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Testimony of war

13 November 2015


LEST we forget . . . the archives of the BBC, Imperial War Museum, and other institutions contain audio riches in abundance. Voices of the First World War (Radio 4, weekdays) returned last week for another two-week series of a promised 50-part whole.

Wednesday’s episode, remembering the Battle of Loos, stuck out as representative of the kinds of stories we have all heard about campaigning at the Front: the gas intended for the enemy settling for lack of wind on the advancing British troops, and platoon after platoon of Kitchener’s fresh new recruits wiped out in their first action.

The grim clichés were nevertheless peppered with memorable details, such as the padre whose sermon the previous Sunday contained the reassurance that “By next Sunday, many of you will have ceased to exist”; and the smack of bullets on a tree, recreated for us by one interviewee, and so much more evocative than the confected sound effects and music under-laid by the radio production.

In The Ballads of the Great War: 1915 (Radio 2, Saturday), the sonic backdrop to the archive interviews was an anthology of newly composed ballads. Radio 2 documentaries have a habit of overdoing the music, but the relentless repetition of these simple and beautifully sung refrains seemed, for once, to work here.

Arranged in loose chapters, the programme contained accounts not only of military action — the Gallipoli campaign and the second Battle of Ypres — but also of the civilian experience in the Zeppelin raids of 1915, and the White Feather Movement. One anecdote will have to stand for the many: a gentleman recounted how he was presented on a bus with a white feather by a young lady, and, having cleaned out his pipe with it, returned it with thanks, adding that they had not had the benefit of such things in the trenches.

This was a programme put together with a great deal of care and creativity. It was one of a series that will appear every year of the Great War anniversary. Although the lack of citation for any of these interviews, and the occasional, uncredited intervention of a narrator, presents some anxieties about authenticity, it is one of the most powerful anniversary pieces that I have yet encountered.

The European military conflicts of the 15th century will, for most of us, be less emotive — unless you are a member of France’s National Front, for whom St Joan of Arc still stands as an icon of wholesome national pride. In The Invention of France (Radio 4, Monday), Misha Glenny gave us a straightforward account of the Maid, with the help of a bevy of historians, all of whom seem to agree, in a refreshingly non-revisionist way, that Joan not only did the things we thought she did, but was pretty important as well.

This is the first in a series of programmes that examine the lives of the people who made France what it is; and if one wanted to throw a spanner in these well-oiled works, one might ask where Clovis is in all this. On the other hand, perhaps we should leave the French to make up their own histories; we caused enough trouble back then as it is.

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