What is really strange is the extent to which we are still bound up with the one before that, the Great War to End All Wars. After all, although we were admittedly on the winning side of that one, too, what we mostly remember is that it was a great national betrayal: lions led by donkeys, the flower of the nation cut down in its prime, doomed youth marched off to die like cattle while the scarlet majors who sent them up the line to death were guzzling and gulping at the best hotels - "If any question why we died/ Tell them because our fathers lied." And so on and so on. Our appetite for the pity of war seems inexhaustible - Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, endless revivals of Oh! What a Lovely War, the way that the two-minute silence has been revived in supermarkets and betting shops, package tours to the Somme and Ypres...
So most people would surely not quarrel with Richard Holmes's view that we owe it to the men who fought and died in the war "to understand what they did and why they did it". But after the first part of Holmes's new series, Western Front (BBC2), I'm not at all sure that this is going to help us pay that debt. The central problem is the scale that has been imposed on Holmes: he has to compact the subject into six half- hour episodes, and this gives rise to a haste that is inimical to empathy, or to any apprec- iation of the drawn-out process of attrition.
But it's also the case that Holmes is primarily a technician of war, interested in strategy and logistics. Much of this programme was taken up with railway timetables and the extraordinary gulf between weapons and tactics (in the age of barbed wire and the machine-gun, the French army was still umbilically attached to the red trousers and "the law of the offensive"). As far as "how" goes, he does fine; but the "why" seemed to elude him.
He does have a neat turn of phrase (the idea of French conscripts flooding the railway terminuses in a parody of the summer holidays was bitterly appropriate); but he is prone to a niggling inexactitude. At one point, describing French reaction to mobilisation in August 1914, he recorded how "in one Breton village", a crowd gathered silently round the notice of mobilisation when it was posted; then one person sobbed, and the crowd broke, everybody going their separate ways. It was a touching image, but it was punctured by a lack of place and source - the anonymity of that sob, the crux of the story, was rendered meaningless because it was swamped in a greater anonymity.
With these faults, though, the subject still draws me - the desolation, the pointlessness, the sense that with this war we threw off some evil illusions about what we owe to God and our country and learned something about what we owe to the common man. I doubt that I'll miss an episode.Reuse content