The Great War Documentary Series Overview (1964)


The Great War is a 26-episode BBC documentary series from 1964 on the First World War.

The documentary was a co-production of the Imperial War Museum, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Broadcasting Commission. The narrator was Michael Redgrave, with readings by Marius Goring, Ralph Richardson, Cyril Luckham, Sebastian Shaw, and Emlyn Williams.


The series used archive footage of actual First World War battles and life in the trenches, held at The Imperial War Museum in London. Interviews with service men and women, by 1964 in their sixties and seventies, were highly revealing and candid.


In August 1963, at the suggestion of Alasdair Milne, producer of the BBC’s current affairs programme Tonight, the BBC resolved to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War with a big television project. The series was the first to feature veterans, many of them still relatively fit men in their late sixties or early seventies, speaking of their experiences after a public appeal for veterans was published in the national press.

Those who appeared in the series included Edward Spears, Henry Williamson, Horace Birks, Benjamin Muse, Melvin Krulewitch, George Langley, Keith Officer, Douglas Wimberley, Charles Carrington, Egbert Cadbury, Euan Rabagliati, Robert Cotton Money, Richard Talbot Kelly, Norman Demuth, Walter Greenwood and Cecil Arthur Lewis. The small number of Germans who appeared included Stephan Westmann and Gustav Lachmann.

Others who were interviewed by the BBC but not featured in the series included Norman MacMillan, Mabel Lethbridge, Edgar von Spiegel, Edmund Blunden, Martin Niemöller, John Shea, Hans Howaldt, William Ibbett, Marthe Bibesco, Philip Joubert de la Ferté and Eric Dorman O’Gowan.

Title Sequence

The series title sequence used a rostrum camera to create a montage of three images, the first showing a silhouetted British soldier standing over the grave of a comrade, the camera first focuses on the cross, where the almost imperceptible words IN MEMORY are glanced, the second shows a uniformed, skeletal corpse by the entrance to a dugout. The final image shows a lone British soldier, looking directly into the camera apparently surrounded by corpses, which is a montage of several images combined for dramatic effect. The original image of the staring soldier, showing him surrounded by fellow soldiers rather than corpses, was taken from photograph Q 1 in the Imperial War Museum photograph archive but has been described as having quickly become symbolic of the First World War. This title sequence was set against the series theme music, composed by Wilfred Josephs and performed by the BBC Northern Orchestra.

Musical Score

The music for the series was composed by Wilfred Josephs. It was performed by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Hurst. His expressive yet unsentimental score was widely acclaimed at the time and many have recalled the strong contribution it made to the series. In August 2007, Guardian columnist Ian Jack remembered how at the start of each episode Josephs’ ‘ominous music ushered the audience into the trenches’. Much use was made of 20th Century symphonies, including Shostakovitch’s 11th Symphony and Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica’.


Each episode of The Great War was seen by an average audience of over eight million people, a 17% share of the estimated viewing population. The fourth episode, the most popular of the series, reached an audience of over eleven million (22.6% of the audience).


Following transmission of the series by the Republic of Ireland’s national TV station, Telefís Éireann, The Great War won a Jacob’s Award at the 1964 presentation ceremony in Dublin.


There appear to be two releases as of mid-2007, both in the UK, both Region 2. The audio has been remastered. The first shows copyright 2001 and consists of five volumes, each housing two DVDs (single-layer). On the cover descriptions there is no mention of the Extra episodes The other shows copyright 2002 and consists of seven DVDs – six containing the original 26 episodes and one with the two Extras. These discs are dual-layer. It is distributed by DD Video.

First World War Centenary

On 16 October 2013, fifty years after the release of the series, the BBC announced that unaired interview material, recorded during the making of The Great War, will be used in a new programme, My Great War, to be shown as part of the BBC’s programmes during the First World War centenary. The programme was first broadcast on 14 March 2014 and entitled “I Was There: the Great War Interviews“.


  • I Was There: The Great War Interviews by Detlef Siebert (Director) can be found here (BBC Blog from 2014).
    • You can find the documentary here.
  • The people who were interviewed for the series had to thoroughly rehearse their testimonies, because the interviews were recorded on expensive 35mm film stock, which had to be used in minimal quantities.
  • Six of the veterans who appeared in the series (Edward Spears, Horace Birks, Melvin Krulewitch, Douglas Wimberley, Robert Cotton Money and George Osborne Channer) reached the rank of Major General during their military careers.
  • The Great War was highly acclaimed at the time, and set the standard for subsequent documentaries on the subject, most notably Thames Television’s The World at War of 1973 which approached World War 2 on a similar scale.
  • Director General to be Alisdair Milne came up with the idea for the series whilst he was working as a producer on the current affairs programme Tonight.

The Great War Series

The episode titles are taken from quotations, the origins of which are shown in parentheses. With few exceptions, successive blocks of episodes are devoted to each year of the war: episodes 01-06 to 1914; 07-10 to 1915; 11-14 to 1916; 15-19 to 1917; and 20-23 and 26 to 1918.

Two “extra” episodes exist on the dual-layer DVD edition:

  • Voices from the Western Front.
  • The Finished Fighter.

Production & Filming Details

  • Narrator(s):
    • Michael Redgrave.
  • Director(s):
  • Producer(s):
    • Tony Essex … producer (26 episodes, 1964).
    • Tom Manefield … associate producer: Australia (26 episodes, 1964).
    • Edward Rollins … associate producer: Canada (26 episodes, 1964).
    • John Terraine … associate producer: UK (26 episodes, 1964).
    • Gordon Watkins … producer (26 episodes, 1964).
    • Alasdair Milne … executive producer (unknown episodes).
  • Writer(s):
    • Correlli Barnett … (7 episodes, 1964).
    • Alistair Horne … (2 episodes, 1964).
    • Antony Jay … (2 episodes, 1964).
    • Robert Kee … (1 episode, 1964).
    • Barrie Pitt … (1 episode, 1964).
    • Edward Rollins … (2 episodes, 1964).
    • Harold Shukman … (1 episode, 1964).
    • John Terraine … (14 episodes, 1964).
    • Gordon Watkins … (3 episodes, 1964).
    • John Williams … (2 episodes, 1964).
  • Music:
    • Dennis Farnon … (uncredited) (26 episodes, 1964).
  • Cinematography:
  • Editor(s):
    • Pam Bosworth … (26 episodes, 1964).
    • Ian Callaway … (26 episodes, 1964).
    • Norman Carr … (26 episodes, 1964).
    • Peter Heelas … (26 episodes, 1964).
    • Dave King … (1 episode, 1964).
  • Production:
    • British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
    • Australian Broadcasting Commission (in collaboration with).
    • Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) (in collaboration with).
    • Imperial War Museum (in collaboration with) (as The Imperial War Museum).
  • Distributor(s):
    • British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (1964) (UK) (TV).
  • Release Date: 30 May 1964 to 22 November 1964.
  • Running time: 40 minutes.
  • Rating: Unknown.
  • Country: UK.
  • Language: English.

Video Link

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