The Great War, and how it ended

Despite its extensive Remembrance coverage, the BBC hasn't actually tried to explain to its audience how and why Germany lost the war in 1918.

David Elstein
8 November 2018

Image: Soldiers of the 11th Battalion on the Western Front. Credit: Imperial War Museum, non commercial license.

November 11th marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended (most of) the First World War. I say “most of”, because fighting continued in various theatres in Europe and the Far East, in some places for years. But that day in 1918, with a cease-fire commencing at 11 am, saw silence at last fall on the Western Front, where the bulk of the war’s millions of military casualties had died, been wounded, ingested gas or suffered permanent mental scarring, and where millions of civilians experienced harsh occupation, destruction of property and years of displacement. Much of Belgium and northern France had been turned into churned mud, as offensives surged and ebbed, and hundreds of miles of trenches were dug, captured and re-captured.

The extensive programming devoted to the end of the war, primarily broadcast by BBC television and radio, has understandably emphasised personal experience. We are, after all, in the age of #MeToo. And there is a wealth of personal testimony available, in letters, in diaries, and in interviews with surviving combatants recorded over the last few decades. It is of course much easier to identify with individuals rather than grand strategy; and with particular battles and incidents rather than the sweep of a military campaign.

Four years ago, programmes marking the outbreak of the war had a simpler task. There were, of course, no “ordinary people” to personalise the sweep of events. And the fact that the entire stampede into war after the assassination at Sarajevo took just 37 days made it easier to tell the full story. I had my criticisms of BBC TV’s 3-hour drama “37 Days” but at least it tried to cover the ground. Likewise, many other programmes on radio and television dealt with the lead-up to the war. Particular credit was due to Radio 4 for its deployment of leading historians Margaret MacMillan and Christopher Clark, one telling the story of that lead-up day by day, the other offering five 15-minute essays on the broader picture. (Sadly, Radio 4 had no room for my 2-hour audio drama, entitled “July 1914: Countdown to War”, which told the full story. I do not believe any of the many executives I sent the CD to even listened to it.)

The BBC forgets some of the Allies

In between 2014 and 2018, coverage of the war has been intermittent at best. Radio 4 drama has relied exclusively on two occasional series, “Tommies” and “Home Front”, using fictional characters and situations – with references to real events – to illuminate the battle front and the domestic realities during those years. Unfortunately, this admirable ambition could not also embrace any kind of overview of the course of 1918, and the dramatic story of how the war ended. Radio 4’s equivalent of Christopher Clark’s tour d’horizon four years ago is now simply another dip into the sound archives by Dan Snow.

Perhaps the closest to overview – at least, in its title, “100 Days To Victory” – has been an Australian-Canadian co-production, with a credit for BBC Scotland, telling the story of how Australian and Canadian soldiers (and some Scottish regiments) made a distinctive, even decisive, impact on the fighting on the Western Front in the last months of the war. This was a mixture of archive, specially shot drama footage (of battle, and of the leading generals interacting), dynamic graphics and expert interviews. It was certainly refreshing to have a wide range of rarely seen Canadian, Australian and Scottish academics offering pithy opinions. That Field Marshal Haig was a Scot meant that the story could focus on him alongside the Monash and Currie, the talented and unusual Australian and Canadian commanders (neither came from a military background). The trio were joined by Ferdinand Foch, the French general appointed to co-ordinate the Allied war effort, with the four of them repeatedly marching abreast towards camera, in true “Law and Order” style.

That Foch was prematurely labelled “Marshal” was less of a problem than that General Pétain, who actually commanded the largest Allied force, the French army, was airbrushed out of the story, along with all his senior officers, including Mangin, who led the break-out at Château-Thierry in July that actually marked the turning of the tide against German dominance. Pershing, the American commander, was glimpsed just once though fortunately three of Haig’s British generals (who actually commanded the armies of which the Australian and Canadian divisions formed a part) got a look-in: Horne, Rawlinson and Byng.

There is no dispute that Currie and Monash helped develop and implement the “all-arms” battle tactics that proved so effective in August, September and October 1918: the combined use of huge artillery onslaughts before the start of battle, rolling barrages during attacks, leap-frogging infantry formations, tank units manoeuvring alongside infantry, and aircraft joining in from above. The first major thrust using these tactics – the Amiens offensive of August 8th – was still being referenced by the German Panzer commander, Guderian, in May 1940, as he and Rommel powered through the French defences in their initial blitzkrieg.

The series gives due credit to the Australian and Canadian roles in the Amiens attack on August 8th, including the elaborate deception where Canadian shock troops were infiltrated into the Allied line without the Germans realizing an offensive was imminent – but the capture of Montdidier by the French on the same day is ignored. The exemplary assault on Mont St Quentin by 550 Australians attacking three times as many entrenched German troops is rightly highlighted, as are the Canadian achievements at the Drocourt-Quéant line on September 2nd (exposing the Hindenburg Line) and the Canal du Nord (breaching the Hindenburg Line) later that month, but the Belgian army is never mentioned.

The listings information for these two hours says they show how “the Allies” won the war: perhaps more accurate would be, how “some Allies” won the war. And to be fair to the Australian writer/director and Canadian writer, due respect is paid to the English division of Territorials, the 46th North Midland, who made the decisive crossing of the Hindenburg Line. Likewise, the capture of Cambrai and Mons is given more rounded treatment. And Monash is roundly criticised for a pointless attack in October 1918 that cost 135 Australian soldiers their lives (Currie, too, was accused of cynical disregard for his men’s lives, but robustly rejected the charge).

In itself, this production has much to recommend it; as did the lengthy outside broadcast from Amiens in August that the BBC mounted, telling the story of that important battle and showing the service of commemoration. But at no point in its extensive coverage has the BBC attempted to explain to its audience how and why Germany lost the war in 1918. After defeating Russia in March Germany had seemed poised, all through the Spring of that year, to gain victory. Haig was contemplating evacuating the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and Pétain was preparing to call for Paris to be evacuated, too. Watching “100 Days To Victory” is rather like viewing the highlights version of a football match which focuses almost entirely on the exploits of one side’s two wingers, leaves out half the goals scored, and makes no mention of the errors by the opposing goalkeeper.

German mistakes

When Germany’s First Quartermaster-General, Ludendorff, launched his series of powerful offensives that Spring, the significant territorial gains made were shadowed by the growing weakness of his strategic position. None of the offensives fully achieved its aims, mostly because shortages of lorries and horses hampered re-supply of munitions. The new forward positions were difficult to defend, and invited counter-offensives. The army itself was being hollowed out from the inside, as those killed, wounded or captured were replaced by old men and teenagers. Back home, the British naval blockade was causing increasingly severe food shortages. Germany’s allies were in even worse straits – the Austro-Hungarian soldiers attacking Italy were living on starvation rations. As American troops and supplies poured into France, the balance between the two sides was being profoundly undermined.

Once the Allied counter-attacks began, Ludendorff refused to believe they could be sustained, and declined the advice from his experts to retreat to more defensible lines: by the time he fell back to the Siegfried Position (what the Allies called the Hindenburg Line), the enemy forces were almost upon it. His peculiar notion that calling for an armistice would allow the German army a breathing space, the better then to resume hostilities, instead shocked a disbelieving Bundestag into realisation that the expectation of victory was illusory. What might have been peace negotiations if they had been embarked upon in July turned into a desperate and lengthy attempt, during which time hundreds of thousands more German soldiers became casualties, to avoid the word “surrender”. Instead, the “armistice” (whose terms were in practice dictated by the Allies) allowed even the new Socialist German Chancellor, Friedrich Ebert, to welcome troops returning to Berlin as “undefeated in battle”. Ludendorff himself strongly supported the myth of the “stab in the back”: the Empire and its brave army undermined by pacifists, Jews, communists and other leftists. He became an early and strong supporter of Adolf Hitler.

Perhaps foolishly, in failing to learn from my 2014 experience, I wrote and produced another 2-hour audio drama this year, “Countdown To Peace”, telling just this story, basing it on by far the best book on the period, David Stevenson’s “With Our Backs To The Wall: Victory And Defeat In 1918”. But again, BBC Radio drama had no desire to broadcast it, even at no fee (or even, as far as I can establish, to listen to it). “Tommies” and “Home Front” will have to suffice.

Fortunately, the online subscription service Audible (a kind of audio equivalent of Netflix) has licensed both productions, and it will be available from November 11th onwards for its “all you can eat” offering to its customers. Any readers interested in the CD version can obtain it by writing to me ([email protected]): all proceeds (£10 per drama) to openDemocracy.

BBC Radio drama offers much excellent output: but it is also an effective monopoly, the last remnant of the pre-1955 version of the BBC, which decided on absolutely everything the audience could be allowed to hear or see. Competition has since eliminated the worst of that anti-creative situation, but in radio drama it persists (commercial radio cannot afford to broadcast drama). Imagine if every provincial theatre, along with the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, had to secure approval from two or three bureaucrats in London before they could mount a single production: the creative community and the audience would be up in arms. But that is the fate of those who write, produce, direct or perform radio drama in this country: at least until public realisation, a brave rival (perhaps Channel 4?) or burgeoning subscriber-funded audio services come to their rescue.


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