The BBC's Great War

There are always two disciplines in play when broadcasting tackles history: one is broadcasting, the other is history. And the needs of broadcasting usually come first, as they do, in David Elstein's opinion, in the earliest of the 2500 hours worth of programming the BBC is transmitting in memory of the Great War.

David Elstein
3 April 2014


In the post this week came a letter from Adrian van Klaveren, the Controller of the BBC’s World War One Centenary, enclosing a DVD of some of its early offerings from a planned 4-year provision of over 2,500 hours of commemorative programming.

It is still four months before the actual anniversary of the start of the First World War, but this DVD included an episode from Jeremy Paxman’s 4-hour documentary series on BBC entitled “Britain’s Great War”, and contrasting views from historians Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson (“The Necessary War” and “The Pity of War”). Not included was the 3-part drama from BBC2, entitled “37 Days”, which purported to tell the story of the war’s outbreak from the perspective of the British cabinet room and Foreign Office.

These are substantial pieces of work, and taken together explain why other UK broadcasters have chosen to sit this war out for the most part (other than having it play a part in some period dramas). I salute the BBC for its courage and commitment as the main state broadcaster in trying to do justice to such an important subject. I just wish I was equally impressed by the productions themselves.

Paxman’s War

The Paxman series was broad ranging, superbly assembled, full of quirky detail, beautifully researched, and presented in stylish and exemplary fashion by one of the BBC’s most familiar current affairs faces.

And yet how did it rate as actual history? It offered almost no insight into how and why Britain entered the war (presumably that task had been assigned to “37 Days”). In the brief moment when reasons are canvassed by Paxman, he refers to the need “to honour treaties, defend the Empire and protect Britain”. He talks of ensuring that Germany did not “amass an Empire stretching from somewhere deep in Russia to the shores of the English Channel”. He tells us that Britain was “gripped by fear of invasion” and that the High Command believed that the enemy might land at any time.

Even if there were such a fear, it bore little relation to reality, and perhaps series producer Julian Birkett, or his colleagues at the Open University who co-produced the programmes, might have told us such. Far from Britain facing “its biggest threat for 1,000 years”, the German Navy was in no position to launch an invasion – Napoleon, 100 years earlier, posed a far more serious danger.

The notion of a Germany lusting for a chunk of the British Empire, and “aiming to dominate all of Europe by invading both Russia and France” may have fitted popular ideas of a bloodthirsty Kaiser who had long envied Britain’s naval power and overseas sweep. However, Germany had acknowledged by 1913 that it had lost the naval arms race, and by the summer of 1914, Britain’s superiority was beyond dispute. Indeed, even the Russian navy had built more ships than the German navy in 1913.

Professor Paul Kennedy, in the Cambridge History of The First World War, published this year, concludes that Britain had a 75% advantage over Germany in dreadnoughts, a 25% advantage in battlecruisers, a 200% advantage in cruisers and a 125% advantage in submarines. Professor Christopher Clark, in his 2012 book “The Sleepwalkers”, tells us that “British policy-makers were less obsessed with, and less alarmed by, German naval building than is often supposed...the Germans lost the naval race hands down”.

As for Germany’s imperial ambitions, virtually all its possessions were seized within months of the war starting, by a combination of Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Professor Kennedy says that “the ruination and elimination of Germany’s overseas positions came fast and total, and there were few surprises”. Even if Britain had not sent a single soldier to France, but had simply bottled up the German fleet in its North Sea ports – as it did – there would have been no threat to the Empire.

But what if Germany had indeed conquered mainland Europe? Arguably, Germany entered the war with no territorial ambitions, but rather motivated by a determination to prevent its encircling enemies – who had mobilized against her first – from crushing her. Prussia had seized land from Denmark and France in defeating them thirty years earlier, but to attribute to Kaiser Wilhelm II Hitlerite dreams of straddling the whole of Europe is to project a quite different set of war aims into July 1914, or even August 1914.

Indeed, the Kaiser did not really want to go to war, however much some of his military chiefs favoured a “preventive” conflict before Russia grew too strong. Even after Russia collapsed, Germany’s primary aim was to survive, not to expand. The war aims it published in September 1914 involved some territorial gains, and effective control over the Low Countries. Yet Foreign Office officials were just as concerned by the prospect of Russia and France dominating Europe as Germany: the imperial ambitions of those countries worried Britain at least as much as Germany’s.

After all, if Britain had specifically wanted to constrain Germany, it had had every opportunity to join the Franco-Russian Entente in the twenty years before war broke out. However, the central plank of British foreign policy for centuries had been to maintain a balance of power within Europe whilst avoiding firm alliances. Moreover, even in July 1914, so divided was public opinion, the press, Parliament and the cabinet as between war and neutrality, that the Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, was unable to make a decisive intervention until the German army invaded Belgium.

Even then, as Professor Jay Winter, editor of the Cambridge History, says: “only when it became absolutely clear that the main thrust of the German invasion was head on through Belgium, and not further south through France, was he able to sway his cabinet colleagues”.

Clearly, Belgian neutrality, guaranteed by the Treaty of London of 1839, was the immediate casus belli, rather than fear of a dominant Germany. Grey had ducked the issue of Britain’s treaty obligations to Luxembourg’s neutrality, despite Germany’s invasion of the Duchy, by arguing that the signatories to that treaty had a collective duty, whereas the duty to Belgium was joint and several. Yet even the treaty commitment to Belgium was not absolute: another signatory, the Netherlands, remained neutral throughout the war, and refused to hand over the Kaiser when he took refuge there in 1918.

Winston Churchill, the most interventionist member of the Liberal cabinet, conceded that, if the Germans had simply marched through southern Belgium, promising an indemnity for any damage caused, rather than sending the Belgians an ultimatum (which in turn triggered the Belgian call for Britain to uphold its treaty obligations), they might have got away without a British declaration of war. As Grey cynically noted, Britain could scarcely be more Belgian than the Belgians: if Berlin had succeeded, in early August, in its attempt to persuade Belgium to see sense, call a halt to hostilities, and belatedly accept German guarantees and indemnities, Britain might have had to rescind its declaration. Neutrality was not a black and white issue.

Indeed, Britain’s blockade of Germany (barely mentioned by Paxman, in favour of a lengthy account of Germany’s belated attempt to blockade Britain through unrestricted submarine warfare) came close to breaching the neutrality of the Netherlands (and certainly caused the Dutch great hardship). As for submarine warfare’s impact on civilians, Paxman roundly condemns the sinking of the Lusitania as “murder”, making one wonder how the producers of Newsnight might react if he editorialised in similar fashion during a future discussion of Allied fire-bombing of German and Japanese cities in World War Two.

Curiously, Paxman’s third episode told the story of the German daylight bombing of the Fenchurch Street area of London on June 13th 1917 – “the most destructive air raid of the war”, he tells us, and one which he claimed was a complete surprise. He was wrong on both counts. 21 German bombers had attacked Folkestone less than a fortnight earlier, killing 165 civilians and injuring 432: for all the attention paid by Paxman to the Fenchurch Street attack and the shelling of Hartlepool in 1914, that was actually the most damaging raid on the British coast throughout the war.

Of course, in just four episodes – each of them, in its own fashion, exceptionally well made – it would not have been reasonable to ask of Britain’s Great War that it offer the kind of context ITV’s 26-part The World At War so notably managed.

The historians slug it out

So it was with a real expectation of such context that I turned to the two historians, granted primetime slots on successive nights for their highly different presentations (though both – oddly – chose to start with a visit to the grave of a relative who died in the war).

Hastings chose a straightforward documentary technique, only interviewing historians who shared his view that the war was both necessary and justified. Ferguson provided a bravura mixed media lecture, using film, graphics, projections and sound effects before exposing his claim that Britain’s entry into the war had been a great mistake to a studio audience of predominantly young people and a panel of historians: who mostly dissented from his conclusions.

Gerry Hassan has already noted for oD (“The Land of the Living Dead” February 22nd 2014) the curious discrepancy between the verdict Max Hastings offered in his book on the subject (“the excesses of the Kaiser’s nation cannot be reasonably compared with those of the Nazi regime”) with his programme’s assertion that Wilhelm’s “war aims were little different from those of Hitler”.

Wilhelm himself is dismissed as “almost certainly clinically unstable”, and as a man whose role in the German Empire was to decide issues of war and peace, yet who was not at heart a warmonger. In fact, he had been educated at a normal German school, not a military academy, and although he enthusiastically pursued naval construction and colonial expansion, he was no different in that regard from the rulers of Britain, France and Russia.

As for Germany’s war “guilt” – previously espoused by the victors at Versailles, and a school of German historians in the 1960s – Hastings veers between saying Germany cared nothing for democracy (despite being considerably more democratic than Britain, let alone Russia) and citing an expert historian, John Rohl (Wilhelm’s biographer) arguing that it was actually the rising tide of anti-war German social democracy that induced the Kaiser’s generals to opt for war whilst they could still control it: a variation of the “preventive war” policy attributed to the chief of staff, Moltke.

Hastings condemns Wilhelm for giving Austria-Hungary a “blank cheque” on July 6th – barely a week after his good friends, the Archduke and the Archduchess of Austria-Hungary, had been murdered – to take a firm line with Serbia, after it became clear that Bosnian Serbs had been responsible for the Sarajevo assassination, almost certainly aided by Serbian officers in Belgrade.

Yet Wilhelm had acted in close consultation with his Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, and assured his generals there would be no war, as Serbia would inevitably back down (which indeed it did), whilst he went off for a three week sailing holiday. When he returned, to find that a belated, but fierce, Austrian ultimatum had been substantially accepted by Belgrade, he was astonished that Austria persisted with a declaration of war, a partial mobilization and a ham-fisted attack on the evacuated capital of Serbia, which bordered Austria. He urged Austria to halt there, as sufficient payback for the Sarajevo outrage.

One of the historians included in the Hastings film was the sprightly 91-year-old Sir Michael Howard, former Regius Professor of History at Oxford, and our most eminent military historian. He actually wrote to The Times in February claiming that the chief reason the British government entered the war “was the fear that if Germany won the war and acquired a Napoleonic dominance over Europe she would set about building a fleet that would enable her to challenge Britain as a world power and destroy her empire”.

Historical studies have moved on somewhat in the 25 years since Sir Michael left Oxford, and – perhaps apart from Hastings – few current authorities support such an extreme view. There were certainly politicians and military leaders who feared Germany more than other continental powers, but the evidence is decisive that they could not have persuaded either the government, or the British people, of the need to join a war between France and Russia on the one hand and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other, but for the German breach of Belgian neutrality; and, as noted above, even this was not completely decisive.

Hastings duly recounts German brutalities: but those in Belgium post-dated the decision to go to war (and were anyway on a scale quite different from Hitler’s atrocities). And it scarcely makes sense to personify German aggressive behaviour in the Kaiser’s pathology without explaining how he was effectively sidelined in 1916 by his generals, and stripped of any real power long before being forced to resign in 1918.

So the Hastings approach seems to fail on three fronts: fear of German dominance was clearly not the reason for Britain entering the war, and was anyway an anxiety on the wane by July 1914; Germany may have developed war aims after the start of hostilities, but had none prior to that which could allow British entry to be described as “necessary”; and Britain’s most important war objectives – preserving naval dominance and protecting the Empire – could just as readily have been accomplished without committing any infantry.

Curiously, Niall Ferguson is so keen to argue his case that Britain should not have entered the war at all that he largely ignores this subtler point, even when one of his panel of historians, Gary Sheffield, reminds him that we held back from committing substantial land forces to the Napoleonic Wars until 1809.

Ferguson’s hyper-realism – “Germany has ended up dominating Western Europe anyway, without terrible consequences, so would a German customs union imposed in 1916 have been all that bad?” – received short shrift from his audience: yet he gave us considerable pause for thought.

Apart from a bizarre moment when he used a clip from the famous ITV lectures on the Origins of the First World War, delivered by his hero A J P Taylor, and credited it to the BBC (!), Ferguson offered a rat-a-tat of unfamiliar and disturbing statistics. In terms of personnel and resources deployed, the Entente powers massively outweighed Germany and Austro-Hungary, by ratios of 5:1 and 4:1, and it was only Germany’s vastly more effective fighting effort (inflicting 35% more casualties than it suffered) that prolonged the war into its fifth year.

He also contrasted the fate of Serbia – ostensibly a winner in terms of post-war territorial gains, but at the cost of losing 23% of its military age males – with that of the USA, losing just 0.4% of its equivalent cohort, yet emerging as the dominant economic and military power after 1918, precisely because it joined the war so late. And he showed how Britain’s apparent victory proved hollow: an enlarged but weakened Empire, whose legacy, not least in its new leading role in the Middle East, proved so disastrous for so many nations.

But what actually happened?

These six and a half hours of high quality programming still offered very little on the origins of the conflict: so perhaps three hours of high budget drama devoted to just this topic – the famous “37 Days” between the Sarajevo assassinations and the formal declaration of war by Britain – would serve that purpose: but sadly, not.

The drama revolved around two conceits. The first was the use as bookends of the story of two fictional clerks in the respective telegraph rooms of the British Foreign Office and the German Chancellery, who also provided occasional narration and thumbnail sketches of key characters. The limit of their usefulness was only underlined by a laborious coda whereby they were both recruited for combat.

The other conceit was that somehow viewing the evolving crisis through the prism of London would not only engage British viewers but illuminate the subject: an ambition fatally undermined by the fact that London played only a minor part in the 37 days until near their end. In a dramatised version of Sean McMeekin’s authoritative “Countdown to War”, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey makes no appearance until July 24th, or day 26 (full declaration: I commissioned the script).

The writer of “37 Days”, Mark Hayhurst, boldly finesses this awkward fact by launching his drama with a telegram announcing the Sarajevo killings ostensibly arriving at the Foreign Office, and our “clerk” asking Grey’s apparently closest advisor, Sir Eyre Crowe, whether the Foreign Secretary might be disturbed with this news. Later that day, Grey, Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George are seen dining with Prime Minister Asquith and his wife, Margot, discussing the implications of the assassinations.

In point of fact, Grey was nowhere near the Foreign Office on that warm Sunday: he was, as usual for an English country gentleman, away for the weekend. Kaiser Wilhelm was sailing in a regatta when the news of the death of his close friends was flung onto the deck of his yacht by one of his admirals; President Poincare of France was at the races at Longchamp when the message arrived; Grey was indulging in a spot of fly-fishing – a subject on which he was an authority – and heard nothing.

Crowe, as it happens, was not Grey’s closest advisor – that was his private secretary, Sir William Tyrell. Crowe was one of the group of officials who were hostile to Germany – the country where he had lived till he was 17. Portrayed by the excellent Nicholas Farrell as a smooth Englishman, he actually had a marked guttural accent. By contrast, all the German characters in the drama were played by English-speaking German actors, all with stage German accents, even though the Kaiser, for one, spoke fluent English – he was still writing lengthy letters in English to his English mother when he was in his late teenage years.

Likewise, the long-serving French ambassador in London, Paul Cambon, spoke not a word of English, while Grey had never bothered to learn any French: their heated exchanges in English in “37 Days” are simply further examples of fairly harmless dramatic licence.

Yet the cumulative effect of so much re-shaping of reality is the risk of misleading the viewer. It is bad enough to pretend that nothing important happened in Paris and Belgrade (which are not even glimpsed), or in Vienna and St Petersburg (reduced to a couple of scenes each in which, respectively, a decrepit Emperor Franz-Josef and a stern Tsar Nicholas are left wordless as our narrators dismiss them). The long-serving Austrian ambassador to Berlin, Count Szogyeny, is also portrayed as wordless, in the guise of diminutive fop: we are now in the realm, not of dramatic licence, or even comedy drama, but racist nonsense.

Reducing foreigners to cardboard cut-outs and bloodthirsty caricatures serves neither history nor the audience well. Disposing of Franz Ferdinand in two words as “arrogant” and “bullying”, when he had personally intervened dozens of times in 1913 alone to prevent Austria-Hungary’s military leaders from declaring war on Serbia, is casual and dismissive. Recycling myths about his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, such as showing him running alongside the Archduke’s car, firing seven shots with apparently no witnesses, is equally perplexing: Princip managed to fire just two shots (both, as it happens, fatal) before being seized by the angry crowd, and prevented from using his revolver, his concealed bomb or even his poison dose to take his own life. Why offer tosh when truth is just as easy to portray?

Perhaps that detail is minor: yet Hayhurst persists in much larger adjustments to the known record, not least in his attempt to portray Grey as the sensitive fulcrum for the great decisions. He treats Grey’s proposal for a four-power mediation between Austria and Serbia as a serious idea, when its structure – including three nations unsympathetic to Austria but leaving Russia free to ignore the outcome of the mediation – rendered it, in Christopher Clark’s crisp phrase, “a non-starter”.

Grey’s strangest notion was to invite Germany to promise not to attack France, in exchange for Britain not only pledging its own neutrality in the event of war between Russia and Germany, but France’s too. How Britain was to deliver such a pledge, especially when France had been for decades bound to Russia in a mutual defence alliance, is impossible to understand.

Hayhurst tries to let Grey off the hook by including a scene where a telephone call with the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, is garbled in transmission. There was indeed a call; but Grey’s private secretary Tyrell had conveyed this proposal to Lichnowsky both before and after the call. Indeed, Grey had even told Cambon (to the ambassador’s astonishment) and his own ambassador in Paris. As “37 Days” correctly shows, Berlin was ecstatic at this idea, and the Kaiser fired his chief of staff, Moltke, for refusing to carry out his instruction to cancel orders to march into Luxembourg (which was part of the long-established plan for any attack on France). Only when Wilhelm sent a telegram to King George asking for confirmation was he disabused of his sense of triumph: the King’s late night reply (no doubt composed by Grey, who was somewhat stunned by the Kaiser’s wording) conceded that there “may have been a misunderstanding”.

Only a day earlier, the King had been dragged out of bed at one in the morning by Asquith and Tyrell (Grey was fast asleep) to sign a telegram to the Tsar appealing to him to delay or rescind any mobilization that Russia might have ordered (the British ambassador in St Petersburg had been carefully duped by the Russians and the French, but reports of troop movements were too insistent to ignore). This splendid scene (Asquith described his embarrassment at encountering the King “in a brown dressing gown over his night shirt”) failed to make the screen in “37 Days”. Instead, a formal meeting with Grey to correct the confusion over French neutrality – wrongly depicted as daytime rather than the actual urgent evening session – is included.

It is hard not to conclude that the point of this entire exercise is to wallow in nostalgic fantasies of past imperial power, with an all-seeing Foreign Secretary carefully edging the deeply divided British cabinet into a marginal decision to go to war. To this end, the entire role of France and Russia – nervously checking with each other that they would stick with their prior agreement, confirmed in a week-long state visit by President Poincare to the Tsar in late July 1914, to crush Germany, with Serbia as the excuse – is concealed from view. That Germany was the last of the great continental powers to mobilize is lost in the need to depict German war guilt.

Dramatic shaping also requires Lloyd George to emerge as something of a hero, reluctantly embracing the interventionist argument, and breaking with his pacifist Liberal comrades. Amusingly, Christopher Clark in “The Sleepwalkers” largely ignores Lloyd George, but does give full weight to the part played by backbench Conservative MP George Lloyd, at a crucial stage in the debate.

Lloyd had been to see Cambon, who revealed that Grey had privately promised France, years earlier, without telling the cabinet, that the Royal Navy would guarantee France’s Channel ports in the event of a French conflict with Germany, allowing France to concentrate its naval forces in the Mediterranean. Lloyd gathered a powerful group of Tory colleagues, and the party’s leaders made clear to Asquith that they would support intervention. If the Liberal cabinet’s divisions caused the government to fall, a Conservative cabinet would not hesitate to join the Entente. It was this inexorable logic, as much as the persistence of the German invasion of Belgium, which drove the anti-interventionist ministers to resign, persuaded Lloyd George to opt for staying in power, and finally tipped Britain into war.

Department of sour grapes

The complexity of what actually happened in the 37 days has filled hundreds of books and fuelled decades of debate. It does scant justice to that complexity to imply that it was all down to a militarist Germany and a decaying Austria, with brave Britain carefully trying to manage an unravelling situation.

Yet that is the only version of the countdown to war that the British public is likely to be offered. The remainder of the BBC’s promised 2,500 hours of programming will not re-visit this period. And no other broadcaster is willing to enter the field, even when offered a better script and a more accurate account: as one commissioning editor put it, “we need to steer clear of anything that even slightly resembles” what the BBC is making, even if “it means having to turn down a lot of good projects, this one included...we can commission only those things where there is absolutely no sense of crossover”.

That the BBC is willing to commit such massive resources to so important an anniversary as 1914-18 is wholly commendable. However, the crowding out effect of such an effort has a doubly unfortunate outcome: the misleading version is given an official BBC imprimatur, whilst an accurate version is forcibly sidelined. It’s the Liberty Valance syndrome: when in doubt, print the legend.

Read the response from the BBC here.

If you want to keep OurBeeb debating the BBC, please chip in what you can afford.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData