The Great War (documentary)

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The Great War
A photograph of British soldiers in a trench
This image, from the Imperial War Museum photo archive, formed part of The Great War's 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 involving the resources 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 major 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] George Langley,[6] Charles Carrington,[7] Egbert Cadbury,[8] Euan Rabagliati [9] and Cecil Arthur Lewis.[10] Others who were interviewed by the BBC, but not featured in the series included Norman MacMillan,[11] Edgar von Spiegel,[12] John Shea,[13] Robert Cotton Money,[14] Hans Howaldt,[15] and Eric Dorman O'Gowan.[16]

Title sequence[edit]

The series title sequence used a rostrum camera to create 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.[17][18] 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.[19][nb 1] This title sequence was set against the series theme music, composed by Wilfred Josephs and performed by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra.[20]

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.

  1. "on the idle hill of summer..." (A. E. Housman)
  2. "for such a stupid reason too...." (Queen Mary)
    • Political consequences of the assassination: the July Crisis. Austrian pressure on Serbia, involvement of Russia and Germany, the Schlieffen Plan, and diplomatic exchanges leading to the British declaration of war on Germany.
  3. "we must hack our way through" (Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg)
  4. "our hats we doff to General Joffre" (1914 jingle)
  5. "this business may last a long time" (Rudolf Binding)
  6. "so sleep easy in your beds" (Admiral Fisher)
  7. "we await the heavenly manna..." (Nikolai Yanushkevich, Russian General)[21]
  8. "why don't you come and help!" (David Lloyd George)
    • The effects of protracted war on civilian life of the major powers, with focus on Britain. The sinking of RMS Lusitania, reprisals against foreign nationals. The founding of Lloyd George's Ministry of Munitions, employment of women in the war industry, resulting labour disputes.
  9. "please God send us a victory...." (soldiers prayer)
  10. "what are our Allies doing?" (Russian General)
  11. "hell cannot be so terrible" (a French soldier)
    • The Battle of Verdun through June 1916, with a brief look at the civilian life in France at the time.
  12. "... for Gawd's sake don't send me." (1916 song)
    • The British army in Picardy in 1916. Recruitment and training of volunteers in Britain, deployment in France, logistics of supplying a million-strong force. The artillery barrage preceding the Allied joint offensive.
  13. "the Devil is coming..." (German soldier)
  14. "all this it is our duty to bear" (Lord Lansdowne)
  15. "we are betrayed, sold, lost" (French soldier)
  16. "right is more precious than peace" (President Wilson)
  17. "surely we have perished" (Wilfred Owen)
  18. "fat Rodzianko has sent me some nonsense" (Czar Nicholas II)
  19. "the hell where youth and laughter go" (Siegfried Sassoon)
    • The Western Front at the end of 1917. Experiences: artistic portrayals, sounds and smells of the war, aerial photographs. The discrepancy in perceptions between soldiers and civilians, psychological breakdowns, sense of belonging to the unit. Georges Clemenceau becomes French Prime Minister, the Battle of Cambrai ends in stalemate.
  20. "only war, nothing but war" (Clemenceau)
  21. "it was like the end of the world" (German soldier)
  22. "damn them, are they never coming in?" (F. S. Oliver)
  23. "when must the end be?" (Hindenburg)
  24. "Allah made Mesopotamia—and added flies" (Arabian proverb)
  25. "the iron thrones are falling" (British officer)
  26. "...and we were young" (A. E. Housman)

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'.[22] Much use was made of 20th Century symphonies, including Shostakovitch's 11th and Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica. The opening music is the last refrain from Rachmaninov's Symphony No 1. Such musical references do not appear in the credits, therefore a full list of these extra musical elements would be welcome.[nb 2]


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).[23]


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.[24]

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.[25] 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[26][27][28][29][30] 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.[31]

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.
  2. ^ Episode 12: "Land of Hope and Glory", "For Gawd's Sake Don't Send Me", "The British Grenadiers", "Abide With Me", Shostakovich, Sym. 11, mov. 2; Episode 14: Shostakovich: Sym. 11, mov. 2, Chopin: Marche funebre, "Abide With Me", "Noel", "Keep the Home Fires Burning".


  1. ^ Hanna 2007, p. 95.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Opening sequence; amended imagery appears at 38 seconds
  18. ^ Hanna 2007, p. 97.
  19. ^ Hanna 2007, p. 101.
  20. ^ Hanna 2007, p. 99.
  21. ^ Lloyd George 1933, p. 389.
  22. ^ Jack 2007.
  23. ^ Todman 2002, p. 29.
  24. ^ Irish Times 1964.
  25. ^ BBC 2013.
  26. ^ / DVD / The Great War Disk 1-2 / front
  27. ^ / DVD / The Great War Disk 3-4 / front
  28. ^ / DVD / The Great War Disk 5-6 / front
  29. ^ / DVD / The Great War Disk 7-8 / front
  30. ^ / DVD / The Great War Disk 9-10 / front
  31. ^ 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]