In every war there are clashes between new values and old, between old assumptions and new technologies. Perhaps at no time in history were those clashes more evident than before and during World War I. Old European monarchies came face to face with new nationalisms and ideologies such as Communism and Socialism. Military commanders of the day assumed that offensive capability was going to be more important than defensive positioning. Little did they anticipate that the technologies of killing, including artillery and machine guns, would far outpace the technologies of mobility, leading to the grisly stalemate of the trenches. In honor of the 100th anniversary of The War to End All Wars, Eagle Rock Entertainment has released a five-DVD boxed set, The War Zone: Centennial Anniversary Series – The First World War: The War To End All Wars. Through archive footage and commentary, the series of documentaries presents an Anglo-centric view of the war and several of its major battles.
“Disc 1 – The Great War” delivers an overall survey of the war years. Hampered by the purple prose of the narrator, and too short to delve into the complicated narrative that comprised the war years, it nonetheless gives a good feel for the contradictions of European society – opulent luxury contrasted with grinding poverty, reactionary autocratic leaders confronted with virulent nationalistic movements. It also covers the overall impact of the war – from the initial fevered jingoism of all sides to the shock and disillusionment when promises of a quick victory dissolved into the bloody horror of the front. Nations increased their industrial output and opened the factory floors to women. Of course, even when the stalemate was broken and the armistice was signed, the resulting Versailles conference set in place the conditions that led to WW II and conflicts that plague us to this day.
The other DVDs cover specific military campaigns endured by the British and French armies.
Disc 2 – Mons 1914 / Gallipoli 1915. In the beginning days of the war, the German army swept through Belgium as part of the Schlieffen plan, designed to knock the French quickly out of the war. At the Battle of Mons, the small British Expeditionary Force held up the Germans and inflicted sufficient damage to give the French enough time to regroup. Eventually, the French stopped the Germans at the Battle of the Marne. The disastrous Gallipoli campaign, the brainchild of Winston Churchill, was an attempt to strike a blow at the Ottoman Empire and secure the passage of the Dardanelles, utilizing the unproven technique of amphibious landings. After the protracted failure to move from the beachheads, and after eight months of mounting British and ANZAC casualties, the expeditionary force was forced to withdraw (the most successful part of the entire campaign being the withdrawal).
Disc 3 – The Somme 1916 / Verdun 1916. The mounting pressure to break the impasses on the Western Front led to the “big push”, the attempt to create a breakthrough in the German lines. The Somme campaign was designed by Sir Douglas Haig, described by one military historian in the series as “not the sharpest knife in the British army’s drawer”. An ineffective artillery barrage, followed by bizarre orders (infantrymen were commanded by General Henry Rawlinson to slowly walk toward German trenches and machine gun nests) led to the single bloodiest day in British military history. Verdun, an attempt by the German High Command to bleed the French army dry, might have succeeded but for the inconvenient fact that the Germans lost almost as many men as the French.
Disc 4 – Cambrai 1917 / Kaiserschlacht 1918. There were many attempts to use technology to break the stalemate in the trenches. The battle of Cambrai was one of the first large-scale deployment of tanks. While not ultimately effective in this battle, lessons were learned that would aid in the 1918 Hundred Days Offensive, which would lead to Germany’s defeat. The Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) was a last-ditch effort by German general Erich Ludendorff to end the war before the arrival of American forces. Using new penetration techniques, the Germans were able to achieve tactical success, but did not achieve their strategic objectives.
Disc 5 – The Legend Of The Red Baron / Great Germany Aircraft Of World War One. The Air Age was barely a decade old in 1914, but warring nations quickly learned how to make effective use of the new technology. The pilots of the fledgling air corps quickly captured the imaginations of the public, perhaps because they seemed to capture the elan and romance missing from the gruesome tableaux of the trenches. The most successful (credited with 80 air combat victories) was Manfred Von Richthofen, the Red Baron (so-called because of the markings on his plane). This disc also looks at the airplane technology used by the Germans with such great success.
It would be difficult for any series to capture the complexities surrounding the First World War. This series focuses primarily on the campaigns endured by the British army. The momentous events in the Balkans, Russia and other areas are barely mentioned. Grainy footage is intertwined with commentary from modern military historians and animated maps to give context to the narrative of the Western front. A picture emerges of enormous bravery, the frustration and grim fatalism endured by frontline soldiers, of generals out of their depth, struggling with the massive armies under their command and the new realities of war, of communication glitches and lost opportunities. Interestingly enough, the one campaign not covered is the Hundred Days Offensive that finally broke through the Hindenburg line and forced the Germans to seek an armistice.
After a century, many aspects of the Western Front are still hotly debated. How much of the carnage was really preventable? This series gives a context for those debates, and gives us pause to wonder how much we’ve really progressed in the last 100 years.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00K2OBSZU]