The Western Front: The Last Great Offensives Review

In the last years of the nineteen century, a young boy, a toddler really, called Henry Allingham sat on the knee of a man who fought at the Battle of Waterloo. Henry went on to become a mechanic in the Royal Naval Air Services (which later merged with the Royal Flying Corps to become the Royal Air Force) and served at the Battle of Jutland. On 6 June 2007, Henry celebrated his one hundred and eleventh birthday. He is as I write this ten days later the oldest living man in Europe and third in the world and the most elderly of a two-digit number of surviving World War One Veterans. Two lifetimes – admittedly unusually long ones – link us to a conflict which seems unimaginably past. Earlier this year, Henry Allingham spoke to schoolchildren about his experiences. Who knows which of them will still be around a century from now?

World War One is slowly slipping out of living memory. As I write, twenty-seven verified veterans (all but one men) are still alive. The youngest of them has passed his hundred and fifth birthday. A list is kept here and given the nature of what it lists, it’s, sadly, regularly updated by being shortened. Henry Allingham is most elderly of three veterans living in the UK. Two years and eleven days younger is Harry Patch – this review is posted on his hundred and ninth birthday – the last “Tommy” to have fought on the Western Front. Harry served as a private at Passchendaele.

The Western Front: The Last Great Approaches comprises two documentaries made for Canadian television. Given that they have opening credits sequences in common, they make up part of a presumably longer series called Far From Home: Canada and the Great War. The main feature on this disc is called “The Last 100 Days”. Given the programme’s source, its emphasis is on the Canadian soldiers’ story. Needless to say, many of the experiences were common to soldiers of all nationalities. Using archive footage, still photographs, a narrator and voiceovers reading contemporary accounts and diary entries, it tells the story of the Third Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele as it is often better known.

Passchendaele, now called Passendale, is a small village close to the town of Ypres in Belgium. Fighting alongside the British were Canadians, South Africans and ANZACs (Australians and New Zealanders). The intention was to capture Passchendaele and from there advance to the Belgian coast and capture German submarine bases. The resulting battle has become synonymous with a new type of warfare. The marshly land, churned up by bombardments, soon became mud when it rained. Tanks bogged down and men drowned while they weren’t being mown down by German machine guns in concrete “pillboxes”. After three months, when the Canadians finally took Passchendaele, some three quarters of a million men had died, on both sides.

However, the German offensive in March 1918 regained all the ground that had been so expensively, bloodily gained, in some three days. But as supply lines were failing, the Germans were unable to consolidate their gains, and the Allies led a counteroffensive in August, beginning with the Battle of Amiens, taking in the assault on the Drocourt-Queant Line and ending with the recapture of Mons in November 1918.

This documentary seems intended as part of a series, as it assumes some knowledge of the background and previous history of the Great War. So some brushing up on the subject may be in order. That said, it’s a well put together documentary that has plenty of material for experts in the field as well as newcomers, and anyone who wants to understand what extraordinary sacrifices were made by the generation that included Henry Allingham, Harry Patch and the twenty-five others, at a point where living memory is slowly but inexorably slipping away into history.

The extra on this disc is another documentary from the same series, “Sam’s Army”. This centres on Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, Sir Samuel Hughes. Hughes had fought himself in the Second Boer War in 1899, before being elected to the Canadian Parliament in 1911. The then Prime Minister, Robert Borden, entrusted him with the task of recruiting a Canadian army. Hughes is however a somewhat controversial figure: he was disliked by French Canadians, who did not see why they had to fight a war in aid of British interests. Some of his decisions were wrong-headed: the rifle he favoured, the Canadian-made Ross, was unsuitable for trench warfare, and was soon replaced by the British-made Lee-Enfield. He also fell out with General Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front and a war hero. Hughes was also given to favouring his friends, for which he was dismissed from his post in 1916. He died in 1921 at the age of sixty-eight.

This DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. “The Last 100 Days” (90:33) is the main feature accessible from the menu and has its own chapter index, with sixteen chapter stops. Click on “Bonus Programme” and you get “Sam’s Army” (90:29), which although it is also chaptered (fifteen of them) has no separate index.

Given that this is a documentary made for pre-widescreen TV, and given that a large amount of it consists of stills and old footage, it’s no surprise that it is in a ratio of 4:3, which is as it should be. Picture quality is fine, given the original materials: some of the archive footage shows damage, flicker and lack of contrast. Most of the material is black and white: some maps, painting reproductions and contemporary footage of the battlegrounds and cemeteries is in colour. The soundtrack comprises voiceovers, music and some sound effects: virtually all monophonic, though there is some slight separation in some of the effects, such as rainfall early on. Not something you’d show off your large screen and sound system with, but it does the job it’s intended to.

If you don’t count “Sam’s Army”, which is a second feature really, there are no extras on this disc.

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