Thursday, 17 October 2019

The First World War - PBS America

I've just watched an episode of a 10 part series on PBS America on Freeview in the UK. The episode concentrated on the early part of the war for the Ottoman Empire up to victory over Townshend at Kut on the Tigris.

Information on the series here

It's a good old fashioned blend of news reel footage, stills and quotations from prominent figures and more junior officers and rankers on both sides. Not a dramadoc scene in sight.  Also, there was an absence of that other bugbear of mine - the re-capping of what we saw just a few minutes before after every damned advert break.

Watching the whole series is a bit of a time commitment I cannot make since they are rattling through the 10 episodes in a few days. The one I saw ('Jihad') was episode 4. However, it gets the thumbs up from this corner of the metropolis.

Episode 4 covers the early attempts to 'set the East ablaze*'; the failed campaign against the Russsians in the Transcaucasian region and the subsequent appalling treatment of the Armenians; the German version of the Great Game and their mission to Afghanistan; the Allied failure in the Dardenelles; and finally British humiliation at Kut. Lots of scope in there for wargamers for both real and imaginary campaigns.

* i.e. the strategy of raising the muslim populations of the British and Russian empires, and neighbouring countries against their overlords. Shades of John Buchan's 'Greenmantle' (a rip-roaring story involving John Hannay, he of the 39 Steps).

Update: I saw episode 6 tonight: 'Breaking the Deadlock'. One of the themes was about the development of tactics on the Western Front. It stopped short of the German Sping offernsive of 1918 and the Allied follow-up. Interesting stuff, but obviously only a brief overview. Another theme was how soldiers on inactive sectors of the line would collaborate by avoiding unnecessary bloodshed, even sharing food. It quoted comments from British soldiers about the perceived differences between Prussian and units from other German states, notably Saxons. Of course Saxons, aren't they our cousins, us being Anglo-Saxons? Personally, I suspect things were far from as distinct as this, especially given the geographical spread and the different populations covered by the Prussian state by this point, where there was bound to be different levels of commitment and enthusiasm for the war. 

However, it reminded me of one of the war stories told to my O-Level* history teacher by his father who was in the Manchester Regiment in WWI. Mr Taylor senior told his son that they were well supplied with Tickler's Apple Jam, but there was such an abundance that they got bored with it and used to swap it with the Germans in the trench across No-Man's-Land. Each day they would throw over their tins of Tickler's Apple Jam (talk about product placement!) to the German trenches and in return the Saxons (let's call them Saxons) would throw over their sausages in return. No stereotyping there ;-) This went on for some time but unbeknownst to our brave boys, one night the Saxons had been replaced by a unit of Prussians. I'll let Mr T Jnr continue from here. 

"My dad said, 'one morning we threw over our tins of jam but in return we got a barrage of tater mashers**'. 
'What did you do then dad?'. 
'We filled our pants lad. We filled our pants.'"

Good old Mr Taylor told us this story enough times, I'm sure he probably slipped it in to a lesson on the rise of the Nazis, that we would fill in the punchline for him. He had a fund of stories which he would punctuate lessons with. The man had a stern reputation, he wouldn't accept nonsense but over time we came to appreciate his care that we should learn, first, the syllabus, but then importantly, something of history. So over 40 years since we heard those stories, and over a hundred since the events in them, they're still in the collective memory. Mr T helped cement not only facts in my head (History O-Level exams then were basically about regurgitating facts in essay form) but also helped cement my love of History. If I ever see the term 'Dreikaiserbund', or hear of the 'Treaty of Locarno' his face pops up. Can't say better than that for a history teacher.

* That's grades C-A* GCSEs for any relatively young folk, or grades 5-9 for even younger ones. I don't know what that equates to in the New World but these are public exams taken when you are 16 (generally). 

** Stick grenades.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the pointer. I've taken a look and this was the same episode that I managed to catch. It was very interesting, especially as I have just read the chapter on Kut in Dixon's 'Psychology of Military Incompetence'. The documentary wasn't as harsh on Townshend as Dixon is.