Introducing the World War One Centenary on the BBC

Wednesday 16 October 2013, 09:45

Adrian Van Klaveren Adrian Van Klaveren

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 In his autobiography, John Reith, the BBC’s first Director General, wrote:  “In a sense, I had been looking forward to war for years”. As the First World War began, he was a 25 year old working for an engineering firm but also a member of the Territorial Army. He was immediately called up and sent to France as an officer. His palpable unease at using the phrase looking forward in the context of war is something we can share a hundred years later. And today we have now reached an important moment where I can begin to share details of my plans to mark the centenary of World War One on the BBC.

Earlier in the year I wrote about what we were trying to achieve. We have deliberately approached the centenary with an ambition to reach and engage as many people as we possibly can with programmes ranging from documentaries to drama, from live event coverage to music and for audiences ranging from children in the UK to the audiences for our international services around the world. We will commemorate those who died, recognising both achievements and suffering. But we have also set ourselves the challenge of increasing understanding of a war which is undoubtedly complex in its causes, its course and its consequences.

In total we already have well over 130 newly commissioned programmes – added to which will be many more hundreds of hours of coverage in our normal daily output and programmes from the archive.

Of course, we will be part of the national moments of memorial, focused particularly around the events on 4 August in Glasgow, Belgium and London. Those moments will be central to the nation’s remembrance of the events of the war and its huge death toll. The BBC News and Events teams will be at the heart of those occasion and the other anniversary events which follow ensuring that everyone at home can feel connected and part of such a significant commemoration of our collective history.

Television is offering a rich mix based around documentaries and drama. Starting in January Britain’s Great War presented by Jeremy Paxman will tell the story of the war’s impact on Britain.  David Reynolds’ series The Long Shadow will explore the war’s aftermath while the arguments about the war’s causes, justification and impact will be explored from differing points of view in programmes presented by Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson.

There will be major TV drama too with The Ark on BBC One taking viewers into the lives of the medics and their patients at a fictional field hospital behind the trenches, while BBC Two’s 37 Days explores the politics behind the build-up to war. Tony Jordan is writing The Passing-Bells for BBC One which will tell the story of two individual soldiers, one British and one German. 

BBC Radio’s approach to the centenary roots the output in reliving and reassessing the events of 100 years ago.  Margaret MacMillan’s definitive 42-part day-by-day series recounts the events that triggered Britain’s entry into the war whilst Christopher Clark will be exploring the war’s causes. Radio 4 will be airing two hugely ambitious dramas: Homefront – running for half the year, five days a week, for four years in 15-minute instalments, telling stories of what life in Britain was like during the war; and Tommies – a series of plays across the four years telling the story of the war itself.

On both radio and television the impact of the war on the arts will feature prominently. There will be programming about poetry, paintings and music including a reimagining of the ballads of the time by contemporary folk musicians for BBC Radio 2. The Cultural Front on Radio 4 will look at how the war changed the worlds of literature, music, drama and the visual arts. Radio 3 will mark the centenary both in the Proms and through a series of special programmes looking at the war’s impact on music and culture.

But we know that as well as shaping the world in which we live, the war changed so much for so many individuals and that it has so many powerful personal connections for us all as individuals. Even though there are no survivors who fought in the war itself, so many families and communities were touched by the conflict and have a story to tell. My own grandfather fought in the Battle of the Somme, where he was seriously injured.

We are unearthing unique family and community stories as part of our World War One At Home project across the UK, with the radio, television and online content supported by outside broadcasts and live events. I hope that during the course of our four-year season, we will help others discover their own personal connections with The Great War and tell those stories across the BBC’s local and national outlets. We will have built a collection of over 1400 original stories, all rooted in individual places, which will be a significant legacy for future generations looking to find out more about the war.

This was of course the first truly global war. It redrew the international map in a way which makes it impossible to fully understand recent history in the Balkans or what’s happening now in the Middle East without understanding the consequences of the Great War. It was a war fought by people from every part of the world which shaped the world in which we now live and this will be reflected across many of our programmes.

Internationally BBC World Service and BBC World News will reflect the very different ways in which the war is remembered and commemorated around the world and will be both staging special debates and delving into individual stories.

Something we have thought hard about is how we reach younger audiences. In trying to reach many different audiences, we are commissioning programming that will connect young people with the war beyond what they perhaps studied at school. BBC Three is undertaking a series called Our World War, done in the style of the Our War series in Afghanistan but clearly in a very different way for events 100 years ago. And the BBC Children’s teams are creating drama, documentaries and even a special Horrible Histories to encourage our youngest viewers to understand the war and the role children played. BBC Learning is playing an important role in ensuring the programmes we are making become a resource to inspire and encourage learning in the years ahead.

Online will be the home of all BBC material. It will be the place to find out more about our programmes including catching up with what you might have missed or seeing what’s in store. But it’s also the place where we’ll be offering innovative interactive content and background to different aspects of the war, rich in video and audio and steadily expanding in range over the course of the four years.

As the nation’s broadcaster, the BBC is uniquely placed to reach people of all ages and from all parts of the country, helping to broaden understanding about what the conflict actually meant both on a global scale and the many individual stories within it. Working with our partners, above all the Imperial War Museum and the members of the centenary partnership,, we want to use the next four years to frame how World War One is understood and remembered for generations to come. I hope that viewers and listeners across the country will join us as we set out to the Western Front and beyond to uncover the real stories behind World War One and help people find their own connections with the defining conflict of the 20th century.


Adrian Van Klaveren is Controller, World War One Centenary.



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    Comment number 1.

    Hello, I am looking forward to a comprehensive four years of coverage of the Great War, and hope that among the many programmes we might also see the original The Great War series. I think a Daily News Programme run alongside, say, The Six O'clock or later news, would be a good idea.

    Also, regarding Poetry, I would like to give a push to The Song of Tiadatha, which was written by Owen Rutter largely on the eastern front at Salonica. Among the welter of WW1 poetry, I fear that focus will be on the well known poetry of the trenches, which we are often familiar with, and ignore yet again the other fronts. I have done my own readings of Tiadatha on youtube, but hope some highlight may be given to this wonderful work of comic poetry.

    My readings on youtube are at

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Can we also include the contribution of the Empire - all the troop ships from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India, the Seedie Boys recruited from Africa by the Royal Navy. On Royal Navy ships there were 'boys' as well as older sailors. These boys still had lessons while they were on board and with the outbreak of war became involved in whatever combat their ship experienced.

    The Merchant Navy too had its part to play - especially later in the war the German U boats torpedoed many merchant ships. Sometimes the losses on the Western Front seem to eclipse the stories of the other services including the early aviators.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    While the preview lists some very interesting programmes to commemorate the Great War, it seems to me that there is a glaring omission. Other than a documentary on Gallipoli there seems to be no mention of the war at sea and the part played by the Navy. Surely the Battle of Jutland merits attention? And it is arguable that it was the economic war against Germany which finally led them to seek an end to the fighting - and a key element of this was the Atlantic Blockade enforced by the Navy. These were also the early days of the submarine service which reportedly had a 50% mortality rate, yet there was no shortage of volunteers. These men also laid down their lives for their country and deserve commemoration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I want to add my voice to the call for the Navy - in all its parts - to be included in the commemorations. The men on the Northern Patrol spent months on end at sea, often in appalling conditions, chasing and checking ships to enforce the blockade. This was unglamorous work, but had a major effect on the course of the war. These men should also be remembered with gratitude.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    @thursdaynext, @studentforever and @cloud55

    Thanks for your comments.

    Let me give a reassurance that we won’t be neglecting the war at sea; the role played by the Navy will be an important part of the coverage.

    As well as the documentaries and extensive coverage we will offer of the Gallipoli centenary in 2015, we are also developing plans for our coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland in 2016. We expect this to include a retelling of the battle in “real time” 100 years later as well as live coverage of the events to mark the actual anniversary.

    Events at sea also feature significantly in Jeremy Paxman’s series Britain’s Great War which will be on BBC One early in the New Year, and there are a number of other ideas about the sea war which we are still considering for 2015 onwards.

    And of course, this year is not just the centenary of the First World War but also the 70th anniversary of D-Day; Radio 4 is planning a major series on the story of the British Navy and its key role in the 20th century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I hope that the events with which the BBC associates are not going to be too prescribed. For example although I do not have any direct line ancestors who fought in the Great War, my research into my past is revealing no end of interesting stories of removed cousins from being sunk by torpedo to winning a DSM, and from dying an unknown death on the front after just a few days in France to long serving, injured and dying a PoW. These are the true personal stories that need to be discovered and not forgotten

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I'm pleased to see that the war at sea will be included. Looking forward to the R4 series on the Navy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The big stories, Jutland, Gallipoli, Heligoland, the Falklands, will I expect get covered. Let's hear too about the troop transports, the hospital ships, the submarine tenders, the fleet messengers, the armed trawlers and drifters that patrolled our coasts, the Q ships, the submariners in their awful steam powered submarines, the merchantmen, the colliers, the light ships, the list is practically endless. A word too about the marines and sailors who died on the Western Front would be appropriate, as well as the RNAS in their flimsy planes.
    Germany didn't lose the war on the Western Front, they lost because they ran out of tin, rubber, oil and food, thanks to Allied control of the seas. Sea power isn't all Admiral's on the bridge, it's a dirty faced boy on a Brixham smack with a 4 pounder gun bolted to the deck and it's a trainee nurse in a lifeboat struggling to keep alive the survivors from a torpedoed hospital ship.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Perhaps triggered by having recently read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, I wonder if the treatment of the wounded and 'shell shocked' and advances in psychiatry and medicine will form any part of programming?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Although much of the WW1 season will be linked to the fields of battle and the endless slaughter in the mud, I hope the BBC covers other aspects in its WW1 Season.

    I have only recently become aware of the death of my grand uncle, George Martin, born 1883, who perished on HMS Aboukir in one of the earliest maritime engagements of the conflict.

    The ship was one of three vessels sunk within an hour by a U-boat on 22nd September 1914, the others being HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue, with the loss of almost 1500 lives.

    Subsequent enquiries found the ageing ships were totally unsuited to their roles and were even referred to as “the live bait squadron”, being practically sitting ducks.

    The scale of death at sea in this short space of time has probably never been repeated and was on a par with that of the Titanic some two years earlier – but, as far as I am aware, has never been so greatly publicised.


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