The BBC’s Great War: a response by David Elstein

David Elstein responds to Adrian van Klaveren and Mark Hayhurst's defence of their WW1 programming.

David Elstein
3 May 2014


I am really pleased that both Adrian van Klaveren and Mark Hayhurst have written at such length in reply to my original piece. They make important points, and have set a useful precedent for detailed and open discussion about BBC (indeed, screen) content, both in particular and in broad terms.

Can Mark be responsible for anyone misinterpreting his drama as an account of the way Europe went to war in 1914, rather than how Britain was drawn into it? The BBC’s website describes his drama as “revealing the complex behind-closed-doors story of the final weeks before the outbreak of World War One”. Even Mark’s own website (as managed by his agent) describes “37 Days” as the “behind the scenes story of the outbreak of the Great War”

That the only doors the story took us behind were those in London (or Belfast doubling as London) and – to a lesser extent – Berlin was Mark’s choice. That the story of how Europe stumbled into war is best told through Vienna, Belgrade, Paris, St Petersburg and Berlin (with London barely registering) does not invalidate the tale of how the Liberal cabinet dealt with a crisis of conscience, and eventually opted for war. Of course, entitling it “37 Days” begs a question: the Balkan crisis only overtook Home Rule as the key subject of argument within the British cabinet at the end of July 1914. Perhaps “11 Days” might have reduced the chance of Mark’s skilful account of the cabinet debates being mistaken for something it was not.

Likewise, Adrian was only appointed to his post overseeing all World War One output late in the day. A drama starting in June 28th in Sarajevo and ending with Britain declaring war on Germany on August 4th might appear to any commissioning editor to be covering how the war came about (even if, in this case, it did not). And there is still Christopher Clark’s radio version of his masterly “The Sleepwalkers” yet to come. Nor is it fair to blame the BBC’s massive commitment to World War One programming for the crowding out effect that seems to have taken place: a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Let me address Mark’s specific points. He thinks his drama shows Grey to be metaphorically as well as literally myopic, rather than all-seeing; yet the entire premise of his drama was that the Foreign Office was on permanent alert, with millions of telegrams pouring in from embassies all over the world. Indeed, the first scene effectively invites us to believe that Grey was in the Foreign Office on that hot Sunday, with a fictional clerk asking Grey’s supposed closest advisor (actually not even his second closest advisor) whether Sir Edward should be troubled with this news from Sarajevo.

Mark suggests I am confusing this weekend with a later one (when the Austrian ultimatum was received) in placing Grey as fly-fishing rather than hard at work on assassination day. Nice sidestep, but it won’t do: the confusion (as we will see) is all Mark’s. It is true we do not know whether Grey was actually fly-fishing that weekend, but we can be 99% certain that he was not in London, let alone in his office. But Mark prefers to offer his viewers a wholly implausible scenario, which can only serve to “big up” Grey and his team.

What we do know, according to Sean McMeekin’s “July 1914: Countdown To War”, page 76, is that Grey “was not unduly bothered by the Sarajevo incident – not enough for him to cancel a fishing trip that week”. He had written a book on the complex art of fly-fishing and “was keen to enjoy his favourite hobby while his failing eyes still allowed him to pursue it”. So: fly-fishing that fateful Sunday is a pretty safe bet. Ironically, Grey was planning a first ever visit to Germany that summer to consult an eye specialist.

By a similar irony, Churchill had been with the German fleet that weekend, observing its joint manoeuvres with the Royal Navy. He first heard of the assassination on the Monday, from the morning papers he bought at Portsmouth Harbour. “There is no evidence,” says McMeekin, “that Churchill, after hearing the news from Sarajevo...changed his daily routine any more than Grey did.”

Mark’s invented dinner party conversation at Downing Street (including Churchill, who was still at sea that evening) conveyed a worldly grasp of events at odds with what he is now telling us he was portraying. Yet Mark takes issue with my characterisation of his drama as “brave Britain carefully trying to manage an unravelling situation”. How could I have arrived at such an idea? Perhaps from the BBC’s billing for the second of the three hours, which says “under pressure from the cabinet, the British foreign secretary unravels a tangled web of intrigue”.

So I viewed the series again, to check Mark’s claim, and his confusion over fishing weekends became all too clear with the opening of the second film. We see Grey apparently having his weekend (that of July 25th and 26th) “ruined” by having to hustle in to the Foreign Office, and there having a document thrust into his hand by our fictional clerk, which we are led to believe is the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia. We then see Grey proclaiming Austria to be “mad”, and insisting on summoning the Austrian ambassador (“that idiot Mensdorff”) to upbraid him. This is all very puzzling, as it never happened.

First of all, there was no folder of information, and no summons. Like other Austrian ambassadors in other capitals, Mensdorff visited the Foreign Office on the morning of Friday July 24th so as to answer any questions Grey might have had after receiving (as had all European capitals) a copy of the “note without time limit” (or ultimatum) that had been delivered to Belgrade the previous evening.

This included all the demands described by Grey in the fictional scene as “absurd”, but there is no evidence Grey actually characterised them as such to Mensdorff; indeed, he conceded there and then to the ambassador that some of them were “justified”. (It was, of course, the French and Russian governments that tried to browbeat their respective Austrian envoys with a flat rejection of “impossible” demands: not that we would ever know that from “37 Days”.) In fact, Grey had been forewarned of the nature of the Austrian note by his Vienna ambassador nine days beforehand, but showed no interest in that despatch, not even forwarding the message to his man in St Petersburg.

Grey actually described the “note with a time limit” to his ambassadors in a message after the Friday meeting as “the most formidable document I have ever seen addressed by one State to another that was independent” – at the same time as telling them that it was none of Britain’s business. That was the day – the one before Serbia replied to the ultimatum – that Grey secured cabinet backing to propose a four-power mediation in the Balkans (by Britain, France, Germany and Italy): a subject he raised at the fag end of yet another interminable discussion of Home Rule.

It was this plan which McMeekin (on page 204, half way through his account of the crisis) characterizes as Grey making “his first appearance on the European scene in weeks”, on day 26 of the 37 days (my apologies for previously citing the script based on the book, which Mark correctly noted cannot be checked: but the day is the same). This is the point I was underlining in my original piece, to the effect that Britain was simply not engaged for most of the “37 Days”. As for any suggestion that Grey was “under pressure from the cabinet”, that is laughable. The cabinet had not discussed foreign policy once since the assassination, and was quite relaxed about Grey performing his “European statesman” shtick over Serbia. I suspect this episode summary came from BBC Presentation rather than Mark himself.

As each of the major powers responded, or not, to the mediation proposal, Grey’s departure to his country estate was delayed till Saturday (Churchill had gone off to the seaside to play with his children on the beach), but there was no way the fictional clerk would have known there might be such a proposal, so his comment about the weekend having been “ruined” makes no sense: until you realise that Mark has merged Grey’s Friday meeting with Mensdorff with an invented haranguing of the Austrian ambassador on the Monday.

This scene is further evidence of my central objection to the drama: the reduction of foreigners to figures of fun, cardboard cut-outs, or at best caricatures with funny accents (whereas even the most plebeian of British characters speak in complete and fluent sentences). Mensdorff is portrayed as a short, thirty-ish nobody with a quiff. He was actually a tall, balding 53-year-old (a year older than Grey), who had been ambassador in London for twelve years (longer than Grey had been foreign secretary), after thirteen years in other roles at the London embassy.


Mensdorff, by Laszlo - Wikimedia

The idea that Grey would call him an “idiot” is strange: Mensdorff had actually rescued another four-power mediation initiated by Grey, to solve an Albanian-Serbian border dispute, in 1913. According to Clark, through the post-Sarajevo weeks, Grey’s talks with Mensdorff were “polite, but reserved and non-committal”. Whatever Grey may have calculated as the intended effect of the ultimatum – “designed to be rejected” was Asquith’s verdict, as written by Mark – he had been told by his minister in Belgrade, Crackanthorpe, on Saturday July 25th that Serbia was likely to submit, even to the toughest clauses requiring Austrian involvement in investigation by Serbia of the assassinations.

We also know that Mensdorff had told Grey on the Friday that even a Serbian rejection of the ultimatum, followed by the cessation of diplomatic relations (as happened at 6pm on the Saturday), would not necessarily lead to war.

So the entire basis of the fictional scene on the Monday is flat out wrong. To have Grey (“we statesmen”) lecturing a seasoned professional (who also happened to be Edward VII’s cousin) on post-Napoleonic diplomacy, on the difference between diplomacy and lying, on an “absurd sequence of events” that never happened, and on “what will happen now” is – what’s the word? – oh, yes, extravagant.

To have Grey deliver this invented rebuke whilst standing over a seated Mensdorff is the kind of visual cliché parodied by Chaplin in “The Great Dictator”. (I’m not sure I blame Mark, rather than director Justin Hardy, for another visual cliché – lifted straight from “Dr Strangelove” – of the Kaiser tapping his left glove with a baton, as if it were a metallic prosthesis rather than just a way of disguising his shorter left arm.)

Immediately after the Mensdorff scene, we have further supposed evidence of Britain’s and Grey’s mastery of the situation: all – sadly – misconceived. First, following an invented scene with Churchill and Asquith, Grey passes on to the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, the news that Churchill has held the fleet at Spithead, rather than disperse it: intended (and received) as a threat to be sent on to Berlin. Later, Grey visits the telegraph room, where apparently news is being received of Russian mobilisation measures.

The truth is that, in relation to Russian activity, Britain was woefully under-informed, not least because its incurious ambassador in St Petersburg, Sir George Buchanan, was being systematically misled by both Russia and France. Indeed, Lichnowsky himself had called in on Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Arthur Nicolson on the Sunday (Grey, of course, was not there) to express alarm about Russian troop movements as reported by the German military attaché in St Petersburg, only to be told he must be misinformed. Grey confirmed as much in his meeting with Lichnowsky, claiming wrongly that Russia had yet to call up its reserves.

McMeekin puts it bluntly: “in his knowledge of Russian military preparations, Grey was two full days behind events, and falling further behind” (p 240). Clark (p 495) likewise concludes: “he showed remarkably little knowledge of, or interest in, what was actually happening in Russia during the crucial days following the presentation of the Austrian note”.

As for the naval “threat”, there is no evidence from Lichnowsky’s three telegrams to Berlin that Monday that he was told any such thing (it was a telegram from the naval attaché in London received the next day that conveyed the news); in any case, Grey knew nothing of it (Churchill had not told him – otherwise he would have said the fleet was at Portland, rather than Spithead). If these scenes do not constitute exaggeration of Grey’s knowledge, capabilities and role, what does?

Mark defends as sincere the four-power mediation proposal put forward by Grey, against Christopher Clark’s description of it as “a non-starter”, citing the ground-breaking works of Sidney Fay (1929) and Luigi Albertini (1938) as a counter to Clark. In fact, the note in Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” referencing Fay as a source for the “non-starter” comment says: “on the incoherence and impracticability of Grey’s ‘concert’ proposal, see Fay”; so I don’t think that really helps Mark.

In fact, the proposal kept changing shape, but was in each version inherently objectionable. The first iteration – that France, Germany, Britain and Italy should intercede with St Petersburg to ensure a moderate response to any stand-off between Serbia and Austria – was not even passed on to Paris by Paul Cambon, the London ambassador, as it was “beneath consideration”, there being no chance of France putting pressure on its ally, Russia: which anyway rejected the proposal.

Cambon persuaded Grey to switch the target to Vienna: but again, Germany was never going to put itself in a position of pressurising its ally, Austria. Berlin, in turn, suggested Grey leave the matter to Austria and Serbia to resolve directly. A final version – aimed at Austria, Serbia and Russia – also made no appeal to Germany, for the crucial reason stated by Sean McMeekin: “as everyone except Grey and Nicolson seemed to know, Italy was fundamentally hostile to Austria”. In Germany’s eyes, any version of the Grey proposal, given Britain’s closeness to France, would work out as 3:1 hostile.

“37 Days” portrays a dastardly Bethmann Hollweg sneakily burying the Grey proposal: which is simply nonsense. The plan was discussed at a top level German meeting on the afternoon of Monday July 27th, and formally rejected in a meeting with the British ambassador.

This whole section has a series of errors. We are shown the Kaiser eating breakfast at the Neues Palais on the 27th whilst reprimanding Bethmann and his Foreign Minister, Jagow, for failing to press home the Austrian riposte to Serbia during his weeks sailing the Norwegian fjords. Actually, the meeting was at 1pm, at the Wildpark Station, with just Bethmann, and Wilhelm’s biggest beef was having been left to pick up details of the Austrian note from a news report, because Bethmann had failed to forward it to him. Bethmann also managed to fail to provide Wilhelm with a copy of the Serbian reply – yet is shown asking the Kaiser whether he has read it, as he claimed to notice a (non-existent) copy on Wilhelm’s (non-existent) breakfast table! The reality was that Bethmann was stalling the Kaiser in the hope that the Austrians would declare war before Wilhelm read the reply (which is what actually happened). To add to the confusion, Wilhelm is shown telling Bethmann the news about the British fleet 24 hours before anyone in Germany (including the Kaiser) knew it.

Of course, any dramatisation of these events is bound to involve some adjustment to actual happenings, and some compression. But there is a big difference between leaving out some of the detail and eliminating whole areas of significance, whilst inverting and exaggerating much other detail so as to achieve particular outcomes (such as showing a stony-faced Moltke – who has been built up in the drama as the dynamo of German aggression – hurling insults at the Kaiser after being fired, rather than, as actually happened, bursting into tears, going home, sitting on his bed and pouting – see McMeekin p 344).

The impression left by “37 Days” is that it was lethargy on the part of a “weak and decadent”, “superannuated” Habsburg monarchy which led to the lengthy delay in delivering the “note with a time limit”. Yet there were good reasons for the delay: the need to obtain German support, and consent from the Hungarian leader; securing better information about the degree of Serbian involvement in the assassination; awaiting the return of soldiers from harvest duty; and ensuring that the French president was on board ship sailing back from his state visit to Russia, so that those allies could not easily co-ordinate a response. This explains the date chosen by foreign minister Count Berchtold: July 23rd.

Mark omits entirely from his drama that the Serbian government had been willing to accept the Austrian terms, until instructed by St Petersburg to reject at least two of them. It may well have been Austria’s intention that the note be tough to the point of unacceptability, but the notion that this was “reckless” (as Mark has us believe Grey described Austria’s behaviour) begs the question of what Austria should have done when the heir to its throne is cut down in broad daylight, at a public event in its own territory, by one of a group of suicide-assassins trained and despatched by a hostile neighbour.

Indeed, one of Christopher Clark’s most original ideas in “The Sleepwalkers” (p456) is to compare the Austrian note with the NATO ultimatum to Serbia issued from Rambouillet in 1999 over Kosovo, which included the demand to march, drive, sail, fly or camp in or over any part of the land and associated airspace and seawaters of the former Yugoslavia (including Serbia). Of course, Russia in 1999 was in no position to prop up Milosevich, whereas in 1914, Serbia did whatever Russia said: in this case, obfuscate and resist. In Clark’s view, the Serbian reply was a rejection wrapped in conciliatory language, which misled many who read it superficially (if at all) into thinking it represented retreat, rather than defiance.

Mark also objects to my charge of reductionism in dismissing Franz Ferdinand as “arrogant” and “bullying”, citing no less an authority than AJP Taylor. I would be the last to claim that any member of the Habsburg monarchy was a paragon of virtues. But if we are to reduce historical figures to just two adjectives, there are plenty of other options in this case: loving father and doting husband (Franz Ferdinand spent years enduring the humiliation of his wife by the court in Vienna, simply because of her lowly birth); or ambitious would-be re-shaper of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on federal lines; or – as I suggested – a block to aggression against Serbia by the gung-ho Austrian chief of staff.

The question is: what is relevant in this context? “Arrogant” and “bullying” might even suggest that he was a suitable target for assassination. It tells us nothing about the unintended consequence of the deed – namely, removing the main obstacle to a knee-jerk military response by Austria to the outrage.

The choice of words is uncomfortably in keeping with the depiction of so many of the foreign characters in the drama, as fools or worse. Tsar Nicholas is reduced to being “whimsical and unpredictable”. His three wordless daughters are lined up in chairs like so many Russian dolls, just as are the three ambassadors in London awaiting the pleasure of Sir Edward. It is this lazy racism that dismayed me almost as much as the near-complete removal of the real story of how Europe staggered into disaster.

Edward Grey, on that basis, should have been identified as “indolent and secretive”. Mark argues that Grey is depicted as indecisive, rather than in control of events. Yet an actor as obviously intelligent as Iain McDiarmid inevitably conveys effortless knowingness. And it remains the case that Grey’s biggest error during the last days of the crisis – his bizarre offer of British and French neutrality if Germany refrained from attacking France – was smoothed over no less than four times in “37 Days” with the implication that German ambassador Lichnowsky misunderstood what Grey was saying over the telephone: a version of events offered by the Anglophile Lichnowsky to protect his friend, and recycled by “37 Days” as fact, but which the known record definitively disproves.

Mark is absolutely right to defend the sincerity of the Liberal ministers who resigned as the cabinet pushed ever closer to war: obviously, their piecemeal departure could not have been motivated by the likelihood of a Conservative government stepping in. Whether that is equally true of Lloyd George is open to question. But the larger truth is that the revelation of Grey’s secret 1912 agreement with Cambon, and the invasion of Belgium, would have forced Britain one way or another into the conflict (though not absolutely inevitably a land war). And what is harder to sustain is that the cabinet meetings in the final week were more “fraught with meaning” – as our fictitious clerk/narrator put it – than any in previous British history.

It actually mattered little whether even Lloyd George resigned: if the Liberals had not declared war, their Conservative replacements would certainly have done so. Indeed, the most important immediate consequence of joining the war was never mentioned: that Home Rule would have to be abandoned, once the British Expeditionary Force was assigned to France, rather than to the unpalatable task of suppressing a potential rebellion in Ulster.

Mark argues that some of my complaints are “trivial”, and it is true that many of them do not matter in the overall scheme of things. He puts down to his team’s “exuberance” the decision to show Princip firing seven shots rather than the actual two (presumably the same applies to the misrepresentation of the entire scene: no angry crowd, no seizing and near-lynching of the assassin, no suicide attempts, and so on). Likewise, writing a scene showing Bethmann burying the Grey mediation proposal (and Mark saying in his piece that this actually occurred, which is completely untrue) makes little difference, except in showing a cavalier disregard for what happened in favour of what the writer prefers – it does not even add dramatic effect, except in a completely misleading way. Perhaps I just have a stronger commitment to the particular truth as well as the larger one (and I still do not think “37 Days” served the largest truth – how Europe went to war – well at all).

But opinions can differ. I am sure I am a very atypical viewer, and the audience reaction (admittedly, from a viewer base that disappointingly declined from episode to episode) was largely positive. Adrian van Klaveren cites the enthusiasm of the previewer for The Sunday Times: I could cite A A Gill’s verdict as the reviewer for The Sunday Times (“a farrago”). Despite my many reservations about “37 Days”, the last thing I would want to do is discourage the BBC from committing to ambitious, well-crafted representations of recent history – if only it just injected an extra element of very well-informed historical consultancy to test the claims of authenticity against the entirely natural desire of the dramatist to create a compelling viewing experience.

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