Tag Archives: World War I

Armistice Day 2012

Today is Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I in 1918.  Also known as Poppy Day and Remembrance Day in commonwealth countries.  WWI began with bravado and confidence—most people believed it would last only a few months.  Four long, bloody years later, the world had irrevocably changed.

This point was brought home to me over the summer.  I attended a special screening of the silent documentary South, featuring the footage shot by Frank Hurley on Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition with the ship Endurance.   The screening was accompanied by live music and narrated with excerpts from Shackleton’s journal, read by actor Paul McGann.  The expedition began the week war broke out in Europe, on August 8, 1914.  Shackleton and his men were isolated from the world and its news when the Endurance was trapped and destroyed by ice.  When Shackleton finally made it to a whaling station in South Georgia two years later, the first question he asked was, “When did the war in Europe end?”  He was told the war was still dragging on, with no end in sight.  Many of his men, after surviving the hardships of the Antarctic, returned home to fight in the trenches of France.

They ask me where I’ve been,
And what I’ve done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn’t I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands…
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name.

— Wilfred Gibson

Today is also Veterans Day in the United States.  To those who have served in the armed forces, we thank you for your service.


Troops recite the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony on an aircraft elevator on board the USS Midway Museum in San Diego, Nov. 6, 2012. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services sponsored the ceremony during which 41 service members from 19 countries became U.S. citizens.

Photo credit for Becoming Citizens: US Department of Defense.   Special thanks to Shay for the World War I images.  The poem by Wilfred Gibson is “Back.”

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Armistice Day 2011

Today is Veterans Day, and as I explained last year, I always focus my attention on the end of World War I.  November 11, 1918, was the official ceasefire of The War to End All Wars, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  My fascination with WWI is not with battle strategies, but with the individual soldiers and the horrific conditions they endured in the trenches.  I struggle to imagine coping with the fear, the noise, the cold, the wet, the mud, the gas, the hunger, the monotony—and then going over the top to run into machine gun fire and shells and barbed wire, just to gain a few yards of ground which would be lost in the next skirmish.

Last year, I posted World War I art with some devastating facts and statistics.  This year, I am discussing some films about WWI, because it is through them that I’ve gained so much insight into what the war was like for the soldiers we honor today.   It’s also timely because one of the big Christmas movies next month is War Horse.  Like War Horse, many of these films were novels first.  There’s a 51 year gap between the films I discuss, jumping from 1930 to 1981.  I hope readers can fill this gap by telling me some WWI movies made during these years.

Wings with Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen

Wings (1927)

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) Here’s a video of Winsor McCay’s animated film depicting the sinking of the Lusitania by German torpedoes in May, 1915.  The anti-German sentiments expressed in the intertitles are intense, but the comments under this video show that these feelings haven’t gone away.

J’Accuse (1919 and 1938)  Abel Gance used actual soldiers just returning from the front in his 1919 anti-war film.  It had a huge impact in Europe, where it was shown just five months after Armistice.  The US version was drastically re-cut to have a happy ending, and the anti-war message was changed to a patriotic one.  Critics who saw the original version were appalled, and the film was not a success in the States.  Gance later re-made the film in 1938.  It’s really hard to find good copies of either the original or the remake, but a new restoration of the 1919 film was shown at a recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival, so I’m hoping it will become available on DVD soon.

The Big Parade (1925)  This silent film by King Vidor was one of the big hits of the silent era.  It stars John Gilbert and Renée Adorée.  It hasn’t yet been released on DVD, which doesn’t make any sense to me.  I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s on my wish list.

Wings (1927)  Since this was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, you’d think it would be readily available.  It’s the only Best Picture not available on DVD in the US.  I met the director’s son last year, and we discussed our mutual frustration about this.  William A. Wellman directed feisty Clara Bow, stalwart Richard Arlen, Gary Cooper, and Mary Pickford’s future husband, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, in this WWI epic about fighter pilots and the girl next door who becomes an ambulance driver.

All Quiet on the Western Front (film: 1930)  Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 book was made into the film starring Lew Ayres.  It was re-made in 1979 with Richard Thomas, but I have not seen that version.  The final scene of soldier Paul Baumer reaching for a butterfly is still devastating.  Lew Aryes was deeply affected by the movie’s message.  He was a pacifist who became a conscientious objector in WWII.  This had a negative impact on his career, even though his service in the Medical Corps earned him three battle stars.

Gallipoli (1981)  Often included in lists of Best Australian Films, Peter Weir directed this story of two young Australian soldiers who lose their innocence fighting in Turkey.  This film is very powerful but has some serious historical inaccuracies.  The disastrous charge at the Battle of the Nek was ordered by an Australian officer, not a British one.  I love the fact that half of the skilled horse riders used in the film were women disguised as men.

Legends of the Fall (film: 1994)  I saw this brutally violent film several times in the theatre because of the beautiful cinematography and the hunky Brad Pitt.  It’s amusing to count how many times Pitt is filmed with a glowing halo of backlight around his blonde head.  It’s not subtle.  When his younger brother enlists and goes to France, Brad Pitt’s character joins up to keep his brother safe.  There’s plenty of gas and barbed wire, not to mention scalpings.  While not a “war film,” this was one of the first movies I saw with WWI scenes, so they had an impact on me.

A Little Princess (1995 film)  The original story is about an English girl whose father is fighting in the Boer Wars.  In this 1995 film version starring Liesel Matthews, Sara Crewe is a girl with an English father and an American mother.  The boarding school is moved to New York, and her father goes to fight in France in WWI.  I love this version, so it’s one of the rare times I don’t mind the Americanizing, and the story still works just fine.  There are several realistic trench scenes with Sara’s father.  Even though Liesel Matthews is an heiress to the Hyatt fortune and worth millions, don’t hold it against her.  She’s a great Sara.

A Little Princess (1995)

A Little Princess (1995)

Regeneration/Behind the Lines (film: 1997)  The first book of Pat Barker’s excellent Regeneration Trilogy was made into a fine film starring Jonathan Pryce, Jonny Lee Miller, and James Wilby.  James McAvoy is credited, but his role is so tiny it’s almost impossible to spot him.  It’s about several characters at a psychiatric hospital in Scotland during WWI, including poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.  Pryce plays a psychiatrist trying to help his shell-shocked patients.  Sassoon has been sent to the hospital instead of a court martial after he publishes a letter speaking out against the war.  This film is hard to find on a US DVD, where it was renamed Behind The Lines, and even in the UK the DVD is a Dutch import.  I hope this changes soon.

The Trench (1999)  Paul Nicholls and Daniel Craig star in this wrenching drama about young British soldiers on the eve of the battle of the Somme.  Craig is excellent, and the young soldiers are played by young actors, conveying the inexperience of many of the troops who didn’t survive the first hours of their first battle.

Deathwatch (2002)  I can’t recommend this strange horror film about British soldiers who stumble into a trench containing a deadly supernatural being.  I only watched it because of the cast, which includes Jamie Bell, Matthew Rhys, Laurence Fox and Andy Serkis.  I suffered through it, but you don’t have to, unless you really like muddy horror films.

A Very Long Engagement (film: 2004)  This is one of my favorite WWI movies.  It’s long, complicated, in French with subtitles, and you really have to pay attention to keep track of the characters.  Maybe it’s just me, but put a group of men in mustaches and they all look the same.  This film has a lot mustaches!  It’s about a determined young woman (Audrey Tatou) who can’t accept that her fiancé (Gaspard Ulliel) has been killed in WWI.  She searches for clues to what really happened to him and four other soldiers condemned for self-mutilation.  It’s a war film, a mystery, and a love story.  Marion Cotillard is wonderful in a supporting role, and even Jodie Foster shows up to show off her French.

A Bear Named Winnie (2004)  A family film telling the true story of a Canadian soldier who adopts a black bear cub, smuggles him to England, and leaves him in a zoo when he goes to France.  Winnie the Bear, named after Winnipeg, becomes a beloved zoo attraction and inspires AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories.  The film stars Michael Fassbender, Gil Bellows,  Jonathon Young, David Suchet, and Stephen Fry.  There’s only one war scene, still pretty intense for younger viewers, while the rest of the film focuses on the antics of the cub.  The film has a leisurely pace, and Fassbender and the bear have great chemistry.

Joyeux Noel (2005)  One of the most remarkable events of WWI was the 1914 Christmas truce, depicted in this French film, when unofficial ceasefires in some regions during Christmas led to football games, carol singing, and gift exchanges between enemy soldiers.  Joyeux Noel was praised by critics and viewers, and I still need see it.

Passchendaele (2008) Canadian Paul Gross wrote, directed, and stars in this film using details from his grandfather’s life.  I was expecting the focus to be on the battle of Passchendaele, but most of the movie takes place off the battlefield.  That’s not a complaint.  I don’t think the movie teaches an uninformed viewer much about the actual battle, but it’s not supposed to be a documentary.

War Horse ( film: 2011)  Opening this Christmas, War Horse is based on Michael Morpurgo’s book for older children.  The play won the Tony Award last spring.  I read the book this summer, and it was 160 pages of pure grief.  Any parent giving their child this book should read it first to judge whether their kid is mature enough to handle it.  I don’t think I’m there yet.  I hope parents are also careful about taking children to see the film.  I will be reading the reviews to see if parents are cautioned.  The trailer promises a beautiful film and the cast features some favorites, but I’m taking plenty of tissues.

Birdsong (film due 2012)  One of my favorite WWI novels by Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong has been filmed in the UK as a TV movie due in 2012.  That usually translates into an eventual airing on PBS Masterpiece.  The film stars Matthew Goode and Eddie Redmayne, and I can’t wait.

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Chemin des Dames Assault 1917 by Luc Albert Moreau

Chemin des Dames Assault 1917 by Luc Albert Moreau

“And all those boys of Europe born in those times, and thereabouts those times, Russian, French, Belgian, Serbian, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Prussian, German, Austrian, Turkish—and Canadian, Australian, American, Zulu, Gurkha, Cossack, and all the rest—their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life, certainly.  Those millions of mothers and their millions of gallons of mothers’ milk, millions of instances of small-talk and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps, with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for death’s amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of a coming war.   — from A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

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The Guns of August

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”   Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary

Starry Night Over The Rhone, Vincent Van Gogh 1888

Starry Night Over The Rhone, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Because my post on Armistice Day, the end of World War 1, got such a huge response, it seemed right to commemorate the beginning of the Great War.  Here’s the complicated timeline:

June 28, 1914  Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated in Sarajevo.

July 28, 1914  Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.

July 31, 1914  As an ally of Serbia, Russia announces full mobilization of her armed forces.

August 1, 1914  Germany mobilizes her armed forces and declares war on Russia.

August 3, 1914  Germany declares war on France.

August 4, 1914  Germany declares war on a neutral Belgium and invades in a move designed to defeat France quickly, causing Britain to declare war on Germany.

A Star Shell by C.R.W. Nevinson

A Star Shell by C.R.W. Nevinson. 1916

References: The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman is a detailed account of the start of World War I.   The timeline of WWI came from this site.  Here is a poem based on Nevinson’s painting.

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In Remembrance: Armistice Day

It’s a fine thing that all veterans are remembered and honored for their service today, but I find myself focusing on World War I—a war most people know very little about.  The place names where horrific battles took place—Ypres, Verdun, Passchendaele, the Somme, Loos—resonate far less now than they once did.  It’s impossible to encapsulate all that the First World War was and what it meant in one little blog post, but here are some facts, some quotes from the book Back To The Front by Stephen O’Shea, and some art of World War I.

“In Northern France, from October 25, 1914, to March 10, 1915, there were only eighteen days without rain.  The misery of millions of men, standing in cold and muddy ditches on end, can only be imagined.” (page 62)

C. R. W. Nevinson, "Paths of Glory," 1917

“In the summer and fall of 1914, France lost as many men on the battlefield as the American army would in all of the twentieth century.” (page 27)

“The [Ypres] Salient’s defining moment was the week of July 25 to July 31, 1917, when the British army fired off 4,283, 550 shells (or 107,000 tons of metal) along a front twelve miles wide, then had its infantry try to wade through—in the rain—the ensuing soupy morass in the face of sustained machine-gun fire.”   (page 20-21)

Eric Kennington, "Gassed and Wounded," 1918

The battlefield of Verdun had the highest density of dead per square yard.  This ten month conflict had over a million casualties.

The Battle of the Somme:  “It was the biggest fiasco in British military history….No fighting force on the Western Front would ever lose so many so quickly, and for so little….By noon, all along the narrow swathe of no-man’s-land from Gommecourt to Hébuterne to the River Somme, 60,000 young men lay wounded, dying or dead, a carpet of bloodied khaki that writhed and moaned in the sullen sunlight.  Optimism began to drain from a culture that had conquered a world.” (page 87)

John Singer Sargent, "Gassed," 1918-19

Messines Ridge:  “…the operation was  a British success, for the simple reason that the attackers blew the German lines to smithereens.  The surprise lay in nineteen gigantic underground bombs.”   “The blast was clearly heard in London… as the shock wave from Belgium buffeted the southern counties of Britain.”  (page 49)

C. R. W. Nevinson, "A Taube," 1916-17

By the end of the war, 11% of France’s total population had died or been wounded.  230 soldiers died for every hour of the 4¼ years that the war was fought.  One half of the 70,000,000 men and women in uniform were either killed, wounded, or prisoners of war.  One half of those who died have no known grave.

One of the lasting legacies of World War I is known at the Iron Harvest.  Tons of bombs and shells were dropped along the front, and it is estimated that at least one in four failed to explode.  Many of these sank into the mud and are still being brought up when farmers plough their fields.  After all this time, the French government still collects about 900 tons of unexploded munitions every year.

“Never such innocence again.” –  Philip Larkin,  MCMXIV

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