Several of our enduring images of the First World War come courtesy of film footage: which is not surprising as the Great War was the first conflict that was captured in moving images. The Battle of the Somme, which was released in 1916, is considered to be the first war movie and had a massive impact on the British public when it was shown in cinemas, and for the first time brought the horrors of war home.
More than a hundred years now, we see the films – silent, jerky and in black and white – then wonder what it would be like if it was coloured or to learn what were the soldiers saying. Thanks to the wonders of today’s technology, the award winning director Peter Jackson has just done exactly that, and had produced a very moving film based on material held in the archives of the Imperial War Museum.
Produced in cooperation with 14-18 NOW and BBC Films, They Shall Not Grow Old contains much never seen before footage taken during the First World War. Instead of various historians, commentators and academics as talking heads, we get war veterans guiding us through the film which makes it powerful and compelling as we are watching it through their eyes. The commentary ranges from optimism when war was declared, with many men viewing enlistment and being sent to the front as a relief from unemployment or their boring jobs back home. As these eager soldiers are finally sent to France, the amazement and wonder is palpable in their voices given that the vast majority of those who served in the war had never left their hometown or village, let alone visit London or travelled abroad.
The film starts out in black and white but as the men are marching towards the trenches, the black and white fades away and the images are in full colour; which makes these men and what they are experiencing somehow real to us, as if we are in the trenches with them as well as encountering the devastation before our very eyes. Thanks to professional lip readers, we see a soldier shout “Hi Mum!” while waving at the camera while in another scene, we hear an officer shout “fix bayonets!” as his troops are getting ready to go over the top. There’s also the boom of the huge guns and hearing them gives one an idea of what it was like in the front during the heat of the battle.
One interesting fact I learned from this film is how many of the soldiers who died at the front did so not because of being killed in battle or due to their wounds but because of mud. Bad weather made the trenches unbearable. Apart from the dangers of frostbite and trench feet, water and flooding resulted into mud which was made worse by the rain. The mud became so thick that many soldiers who became stuck perished.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. The trench also became a sort of community with one soldier musing that if there was no fighting, the trenches were a fun place to be – there was kindness; sharing; bonding over jokes, music, stories and sports. Down time was also an opportunity to get to know their enemy and for the vast majority of the troops, this was their first encounter with a German and the overall feeling was one of sympathy as well as learning about the nuances of German regional identity.
As the war went on, it’s clear to the soldiers that not only has their initial romantic notion of war gone but also the death and destruction on an unprecedented scale demonstrated in the words of one soldier, that the “veneer of civilisation has dropped away.” By the time 1918 rolled along it was obvious that the troops were exhausted; so much so that when the Armistice was signed on the 11th of November, there wasn’t as much rejoicing as relief that it was over.
Disappointment and disillusionment was palpable when the troops went home and were demobilised. Despite the promise of a “land fit for heroes,” many veterans struggled to find employment and readjust to civilian life; they certainly struggled to relate to people back home no matter how well meaning. As one veteran puts it, he and his fellow soldiers were “a race apart” what they saw and experienced were something that a great many people did not and could never understand.
The First World War to us is now a distant memory but with They Shall Not Grow Old, briefly makes history come alive in an informative, meaningful and deeply moving way.
Note: Screen caps from They Shall Not Grow Old taken by blogger.