WW1: The Final Hours
As the world prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, viewers can choose between a variety of telly formats that pay tribute.
There’s the serious-minded, scholarly approach, told through a dramatised documentary with whispered narration and silent actors who move like ghosts.
Or you might prefer Boris Karloff and a plate of poisoned muffins. Take your pick.
WW1: The Final Hours (BBC2) depicted the negotiations for Germany’s surrender in 1918, famously conducted in a blacked-out railway carriage deep in France’s Compiegne forest, with funereal solemnity. The occasion was presented as tragic — which it was, in too many ways.
German politician Matthias Erzberger, the selfmade son of a tailor, drove 120 miles across the Western Front to meet the Allied supreme commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch and British Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss. The enmity was so deep that Foch refused to shake his hand.
Erzberger had been sent by German High Command to negotiate a treaty, but many of his countrymen, including the army’s most senior general, Ludendorff, wanted to fight to the last man.
Without the power to sign a surrender, Erzberger had to wait for orders. Meanwhile, back in Berlin, mobs were on the streets and the Kaiser had abdicated. During the chaotic delays, the slaughter in the trenches continued unabated: on November 10, the day before the Armistice, 2,738 men were killed.
Expertly restored footage of the peace celebrations brought a spark of relief in this bitterly dour documentary. Men in muddy boots and puttees capered and threw their tin helmets in the air. But even these scenes were intercut with the reminiscences of old soldiers, 60 years later, who had spent their lives trying to reconcile themselves to the horrors they had endured.
The message was very clear. Remembrance Sunday, this year above all, is not an occasion for celebration, much less triumphalism. It is a time for reflection on the sacrifice of many millions of men and women, on the home front as well as on the battlefields.
As he signed the papers, Foch foresaw that the peace might not survive the next two decades. In fact, it held for almost exactly 20 years, though Erzberger did not live through it. Months after being wounded by a hand grenade thrown into his office at the Reichstag parliament building, he was assassinated by vengeful naval officers who believed he had betrayed them.
World War Weird
The storytelling style of World War Weird (Yesterday channel) could not have been more different. This magazine of improbable tales kicked off with the bizarre claim that the 1939-45 war might never have happened if British secret agents had not been so careless as to bump off Rasputin the Mad Monk.
A colourised photograph originally taken during the conflict. A line of men walk across a bare slope, carrying all the gear needed to set up a new barbed-wire line. Many of the men are carrying tall metal posts shaped like corkscrews. These were used in the later part of the war as they could be screwed into the ground more quietly than straight posts could be hammered in
To help us visualise how it happened, we saw clips from a 1953 TV show called Suspense, starring Karloff as the wild-eyed charlatan who held the Russian royal family in his magnetic sway. Leslie Nielsen was a patriotic Moscow aristocrat determined to kill the monstrous old fraud . . . by feeding him fairy cakes laced with cyanide, supplied by an English spy.
Yes, that Leslie Nielsen, of The Naked Gun and Airplane. (‘Surely you can’t be serious?’ ‘I am serious . . . and don’t call me Shirley!’)
How Rasputin’s murder brought about the Second World War was not clearly explained, though it seemed to have something to do with a German victory against the Allies in 1917.
So close to the Armistice centenary, this frothy show seemed a trifle irreverent.