'Gallipoli','Somme' & 'Ypres'
Three Video Documentaries
Gallipoli The Last Crusade
Somme Here Comes Kitchener's Army
Ypres - The Salient
Three documentaries directed & produced by:
Ed Skelding Productions for Tyne Tees Television
Anyone who has spent time studying the 'Western Front' of World War l must have hoped that one day they would get some sort of grasp on the sheer enormity of it all.
Most us have thought that by listening to enough veterans, reading enough personal accounts, walking enough front line trench systems, studying enough maps and visiting enough cemeteries and museums, we would perhaps make some rational sense of one of the world's most appalling disasters.
Eventually we learn that this is never going to happen. In fact the sheer, fathomless scale of the 'Western Front' catastrophe is one reason that it continues to fascinate us four generations later.
The battles around Ypres and the Somme involved courage, suffering, squalor, death and mutilation on such a vast scale that we are no more likely to accommodate it now than the men who were ordered to advance in their millions into the mud, misery and massacres of northern France and Belgium.
Recently released on video are three 50-minute documentaries derived from a Tyne Tees TV series on great set-piece battles of the First World War: The Somme Here Comes Kitchener's Army, Ypres The Salient and Gallipoli The Last Crusade. I wish these had been around when I first started visiting the Western Front battlefields in the 1970s.
Above all these are very practical films. Ed Skelding has made excellent use of the present-day landscape to explain the strategy and progress of the battles, what happened and where. We're given just enough information with plenty of contemporary film and still images to unleash the imagination.
Almost immediately the neat and peaceful pastures of northern France emerge as blood-soaked, muddy moon-scapes. Thanks to excellent superimposed maps and diagrams and the testimonies from those who lived through it, the Somme and Ypres programmes are superb introductions to the Western Front.
Sensibly, there is no attempt to break new ground since almost everything that could be known of those days has already been uncovered, explored and chewed over frequently. Neither does Skelding exploit the drearily fashionable habit of gratuitously blaming and denigrating individual military leaders and the officer class.
As a historian points out, the Somme and Ypres campaigns were "fought the way they had to be fought". Appalling as this may now seem, how else could this war have been conducted and won given the often ill-trained troops, the inexperienced officers, the terrain, the prevailing technology, the 600-mile length of the front line, the political relationships, etc. Therein lies the real tragedy.
Certainly we are left in no doubt about the controversial 'cost' of Haig's policy of 'attrition' (throwing men against guns until one side or the other was worn out). And certainly too the Gallipoli film reminds us that kind and decent men are no substitute for decisive generals with a determination to win on their own terms and at all costs.
Gallipoli, the Somme and Ypres were all disasters and each of Skelding's videos a small triumph his Somme episode in particular.
In the nine-month carnage of Gallipoli the Allies lost 50,000 killed and gained a tiny foothold which they then abandoned when the 100,000 survivors were evacuated nine months later. The campaign started in Spring 1915 as a combined land and sea operation, planned by Winston Churchill.
The plan foresaw the Royal Navy knocking out the Turkish shore batteries and British, Australian and New Zealand troops landing on the Gallipoli peninsula in what was then the largest ever amphibious assault. Thus they would gain control of the Dardanelles and the Black Sea. But they underestimated Turkish resolve, everything was against them and nothing was won... as this film amply explains. [See also: Michel Vlasto's wartime memorabilia]
The tragedy of the Somme needs little introduction. On the 1st July 1916 hundreds of thousands of inexperienced British volunteers Kitchener's Army advanced across the mud of no-man's land. Wave after wave of them were mown down by German machine guns which the pre-attack barrages had failed to silence. By the end of the first day 40,000 men were maimed and 20,000 killed in the single largest disaster in British military history. By November 1916, the gains were minimal, the slaughter almost incomprehensible. In five months Britain, it has been said, lost her innocence in the face of the pointless loss of so many hundreds of thousands of lives.
Ed Skelding's account the Somme offensive is intelligent and comprehensive and the best of this trilogy. It is almost essential viewing for anyone visiting the battlefields. His use of the present-day Picardy landscape mixed with good maps, graphics, archive footage and personal testimony is excellent.
The Ypres story is more difficult to tell. Straddling the French-Belgian border, this flat, wet and muddy landscape was the scene of three great battles between 1914 and 1917. It culminated in the final battle known as 'Passchendaele' in a blood-letting that matched the Somme in desperation and losses. But while the rolling, intimate landscape of the Somme makes it easy to recognise features that would have been familiar to the troops, it's not hard to see why even the men bogged down in fighting around Ypres and throughout Flanders were often literally lost in the mud and confusion of an almost featureless scene.
Nevertheless, Skelding does a competent job in explaining how the 100,000 strong British Expeditionary Force the world's finest soldiers and formerly protectors of the Empire developed into a battle-hardened force many times that size which made significant gains, including the capture of Messines Ridge. His difficulty, one suspects, must have been how to fit four years of battle into 50 minutes of film. Of the 750,000 British troops who died on the Western Front (not to mention similar German loses) the majority fell here.
These three 50-minute videos are available at £13.99 each from:
Hartnell Marketing Limited
Units 7/8 New Kennels, Blagdon Estate, Seaton Burn, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE13 6DB, United Kingdom.
Tel: +44 167 078 9940
They are also available in NTSC format for North America on request.
© (2000) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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