They Shall Not Grow Old: A Review

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Well, my bride and I watched They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) last Sunday, and technically it was as magnificent as I had heard.  The expertise applied to make World War I era films look like contemporary colored films was awe-inspiring.  The skillful use of sound with these films allowed us to think that we were seeing a modern broadcast from 1914-1918, if the current broadcast technology had existed back then.  It reminds us powerfully that the men who fought were not merely figures from old, grainy black and white films, but flesh and blood like us going through a great and terrible experience.  The voice over in the film is from World War I veterans, presumably from broadcasts decades ago, or recreated readings from memoirs and/or written interviews.

One thing I very much liked is that the film totally reflected the views of the British soldiers who fought.  No Twenty-First century sensibilities were imposed on these soldiers from a century ago who fought for King and Country at the dawn of the Twentieth century.  The film skillfully takes us through the experience of the soldiers:  recruitment, training, meals, life in the trenches, medical care, etc.  The time allotted to the actual fighting does not dominate the film, as it did not dominate the wartime lives, at least those who survived, of the men who fought.  Battle was obviously the most important element in the lives of the soldiers who were at the front, but few soldiers spent more than a few months in combat, at most, even for the small minority who served throughout the entire War.  At the end of the film, the soldiers are looking for work, some of them missing serving in the Army, for many of the young soldiers the first real job they had held.

At the beginning of the film, some of the Tommies talk about what a life altering experience the War had been for them, and how they would not have missed it for the world, and that is the general sentiment portrayed by most of soldiers at the end of the film.

 

 

To say all this is out of step with popular perceptions today of World War I, a useless war where the soldiers were only pawns, or, at best victims, is to engage in considerable understatement.  My hat is off to Peter Jackson to allow the men five generations removed from our time to have their say.

My only mild criticism of the film is that a viewer will gain no knowledge of the actual campaigns fought by the British Army on the Western Front.  However, this is clearly a result of the film’s firm focus on the perceptions at the time of the front line soldiers.  The fabled Big Picture was for Generals and civilians safely reading newspapers back in Britain.  For the soldiers, the battles all blurred together into small scale fights of attack and defense, where life and death were all that mattered, and for these combatants the Big Picture simply didn’t exist.

 

A truly great film.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

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6 Comments

  1. A truly great film. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

    That’s all I can add too.

    Jackson put in a lot of work to bring back to life men long dead. I hope the effort goes not unnoticed in the halls of Valhalla.

    I would love to see more of this tech and effort utilized to bring to life the other soldiers serving in other parts of the war like Jackson hinted at in his discussion of the making-of.

    The voice over in the film is from World War I veterans, presumably from broadcasts decades ago, or recreated readings from memoirs and/or written interviews.

    That should have also been in the making-of video, they took thousands of hours of interviews from the British archives for the voice overs.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. If Jackson had done nothing else in his career, he would still deserve immortal fame.

  3. “a useless war where the soldiers were only pawns, or, at best victims”
    About the only version I’ve ever heard. I must see this as soon as I can.

  4. While the war was far from “useless,” it can be argued that it was truly unnecessary. Especially since it stemmed from an unnecessary trip by Franz Ferdinand…

    Be that as it may, the soldiers *were* too often victims of horrendous leadership that regarded them as blocks on a map. When British staff officer Sir Launcelot Kiggell saw the Passchendaele battlefield he said:
    “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”
    The learning curve for the Allied generals was, with honorable exceptions, a gentle incline suitable for pedestrians with walkers. And reading about how badly-trained American soldiers were flung into the Meuse-Argonne meatgrinder is infuriating.

  5. My view of the British Army on the Western Front that I wrote on the century anniversary of the first day of the Somme:

    One hundred years ago the British Army suffered the deadliest day in its long history. Sixty thousand casualties on the first day of the 141-day battle of the Somme, twenty thousand of them killed. Britain reeled from the casualties they incurred on the Somme, which would total in excess of half a million men. The German Army however also reeled from the casualties they sustained, the British having commenced the grim, grinding war of attrition that would ultimately cause the German Army to be defeated in 1918.

    In World War I the British managed the considerable feat of raising a mass army for the first time in their history, bringing rapidly online new technology of which tanks and fighter planes and bombers were only three examples, and slugging it out with the finest army on Earth. Mistakes were not uncommon in this process, sometimes grave ones, but they learned all the time and by the end of the War had a military force that was able to be the spearhead of the Hundred Days Offensive that broke the German Army in 1918.

    I think Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief on the Western Front from 1915-1918, has been badly maligned. Portrayed as a blundering cavalry officer, he was actually an enthusiast for new technology, especially tanks. Considered a completely callous butcher he was anything but. Early in the War his staff had to stop him from visiting hospitals because the sight of wounded and dying British soldiers was too much for him emotionally. When a painter came to his headquarters to do an official portrait of him, he told him to paint the common soldiers instead, saying that they were the ones saving the world and they were dying every day while doing it. He refused to take a viscountcy from the British government after the War, resisting even lobbying from the King, until financial assistance was approved for demobilized soldiers. Without his stand, it is quite possible that the former soldiers would have been left to private charity. He spent the rest of his life helping the men who had served under him and forming the veteran’s organization, the British Legion, of which he was President until his death. When he died at 66 in 1928 endless lines of his veterans filed by his coffin to pay their last respects. British Legion halls almost always had a picture of Haig on the wall.

    Haig never deigned to reply to his critics, but his victory dispatch I think is an eloquent defense of what he and his “contemptible little army”, as the Kaiser referred to the British Army at the beginning of the War, accomplished with their French and American allies. Go here to read it.

  6. Haig’s victory dispatch:

    In this my final Despatch, I think it desirable to comment briefly upon certain general features which concern the whole series of operations carried out under my command. I am urged thereto by the conviction that neither the course of the war itself nor the military lessons to be drawn therefrom can properly be comprehended, unless the long succession of battles commenced on the Somme in 1916 and ended in November of last year on the Sambre are viewed as forming part of one great and continuous engagement.

    To direct attention to any single phase of that stupendous and incessant struggle and seek in it the explanation of our success, to the exclusion or neglect of other phases possibly less striking in their immediate or obvious consequences, is in my opinion to risk the formation of unsound doctrines regarding the character and requirements of modern war.

    If the operations of the past four and half years are regarded as a single continuous campaign, there can be recognised in them the same general features and the same necessary stages which between forces of approximately equal strength have marked all the conclusive battles of history.

    There is in the first instance the preliminary stage of the campaign in which the opposing forces seek to deploy and manoeuvre for position, endeavouring while doing so to gain some early advantage which might be pushed home to quick decision. This phase came to an end in the present war with the creation of continuous trench lines from the Swiss frontier to the sea.

    Battle having been joined, there follows the period of real struggle in which the main forces of the two belligerent armies are pitted against each other in close and costly combat. Each commander seeks to wear down the power of resistance of his opponent and to pin him to his position, while preserving or accumulating in his own hands a powerful reserve force which he can manoeuvre, and, when signs of the enemy becoming morally and physically weakened are observed, deliver the decisive attack.

    The greatest possible pressure against the enemy’s whole front must be maintained, especially when the crisis of the battle approaches. Then every man, horse and gun is required to co-operate, so as to complete the enemy’s overthrow and exploit success.

    In every stage of the wearing-out struggle losses will necessarily be heavy on both sides, for in it the price of victory is paid. If the opposing forces are approximately equal in numbers, in courage, in moral and in equipment, there is no way of avoiding payment of the price or of eliminating this phase of the struggle.

    In former battles this stage of the conflict has rarely lasted more than a few days, and has often been completed in a few hours. When armies of millions are engaged, with the resources of great Empires behind them, it will inevitably be long. It will include violent crises of fighting which, when viewed separately and apart from the general perspective, will appear individually as great indecisive battles. To this stage belong the great engagements of 1916and 1917 which wore down the strength of the German Armies.

    Finally, whether from the superior fighting ability and leadership of one of the belligerents, as the result of greater resources or tenacity, or by reason of higher moral, or from a combination of all these causes, the time will come when the other side will begin to weaken and the climax of the battle is reached.

    Then the commander of the weaker side must choose whether he will break off the engagement , if he can, while there is yet time, or stake on a supreme effort what reserves remain to him. The launching and destruction of Napoleon’s last reserves at Waterloo was a matter of minutes. In this World War the great sortie of the beleaguered German Armies, commenced on March 21, 1918,lasted for four months, yet it represents a corresponding stage in a single colossal battle.

    The breaking down of such a supreme effort will be the signal for the commander of the successful side to develop his greatest strength, and seek to turn to immediate account the loss in material and moral which their failure must inevitably produce among his opponent’s troops.

    In a battle joined and decided in the course of a few days or hours, there is no risk that the lay observer will seek to distinguish the culminating operations by which victory is seized and exploited from the preceding stages by which it has been made possible and determined. If the whole operations of the present war are regarded in correct perspective, the victories of the summer and autumn of 1918 will be seen to be directly dependant upon the two years of stubborn fighting that preceded them.

    The Length of the War

    If the causes which determined the length of the recent contest are examined in the light of the accepted principles of war, it will be seen that the duration of the struggle was governed by and bore a direct relation to certain definite factors which are enumerated below.

    In the first place, we were unprepared for war, or at any rate for a war of such magnitude. We were deficient in both trained men and military material, and, what was more important, had no machinery ready by which either men or material could be produced in anything approaching the requisite quantities. The consequences were twofold.

    Firstly, the necessary machinery had to be improvised hurriedly, and improvisation is never economical and seldom satisfactory. In this case the high-water mark of our fighting strength in infantry was only reached after two and a half years of conflict, by which time heavy casualties had already been incurred. In consequence, the full man-power of the Empire was never developed in the field at any period of the war.

    As regards material, it was not until midsummer 1916 that the artillery situation became even approximately adequate to the conduct of major operations. Throughout the Somme battle the expenditure of artillery ammunition had to be watched with the greatest care. During the battles of 1917, ammunition was plentiful, but the gun situation was a source of constant anxiety. Only in 1918 was it possible to conduct artillery operations independently of any limiting considerations other than that of transport.

    The second consequence of our unpreparedness was that our armies were unable to intervene, either at the outset of the war or until nearly two years had elapsed, in sufficient strength adequately to assist our Allies. The enemy was able to gain a notable initial advantage by establishing himself in Belgium and Northern France, and throughout the early stages of the war was free to concentrate an undue proportion of his effectives against France and Russia.

    The excessive burden thrown upon the gallant Army of France during this period caused them losses the effect of which has been felt all through the war and directly influenced its length. Just as at no time were we as an Empire able to put our full strength into the field, so at no time were the Allies as a whole able completely to develop and obtain the full effect from their greatly superior man-power. What might have been the effect of British intervention on a larger scale in the earlier stages of the war is shown by what was actually achieved by our original Expeditionary Force.

    It is interesting to note that in previous campaigns the side which has been fully prepared for war has almost invariably gained a rapid and complete success over its less well prepared opponent. In 1866 and 1870, Austria and then France were overwhelmed at the outset by means of superior preparation.

    The initial advantage derived therefrom were followed up by such vigorous and ruthless action, regardless of loss, that there was no time to recover from the first stunning blows. The German plan of campaign in the present war was undoubtedly based on similar principles. The margin by which the German onrush in 1914 was stemmed was so narrow, and the subsequent struggle so severe, that the word ‘miraculous’ is hardly too strong a term to describe the recovery and ultimate victory of the Allies.

    A further cause adversely influencing the duration of the war on the Western Front during its later stages, and one following indirectly from that just stated, was the situation in other theatres. The military strength of Russia broke down in 1917 at a critical period when, had she been able to carry out her military engagements, the war might have been shortened by a year.

    At a later date, the military situation in Italy in the autumn of 1917 necessitated the transfer of five British divisions from France to Italy at a time when their presence in France might have had far reaching effects.

    Thirdly, the Allies were handicapped in their task and the war thereby lengthened by the inherent difficulties always associated with the combined action of armies of separate nationalities, differing in speech and temperament, and, not least important, in military organisation, equipment and supply.

    Finally, as indicated in the opening paragraph of this part of my Despatch, the huge numbers of men engaged on either side, whereby a continuous battle front was rapidly established from Switzerland to the sea, outflanking was made impossible and manoeuvre very difficult, necessitated the delivery of frontal attacks.

    This factor, combined with the strength of the defensive under modern conditions, rendered a protracted wearing-out battle unavoidable before the enemy’s power of resistance could be overcome. So long as the opposing forces are at the outset approximately equal in numbers and moral and there are no flanks to turn, a long struggle for supremacy is inevitable.

    The Extent of Our Casualties

    Obviously, the greater the length of a war the higher is likely to be the number of casualties in it on either side. The same causes, therefore, which served to protract the recent struggle are largely responsible for the extent of our casualties. There can be no question that to our general unpreparedness must be attributed the loss of many thousands of brave men whose sacrifice we deeply deplore, while we regard their splendid gallantry and self-devotion with unstinted admiration and gratitude.

    Given, however, the military situation existing in August 1914, our total losses in the war have been no larger than were to be expected. Neither do they compare unfavourably with those of any other of the belligerent nations, so far as figures are available from which comparison can be made.

    The total British casualties in all theatres of war – killed, wounded, missing and prisoners, including native troops – are approximately three millions (3,076,388). Of this total, some two and a half millions (2,568,388) were incurred on the Western Front. The total French losses – killed, missing and prisoners, but exclusive of wounded – have been given as approximately1,831,000.

    If an estimate for wounded is added, the total can scarcely be less than 4,800,000, and of this total it is fair to assume that over four millions were incurred on the Western Front. The published figures for Italy – killed and wounded only, exclusive of prisoners – amounted to 1,400,000 of which practically the whole were incurred in the western theatre of war.

    Figures have also been published for Germany and Austria. The total German casualties-killed, wounded, missing and prisoners – are given at approximately six and a half millions (6,485,000), of which the vastly greater proportion must have been incurred on the Western Front, where the bulk of the German forces were concentrated and the hardest fighting took place.

    In view of the fact, however, that the number of German prisoners is definitely known to be considerably understated, these figures must be accepted with reserve. The losses of Austria-Hungary in killed, missing and prisoners are given as approximately two and three-quarter millions (2,772,000). An estimate of wounded would give us a total of over four and a half millions.

    The extent of our casualties, like the duration of the war, was dependant on certain definite factors which can be stated shortly.

    In the first place, the military situation compelled us, particularly during the first portion of the war, to make great efforts before we had developed our full strength in the field or properly equipped and trained our armies. These efforts were wasteful of men, but in the circumstances they could not be avoided. The only alternative was to do nothing and see our French Allies overwhelmed by the enemy’s superior numbers.

    During the second half of the war, and that part embracing the critical and costly period of the wearing-out battle, the losses previously suffered by our Allies laid upon the British Armies in France an increasing share in the burden of attack. From the opening of the Somme battle in 1916 to the termination of hostilities the British Armies were subjected to a strain of the utmost severity which never ceased, and consequently had little or no opportunity for the rest and training they so greatly needed.

    In addition to these particular considerations, certain general factors peculiar to modern war made for the inflation of losses. The great strength of modern field defences and the power and precision of modern weapons, the multiplication of machine guns, trench mortars, and artillery of all natures, the employment of gas and the rapid development of the aeroplane as a formidable agent of destruction against both men and material, all combined to increase the price to be paid for victory.

    If only for these reasons, no comparisons can usefully be made between the relative losses incurred inthis war and any previous war. There is, however, the further consideration that the issues involved in this stupendous struggle were far greater than those concerned in any other war in recent history. Our existence as Empire and civilisation itself, as it is understood by free Western nations, were at stake. Men fought as they have never fought before in masses.

    Despite our own particular handicaps and the foregoing general considerations, it is satisfactory to note that, as the result of the courage and determination of our troops, and the high level of leadership generally maintained, our losses even in attack over the whole period of the battle compare favourably with those inflicted on our opponents.

    The approximate total of our battle casualties in all arms, and including Overseas troops, from the commencement of the Somme battle in 1916 to the conclusion of the Armistice is 2,140,000. The calculation of German losses is obviously a matter of great difficulty.

    It is estimated, however, that the number of casualties inflicted on the enemy by British troops during the above period exceeds two and a half millions. It is of interest, moreover, in the light of the paragraph next following, that more than half the total casualties incurred by us in the fighting of 1918 were occasioned during the five months March-July, when our armies were on the defensive.

    Why We Attacked Whenever Possible

    Closely connected with the question of casualties is that of the relative values of attack and defence. It is a view often expressed that the attack is more expensive than defence. This is only a half statement of the truth. Unquestionably, unsuccessful attack is generally more expensive than defence, particularly if the attack is pressed home with courage and resolution. On the other hand, attack so pressed home, if skillfully conducted, is rarely unsuccessful, whereas, in its later stages especially, unsuccessful defence is far more costly than attack.

    Moreover, the object of all war is victory, and a purely defensive attitude can never bring about a successful decision, either in a battle or in a campaign. The idea that a war can be won by standing on the defensive and waiting for the enemy to attack is a dangerous fallacy, which owes its inception to the desire to evade the price of victory.

    It is axiom that decisive success in battle can be gained only by a vigorous offensive. The principle here stated had long been recognised as being fundamental, and is based on the universal teaching of military history in all ages. The course of the present war has proved it to be correct.

    To pass for a moment from the general to the particular, and consider in the light of the present war the facts upon which this axiom is based.

    A defensive role sooner orlater brings about a distinct lowering of the moral of the troops, who imagine that the enemy must be the better man, or at least more numerous, better equipped with and better served by artillery and other mechanical aids to victory. Once the mass of the defending infantry become possessed of such ideas, the battle is as good as lost.

    An army fighting on enemy soil, especially if its standard of discipline is high, may maintain a successful defence for a protracted period, in the hope that victory may be gained elsewhere or that the enemy may tire or weaken in his resolution and accept a compromise. The resistance of the German Armies was undoubtedly prolonged in this fashion, but in the end the persistence of our troops had its natural effect.

    Further, a defensive policy involves the loss of the initiative, with all the consequent disadvantages to the defender. The enemy is able to choose at his own convenience the time and place of his attacks. Not being influenced himself by the threat of attack from his opponent, he can afford to take risks, and by greatly weakening his front in some places can concentrate an overwhelming force elsewhere with which to attack.

    The defender, on the other hand, becomes almost entirely ignorant of the dispositions and plans of his opponent, who is thus in a position to effect a surprise. This was clearly exemplified during the fighting of 1918. As long as the enemy was attacking, he obtained fairly full information regarding our dispositions. Captured documents show that, as soon as he was thrown once more on the defensive and the initiative returned to the Allies, he was kept in comparative ignorance of our plans and dispositions. The consequence was that the Allies were able to effect many surprises, both strategic and tactical.

    As a further effect of the loss of the initiative and ignorance of his opponent’s intentions, the defender finds it difficult to avoid a certain dispersal of his forces. Though for a variety of reasons, including the fact that we had lately been on the offensive, we were by no means entirely ignorant of the enemy’s intentions in the spring of 1918, the unavoidable uncertainty resulting froma temporary loss of the initiative did have the effect of preventing a complete concentration of our reserves behind the point of the enemy’s attack.

    An additional reason, peculiar to the circumstances of the present war, which in itself compelled me to refuse to adopt a purely defensive attitude so long as any other was open to me, is found in the geographical position of our armies. For reasons stated by me in my Despatch of July 20, 1918, we could not afford to give much ground on any part of our front. The experience of the war has shown that if the defence is to be maintained successfully, even for a limited time, it must be flexible.

    The End of the War

    If the views set out by me in the preceding paragraphs are accepted, it will be recognised that the war did not follow any unprecedented course, and that its end was neither sudden nor should it have been expected. The rapid collapse of Germany’s military powers in the latter half of 1918 was the logical outcome of the fighting of the previous two years.

    It would not have taken place but for the period of ceaseless attrition which used up the reserves of the German Armies, while the constant and growing pressure of the blockade sapped with more deadly insistence from year to year at the strength and resolution of the German people. It is in the great battles of 1916 and 1917 that we have to seek for the secret of our victoryi n 1918.

    Doubtless, the end might have come sooner had we been able to develop the military resources of our Empire more rapidly and with a higher degree of concentration, or had notthe defection of Russia in 1917 given our enemies a new lease of life.

    So far as the military situation is concerned, in spite of the great accession of strength which Germany received as the result of the defection of Russia, the battles of1916 and 1917 had so far weakened her armies that the effort they made in1918 was insufficient to secure victory. Moreover, the effect of the battles of 1916 and 1917 was not confined to loss of German man-power.

    The moral effects of those battles were enormous, both in the German Army and in Germany. By their means our soldiers established over the German soldier a moral superiority which they held in an ever-increasing degree until the end of the war, even in the difficult days of March and April 1918.

    Churchill criticized Haig severely during the War, but after it, when he was writing his multi-volume history of the War, he altered his opinion considerably:
    “Subsequent study of the war has led me to think a good deal better of Haig than I did at the time. It is absolutely certain there was no one who could have taken his place.”[

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