- Dennis Meyers
- Mike Andrews
- Rich Stephens
- Kyle Pocock
- Micah Neidorfler
Incident(s) the film touches on? Please be specific. For instance, Full Metal Jacket takes place during the Tet Offensive.
The movie chronicles the life of British infantry serving in the trenches on the Western Front (Belgium and northern France) during WW1. Rather than chronicle the exact course of the war, it presents a composite of the experiences of various typical British infantrymen that span the war on the Western Front.
The war was the result of competition and antagonism among the dominant European countries. Germany was replacing France as the leading power on the continent and had surpassed GB industrially. German politicians wanted Germany to have greater global influence. It maintained a large army and was growing its navy. Germany feared encirclement by France and Russia. Moreover, it also feared the threat of Russia’s growth and industrialization. Russia had a much larger population and many more resources. Germany wanted to deal Russia a blow that would upset this development. Austro-Hungary was an empire headed by Austria that encompassed various Balkan countries with Slavic populations. There were various separatist movements in the countries—notably in Bosnia and Herzegovina—that were supported by Russia.
Why was Britain fighting?
Britain and Germany were not historical adversaries—their royal families were related. Britain was not directly involved in the military competition on the continent. However;
- Britain relied on naval supremacy to maintain its colonial empire. As Germany grew it wanted more global influence (colonies) that would likely come at the expense of GB and France. It feared that a dominant Germany could eventually create a navy comparable to the Royal Navy.
- GB wanted to maintain a balance of power on the continent so that no one country became completely dominant. It allied with France to prevent Germany from becoming dominant.
- GB had signed the Treaty of London of 1839 in which it to protect Belgium. Further, German control of Belgium’s ports would be a threat. When Germany attacked France through Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany.
They Shall Not Grow Old explores the entirety of WWI (1914-1918) through the lens of the British - specifically, stories about the experience of individuals and how the war changed them. Events include signing up to join the war in 1914, arrival to the Belgian Front, and the Battle of the Somme. However, Jackson is not so interested in the chronology of WWI as much as he is the individual experience and retellings of what actually happened on the ground for these men.
Historical Context? We are hoping to receive more specific info on the incident the film is about, rather than general info.
PART I WAR BEGINS, RECRUITMENT AND TRAINING
- [04:13] “That Serbia business…” refers to the assignation of Austro-Hungarian heir-to-the-throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip—a Bosnian separatist—on June 28, 1914.
- [04:21] “Lovely August the 4th morning…” Germany invaded Belgium on August 3, 1914. Britain declared war on August 4.
- Britain starts the war with a small army; 250,000 men. Relied on naval superiority to defend its colonial empire. The army was only used in regional colonial issues. Nearly all of this army was lost in the first months of war. The survivors were used to raise, train, and lead new soldiers.
- [06:29] poster “Come and Do Your Bit” As opposed to Germany and France, GB didn’t have universal military conscription (draft) when the war began. It relied on volunteers. Initially many young men wanted to sign up. Sometimes they were willing to pay to join.
- [07:50] “Lots of lads were joining the local regiments” Many new units were raised by local community organizations, such as chambers of commerce. Men were encouraged to join up with their friends as a way to recruit more soldiers. It was thought they would keep each others' spirits up. They were known as 'Pals Battalions'. This had tragic consequences when during the bloodiest battles, such as the Somme, all of the young men from a village or neighborhood were killed all at once.
- By the end of 1914, 1.2 million men had enlisted. Ultimately, 5 million Britons served in the war.
- [19:17] “The man’s best friend is his rifle.”: The British army used the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) rifle which could be aimed and fired more quickly than those used by Germany and France—up to 20 to 30 rounds per minute.
- [20:00] “Above all we learned rapid fire.” British infantry could put out a much higher rate of fire than their German and French counterparts. This was a tragic surprise for the Germans.
- [23:42] Different troops disembarking and marching. Various colonies sent over two and a half million men to fight for Britain; India sent 1,400,000; Canada, 630,000; Australia 400,000; South Africa, 136,070; New Zealand, 128,825 and other colonies: 135,000
PART II LIFE IN TRENCHES AT THE FRONT (COLORIZED FOOTAGE BEGINS)
- The front line was a line of trench works stretching from Switzerland to English Channel.
- [29:05] Soldiers in trench laughing at camera. “The trench was very wet.” Water drainage systems had to be developed. Duck boards (decking) was installed on the trench floors to keep help keep soldier’s feet dry.
- [33:33] Horses being lead across a field when artillery shell lands. “At any given moment you could expect to be shelled.”
- Heavy artillery was a relatively new weapon utilized on a massive scale for the first time in WW1. Many assaults were preceded by lengthy barrages. The initial barrage for the Somme lasted for a week.
- [34:47] Air burst shell exploding. Shrapnel shells were anti-personnel shells which carried many individual bullets. Was the only artillery used by GB at the beginning of the war, but were eventually replaced by high explosive shells which were much more effective against personnel and fortifications.
- [35:04] Mining was the practice of tunneling under or towards the enemy trenches to set off a large explosion.
- [35:36] Column of cavalry being shelled. Horses were the principle means of transport on the battlefield at the beginning of war by cavalry units, and to move artillery and supplies. About 6 million horses served in the war. The life of a WW1 horse was the subject of Steven Spielberg’s movie War Horse.
- [37:24] “And then you’ve got gas.” Gas was first used by Germans on April 22, 1915. Gas caused nearly 6,000 British deaths and 181,000 nonfatal casualties.
PART III PREPARING FOR THE BATTLE
- [52:00] Tanks were first used in Sept 1916 during the Battle of the Somme but had little effect. It wasn’t until late 1917 that there were enough tanks and effective tactics for their use to make a difference on the battlefield. The were called ‘tanks’, as in water tank, to keep their true purpose a secret while they were being developed.
PART IV THE BATTLE
- Movie represents a composite trench assault, not a specific attack.
- [1:03:20] “Machine gun bullets came at us like power stones.” Despite the deadly example of machine guns used in the Russo-Japanese war, British infantry tactics hadn’t adapted to the machine gun’s killing power.
- Hiram Maxim, in 1884, an American inventor, produced the first automatic, portable machine gun.
- By 1914, German forces fielded 12,000 machine guns, compared with a few hundred between the French and British.
PART V BATTLE AFTERMATH
[1:23:42] “We had an idea that they were beginning to crack.” After making peace with post-revolution Russia, Germany began a last major offensive in March 1918. After initial success, it was halted by the Allies in mid-April. After that loss, and with American forces making their presence known, German soldiers had lost hope for a victory and their morale crumbled. This was followed by the Allies’s Hundred Days Offensive which led to the end of the war.
Major British battles and casualties
- The Second Battle of Ypres, April – May 1915, 59,000 casualties. First use of poison gas.
- The Somme, July - November 1916, 400,000+ casualties. The first day was the deadliest day in British Army history. At the end of the first hour of the initial British attack, nearly one-half of the “first wave” were dead or injured. By the end of the day more than 20,000 were dead.
- Passchendaele, November 1916 - May 1917, British casualty estimates range from 200,00 to 275,000.
- Cambrai, November – December 1917, 75,681 casualties. Was the first successful large-scale offensive use of tanks.
- Amiens (beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive), August 1918, 20,000 British casualties.
For this research, I wanted to explore what you guys suggested - the role of colonial soldiers and other gaps that were not touched on in the film. When watching the documentary, we are getting specific experiences from the British side of the war in depth. I want to explore colonial soldier training, views, and experiences, as well as other state's personal experiences with the war.
Part I: An Overview of Use and Exploitation of Colonial Troops during the Great War
Well over 4 million non-white/European men were mobilized for war in European and American armies during the length of the war. Often, modern scholarship considers battles or campaigns or experiences with these people as "sideshows" to the big, famous movements, battles, and figures of the war. By 1914, all of Africa except Ethiopia and Liberia were under European rule, with Great Britain and France controlling the largest of these overseas empires. Of these empires, India contributed the most men (1.5 million), while the British Commonwealth of Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and Newfoundland contributed around 1.3 million men. With 100,000 men mobilized by new Zealand, in proportion to its population, the Great War would claim 5% of men aged 15-49, a massive contribution. Indian troops died alongside New Zealanders at Gallipoli, with a casualty rate of 50%. For France, 90,000 troupes indigenes were already active by 1914. Between 1914-1918, France would recruit a further 500,000 colonial troops - including West Africans, Madagascans, Indochinese, Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans. 10 percent of all African people who served as soldiers or, more likely, laborers, would die. Some rates are as high as 20%. The United States had 400,000 African-American troops by 1917 and 200,000 of them would serve in Europe.
The relationship between military policy and race was complex, to say the least, among the Allied nations. France deployed troop son Europe based on their assimilist model and quickly added foreign troops to their ranks. But the British were not so quick to adopt these practices:
"The Times History of the World revealed contemporary thinking on the issue when in 1914 it wrote, ‘The instinct which made us such sticklers for propriety in all our dealings made us more reluctant than other nations would feel to employ coloured troops against a white enemy.’"
Indian troops had not been allowed to fight in the Boer War (1899-1902). The worry was that "colored" troops, if not fighting other ethnicities and instead fighting offensive wars against the imperial powers, would revolt or at the very least develop seditious ideas. But the BEF, British Expeditionary Force, was suffering such devastating losses in the Great War that the British had no choice but to pull from their colonies. Indians were the only ones allowed to fight in Europe based off of British military's policy.
England and France both divided their colonized human beings in "warlike" and "non-warlike" races, militarily. Punjabi and Nepalese troops were often considered more manly and warrior by nature by the British while the French considered West Africans to be warriors by blood, primitive, and for use in 'La Force Noir', or a large African reserve to help even the odds on the Western Front. African laborers suffered some 20% casualty rates due to malnutrition and disease in working for the imperial powers. Chinese laborers were used in clearing WWI battlefields of mines and debris. Of course, racial ideology and bias meant that it did not always work out. Indian troops were removed by December of 1915 because of the problems British had with fighting next to them. Despite the ferociousness and the reputation of Senegalese soldiers, they faced extreme prejudice from both German and French soldiers.
It is easy to consider that, after the Armistice in 1918, all fighting immediately stopped. But for many other theaters, weeks of warfare continued in these "sideshow" theaters and countries. German commander of East Africa Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck kept up a guerilla fight against imperial powers. French African troops holding the Ruhr region were subject to vicious racial propaganda. European countries took WWI as an opportunity to snatch each
other colonies. African laborers saw 1 out of 5 workers in 2 million die - a higher death rate than on the Western Front. They Shall Not Grow Old is a fantastic record of a particular group's experiences, but we must not forget that WWI was a truly global war - whether it was the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the Japanese attacks on German colonies in Asia, or the use of African troops and laborers, there are countless examples of how lives and families suffered as their family were being killed or forgotten halfway across the world fighting for something that was barely relevant to them. Fortunately, colonial soldiers saw that there were kindnesses shown to them by French and British soldiers sometimes. They saw how people lived in Europe. Many of these people expected more from European rulers from then on and later would become involved in revolutionary independence movements.
Part II: Equipment, Training, and Experiences
Before WWI, colonial troops were generally equipped more lightly than "official" European regiments and rarely carried artillery or mechanized units. African and Indian troops had found that the climate in Europe to be debilitating - Senegalese troops had to be withdrawn from Northern France because of the harsh winters, for example. But as more and more colonial troops were being used, they were equipped in the same developing-modern fashion as regular European units.
As French military leaders realized the war would last far longer than expected, a mass recruitment drive was used for colonial troops. 93 Senegalese battalions were recruited between 1915-1918: 42 of those used in France.
A book called "Strength-Kindness" was published in 1926 by Bakary Diallo, a French Senegalese Tirailleur. Poorly received at the time as having been thought of as colonial apologist attitudes, Diallo nevertheless wrote this now very rare piece of primary source documentation to explore his and other colonial troop roles in the Western Front. The book is now seen as a potential way to understand how a Republic which values such human freedoms can reconcile with their colonial past.
French commanders used foreign troops as a way to prevent losses of white French soldiers, when possible. French War Archives show first line assault troops as African regiments, with white French troops drawn in behind them to force them forward and stay behind, if they need not engage.
What is the take away here? Warfare between Europeans over a very European concern bled quickly to affect those across the world. Those people, these colonial troops, either joined up before the war or were drafted between 1915-1917 and suffered heavy casualties as laborers and soldiers. We have very few memoirs, diaries, or primary source documents to learn their experiences - as to not take away from the sufferings of anybody. British, French, Senegalese, Chinese, Indian, German: all suffered loss, death, and abject horror during the Great War. But it must be said that these colonial troops, neglected in history, must have been some of the bravest of all. To fight and die for a people not your own in a country not your own would have a real impact on world history - and sow the seeds of competition, development, and independence movements in the next decades.
The film is a documentary with little narration. Instead presenting footage from the Imperial War Museum, overlaid with soldier interviews and vocal reenactors/sound effects. As such, the film does not have a "Ken Burns" feel documenting the big picture, but rather an intimate snapshot into the lives of the soldiers as they fought and lived in the trenches.
Per the making of doc, this was the first time most of the soldiers had ever seen a camera, so they didn't know what to do. Many just picked up what was near them and started using it - which was often an entrenching tool - while staring into the camera.
This will focus on the host of new technologies and tactics brought to bear during the war as that is my strength in history and I was unable to do much else in the way of research, especially given such a broad topic as this movie covers.
Smokeless powder in its element. Smokeless powder was developed by the French scientist Paul Vielle in 1886, revolutionizing weapons technology. This may be the most significant development in military technology ever made as it significantly reduced the amount of “fouling,” the greasy goopy substance left behind after firing black powder. This allowed repeating weapons to be more successful and to fire for longer periods of time without cleaning. Machine guns and repeating rifles could now properly be developed with reasonable reliability.
Artillery: By far the deadliest and most influential technology was the fast firing artillery developed before and during the war. Whereas artillery pieces were previously slow, muzzle loaded, short range black powder cannons, the weapons of WWI were able to fire repeatedly without having to aim between shots. This allowed massive amounts of firepower to be put in a concentrated spot in a short amount of time, as fast as 15 rounds a minute. Again leading the arms race, the French M1897 75mm (namesake of the French 75 champagne cocktail) led the way for this new breed of artillery with a novel hydraulic shock absorbing recoil system allowing quick follow up shots. Some heavy caliber siege guns and even gigantic rail guns were developed, one German rail gun serving as a terror weapon capable of hitting Paris 75 miles away. Aside from a massive bombardment before an attack, tactics continued to develop to include the creeping barrage, where the guns would fire ever further away from the front lines as the infantry advanced behind the “shield” of fire from the guns. No other weapon killed more soldiers in the war than artillery and its impact can’t be understated.
Repeating rifles: The French development of smokeless powder allowed them to develop the first repeating, magazine rifle using it, the Lebel 1886. Development was somewhat rushed as they wanted to be ahead of the game as quickly as possible compared to their black powder using European counterparts. Subsequent designs from other countries followed, including the German Mauser 98 (a basic bolt action system still in use today in hunting and sniper rifles), the American Springfield 1903 (a near copy of the Mauser system that resulted in legal fees after the war), and the British Lee Enfield (a robust rifle that remained in service until 1957, a testament to both the reliability and performance of the rifle and the lag in the procurement process). One significant advantage of these new rifles was using clips or chargers to load the ammo 5 rounds all at a time instead of single shots at a time, increasing rate of fire to rates previously unseen on the battlefield. The No 1 Mk 3 Short Magazine, Lee Enfield rifle served through all of the Great War for all the commonwealth countries. It was well liked by soldiers for being rugged, accurate, and fast to shoot. It was developed to be used both by infantry and cavalry instead of having a long and short rifle for each, leading to a short, handy rifle allowing quick shots on close in targets. A replacement was being worked on before the war but it was supplanted by the existing design already in wide-scale production, it did however serve with the Americans in a caliber conversion called the M1917, seeing heavy use by the AEF.
Machine Guns: Hiram Maxim, an American inventor, developed the Maxim machine gun just before the development of smokeless powder, taking advantage of the new ammunition type once it was available to him. Having been attempted for decades before, he successfully harnessed the recoil power of a bullet exiting a barrel to create a fully automatic, belt fed machine gun. His design was used by all major powers of the war in slightly different variations to devastating effect. Use of a tube of water around the barrel allowed the guns to be fired effectively indefinitely as long as there was water and ammo available. Offenses were incredibly costly and eliminating enemy machine guns was the highest priority on the attack. One solution was the light machine gun, being able to be carried into battle and operated by an individual; the infancy of the light machine gun led to clunky designs that though successful, were quickly improved or replaced by the end of the war. In British service as seen in the movie, the Vickers model of the Maxim machine gun and the Lewis light machine gun saw heavy use on the front lines throughout the war. German and Russian use of machine guns was far more advanced and ahead of their time compared to British forces, as evidenced by the significant disparity in machine guns at the beginning of the war (12,000 German vs several hundred British).
Aircraft: Balloons and airplanes were most effective at guiding artillery fire and coordinating movements through reconnaissance. Still in their infancy, aircraft progressed rapidly during the war, developing different type classifications as specializations emerged from recon to bombers. The first air-to-air dogfights started with handheld rifles and pistols progressing to machine guns mounted to the aircraft firing safely through the propellers by way of the interrupter gear. This amount of visibility on the ground was unprecedented and allowed for high levels of coordination between artillery and infantry. Combined arms warfare between aircraft, tanks, artillery, and infantry had finally been developed and used for the first time.
Tanks: The search for a weapon or tactic to break the trench stalemate was a constant goal of researchers and developers on both sides of the war. One solution, started in England in 1915, was to armor a tractor, allowing men and weapons to cross No Man’s Land and launch an armored attack on the defenders. The prototype, lovingly named the “Little Willie” Landship, was exceptionally slow and carried a few machine guns. To disguise their secretive purpose, they were described as water carriers in reports, hence the name “Tank.” Eventually, the rhomboid Mk I tank went into production in 1916 and on September 15th, in the battle of the Somme, the first tanks attacked German lines. Mechanical issues knocked out most of them but the merits of such a design were clear and further development led to the first light tanks and other variations. These early tanks were noisy, hot, cramped, and generally terrible to be inside but the promise of a swift end to the war through technological development was a tempting possibility. This possibility was finally proven in November 1917 at the battle of Cambrai where 500 MK IV (an improvement of the MK I) tanks blew a 4 mile hole in the German lines, cementing their place on the battlefield for centuries to come. France and Germany both followed suit with their own iterations with the French developing the first tank with a rotating 360 degree turret known as the FT-17 produced by Renault and the Germans creating a boxy, rectangular behemoth known as the A7V. The effect of the tank on warfare is extremely clear to anyone who’s taken a look at modern military history and their battlefield presence continues to spread fear, despite the many dangers they face on the current digital battlefield.
- Flamethrowers: Developed alongside tanks to act as a battering ram to knock through defenses or as a terrifying static defensive weapon, flamethrowers were used on all sides but were most effectively put to use by the Germans with their Sturmtruppen assault infantry in daring raids and frontal attacks with multiple specialist soldiers employing new technology.
- Mill’s bomb: One of the first modern fragmentation grenades, the British Mill’s bomb was brutally effective at delivering deadly shrapnel as far as the user could throw it. All the other major powers developed their own hand grenades, some fragmentation based, others relying on concussive blast alone to kill like the German stick grenade.
- Light mortars: Having access to man-portable artillery was a game changer for small unit tactics as less coordination was required to rain down explosive firepower on the enemy at close to medium range. The high angle of attack also made them deadly to soldiers caught in a trench next to a landing shell.
- Chemical weapons: I considered making an entire section on this but didn’t have as much knowledge on the subject. The development of poison gas to be used in bombardments was not a new idea but new gas and shell types made them a frightening reality with grisly effects. Blindness, burns, and ultimately death at the hands of gas attacks were all too common among the soldiers on all fronts, with Germany leading the way in their use. The banning of any sort of chemical warfare is testament to just how terrible these weapons were and the extent of the permanent suffering they imparted on anyone in their path.
A Quick Delve Into Sniping as a Novel Tactic:
Sniping or sharpshooting has a long and murky history with the first rifles extending the range and accuracy of early black powder muskets. In a world of line battles and ranks of men firing at each other in lines to capitalize on the slow firepower of their muzzle loading weapons, killing from afar was seen as most unsporting and was severely frowned upon, especially the direct targeting of officers. As WWI devolved into trench warfare, it became clear that marksmanship would be at a premium when firing at each other’s parapets and hidden loopholes. Going into the war, the British army had some of the best trained professional soldiers in the world and their marksmanship and skill with the aforementioned Lee Enfield was legendary to the point of some German soldiers thinking they were being fired upon by machine guns as the British soldiers kept up a withering fire with their bolt action rifles. (One test of marksmanship skill, known as the Mad Minute, required getting as many shots on a 24 inch target at 300 yards as possible in one minute. The record was 38 hits by Sergt.-Instructor Snoxall in 1914!)
The Germans had a long-standing tradition of game hunting and marksmanship competitions, incorporating trained riflemen into units known as Jaegers. From these groups and others, the combination of civilian training and battlefield experience proved deadly for the Entente powers who had little to no such programs of their own. Another advantage the Germans capitalized on was their robust optical sight and telescope industry, far better than any in the world at the time (they are still known for their quality weapon scopes as companies like Zeiss, Schmidt and Bender, and Steiner continue to provide premium optics to military and civilian customers.) Culling any civilian rifle with a scope in a government-mandated round up and training as many men as they could, the Germans proved a formidable threat throughout the war, keeping the threat of death ever looming over anyone stationed on the front.
Ever lagging behind when it came to sniping, the British response was slow and clumsy at best, despite their excellent training at the beginning of the war in infantry shooting. This was partially as a result of the notion that sniping was not something to support and brass found it unconscionable but as the atrocities of total war made it clear that ethical boundaries were falling apart and the body count from enemy snipers grew, the decision was finally made to start training snipers and converting rifles to accept optical scopes. Drawing from their own sport shooting spheres and with the prodding of skilled officers like Vernon Hasketh-Prichard and Neville Armstrong, a training program was created. Despite the vastly superior Pattern 14 rifle then in development being perfectly suited for sniping, the military settled on what was actually available and in mass production, leaving the job to the SMLE yet again. A hodgepodge of small shop manufactured cottage industry optical sights were affixed to them, often offset to the left side of the rifle to allow the use of the iron sights as well as the fast clip loading of the Lee Enfield. None of these were particularly well-liked and the offset to the left made using the rifle clumsy and awkward. Some of the stranger types included extremely simplified optics like the Galilean type scopes, with two exposed lenses on either end of the rifle acting like a caseless scope, usually with rather low magnification. Eventually, and with much in the way of bloody experience, the British sniping program gained ground and became a force to be reckoned with, employing novel techniques like constructing disruptive, three-dimensional sniping smocks and suits (known as ghillie suits after the anti poaching Scottish keeper’s suits of similar design) and papier-mache fake trees and dead animals with loopholes for shooting out of to deadly effect against their enemies on the Western front.
The Americans and French followed suit, affixing scopes to their Springfield and Lebel rifles, respectively. While the Americans were even later to the game, the French saw more success and even developed and rather widely issued a semi-automatic rifle, the RSC 1917, that they issued to the best shots in platoons to make the most out of its improved firepower. Their APX scopes were taken from artillery pieces and affixed to Lebel rifles, proving a robust, yet somewhat long and heavy system throughout the war.
With the “War to End All Wars” at a close in 1918, most militaries completely stopped development of sniping rifles, with many languishing in storage until WWII, when the lessons learned in the First World War would again be put to the test in a much more dynamic war.
I apologize for the length of my submission, but I wanted to provide a lot of good research for you. I would ask that if you read anything I have here you read my last point (starting with the world "Finally"), as I imagine that you folks will discuss the nature of WWI on the Western front and the reasons for the massive loss of life and the notion that the general public has that the war was fought by old out of touch generals and didn't need to be so costly. I hope this is helpful.
13:00 into the film. There is footage of soldiers conducting gear "layouts", where they lay out all of their assigned kit for inspection. These are still conducted in modern armies today. They are conducted regularly while in garrison as a form of accountability to ensure soldiers haven't lost their issued equipment and if they have to ensure those soldiers pay for their lost equipment and are issued with new equipment to replace the loss. They are also conducted prior to missions during "pre-combat inspections/checks". In these cases they are conducted to ensure soldiers have all the necessary equipment required to complete the mission at hand, so that nothing is forgotten before executing the mission.
13:45 the interviewees discuss revile and physical training (PT) in the morning. Their timeline discussed in the film (revile at 0600 and PT beginning at 0630 for an hour, is still executed by the modern US Army (and the two British Army units I have worked with up to this point in my career), except whereas the soldiers in the documentary PT for an hour, we PT for 90 minutes.
17:20 the soldiers discuss marching in kit for long distances. Similarly to the PT discussion above, this is still done by the modern infantry. The interviewee says it is "of the utmost importance that the infantry soldier could march with a full kit". This is absolutely true. It was not ridiculous antiquarianism that led the British army of the time to train their soldiers to march long distances with full kit, it was necessary. Later on in the film the soldiers discuss the physical and mental hardships of their experiences. It was just this physical training and conditioning that enabled them to handle these hardships. During the first (and the second) world war, infantry were required to move long distances on foot while carrying all of their required equipment.
Large trains and roadways stable/wide enough to handle the movement of large amount of troops and equipment stopped miles from the front lines, as they were priority targets for enemy artillery and aircraft. So after disembarking from those transports, soldiers had to get themselves to the front lines. Similarly, after making advances, which were done on foot, it would take long periods of time (months) for those train lines and roadways to be built forward, crossing the ground that had been taken in the advance.
20:03 the soldiers talk about the "mad-minute". The mad minute during the first world war was a British rifle drill where the soldier was supposed to fire 15 rounds within 1 minute. He would start the drill with 5 rounds already loaded into the weapons (4 remaining in the internal magazine with the fifth having been chambered). He would then have one minute from when the target appeared to fire those first five rounds and load and fire ten more rounds. This drill trained the British soldier to be able to fire his rifle rapidly while remaining accurate, as skill necessary on the battlefield.
The nature of the British primary service rifle also lent itself to this rapid fire technique. Most service rifles of the time period functioned with internal magazines (as opposed to having a magazine which detaches from the weapon, such as the modern M4 that the US army uses, where you once you have expended your rounds, you eject the magazine and insert a new one). In a weapon with an internal magazine, you insert your rounds directly into the chamber of the weapon and push them down into the magazine (which is built into the rifle and is not removed). Therefore, once you have expended your rounds, you must take the new bullets and insert them into the rifle. This can be a much slower process than simply inserting a fresh magazine. The main way militaries of the time sped this process up was by having the bullets pre-loaded onto "stripper clips" Which were thin striplike clasps which held 5 bullets in one row. So a soldier would take the stripper clip, position it above the open chamber of this rifle and push down, inserting all five rounds into the chamber at once, instead of one bullet at a time.
Most nations' service rifles had an internal magazine capacity of 5 bullets. For example: The 4 main German rifles: Gewehr 1888, Mauser Models 1871 and 1884, and Gewehr 1898 had 5, 8, 8, and 5 round magazines respectively. The British Lee-Enfield rifle (of where there were multiple different models used during the war), however, had a 10 round magazine, which enabled the British soldier to fire more rounds before having to reload. In a battle, compounded by hundreds or thousands of soldiers, had the effect of greatly increasing the rate of fire of the British army.
The term "mad-minute" is still in use to this day. In the US army, it is a slang term given to the period of time during an ambush, after the ambushing unit has initiated the ambush, where the ambushers fire continuously at the ambushed unit. Once the leader of the ambush calls a cease-fire, the ambushers will wait for a short period of time, and if movement is seen within the remains of the ambushed unit, the ambushers will conduct another "mad-minute".
30:03 the soldiers remark about being made to shave while on the front line. This is still a requirement today. The idea behind maintaining grooming standards while in combat is twofold. First: it is a forcing function for soldiers to maintain (or at least attempt to maintain) a healthy standard of living. Soldiers should shave, wash themselves, brush their teeth not in order to have nice breath or smell nice, but to keep themselves healthy. Not brushing ones teeth can lead to cavities, which while they might seem trivial in the life and death situation of combat, will nonetheless end up causing significant pain to the soldier in question, degrading his ability to fight and stay focused. It could also lead to his being removed from the field for medical attention. While shaving may not lead to cavities, it is among the list of common daily ablutions that will (hopefully) force a person to maintain some level of personal cleanliness. Second: it is part of enforcing discipline in the lives of soldiers. When I say "discipline" I'm not referring to the blind loyalty regardless of sound judgement type of discipline. I'm referring to basic soldier discipline. Completing required tasks is a vital part of warfare, and lack of discipline gets people killed. Falling asleep on guard duty, not cleaning your weapon because you're tired, not checking your subordinates' gear before you go out on patrol, not reporting that you heard some movement a few yards away. All of these are examples of lack of discipline. And though some of these may seem big and obvious, altogether different than shaving, they all fall into a spectrum of discipline. Enforcing grooming discipline (while in and of itself is not going to affect the safety of you or your unit) is part of enforcing overall military discipline which reinforces important steps and daily tasks that are vital to keeping yourself and your comrades safe.
37:40 the soldiers talk about the use of gas. The 4 main types of German chemical weapons were (based on the German color coding system developed during the war) Yellow Cross, White Cross, Green Cross and Blue Cross.
White Cross shells contained general tear gases, which irritated the eyes and lungs with minimal serious long term affects.
Yellow Cross shells contained Mustard Gas, which was more sever than the tear gases and caused chemical burns upon contact and serious inflammation of the eyes leading to temporary blindness. The fatality rate of soldiers exposed to Mustard Gas was only 2-3%, but those exposed were incapacitated and generally took up to 10 days to recover. So although it was not usually fatal nor were its affects usually permanent, Mustard Gas was nonetheless incredibly effective in that it kept all those exposed incapacitated for two weeks.
Green Cross shells contained pulmonary agents such as chlorine, phosgene and diphosgene, which seriously irritated the lungs and were far more lethal than Yellow Cross. 85% of the 91,000 gas deaths during the war were a result of phosgene and diphosgene.
Blue Cross shells contained Chloropicrin, diphenylchlorarsine and diphenylaminechlorarsine which severely irritated the respiratory system. Most of these were not actually gases, but rather fine dust particles, and were able to bypass the Entente gas masks. It was frequent tactic for these to be used in conjunction with one of the other gas types to cause the soldiers to remove their masks as a result of the irritant and then be further affected by the chemicals which couldn't penetrate the masks' filters. Fortunately for the Entente soldiers, the explosive charge within the Blue Cross shells meant to disperse the chemicals usually proved unable to disperse the dust particles far enough to cause a large area of affect, leading the Blue Cross shells to only be effective in the immediate area of the impact.
42:00 when the soldiers are discussing the trench raid. They refer repeatedly to throwing "bombs". They are referring to Number 5 Hand Grenade issued by the British Army during the war. Called the "Mills Bomb" after its designer: William Mills. It had the distinctive "pineapple" shape found in the WWII/Korea/Vietnam era American hand grenade, which was influenced by the British Mills Bomb.
52:30 the soldiers talk about training while at the front. This was a common occurrence and still happens in deployed units to this day. Basic soldiers skills and tasks need to be practiced constantly to ensure they do not fade. Just because soldiers are at the front does not mean they are putting into practice all of the skills they must know. For example a soldier may never been in the situation to use his bayonet, despite having been in multiple battles. Just because he hasn't had to use it yet does not mean he will not need to use it, and if he isn't practicing it, that skill is degrading over time. Additionally, training during time away from the front keeps soldiers busy and prevents them from dwelling on the horrors that they have just seen. But mainly it is done to keep soldiers sharp and prepared for combat, as combat skills need to be practiced just like any other skill.
Finally, I just want to make a point about the way the First World War on the Western Front was fought. It wasn't discussed in the film, but I think it is likely that it will come up in the discussion. There is a general cultural understanding the the First World War was fought with antiquated tactics by old, out of touch generals who did not care about their troops, and that trench warfare and massive assaults were wasteful, ineffective and unnecessary. This is an incorrect analysis of why the war was fought the way it was.
The First World war on the Western Front was fought the only way it could have been fought given the constraints of technology and terrain, to say otherwise is a fallacy. I specify the Western front because the nature of the war changed depending on the theater. The War on the Eastern front did not look like that of the Western Front, the war in the Middle East did not look like either the Western or Eastern Front, the Mediterranean and African Theaters did not look like any of the others.
The Western Front is characterized by trench warfare, massive assaults involving thousands of infantrymen advancing over open ground, enormous casualty rates and incredibly small successes in relation to lives spent and resources expended. This is all true, yet it all happened for a reason, and those reasons were not hubris, stupidity, age, callousness or lack of ingenuity.
The fact is that the Western front saw the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops. Over the course of the war the Entente powers brought roughly 15,900,000 troops to the Western Front and the Central powers brought roughly 13,250,000. These troops were arrayed across a front of roughly 420 miles. When you bring that much manpower to bear, across a frontage so small, your ability to defeat the enemy by maneuver (moving ships, aircraft, or land forces to a position of advantage over the enemy) is severely limited, almost completely negated. You can't flank the enemy because to the left and right of the enemy is more enemy, and the enemy can't flank you for the same reason. Certainly it was often possible for small units of infantry to bypass enemy positions and flank others. But only at the platoon or company level (were talking, at the time, roughly 100 or less soldiers). At the scale of formations that existed during WWI, what is that 100 or less unit of soldiers going to do after they have flanked the enemy? Attack an enemy force that will undoubtedly vastly outnumber them? And how will that flanking force communicate with its higher headquarters after it has left friendly lines? Radios at the time were large, unwieldy and unreliable. Units below Battalion (we're talking now 500-800 soldiers) level didn't have radios. So this flanking unit is now vastly outnumbered and has no way to communicate or coordinate with its higher headquarters. It's not going to be very effective with whatever it does.
Now, you might argue that there was much maneuver during WWII and they had large armies then as well. But the armies during WWII were far more mobile, self sufficient and had vastly superior communications technology than those during WWI. Armies during WWI were composed mainly of infantry and artillery units, with some cavalry. These infantry and artillery units were reliant upon constant and efficient supply lines to keep them supplied with ammunition and food. The only constant and efficient way to transport large amounts of supplies at the time was by rail. So large formations are forced to stick to areas of the country which have accessible rail lines. And as we've established, you can only affect the enemy with large formations.
Additionally, communication is absolutely vital in war. And the most widely available and reliable way to communicate is wired telegraph. Therefore, Battalion and larger (500 and up) units are reliant upon being able to keep telegraph contact with their higher headquarters or else they will not be able to communicate with anyone, will not know what is going on around them, will not be able to report to their higher headquarters and will not be able to receive orders in a timely manner.
So, you can't flank the enemy, you must stick close to railways, and you can't get too far away from your higher headquarters because you have to maintain telegraph contact with them in order to receive orders/intelligence and send back reports and intelligence you have gathered. You can't move fast since unless your on a train there aren't enough motor vehicles to transport your infantry and you artillery is being pulled by horses.
Both the Entente and the Central powers have large amounts of artillery and machine guns because militaries have been technologically advancing during the previous decades. The only way to defend yourself against indirect (artillery) and direct (rifles, machine guns) fires is to build fortifications, thus the use of trenches. (Even now in the 21st century when we are conducting defensive operations we dig fighting positions and fill sandbags. The only reason we don't dig trenches today is because armies aren't as large as they were in the 1st world war, so we don't need to dig a whole trench. But they definitely dug trenches in the Second World War, they dug them in the Korean War, and at large scale defensive positions they dug them in the Vietnam war.)
So you now have two very massive armies, with large amounts of infantry and artillery, dug in to defensive positions (because that's the smart thing to do). You can't flank your enemy, you don't have effective tanks like you do in later wars. You don't have precision artillery and you don't have aircraft of effectively pin-point bombing enemy positions. But your politicians have declared a war and they are telling you you have to make some headway against the enemy. What are your options? There's really only one, you have to attack the enemy head on. So you make the best you can out of a bad situation. You mass your artillery to soften the enemy before you send your infantry in. They did this. You try to use chemical weapons to defeat some enemy before you send your infantry in. They did this. You try to prevent the enemy from seeing your infantry as they advance across no mans land. They did this (by developing the technique of rolling barrages, where they would fire artillery in front of their infantry as they advanced, close enough that the explosions would mask the infantry but far enough that the infantry wouldn't be harmed). Later on, after aircraft have begun to become more applicable to warfare you send fighters to strafe the enemy and send bombers to bomb them. They did this. You have your engineers dig tunnels underneath the enemy and set explosive charges to destroy sections of their trench and kill their infantry before your infantry have to advance. They did this. You do everything in your power with the technology and resources you have at your disposal to protect your infantry so they can defeat the enemy when you reach them. They did this. But at the end of the day, you're not going to be able to defeat the enemy unless you get your infantry into the enemy's trenches. That's the only way. And the enemy knows this, so they're going to put out barbed wire, they're going to fire their own artillery at you, their infantry are dug in and most are going to survive your bombardment, and they're going to have machine gun positions dug in to fire at your infantry. Because that's what they can do given the technology and resources at their disposal.
So now you have conducted your assault, you've seized the front of the enemies lines. Perhaps you even pushed a half mile into the enemy territory. The best thing to do, the thing that would allow you to make real strategic gains and change the course of the war, would be to continue pushing into the enemy's support area: capture or destroy their supplies and trains and communications centers. But the only way to get there is to walk. No trucks could cross no-mans-land until a road has been built. Your tanks (if you have any) are almost as slow as walking, and they are very vulnerable without infantry support so you'll have to bring the infantry anyway, besides, they're now low on fuel, and the only way to refuel them is to bring fuel across no man's land (well, you'll have to carry that fuel because a truck can't make it across there until that road is built). The troops that have made the assault are exhausted and almost out of ammunition, so they can't continue the push. So you'll need to bring more troops across no man's land to keep pushing. But wait, the enemy knows your attack has been successful, and they know you're going to want to keep pushing. So to stop you, they are going to counter attack. So those fresh troops you're bringing across can't keep attacking, they have to stay and defend the captured ground, because again, those troops that made the attack are exhausted and low on ammunition.
So now all your effort has to shift to defending the half-mile deep portion of ground you've captured, because if the enemy retakes it, you'll have wasted those hundreds (maybe thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands) men you used just to take that half mile. You reinforce that half mile, but now you have to dig new trenches. You have to build those roads through the previous no man's land up to your new lines, you have to extend or repair the railroad network up to your new support area, because you have to move all of that too so it's close enough to your new front line that you can effectively support it.
In fact, WWI is really a war of innovation. It is during WWI that air forces developed, that the concept of the bomber and fighter diverged. It is during WWI that sophisticated artillery tactics developed. It is during WWI that coordination between naval gunfire and land forces became refined. It is during WWI that the radio becomes more widespread. It is during WWI that machine gun tactics became an art. It is during WWI that the modern concept of "combined arms maneuver warfare" (the modern way of fighting war) came of age. The history of WWI is chock full of inattentiveness and invention.
The story of WWI is not one of military stupidity or callousness. There were no more stupid mistakes or oversights in WWI than there are in any war. The story of WWI is one of a tragic, perfect storm. Where a global conflict coincided with a point in time when technology was beginning to grow exponentially but had not developed enough in key areas to enable militaries to achieve success without expending vast amounts of lives and resources.
Interesting Facts? A space to provide info that isn't historical in context, such as trivia about the making of the film. This should be related to the film or the topic it's covering. (Optional)
Peter Jackson is a big fan of WWI aviation and has collected numerous vintage WWI fighter planes. He founded The Vintage Aviator, a subsidiary of his movie production company, Wingnut Films. "Our primary aim is to build WW1 aircraft, engines and propellers to the same exacting standards they were originally made over 90 years ago." “Our customers are generally private collectors and museums.”
He also founded Wingnut Wings, a scale plastic model company solely devoted to 1/32 scale WWI aircraft and pilots. It produced the finest WWI aircraft scale models on the market.
[Both companies have suspended operations officially citing Covid-19 as the cause.]
"Jackson’s paternal grandfather fought on the Western Front and was wounded by a German machine-gunner on the first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was taken back to a hospital in England, where he recovered. In his youth, Jackson became obsessed with the Great War and read widely on the subject." - Review by Taylor Downing
While the whole film is depicting men at war, there is one scene in particular that actually shows combat footage of an infantry charge. Men going "over the top." It looks flat, and not impressive compared to what we've come to expect from the set piece battle in action films (compare this to the climactic "trench run" scene in 1917.) [I believe this is footage from one of the Battles of the Somme.]
The making of documentary is a terrific source from both the historical and movie-making aspect. I cannot encourage the team to watch it as well as the movie itself. They really complement each other.
The blu ray and theatrical releases of the movie included a behind the scenes featurette hosted by Peter Jackson covering the extensive processes involved in bringing new life to the archive footage the film is based around. What follows is a bulleted list of key points given in the video but I would highly suggest all hosts to view it as it feels like it's required reading in understanding the why behind this important film.
Thank you for the hard work you put into this podcast I'm glad to be a part of it!
Behind the scenes featurette
Most of the footage in the archives were duplicates of the original and had heavy damage, wear after 100 years. The sprocket holes were warped, causing an up and down jittering to the film.
Determining the speed the film should be played at was difficult given they were hand operated cameras. The frames per second were all over the place, they could check find the correct speed by changing the fps until it felt like it matched.
They had 100 hours of film to start with.
The original footage was so wide and the restoration was so good they were able to create camera movement within the frame by zooming and panning around.
Most of the soldiers of the time weren’t used to seeing a movie camera so they’re all focusing on the camera awkwardly.
Some of the film wasn’t exposed well and was extremely black or bright. Using their software they were able to correct them back to their original shade.
Having looked at all the faces in the footage, they decided the stories of the people needed to be the focus of the story.
The Imperial War Museum and the BBC in the 60 and 70s had interviewed tons of veterans of the war. They collected all the audio and catalogued all 600 hours of it.
They narrowed down the 600 hours of audio to 100 and the 100 hours of video to about 6.
They found the day to day life stuff the most interesting rather than the grandiose strategy of it all.
The whole story was intended to be the story of the average English soldier’s experience on the Western front.
They had no footage of real close up combat so instead they would smash cut from a living face to a body on the ground.
To fill in the gaps they used Peter Jackson’s collection of The War Illustrated magazine full of pencil sketches of the war that illustrators had made during the war enabling them to use them as a sort of storyboard presentation of combat.
The people in the war experienced it in color so they felt that they should colorize the movie, especially as the cameramen on the western front would certainly have used color film if they had it available at the time.
The American company Stereo D did the colorization of the old black and white film. They came down to New Zealand to look at Jackson’s uniform collection to photograph as reference. Surprisingly the hardest thing to colorize was the grass.
Peter Jackson went out to the battle locations and took thousands of photos to use as reference.
A few shots in the movie of the Lancashire Fusiliers huddled in a sunken road waiting to attack. Some of them look terribly scared and Jackson was able to find that specific location. Most of those men were about to die in that attack.
Several foley artists were hard at work using all the old equipment making all the noises in the scene from scratch as there was no real original audio to work with. They shovelled and walked in mud, worked bolts and even recorded the functioning of an 18 pounder artillery gun and 6 inch howitzers that Jackson owns (“like you do”).
Being shelled and artillery was such an important part of the infantry experience that they wanted to capture that as accurately as they could without going to a sound bank and pulling out bangs and whistles. They were able to record live firing from the NZ Army to get all the firing, whistling, and impacts to use in the film.
They also needed to figure out what the soldiers were saying and record voices for them just like the foley work. They hired forensic lip readers who were able to help decipher what the soldiers were saying so voice actors could fill in the gaps. From there they’d look at what regiment they were in, what part of the UK they were from, and get actors from those parts of the country to voice the lines. Many of the voice actors were soldiers in the British army right now.
In one scene there’s an officer reading out of a sheet of paper to his men all lined up that they had trouble figuring out what he was saying. After figuring out what regiment it was, they found the exact speech he was reading the soldiers before the battle of the Somme.
Jackson didn’t want the movie to feel too modern so he wanted to find something from the period to put in. A small band threw in little bits of sound, music, instrument noises to punch up the score a little bit.
At the credits they needed something to add in so they used the war song Mademoiselles From Armentiers. They needed some real British voices without NZ people so they asked for some singing voices from the British High Commision (similar to an embassy) to come down and they got 6 or 7 guys to sing for a day or so for the movie.
They had tons of amazing footage from the Air Corps, the Navy, the women in the home front, the nursing corps, drivers, etc but ultimately decided that focusing on one aspect would tell a better story. Women’s contribution to the war was another story they excluded, along with the colonial soldier and all the other countries who fought in the war.
The individual experiences were so similar that Jackson reckons that most of the infantry involved would probably have been more or less the same from what we see in the film.
Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh had family in the war. Jackson’s grandfather was severely wounded, ultimately dying at 50. Nearly his entire battalion was killed in The Somme. He met Jackson’s grandmother while in hospital so Jackson owes his existence in part to the war.
Jackson implores the viewers to ask if they had any family involved in the war (I did! My mother’s grandfather was an artilleryman with the AEF. It was apparently very taxing on him and he never spoke of it to his family.)
If you got anything out of this research, PLEASE ask viewers to think about their family’s history with the war and reflect on how it may have shaped their own lives as well as the history of the entire world.
Works Cited? Please list your references
Jay Winter & Blaine Baggett. The Great War. 1996. Penguin Studio
David Fromkin. Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?. August, 2005. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group,
Wikipedia articles: Battle of Passchendaele, Second Battle of Ypres, Battle of Cambrai, Battle of Amiens, Chemical weapons in World War I, Treaty of London (1839), Lee–Enfield.
Combat and The Colonies: The role of race in World War I. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/video/combat-and-colonies-role-race-world-war-i
Creese, Miachel. Swords Trembling in Their Scabbards. The Changing status of Indian officers in the Indian Army, 1757-1947. pp. 83, 139–140. ISBN 9-781909-9828-19.
Das, S. (2013, December 09). Experiences of Colonial Troops. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/colonial-troops#
Downing, T. (2019, January 09). They Shall Not Grow Old. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://www.military-history.org/articles/they-shall-not-grow-old.htm
Goldblatt, C. (2020, July 17). Bakary diallo's Force-Bonté (1926): A Complicit critique of French humanity. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/760279
Lunn, J. (2008). Memoirs of the maelstrom: A Senegalese oral history of the First World War. Portsmouth (N.H.): Heinemann.
Making of Documentary
Imperial War Museum https://www.iwm.org.uk/
Houghton, Steve. The British Sniper: a Century of Evolution. Swift and Bold Publishing, 2018.
McCollum, Ian. Chassepot to Famas: French Military Rifles 1866-2016. Headstamp Publishing, 2019.
McNab, Chris, et al. The Flamethrower. Osprey Military, 2015.
Pegler, Martin. The Lee-Enfield Rifle: (Wpn:17) (Weapon). Osprey, 2012.
Pegler, Martin, and Peter Dennis. Sniper Rifles: From the 19th to the 21st Century. Osprey Publishing, 2011.
Robbins, Michael W., and Hew Strachan. Lest We Forget: the Great War: World War I Prints from the Pritzker Military Museum & Library. Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 2018.
1918: A Very British Victory - Peter Hart
The Guns of August: Barbara Tuchman
The Great War And Modern Memory: Paul Fussell
Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography - Robert Graves
Infantry Attacks: Erwin Rommel
University of Kansas Media Center: http://www.kumc.edu/wwi/medicine/gas-in-the-great-war.html