With the centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme still fresh in the memory, it feels like the ideal time for Long Shadow: The Great War to be released on DVD in the UK for the first time. Although as we’ll discover, David Reynolds (the writer and presenter) has concerns about how certain events – most notably the Somme – have come to dominate our understanding of the war.
Long Shadow was one of a raft of BBC Great War programmes announced in late 2013. It’s an ambitious (and still ongoing) project – more than 2,500 hours of programming across television, radio and online to appear between 2014 and 2018.
This breadth of programming, covering both drama and factual, allows for a range of approaches to be taken when discussing the events of 1914 – 1918. Long Shadow, broadcast in September 2014, asks us to both remember and reassess what we know (or what we think we know) about the Great War and how the conflict shaped the rest of the twentieth century.
Speaking to History Extra, Reynolds makes the point that the Somme, terrible though it was, has clouded our understanding of both the war and its legacy. “Our view of the war has become focused almost on one day. We need to get out of the trenches and take a broader view of the conflict. That’s what I mean by becoming a caricature – it’s become simplified down. A caricature is not necessarily untrue, it’s just a sharp oversimplification of what is going on.”
Reynolds, a Cambridge academic, follows in the footsteps of many illustrious predecessors. Needless to say, presenter-led documentaries stand or fall on the quality of the man or woman in front of the camera. Thankfully for Long Shadow, Reynolds is an engaging presence – he’s capable of deftly describing the bigger picture, but can also change gears to illuminate smaller-scale, individual stories. Reynolds rarely seems to stand still – he’s often seen walking to his next location – but this hyperactivity (and his sometimes highly dramatic intonations) doesn’t detract from the story he has to tell.
Over the decades, a certain perspective of WW1 has become solidified (“lions led by donkeys”) and this has been reflected in popular satire (Oh! What a Lovely War, Blackadder Goes Forth). Long Shadow attempts to peel away this familiar (and, he argues, inaccurate) viewpoint in order to make sense not only of the war, but of the very different world that both the victors and vanquished returned home to.
Post 1918, the British were keen to honour their dead (Reynolds has some interesting points to make about Edwin Lutweyn’s Cenotaph) but since the public at large found it hard to visualise exactly what had happened on the battlefields between 1914 and 1918, the war slowly faded from the public’s consciousness. But a play, Journey’s End by R.C. Sheriff (which debuted in 1928), would help to reignite interest in the conflict. Reynolds argues that for many, Journey’s End helped to illustrate the futility of war – “never again”.
In Germany there was a very different sentiment in the air. If the British were saying “never again”, then some Germans were of the opinion that the war had never ended. It was simply that they had been betrayed by a spineless ruling elite who had forced the country into signing a humiliating armistice. So the seeds for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power were already in place.
But if, as Reynolds argues, WW2 came to be seen as a just war – fought against an evil and corrupt regime – this would have consequences for the Great War. Post WW2, the Great War would be known instead as WW1. It was no longer “The War To End All Wars”, instead it was seen as a failed attempt to end global war (if it had been successful there would have been no need for a Second World War). Reynolds admits this renaming could seem to be a trivial matter, but it was a factor that helped to shape the modern viewpoint that the Great War achieved nothing, except mass slaughter.
Reynolds also examines the unfamiliar British landscape that emerged following the 1918 armistice. Democracy had come to Britain for the first time with both the working classes and women eligible to vote. Also discussed is the way that the Great War strengthened a section of the United Kingdom – as both Wales and Scotland took pride in joining with their English counterparts to defeat a common foe. Had this not happened it’s tempting to wonder whether the union between the three nations would have fractured. But if the war was a unifying force for England, Scotland and Wales then it was a very different picture in Ireland. The Easter Rising in 1916 was a watershed moment for Catholics, just as the Battle of the Somme in 1918 was for their Protestant counterparts.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for a documentary solely focused on the military conflict between 1914 and 1918 then this possibly isn’t the programme for you. Long Shadow concerns itself with documenting the aftershock WW1 inflicted on the world at large, with Reynolds demonstrating how this brutal conflict helped to shape the modern world.
The series uses very little archive footage, which is a good move. Iconic and stirring though these pictures are, the scratchy black and white images also tend to automatically distance the viewer from the events portrayed. Running for three 50 minute episodes (Remembering and Understanding, Ballots and Bullets, Us and Them), Long Shadow is an accessible and thought-provoking documentary.
Long Shadow: The Great War is released by Simply Media on the 4th of July 2016. RRP £19.99.