On Monday 27th January 2014, the first episode of Britain’s Great War will be shown on BBC1 at 9pm. In this 4-part landmark series Jeremy Paxman presents a thought-provoking account of how the First World War affected the lives of the British people – and created what we know as modern Britain.
Dr Annika Mombauer, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, was academic consultant for the OU/BBC co-production.
There had never been a war like it. It was the first ‘total war’ and it blew apart the certainties on which British society rested. Focusing on extraordinary personal stories to illuminate often cataclysmic events, each episode charts a different stage of the war: from initial optimism; to frustration; to the exhausted, poignant celebration of victory.
It was the first war in British history in which men were conscripted to fight, civilians had their homes bombed, and every family feared a knock on the door bringing terrible news. Governments took for themselves powers they would never have imagined possible. Women did the jobs of men and found their lives transformed. It was won, not only by the skills of men in battle, but also by the capacity of the nation to turn itself into a war machine.
Out of the furnace of the most devastating war the world had ever seen, modern Britain was born.
Episode 1: War Comes to Britain (27/1/14)
In this first episode, Jeremy Paxman traces the story of the dramatic early stages of the war: from stunned disbelief to the mass recruitment of volunteer soldiers. Fear of invasion grips the country, Boy Scouts guard bridges, spies are suspected everywhere. Jeremy meets a 105 year old eyewitness to the shelling of Hartlepool, who describes how she thought the Germans had landed.
Episode 2: The War Machine (3/2/14)
Jeremy describes the crisis facing the country as it becomes clear it is fatally unprepared to fight a modern industrial war. Now the whole population is enlisted to turn the country into a war machine: women fill the factories to make bombs and bullets, men are forced to fight at the Front, conscientious objectors are threatened with the firing squad, striking shipbuilders with jail. Even the beer is watered on government orders. Britain is having to learn to do as it is told.
Episode 3: The Darkest Hour (10/2/14)
Jeremy tells the story of how Britain edges close to defeat in the worst conflict it has ever known. Hoarders are put on trial as newspapers expose how the rich dine out on lobsters in Mayfair. Fear of moral corruption prompts the government to police the nation’s bedrooms. A full length documentary film of fighting in the trenches breaks all box office records: but will it push a shocked British public into demanding peace at any price?
Episode 4: At the Eleventh Hour (17/2/14)
Jeremy describes how the country comes to the very brink of defeat in the last year of the war. Grieving parents hold séances to contact their dead sons. Surgeons battle to rebuild the faces of the wounded. Dramatically, the tide of battle turns and exhausted Britons find themselves weeping for joy as the armistice is signed. The nation begins to count the cost of four years of war. There have been some surprising winners as well as losers.
The accompanying booklet The First World War Experienced (authored by Annika Mombauer) which can be requested, free of charge, either online or by calling 0845 271 0016. (Please note, this booklet is only available in the UK)
Discover more about the series and associated activities on OpenLearn at http://www.open.edu/openlearn/greatwar.
Explore the series on the BBC’s website at