I Was There- The Great War Interviews is a fantastic resource for students studying World War I. Extrapolating upon the original 1964 documentary series The Great War, this documentary provides a deeper look at the original collation of 280 eyewitness interviews, with never-before-seen footage of both soldiers and civilians. Thus, it provides invaluable insight into the behemoth that is WWI.
It is often easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of an event like WWI, whereas I Was There- The Great War Interviews offers a deeply personal perspective, with interviews from a broad range of primary sources, from celebrated author Mabel Lethbridge O.B.E, soldiers Sebastian C. Lang, Charles Carrington, Wilhelm Eisenthal, factory worker Katie Morter, and many more. In addition to this, both the Allied and Central sides are represented, thus significantly minimising any inherent bias.
Whilst the overall strategic and historical outlines are not discussed in great detail, the documentary explores the human relations of the war, such as the methods of recruitment, be it women using white feathers to represent cowardice, propaganda posters, the utilisation of music hall stars like Vesta Tilley, pro-war effort music and film, etc., all designed to solicit enlistment. It also showcases the changing attitudes of towards the war, from the initial excitement and euphoria to the grim realisation of the horrors of the battlefield, with soldier Frank Brent stating that ‘…it (the war) required that we should live in animal conditions… inevitable that we would develop the animal characteristic of killing.’
Furthermore, the documentary successfully displays the disparity between soldiers and civilians, with former soldier Charles Carrington stating ‘one was seemingly annoyed by their (civilians) attempts to sympathise… which only really reflects that they didn’t understand at all’, whilst Mabel Lethbridge noted a ‘…a strange lack of ability to communicate… to tell us (civilians) what it was really like… They were restless at home… They didn’t want to stay home. They wanted to get back.’
The battlefield is displayed as a kind of microcosm, running from being ‘an inferno’, with the apparent need to ‘exact retribution’ from the enemy, to the Easter and Christmas armistices and the ‘deceptive peace’ that fraternisation with the enemy brought, with men singing together in the trenches, exchanging gifts and addresses for after the war. The documentary aims to explore multiple facets of the human experience of the Great War, recognising that to focus on only one would be to vastly limit its representation of this vast moment in history.
I Was There- The Great War Interviews proves to be a deeply personal look at a time in history that has deeply rooted itself in our collective psyche. The utilisation of such a wide range of primary sources will certainly be of interest to students and assist in broadening their understanding of WWI.
Here’s a list of TV4Education resources that can be used in relation to the topics covered in this post. If you use the SmartSuite version of TV4Education just search for the titles below on your site.