^ " / DVD / The Great War Disk 9–10 / front". 
  39. ^ Barnett 2007.


  • Lloyd George, D. (1933). War Memoirs of David Lloyd George. I (Little, Brown, Boston 1937 ed.). London: Nicholson & Watson. OCLC 18436449. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]