A Guide to the Great War

The Great War is news. Book titles dealing with the conflict appear weekly, all offering new insights or claiming to have discovered hidden or forgotten aspects of the War. Joan Littlewood’s ground breaking musical is to be revived at The Theatre Royal Stratford. There are new television series being aired and the Nation’s museums and cultural organisations are gearing up for four years of commemoration. So just how do you engage with this wave of events and publications? If you want to become informed and engaged, here are a few ideas.

Something to Read

How Europe Went To War In 1914 by Christopher Clark

If you want to understand just how it was that this terrible war came about, you can do no better than read Christopher Clark’s quite brilliant book. His study is a meticulously researched and stylishly written overview of the complex diplomatic, political and dynastic rivalries that came to a head with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

Forgotten Victory
The First World War: Myths and Realities by Gary Sheffield

This study is the perfect antidote to the ‘Tragic Tommy’ view of the War. Sheffield, one of Britain’s leading military historians takes a forensic look at the causes, course and consequences of the War, challenging the ‘lions led by donkeys’ stereotype.

The Long Shadow
The Great War and the 20th Century by David Reynolds

This recently published study is a highly readable work detailing the impact of The Great War on 20th Century society. Reynolds takes a look at the depiction and remembrance of war and analyses just how this shapes our historical understanding. It is timely, for example, to take a look at Oh What a Lovely War and the works of the war poets in context, particularly given the Education Secretary’s recent statements in the press about left wing bias in the representation of The Great War.

Old Soldiers Never Die
by Frank Richards DCM MM

Why this wonderful book has not been picked up by a major publisher I can’t imagine. Written by a private in the 1930s, it is a thoroughly accessible and readable account of the war from an enlisted man’s perspective. This really is the voice of the trench soldier. Essential reading.

Lest We Forget
Forgotten Voices from 1914-1945

This is a decidedly readable collection of memories from Max Arthur’s highly-acclaimed Forgotten Voices series. This series of books contain very illuminating first-hand recollections of historical events, with an emphasis on the impact of conflict on the lives of ordinary people. Fourth Former, Amber Rose, chose the extract dealing with the experiences of Great War Munitions Worker, Mrs Hall, for her podcast.

Lots more ideas and links from the downloadable Chatterbooks WW1 Activity Pack.

Something to See

Oh What A Lovely War!
At the Theatre Royal Stratford East

Joan Littlewood’s play is one of the most important produced in post-war Britain. It tells a story of the Great War, using the unlikely vehicle of an Edwardian end of pier seaside show to drive the narrative. Music, diaries, letters and speeches from the period add colour and authenticity to the production.

Michael Gove doesn’t like it (which some would see as a good reason to see it) because of its overtly pacifist views and many would now question whether common soldiers would have identified with the play’s message. This is nonetheless an important piece of the historical jigsaw that makes up our understanding of the events of 1914-18. I watched the film of the play at the cinema in Edgware when it came out and seeing it made me want to know more about the conflict. It started a life-long passion for this period of history.

The play runs from February 1 to March 15.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Based on Eric Maria Remarques’ novel of the same name, this Oscar winning movie by Lewis Milestone is a wonderful introduction to The Great War on screen. Once you look past the slightly clunky production values of the 1930s film, you soon become engaged with the story of idealistic teenager Paul Baumer, who is encouraged to join the German Army by his teacher. The story is one of disillusionment, comradeship, squalor and fear. Baumer’s inability to engage with his friends and family whilst on leave is also a major theme. The young soldier feels tricked by his elders and is disgusted by the triumphalist propaganda he encounters at home. It is not difficult to see why Hitler banned both the novel and the film. There are two particularly haunting scenes, which are likely to stay with you. One in which Paul shares a shell hole with a dying French soldier and the other, the final frames of the story, which provide one of the most powerful endings of any war film.

Oh! What A Lovely War

Richard Attenborough’s film treatment of Oh What a Lovely War is glossy and certainly star-studded, with the cast list reading like a Who’s Who of the British theatre of the Sixties. As with ‘All Quiet’, there is a strong pacifist message. To maintain balance, I would suggest watching after having read Gary Sheffield’s book. One of the great joys of the film however is the music, songs that were sung by the men at the front. This feature owes much to the work of BBC producer Charles Chilton, whose radio programme The Long, Long Trail was such a powerful influence on Joan Littlewood and her team. The film and play remind us that there a many different ways to engage with the past. Here the songs of the trenches create a powerful bridge, as do letters and diaries used in the film.


Gallipoli is a real curio. Beautifully filmed, with great music, it is a highly partial view of the events surrounding the Anglo-French attempt to open a new front against the Turks. The story of Gallipoli has become a touchstone for Australian nationalists, in part because of the contemporary letters from Australian journalist Keith Murdoch, exposing the inadequacies of British command. The film is of real interest because it was produced by Robert Stigwood and Murdoch’s son, the now more famous Rupert. Despite its realistic feel, the film contains many factual inaccuracies, including the old chestnut that the British were sipping tea on the beach while brave Australians and New Zealanders were mown down. Despite this, there were indeed serious issues with the British command and Keith Murdoch’s letters did play their part in the removal of senior British officers and the cessation of the campaign.

My Boy Jack

This is the poignant story of the service and death of Rudyard Kipling’s son Jack. The film is based on David Haig’s 1997 play, with Haig taking the role of Rudyard Kipling on screen. Jack is played by Daniel Radcliffe. The film looks at the relationship between Kipling and his son and Kipling Junior’s attempts to secure a commission in the Army in spite of his very poor eyesight. The acting is wonderful and the final sequences in particular illuminate the issues of loss, guilt and remembrance in a powerful and engaging way.

Aces High

This film is a remake of RC Sheriff’s play and film, Journey’s End. This version, starring Malcolm McDowell as Gresham (Stanhope) and Peter Firth as Croft (Raleigh) is set in a Royal Flying Corps base in France, the action taking place over one week. Croft is a young and inexperienced pilot who hero worships his erstwhile Head of House Gresham. He manages to join Gresham’s squadron, much to the dismay of the older man, who does not want the responsibility of looking after young Croft. A further complication is that Croft’s sister is Gresham’s girlfriend. The film’s handling of life in the RFC has a realistic feel and the pre-CGI flying sequences certainly engage the viewer. Watching the film would be an ideal way to prepare for a visit to the RAF Museum at Hendon.

The Great War in Portraits - National Portrait Gallery

Until 15th June, 2014

This exhibition of portraiture from 1914-18 opened to critical acclaim in February. In a brilliantly curated collection of works you will be able to engage with the war through sculpture (Jacob Epstein’s iconic Rock Drill torso is here), painting and photography. Many of the greatest British war artists are represented, with works by Eric Kennington, William Orpen and Christopher Nevinson on show. You will also be able to see other great pieces such as Ludwig Kirchner’s Self-portrait as a Soldier. The music of Oh What a Lovely War and the words of Frank Richards offer us a soundtrack of the Great War, this exhibition complements them perfectly, providing a visual connection that breathes life into our understanding of the conflict.

Somewhere to Go

There are hundreds of events planned for the next 4 years. The National Trust has a number which aim to bring their properties alive by focusing on people associated with them in The Great War period.

The Imperial War Museum is due to re-open its doors in July with eagerly awaited new displays of Great War artefacts. You could also visit the Ashcroft Gallery and see exhibits relating to Victoria Cross winners of the conflict. My favourite is Captain Noel Chavasse, the doctor who won two VCs in the conflict.

The Royal Air Force Museum is built on the site of Hendon Aerdrome where hundreds of pilots trained during the Great War period. There are many excellent interactive displays and the Museum houses one of the world’s most important collections of vintage aircraft. There are also activities to get engaged with, including Airfix model-making workshops. If you want a thrill, you can even experience a World War One dogfight in a flight simulator.

Contact details:

The National Trust: The Lost Voices of Nostell Priory

Imperial War Museum: New First World War Galleries (from July 1914)

The Royal Air Force Museum, Colindale

The Battlefields of France and Belgium

A day trip to Ypres is certainly a possibility, using Eurostar. If you click on www.millhillatwar.org.uk you will find a work-pack to help you with your visit (you will also be able to see films and a fully searchable database detailing the WW1 service of all Oldmillhillians). There are plenty of battlefield guides available online but I believe that Before Endeavours Fade by Rose Coombs is still hard to beat. It is out of date with regard to visitor centres etc. but as a guide to the Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries it takes some beating. Rose was my mentor many years ago and introduced me to the battlefields in the late 1970s. If you are planning a visit, we use the Hotel Pax or Hotel de Vrede in Diksmuide, Belgium as our bases. Diksmuide is a charming Flemish town with its own preserved trenches (The Trench of Death). It is only a 20 minute drive to Ieper if you are travelling by car.

Something to Hear

The 2014 David Tinker Memorial Lecture
Our Boys: Mill Hill and the War in the Air 1914-1918

Wednesday 21st May 2014

Registrar, Peter McDonough has spent more than 30 years researching various aspects of the Great War, in particular the impact that the war had on participants and their families. In this lecture he will focus on the experiences of aircrew. Taking the extraordinary stories of pilots and observers from Mill Hill School, using original documents, photographs and film, he will compare their experiences with stereotypes from Hollywood, Literature and Television. From Errol Flynn to Captain Flashheart…just how realistic is the portrayal of early aviators? The answers might surprise you.

To reserve tickets email Karen Willetts.

Oh What A Lovely War

BBC Radio 2 - Friday 14th March - 20:00

As Britain and the world sets out to mark the centenary of the start of WW1 in 1914, Radio 2 begins its commemorations with by broadcasting Tony Award winning director Terry Johnson’s new production of Oh What A Lovely War performed at The Theatre Royal Stratford East, the theatre where it was created by Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop half a century ago. The ensemble includes Caroline Quentin and the music is directed by Mike Dixon.

Something to Buy

Princess Mary Tin

For between £20 and £30 you could own one of these little brass tins which were given as Christmas presents to Forces personnel in 1914. They had cards from the Royal Family, cigarettes, tobacco, sweets and even a bullet shaped pencil in them. Tins with all of these go for hundreds of pounds but empty tins are much cheaper. They are a poignant reminder of a conflict that was supposed to be over by Christmas. A little piece of history in your hands. There are always plenty on eBay.

Something to Write

Letter to an Unknown Soldier
WW1 centenary Art Commission

Why not really get involved and write a letter to an unknown soldier of The Great War and at the same time help create an important historical resource? Click here for full details.

Here are some extracts from our selected books. Over the next four years new titles will be added. We would also be interested to hear your ideas for inspiring, informative reads about The Great War.

Forgotten Victory

Was the Battle of the Somme a success – hear what Gary Sheffield has to say.

Old Soldiers Never Die

The real voice of the trenches? Listen to the words of Frank Richards.


Christopher Clarke asks the question: Did Europe’s leaders understand the consequences of their actions in the years leading up to the declaration of war?

The Long Shadow

How did people in the inter-war period view the Great War? An extract from David Reynold’s The Long Shadow.

Lest We Forget

Amber Rose reads from the recollection of Mrs Hall, a worker in a munition factory.

The podcasts are in MP3 format. Click on the title to play them in your browser, or right-click and choose ‘Save Target As…’ or ‘Save Link As…’ to save the files.