This year marks 100 years since the end of – ahem – the War To End All Wars. It’s estimated 10 million military personnel died during World War 1, which ran from 1914-1918.
My grandad Bill was injured by shrapnel during the Battle of the Somme on the Western Front, and eventually they had to amputate his leg. When I was little we used to sit on his good knee and bash his jointed metal one, sometimes getting the wrong one.
He never spoke to me about his experiences in the first world war (he was some kind of paramedic, as far as I know), and I never asked, which I’m kicking myself about now (no pun intended). I have no idea if he loathed it, loved it or just stoically endured it, all reactions from old soldiers’ voiceovers in Peter Jackson’s extraordinary new documentary.
The last soldiers from the war are gone, and it’s easy, looking at sepia photographs of young men in funny hats, not to make the connections with young people today – or to think of them as the plucky fallen, composed of 50% bravery, 25% hot tea and 25% cheeky grin.
Jackson’s film is fascinating, moving, arresting, rage-inducing and often funny; a documentary that honours the fighters by showing them as real people rather than archetypes.
It certainly treats them way better than this country did after the end of the war, where returning soldiers seem to have been treated as a dirty little secret – misunderstood and ignored.
Britain’s Imperial War Museum gave Jackson hours of footage from the war that ran from 1914 to 1918, and he and his team have created a work shaped by awe-inspiring craft and dedication. Large chunks of his 100-minute documentary are colourised, which bring the young men and boys terrifyingly close to us. It’s also been neatened up (this is 100 year old footage we’re talking about). I saw They Shall Not Grow Old in 3D, which at times makes it so in-your-face as to be unbearable.
Even more stunning is the audio; Jackson used lip-readers and actors to recreate what the real soldiers were saying in the footage, and hearing the background chatter of young men from 100 years ago in their own words, is astonishing. But colourisation isn’t limited to the living, with footage of bodies in trenches and on the plains, flies buzzing and rats scuttling.
When I say young men, the recruits were meant to be 19 or older. In fact many were younger, some only 15, and went to war with the collusion of the people signing them up, who would often tell them to pop outside and come back in a few minutes, a few years older.
Watching them in their uniforms, smiling shyly at the cameras, is both funny and sad. Most are grinning, some are mucking about, half wanting to be filmed and half embarrassed, like we all were until about a decade ago. Many of them have toothless gaps in the fronts of their mouths, something I rarely see now except on the very young or the very old.
The new recruits were often keen but also often unhealthy, and were built up during training with plain food, lots of tea, early risings and exercise. Along with the camaraderie that developed, it’s easy to see why some soldiers felt so bereft and lost afterwards.
One million British and Commonwealth soldiers died and this film focuses on the men from Britain – the German experience is examined only through the filter of “our” soldiers’ memories. (Most of the footage is of white soldiers though we briefly see black and Asian soldiers marching. Check out Trench Brothers who do arts and outreach work to increase knowledge and understanding of the role that people of colour from Britain and the Commonwealth played during World War 1).
Marching through London, the uniformed men acquire a train of new recruits in coats and flat caps behind them, to be taken down to the signing up office. It’s Pied Piper-like, as if the country can’t wait to ship off its young. The casual cruelty of non-fighters is breathtaking. One man recalls that as a teenager, too young to sign up, he was harangued by local ladies and later found a white feather – a sign of cowardice – dropped in his bag.
The soldiers, recorded decades later, are disarmingly honest about their experiences. Some loved it. It gave many a sense of purpose and belonging, as well as teaching them skills (one points out that he had to learn to do all the things his mum used to do for him). Some hated it. Some didn’t enjoy it but wouldn’t have missed it for the world. What comes across is their commitment, that they were there to do a job.
But as the casualties rose and the sheer futility of war came home to them, they often became disillusioned without being able to do anything about it.
The relationships with German soldiers are interesting. Bavarians were like the British, they say. After a particularly brutal battle (bombs falling as men in kilts advanced slowly, bodies stuck in barbed wire to rot) enemy soldiers help out their captors as they transport the casualties to the medics. (The doctors are incredible, working with little in the way of medical supplies.)
Jackson really brings out the everyday indignities of trench life. Loos are a pole over a ditch, white bottoms perched in a line, and yes people fell in. Feet become blackened with Trench Foot from the mud and damp. No one could wash themselves or their clothes. Lice was rife. You wonder what that first bath was like afterwards.
The weaponry is both more barbaric and more modern than I expected. I had no idea the British had tanks, rolling across no man’s land. Horses, of course, never go out of fashion in wartime. We see the men train in stabbing their opponents with bayonets, and running from gas attacks as the poisonous mist rolls forward. A queue of blinded soldiers shuffles along, their eyes closed or covered in dressings, one hand on the shoulder of the man in front.
They Shall Not Grow Old got a round of applause at the end of my press screening. It’s very real, utterly enthralling and a vital slice of history – that as well as bringing home the human cost, also highlights the humanity of the individuals forced to take part.
Mums and dads of 15 year old boys will want to weep, before steeling themselves for another round of Parenting Teens.
The “war to end all wars” itself seems to end with a few desultory bangs and then a whimper, at the 11th hour on the 11th day on the 11th month of 1918.
Watch the trailer for They Shall Not Grow Old: