By episode 3 of The War that Changed Us, we’ve fully adjusted to its dramatised documentary approach, its repeated home front-front line segues, its six main actors’ role types, the expert commentators, colourised footage and stills, narrating voice-over hinting at the geo-political context, the music, and constant quoting of original documents and newspapers.
The episode covers 1916-17 and the producers labelled it ‘Coming Apart’. One of the many achievements of the series, the title is a masterful summary of 58 minutes of content. At the end, we have some understanding of why Bill Gammage’s classic was called The Broken Years (ANU Press, 1974) and why Joan Beaumont’s more recent title is Broken Nation (Allen & Unwin, 2013).
In France, the series’ three active service protagonists indeed begin to come apart. Archie Barwick, who has survived Gallipoli, now experiences for the first time the shelling and trench warfare of the Western Front, specifically at the Battle of Pozières in mid-1916. He struggles physically and emotionally, and the death in combat of one of his two brothers, Stan, in October 1916 adds a personal motive to his fighting (‘I’m out for revenge’). The episode ends with Archie alone in a shell hole staring dulling at the camera, sharpening his bayonet. We know from his diary he knew how to use that bayonet.
Nurse Kit McNaughton is also struggling. She is required to treat wounded German prisoners, prompting initial reactions of fury (‘I enjoyed cutting into him’) then deep compassion. Lack of sleep, the worst winter in 40 years, then news of her mother’s death leaves her feeling utterly alone. She dreams of escape, the only officially-allowed route being marriage.
‘Pompey’ Elliott struggles, too, at Fromelles where his failure to have insane orders withdrawn means having to watch almost half his brigade killed or wounded. One battalion, the 60th, is almost completely wiped out. He calls the operation a ‘tactical abortion’. Bill Gammage sums it up as, ‘essentially … pushing men’s chests against defending machine gun fire’. Bruce Scates and Ross McMullin add the judgement of history and biography. Elliott, the bluff blunt-speaking veteran, breaks down, weeping openly.
Australian civil society is also coming apart. Two other emblematic figures, Vida Goldstein and Tom Barker, representing two strands of anti-war activism, question the war at rallies and in print. The community response ranges from sock-knitting working bees, dreaded telegrams delivered to families or white feathers to unenlisted men, and pro-war rallies led by Eva Hughes of the Australian Women’s National League. Then war emergency regulations were passed, Barker imprisoned, and a conscription referendum announced and narrowly lost. We see a few seconds of footage of Dublin buildings ablaze at Easter 1916, front-line soldiers portrayed as voting differently to comrades elsewhere, and hints of things worsening as a divided Labor Party foreshadows a victorious Hughes.
I have friends who won’t watch The War that Changed Us. Nor Anzac Girls. Too upsetting, they say. And indeed the series is, in a way, manipulating our emotions – the personal perspective, self-inflicted wounds, families like the Goldsteins themselves divided, haunting music, visceral images, poignant diary extracts and the utter tragedy of so many seemingly futile deaths. And beyond the personal, the allusions to bigger if just as tragic subjects – the Irish Easter rebellion, Indigenous enlistments, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as the Australians charge at Beersheba.
The series developer and co-writer, Clare Wright, told Phillip Adams on Late Night Live last Monday that, after her working on the project for nearly two years the music alone still brings a lump to her throat. In her chapter for Australian History Now (NewSouth, 2013) she explained that previous experience producing work for television, learning what makes a good script, taught her to ‘perceive the power in a story, the fact that the viewer/reader needs to feel as well as think’ (p. 229). The War that Changed Us is indeed truly compelling, deeply affecting material.
What I can’t decide for the moment is on what terms to assess the series beyond this. A million thoughts were prompted watching ‘Coming Apart’; the experience was similar to that of seeing a movie then wanting to immediately see it again. Or wanting to attend a full-on Q and A with no time limit or interrupting host; to hear what Margaret and David of At the Movies thought; or to try to imagine what Santanu Das would say, given his efforts in The Guardian to challenge Eurocentric views of this world war.
And a last wish, for the moment: another series please. One called ‘The Making of …’, so we learn how the dilemmas of selection and condensation were resolved – for how on earth can one tell the collective story, in just four episodes, about so much and so many?
4 September 2014