Episode 1 War Comes To Britain


What was it like to live in Britain during the First World War? How did it change the countrydramatically, and permanently? Those are the questions that lie behind Britain’s Great War, the four part series presented by Jeremy Paxman. We think we know what the First World War was about, mud and death, young men needlessly slaughtered by blinkered generals, an entire generation sacrificed. That is only part of the picture, and not all of it true. There were huge changes in Britain too, despite the shock and misery of a modern industrial war, which for the first time pitted the resources and resolve of entire populations against each other, at the end of it, standards of health, nutrition, political representation and sexual equality had risen as the state took a far greater responsibility for its citizens than had ever before been imagined. Social class is a theme that runs through the series, exemplified by the tale of two men who experienced the war in different ways. Tommy Agar Robartes, a Cornish aristocrat who would not be held back from volunteering, like so many of his class who suffered disproportionate losses at the front. The working class writer Robert Roberts, whose father owned a corner shop in Salford. He called his account of the Great War The Great Release, as he saw men come back from the fighting stronger and better fed than when they left, and women who worked in wartime factories with money in their pockets for the first time in their lives. Britain’s Great War does not play down the grief and suffering of a terrible conflict. Rather it chooses to tell a different, unfamiliar story, the story of how the First World War affected the people of Britain, and dragged the country into the modern age.
Episode 1 War Comes To Britain – Traces the story of the dramatic early stages of the war, from stunned disbelief to the mass recruitment of volunteer soldiers. Britain expanded its small army of 80,000 men in France and mobilised 1,500,000 volunteers. Fear of invasion grips the country, Boy scouts guard bridges, and spies are suspected everywhere. For the first time, British civilians are fired on by enemy ships and bombed from the air. Jeremy Paxman, host of the documentary, meets a 105 year old eyewitness to the shelling of Hartlepool, who describes how she thought the Germans had landed. Total war has come to Britain.
Episode 2 The War Machine – The sinking of the Lusitania brought home the nature of modern warfare and Britain’s unpreparedness. Lord Kitchener was discredited and replaced by David Lloyd George who turned the country into a war machine with women in the factories to make bombs and bullets while the men were sent to the frontline. Not everyone agreed with the war, but any conscientious objectors who refused to fight were threatened with the firing squad, while striking shipbuilders were sent to jail. And with resources in short supply, even the nation’s beer was watered down on government orders.
Episode 3 The Darkest Hour – Britain was dependent on imported food and Germany attempted to starve Britain into submission by submarine blockade. Britain edged closer to defeat in the worst conflict it had ever known and Germany attempts to starve the country into submission leads to rationing in January 1918, and the publication of the Win-the-War Cookery Book. Farms, in crisis with their men and horses on the frontline, were worked by 84,000 disabled soldiers,30,000 German prisoners of war and over 250,000 women. To assist this the government ordered every scrap of land be turned over to allotments tended by the elderly, children and women. Anyone found hoarding food was put on trial as newspapers exposed how the rich dined out on lobsters in London’s Mayfair. Women filled every job vacated by enlisted men including the police. Meanwhile, a film of fighting in the trenches broke box office records, but what effect did it have on the British public’s desire for peace?
Episode 4 At the Eleventh Hour – The final year of the war, thousands of soldiers returned with limbs missing, more with facial injuries, grieving parents held seances in the hope of contacting their dead sons. Britain was on the brink of defeat. Surgeons battled to rebuild the faces of the wounded, and a maverick MP who tried to blame the crisis on a conspiracy of sexual deviants in government. The Germans launched their “Spring Offensive” that ultimately they could not maintain with a starving and demoralized homeland in contrast to Britain’s well organized supply chain. In August with American reinforcements a huge force was unleashed on the Germans which within a hundred days the German’s agreed an armistice. The war had changed Britain forevernine out of ten men returned with the greatest losses in proportion among the upper classes which led to social change, with votes for some women, full employment benefitting the poorest in society and leaving the country more equal and more democratic.