The War that Changed Us (Ep. 2): euphoria becomes hard slog

We were a bit late catching up with this week’s episode but this is what we thought.

Episode 2 of The War that Changed Us grasps how quickly the mood changed in World War I, both among the men who had to decide whether or not to go to war and among the families who farewelled them and coped with them if and when they returned. It grasps also how Australian society began to divide and how the machinery of government responded.

Families divided, too. We briefly note the anguish that the pacifist Vida Goldstein must have felt when her brother enlisted. Perhaps Selwyn Goldstein felt peer pressure. One can only imagine how difficult it would have been for men to resist pressure such as that associated with the Coo-ee Marchers from western New South Wales. Then again, it is a little surprising that so much seems to have been made at the time of a stunt which gathered only 263 recruits between Gilgandra and Sydney. (That’s less than one per mile.) Pressure to join up was already duelling with prudence and disillusion.

Women, too, did their bit in whipping up the patriotic frenzy. The pro-war activist Eva Hughes is by far the least attractive of the six main protagonists because of the sheer ferocity of her speeches and her apparent ignorance of what she is goading young men into in the blood and horror of the Dardanelles and the Western Front. Was she as much of a monster as she seems?

‘Pompey’ Elliott (played by his doppelganger Luke Hewitt) is the most moving of the six into whose lives we intrude, perhaps because his letters are uncensored or because of the sheer anguish they reveal. His admission as his men fall that ‘my heart is breaking to see them dying so’ is heart-wrenching, as is his ‘this is war, such is glory’ as he contemplates the squalid and bloody trenches. He seems already to be showing signs of the excess of empathy that will see him take his own life in 1931, in despair at his inability in peacetime to protect men from a different form of horror.

The battlefront scenes this time are less confronting. Lone Pine’s four Victoria Crosses, the Gallipoli evacuation and the 58 000 casualties on the first day of the Somme come mostly in voice-over, at a distance, though the regret felt by the Gallipoli evacuees in leaving behind the bodies of their mates is well-depicted against pictures of makeshift crosses on stony hillsides. Before that, bored Australians and Turks bait each other in comradely fashion, though commentator Peter Stanley warns about making too much of battlefront camaraderie between enemies.

Befitting its title, the production plays down the exchange of angry shots to concentrate on what war does to those who fight it, to those who pick up the pieces and those who wait. The impact on Sister Kit McNaughton and the coping strategies she employs are particularly well-rendered. (I try to imagine my own great-aunt World War I nurses in this situation and wonder whether their respective habits of heavy smoking and a nip of scotch before dinner were attributable to war service. Still, they both lived into their nineties.)

We are told what perhaps we might not have expected, that there were close, platonic friendships between wounded soldiers and nurses and that soldiers shared with nurses thoughts that they kept from other men. Yet we do not quite hear that in this case the sacred bond of ‘mateship’ crosses gender lines. Away from hospitals, mates enjoying a good time together may have helped boost the rates of venereal disease contracted on leave, a contest which Australians won easily.

The way ahead in the war after 1916 is succinctly summed up by someone’s remark that ‘from now on there will be nothing else but slaughter’ and by the vision of soldiers returning to Australia, gingerly negotiating the ship’s gangplank on their stumps. The political transition is illustrated by the juxtaposition of a photograph of a worried-looking Fisher (perhaps looking a little less grey than he would have been in 1915 when he left the prime ministership) and footage of the Gollum-like, confident Hughes. (Is there a point where joie de vivre in war leaders becomes pathological? The effect of war on Franklin Roosevelt and John Curtin seems more ‘normal’.)

The growing divisions within Australia, even as early as the end of 1915, are presented in the anti- and pro-war versions of the same song, originally ‘I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier’. Yet the machinery of the state ramps up in response to this division, presumably supported by many returning soldiers, like those who disrupt a mass anti-war demonstration in this episode. Tom Barker, the IWW activist, feels the full wrath of the War Precautions Act, reminding us that governments can quickly become repressive when they feel the need to do so.

Episode 2 is, if anything, more impressive technically than Episode 1. The integration of real footage and reconstruction is seamless, the tinting of black and white is a tour de force and the music is again subtle. (It made this viewer realise that, by contrast, there was just a bit too much ‘Ashokan farewell’ in Ken Burns’s The Civil War all those years ago.) The costumes seem correct, the flags (Union Jack and Red Ensign) waving at the pro-war demonstrations are not anachronistic, and the talking heads add value and say just enough, the passion of Clare Wright and Bruce Scates contrasting nicely with the rueful Bill Gammage and the perceptive Peter Stanley.

Finally, a line of dialogue and the snatch of a song leave particularly vivid impressions. Archie Barwick’s remark in a letter to his parents in Tasmania was, if I caught it correctly, ‘what a farce Christianity seems when we have come to this’. One wonders how many soldiers and how many of their families echoed these sentiments. How many men left their faith in the trenches?

The song, ‘Keep the home fires burning’ never fails to bring a tear to the eye, evoking memories of a childhood not long after another war and in an extended family that remembered – and still grieved for, in a quiet way – dead siblings of two generations. I think I knew the words of that song and of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ – whether sung by parent or grandparent – as well as I knew ‘God save the Queen’. No-one of today’s generation should need to be familiar with songs like that, songs that have those sorts of connotations. The nostalgia they evoke can never conceal the bastardry of ‘statesmen’ that produced the circumstances that made them apposite.

David Stephens

30 August 2014

Our brief note on episode 1. Our review of episode 3. Our review of episode 4.

Phillip Adams talks to Clare Wright and Don Featherstone, co-writers.

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