Did Oh What a Lovely War shape our view of WW1?

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1. A controversial production

Incompetent generals, lions led by donkeys, the slaughter of brave men in futile battles: today, these are familiar reflections on Britain’s involvement in World War One. But on his death General Douglas Haig, the commander on the Western Front, was widely mourned and given a state funeral. What part did the 1960s counter-culture play in the change of attitude to WW1?    

The play, Oh What a Lovely War, premiered in the early 1960s, during a period of international tension. Over fifty years since the first show its story continues to be told and for many is their first introduction to WW1.

It is a deliberately provocative production that continues to spark controversy.

2. "Songs, a few battles and some jokes"

Oh What a Lovely War had a successful run in Stratford. After just three months at the Theatre Royal the show's popularity ensured a move to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End.

Joan Bakewell looks at the reasons for the success of Oh What a Lovely War. (With images from Roman Cagnoni/courtesy of Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive Collection, Lebrecht Music & Arts, Getty Images and David Sim/ArenaPAL.)

The play arrived on Broadway in 1964 where it ran for 125 performances. The production earned several Tony Award nominations with cast member Victor Spinetti winning the gong for Featured Actor in a Musical.

3. Origins of the play

The key influence on Oh What a Lovely War was a BBC radio programme, The Long, Long Trail. Produced by Charles Chilton and broadcast on the Home Service in 1961, it chronicled WW1 through soldiers' songs and recollections.

While Chilton did not fight in the war, it had a profound influence on him. As a teenage message boy at the BBC, he met veterans with facial injuries so severe they could not work alongside their colleagues.

A personal loss

Perhaps the largest influence was the death of his father at the Second Battle of Arras in 1918. Chilton never knew his father but as an adult he visited the war cemetery in Arras to look for his father’s grave, only to find his name was one of over 35,000 inscribed on a war memorial.

Of this he wrote, “What could have possibly happened to a man that rendered his burial impossible? What horror could have taken place that rendered the burial of 35,942 men impossible and all in one relatively small area?”

Charles began searching for answers. He spoke to former soldiers about life on the Western Front and discovered a collection of soldiers’ songs from the war called Tommy's Tunes.

In The Long, Long Trail these cheerful and sardonic songs were contrasted with the men's shocking testimonials.

Theatrical development

This style caught the attention of Gerry Raffles, partner of theatre director Joan Littlewood, when the programme was repeated on Armistice Day 1962. Chilton began working with Theatre Workshop to develop a show which would become Oh What a Lovely War.

4. The 60s influence

Changing society

In the aftermath of WW1, with millions of people grieving for the loss of loved ones, there was a reluctance to suggest that the conflict had been without purpose.

But by the 1960s society was changing. A younger generation was growing up suspicious about deference to authority and willing to defy it. 

Britain rediscovered WW1 in the 1960s. Eclipsed in recent memory by the Second World War, the 50th anniversary prompted a re-examination of the earlier conflict.

Influential books and TV

Among the reappraisals were two publications and a television broadcast which proved to be influential.

In 1961 writer, and future Conservative cabinet minister, Alan Clark published a popular account of the war, The Donkeys. This cast the army’s leadership as incompetent and outdated. It was later used as source material for Oh What a Lovely War.

Two years later, The First World War: An Illustrated History by historian AJP Taylor was published. “The war was beyond the capacity of generals and statesman alike,” he argued.

In 1964 the BBC broadcast a landmark documentary series, The Great War. Featuring archive film and recollections of former soldiers, the harrowing images and first-hand accounts from the trenches had an overwhelming effect on its audience.

5. From theatre to cinema

A film version of the stage show, Oh! What a Lovely War, was released in 1969. Directed by Richard Attenborough, it featured many top British actors, including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith and John Mills.

But there were notable differences between the versions. The film shunned Joan Littlewood’s overt anti-war politics in favour of sentimentality. Pierrots were replaced by the Smith family, with the story following the men as they sign up and fight on the Western Front.

Attenborough’s version featured the deaths of central characters, unlike the play. Littlewood did not approve of this alteration, “Nobody died on my stage,” she said. The film ends with what has become its most recognisable and poignant scene. As the bereaved women of the Smith family walk on a hillside covered in the crosses of soldier’s graves, the camera pulls back to reveal thousands more.

While Oh! What a Lovely War went on to become a TV staple, the stage show also thrived. It continues to reach a wide audience as a popular choice of repertory theatre and amateur dramatic societies.

6. The legacy of Oh What a Lovely War

By the 1980s it seemed usual to think of the war in terms of futile battles and inept generals.

Joan Littlewood and Oh What a Lovely War did not create these ideas. Even during the conflict, Britons had argued about whether it was worthwhile and whether it was being properly fought.

However, the continuing appeal of Oh What a Lovely War has certainly helped popularise those views in the mind of the public.

This interpretation could be seen in the 1989 BBC comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, which was set in the trenches. But where Littlewood’s production had been angry, and Attenborough’s film was nostalgic, Blackadder concentrated on the absurdity of war.

The final scenes drew the series to a poignant close. Comedy was replaced by tragedy as Blackadder and his men were ordered over the top to their apparent deaths, a view of no man’s land was replaced by a field of poppies. It was as effective as the scoreboards in the stage show, or the film’s hillside of crosses.

Today, some still think the conflict achieved nothing, that the generals were ‘donkeys’ and that the soldiers were their victims, but other arguments have also gained ground: that Britain’s participation was justified, that the war effort had wide popular support at the time, and that the generals were brave men struggling with a new sort of war.

The ideas involved in those debates – authority, class, patriotism and war – remain part of our lives.

7. What shaped your understanding of WW1?

The views expressed in Oh What a Lovely War have been widely heard. But what influenced your own understanding of WW1? Did you form your opinions when studying the war at school? Perhaps a family member was a war hero, or was lost on the battlefields. Have public commemorations such as Remembrance Sunday shaped your thoughts on the war?

Derek Gault, Secondary school History teacher

Studying conflict throughout History is one of the cornerstones of our curriculum. When we study the WW1 it is vital we examine the reasons behind the conflict and the resolution of the conflict - and indeed how the effects of WW1 can still be seen in Britain’s relationships with other countries. Modern conflicts in the Middle East have their roots in WW1 and studying this period in History helps pupils develop a sense of their place in the world.

Dr Bruce Durie, Genealogist and Broadcaster

Some of us will remember our grandparents talking about their experiences in WW1, but some never spoke of it at all. Some families lost an entire generation of sons, brothers, cousins, uncles and friends. Both my grandmothers remembered wondering if any of the young men they knew would ever come home. I’ve often heard people say: “I never met my Grandfather, as he died in WW1, and he was just a grainy photograph clipped from the newspaper. But finding out about him and his experiences made him more real for me”.

Dr Dan Todman, Queen Mary University, London

There’s no law that says writers have to be historically accurate, and their work naturally reflects their own time, not the period in which it is set. Our reaction as the audience also says more about us than what actually happened in the past. We need to ask whether we’re making the war what we want it to be rather than what it was. Films or books set in the past might move or entertain us, but precisely because they do that, we should question whether they’re improving our understanding of an era very different from our own.

Dr Chris Simpkins, The Royal British Legion 

Remembrance in the 21st century has its roots firmly in WW1, centred on the iconic red poppy and involving events on the 11 November, the date of the Armistice of 1918. Remembrance events and the poppy today, however, acknowledge the sacrifices still being made by the men and women of the British Armed Forces as well as those made in the WW1 and all conflicts involving the British Armed Forces since then. Remembrance activities help young people learn about WW1 by studying the red poppy and its meaning. The poppy, something wholly unconnected to political or religious opinion, connects sacrifices of the past to hope for a more peaceful future.