War Stories – The Great War as Seen on Television

Ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower of London, one for each British fatality of World War 1. Photo: BBC

Canadians have given more attention to Remembrance Day this year, mostly due to the death of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the Hamilton-based soldier who was killed last month by a lone shooter who also breached security on Parliament Hill. The death of a soldier defending a cenotaph is most definitely an understandable reason to set aside one’s ambivalence and embrace a sense of patriotism, but I had expected that Canada would have made more of an effort to acknowledge the fact that this is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the first world war.

With Britain from the very start, Canada’s contribution included 67,000 dead and 250,000 wounded. Yet there appears to be little mention of the Great War, or the important anniversary, at all this Remembrance Day.

Quite the opposite from the activity in the UK where massive memorials are taking place – over the summer, the moat of the Tower of London has been progressively filled with 888,246 poppies created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins.

On the telly, much of the year’s programming has included shows about or referencing World War 1, including a number of regular historical drama series.

Here’s where to learn more about The Great War:

37 Days

From the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the declaration of war on August 4th, the 37 days in late June and July 1914 were fraught with bumbling communication breakdowns laced with narcissism and ego. What if the only guy who actually wants to go to war is a loud-mouthed German general?

Told from both British and German perspectives, 37 Days reveals the machinations of power and government, and the tenuous fibres of alliances crossed with hurt feelings and grievances. This is why millions died. I dare you to make it to the end credits without saying “What a bunch of idiots!”

Britain’s Great War

This 4-part documentary hosted by Jeremy Paxman looks at how the war affected Britain. It is less about the war itself, dealing primarily with changes and challenges on the home front such as women taking jobs that were previously the domain of men (now off fighting), the bombing of Hartlepool and Whitby, and the propaganda machine that kept patriotism high.

The Great War – The People’s Story

Not to be outdone by the Beeb, ITV offers up its own mini-series that traces a number of soldiers and civilians through their letters and correspondence. With a stellar cast that includes Daniel Mays, Matthew McNulty, Claire Foy, Romola Garai, and James Norton, with narration by Olivia Coleman, viewers see real life accounts of life in the trenches, of the pain of injury and the sadness of death, as well as the effort to keep the home fires burning by the wives, girlfriends and mothers who were left behind, wondering if they’d ever see their loved ones again.

The Crimson Field

I include this for the sake of being a completist, but it’s probably the weakest offering on the list. The story of British nurses and doctors in a military field hospital, the cast is headed by Oona Chaplin, but it tries too hard to offer up back stories and drama instead of focusing on the drama at hand. Cancelled after 1 series (there were plans for more). Better to search out…

Anzac Girls

Because the allies sent doctors and nurses, too.
This 6-part series tells the true stories of a group of nurses from Australia and New Zealand. It’s real, often gory, and you’ll need half a box of tissues for every episode. Telling the stories of Olive Haynes, Elsie Cook and Alice Ross-King (who was awarded a medal for bravery during an attack on the Western Front hospital where she served) and other allied nurses during their time at Gallipoli, Egypt and France, this is the most accurate example of what war looked like up close.


Chickens aired a year or two ago, and is not part of the official rota of Great War programming, but it’s probably worth adding to the list as another, humorous perspective on the home front issue. Cecil, George and Bert all have their reason for staying home from the war (flat feet, conscientious objector, dim), but the ladies of the town are not going to let them live it down. This is more in the tradition of the campy British comedy, but it’s cute and fun. If nothing else, it’s a great style notebook (moustaches and bow ties galore!) for present day fellows in search of the Chappie look.

The Village – Season 1

This series has progressed its time-line in season 2 into the 1920s, but the first season sees Nico Mirralegro as Joe Middleton, one of the first to sign up to serve in the war. Joe later suffers from shell-shock and Mirralegro’s portrayal of this stressed and disturbed character garnered him a TV BAFTA nomination for best supporting actor.

Mr. Selfridge – Season 2












During times of war, we’re told to shop, so the second season of Mr. Selfridge’s is all about how the famous department store deals with The Great War, from replacing male staff gone off to fight with women (and the necessary changes so women could do men’s work – goodbye corsets and long skirts!) to the way that store owners lobbied for government contracts to supply soldiers.

The Wipers Times

This BBC film is about a real newspaper run by a British battalion stationed in Ypres, Belgium. Funny, sad and charming, the film demonstrates how soldiers used humour to keep up morale. The paper was written with a ironic style and contained cartoon, jokes, and poems.

I’ve left you mostly with trailers, but some searching of the titles that interest you should dig up full episodes via Youtube or downloads. To truly honour those who fought in the wars (1 and 2), the best thing we can do is remember, not just by wearing a poppy, but by learning about their actual sacrifices. TV isn’t necessarily the best answer to that, but great documentaries and bio pics are a good start.