DISCUSSIONS of the War to End All Wars usually focus on the trenches that scarred western Europe, but it was almost as global as its sequel. Based on the excellent history of the war written by Hew Strachan, The First World War (Image Entertainment, $34) is stippled with revelations from all parts of the conflict. After frequent airings on the Military Channel, it is finally available as a DVD to buy or rent—and it ranks among the top war documentaries.
Highlights of the 10-episode series include the compelling use of key documents—including letters between the royal cousins whose countries are lunging toward conflict—and incisive quotes from dozens of the war’s players, such as Emperor Franz Josef, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ludendorff. More obscure folks get their moments too, like the British soldier who dryly notes, “I’d rather not be a hero and have plenty to eat.”
The documentary’s compelling you-are-there approach tracks the war’s unprecedented carnage (10 million dead), often pointless military operations, endless political intrigues, brutal economic and propaganda warfare, technological leaps, and endemic racism. The series also points up the conflict’s plentiful historical ironies. Start with Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who champions the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s minorities until he is assassinated by a bungling Serbian revolutionary, which brings on the severe repression that stokes the war.
The series skips none of the war’s surprises, such as the Ottoman Empire’s humiliating defeat of the Allies at Gallipoli and the Siege of Kut. And there are premonitions of the future: With the airplane, truck, and tank, modern warfare dawns, and its tactics are sketched out in the film’s depiction of such battles as Cambrai.
Authoritative and insightful, The First World War boasts amazing film footage and arresting stills. For that alone, it’s well worth watching.
Gene Santoro is a New York–based writer and reviewer.