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Oh, What a Just War. The tragic interpretation of the First World War has become so familiar, writes Mark Bostridge, that we forget how many participants thought it was worthwhile.

Posted: 06/10/11 11:21

Another season of Downton Abbey, the period soap scripted by Julian Fellowes, is upon us, this one set during the climactic years of the First World War, from 1916 to 1918.

The staple elements that made the first series ITV's most successful quality drama in decades are all here. So there's more spiteful repartee from Maggie Smith, boggle-eyed and almost parodying herself as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, more gorgeous shots of Barry's stately neo-Elizabethan pile at Highclere Castle standing in for Downton Abbey, and more interaction between the cast of characters upstairs, stiff and lifeless as one of Lord Grantham's shirt collars, and the rabble of servants in the basement who wait on them. The table placements are from Gosford Park by way of Merchant Ivory. The plots are pure Ethel M. Dell.

As we're now in the First World War ('there is a war on', someone pops up periodically to tell us) all the usual clichés are on display. White feathers are distributed, while in the space of a single episode, two aristocratic daughters undergo transformations, one into a saintly VAD nurse, the other into a lustful land girl. The devilish footman, meanwhile, out at the front, conveniently receives 'a blighty wound', meaning that he can return to Downton to wreak more havoc there.


Of course, the First World War in Downton Abbey is only so much set dressing, there to serve as a backdrop to increasingly sensational storylines. At the end of the first series, news of Britain's declaration of war on Germany reached Downton apparently half a day later than the rest of the country. This was a neat bit of plotting, anathema only to purists, to ensure that the scene could be set during one of those semi-mythical, silver service garden tea-parties in the Georgian high summer before the lamps went out and nothing was ever the same again.

The template for the depiction of the First World War in British television drama is the third series of Upstairs Downstairs, produced by London Weekend Television, and originally screened in the autumn of 1974.

Like Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs was a family saga, set in the first quarter of the twentieth century, contrasting the fortunes of an upper-class family, the Bellamys of Eaton Place, with those of their staff below stairs. For its basic concept, the makers of Upstairs, Downstairs openly acknowledged their debt to Cavalcade, Noel Coward's 1931 play - or perhaps it would be better termed 'a spectacular' as any production requires massive sets and a cast of over 400 - which had focussed on the life of a quintessential British family and their servants at key moments in British history, from 1900 to 1929.

The budget of Upstairs, Downstairs did not stretch to battle scenes, although ironically this only contributed to its dramatic potential, increasing the audience's sense of a gulf of incomprehension between the home front and the men who witnessed trench warfare at first hand. The series was well-researched in addition to being well-written - in those days even commercial television would willingly undertake a public service brief - while dramatizing aspects of the home front that had hitherto been largely neglected, in particular the employment opportunities offered by the war to women.

The effect on the British public of the twelve episodes covering 1914-18 can only be described as cathartic. Sixty years on from the outbreak of the First World War, the survivors of the conflict, those who had been bereaved as well as those who been in combat, saw their experiences reflected for the first time on peak time television drama. An instant hit at home, the series would eventually be sold to 70 countries around the world.

A decade earlier, the impact of the BBC's landmark documentary series, The Great War, had been even more far-reaching in the way it commemorated the war and revived national memory of the experience and its sacrifices. First shown on the newly-launched BBC2 between May and November 1964, the seventeen hours of footage and interviews, with a narration by Michael Redgrave, was the most popular and influential series of its time.

The programmes used some 845,000 feet of archive film, but what sticks in the mind, watching the series today, is the interviews with the sober-suited veterans, glassy-eyed as if in a trance, as they relive their wartime service. For many it was the first time, outside the confines of ex-servicemen's clubs and associations, that they had publicly revisited memories of the defining experience of their lives.

Yet for all its distinction and standing as pioneering television, The Great War possesses a split personality, and it is this divided character which highlights the central, overriding problem connected with the portrayal of the First World War on screen.
The principal scriptwriters for The Great War, John Terraine and Corelli Barnett, were both steadfast in their belief that the war of attrition fought by the allied commanders was the only possible strategy, which wore down the German armies and made possible the eventual allied victory during the Hundred Days' Offensive of August to November 1918. Both were also anxious to dispel the by then prevailing popular belief, fostered by the recent stage success of Joan Littlewood's Oh! What a Lovely War, that the war had been futile and that men had died for nothing.

However, pressure of time, combined with the nature of the relatively new medium, always more adept at presenting visual images of death and carnage than anything else, resulted in programmes that often deviated from the aims of its creators. Terraine and Barnett had wanted to move away from what they saw as a misplaced emphasis on the horror and futility of the war but, in the episode on Passchendaele, Terraine's revisionism was overwhelmed by copious extracts from the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

As we approach the centenary of 1914, our TV and cinema screens are soon going to be filled with First World War themes and images in a variety of serious and popular dramas.

First up this Christmas is Steven Spielberg's film of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, a big success on both sides of the Atlantic in the stage adaptation by Nick Stafford. Morpurgo's ingenious notion was to take a simple, sometimes overlooked fact about the war - that horses were as indispensable to the war effort as machine guns and heavy artillery - and turn it into a moving, three-hankie story involving a young boy called Albert whose beloved horse is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France.

Although he is not old enough to enlist, Albert serves in the British and German armies on a desperate mission to bring the animal home. Whether Spielberg will be able to resist the temptation of sentimental overkill remains to be seen. In the film version, real horses are used. On stage, cleverly manipulated puppets took their place, a useful distancing mechanism for keeping sentiment at bay.

The BBC, with uncharacteristic enterprise, is currently filming an adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's tetralogy Parade's End, little read now, I suspect, but once described by William Carlos Williams as 'the English prose masterpiece' of its time, and often seen as the seminal work of fiction dealing with British society and the First World War.

In the works, after years in development hell as a feature film, is a two-part television version of Sebastian Faulks's runaway bestseller from 1993, Birdsong. Also in the wings, perhaps for release in 2013, is a film of Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, often acclaimed as 'the war book of the women of England'.

Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End is too multi-faceted, too full of structural irony, to be easily categorized, though it grew out of Ford's own experience of the Western Front. But War Horse, Birdsong, and Testament of Youth - which is, of course, an autobiography with an explicitly anti-war message - share a common narrative trope, depicting an initial, naive enthusiasm for the war being replaced by a powerful sense of disillusion, anger and pity.

This is how we generally think of the First World War today, as we contemplate its horrendous loss of life and our retrospective awareness that 1914-18 was not as promised 'the war to end all wars', and that there was another almighty world conflict waiting to happen. We are conditioned in this view by the most famous war books, not only by its poetry, but also the flood of literature of disenchantment with the war that started to be published soon after the tenth anniversary of the Armistice.

Even where a piece of war literature doesn't fit the disenchantment theme, we somehow manage to incorporate it into the canon anyway. Since 2004, Journey's End, R.C. Sherriff's 1928 trench drama, has been revived around the country with extraordinary success. It is a play that celebrates the public school ethos, which Sherriff felt had made a significant contribution to victory in 1918. It is avowedly not an anti-war play, nor does it contain scenes that are particularly graphic or bloody. Yet this is precisely how Journey's End is commonly received: as a realistic portrayal of the horror and futility of war.

In 1993 I met the writer and broadcaster Geoffrey Dearmer. He was the man responsible for getting Journey's End its first West End performance. He also possessed the distinction, as he approached his hundredth birthday, of being the last surviving published First World War poet.

Geoffrey Dearmer fought at Gallipoli. His mother Mabel died from enteric fever in Serbia while serving with an ambulance unit. Shortly afterwards, his adored younger brother Christopher was killed by a shell at Suvla Bay.

Talking to Geoffrey, I was astonished to find that he retained no trace of bitterness about the war, not about his own experience of the Dardanelles, nor about his personal losses of the war. There was not the least hint of any 'disillusionment' about him.
Writers, historians, TV and film producers, have a tendency to overlook the wide diversity of contemporary responses to the First World War, especially now that all personal connection to the war has been extinguished with the deaths of its final combat veterans. It's all too easy to view the British war experience through the distorting prism of books which emphasise horror and futility without asking how representative they are.

There are in fact plenty of narratives, fictional and documentary, which suggest that the vast majority of the British people saw the war as just and worthwhile, and that this prevailing opinion continued for some years after the war was over. In the 1970s, Andrew Rutherford argued that much of the literature of the war reflects the complexity and ambivalence of combat. It often reasserts an heroic ideal 'stripped of romantic glamour...but redefined in terms of grim courage and endurance in the face of almost unendurable suffering.'

In a similar vein, Charles Carrington argued, as long ago as 1929, that the generation of 1914, who had gone off to fight, had been misrepresented. War could indeed deal terrible blows, but set against this was an unforgettable sense of comradeship, and the thrill of excitement amid the dangers of the front. Even the unluckiest soldier, who unlike Downton's footman didn't get 'a blighty wound', would experience only a few days of combat of the most horrific kind.

What stands in the way of a more profound understanding of the combatants of the First World War is our inability to adapt to a mindset that, a century on, seems so utterly alien to us. Personally, I find it difficult to imagine the innocence with which the young public school subalterns solemnly answered what they described as the call of King and Country. I can't help, though, but envy them their generous, fatal idealism.

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