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A railway revelation: recommended
on 8 August 2014
This short but superb TV documentary series explores the history of WW1 from an entirely different angle to the normal military / diplomatic / social focus. In two and a half hours, presenter Michael Portillo examines how the railways and the men who ran them were crucially important to the course of the war. The result is five excellent (if short) factual programmes which reveal many aspects of the Great War that I’d not encountered before.
If you’ve watched any of the normal ‘railway journey’ programmes then you’ll be familiar with the style of this series, although it differs in several important ways. Necessarily this is an entirely serious subject, not a frivolous adventure with scope for food and wine tasting and jolly japes. But there’s plenty of archive footage and many still period photos, neatly contrasted with current locations. Each episode includes expert analysis at each scene, where authors, academics and enthusiasts explain the fascinating background of one particular incident or situation.
Portillo takes great care to extract the key information from his experts (who are very often amateur historians, not used to speaking to camera) and puts it into overall context. Each half-hour programme considers one stage of the war and the role of the railways / railwaymen at that time. So they skip around geographically, all across the UK and to northern France. This is not one single linear journey, but instead a re-telling of a familiar story from a very different perspective.
Key moments for me included the understanding that the initial German advance could’ve been halted in Belgium, if only a series of tunnels had been successfully sabotaged. Then later came the acknowledgement of an unsung hero, Eric Geddes, who revolutionised the logistics of supplying the front, utilising narrow gauge railway and internal combustion engines to radical effect. Each episode contains a couple of treasures – and no small horrors, too; like an awful rail accident on an overcrowded network, struggling to cope with the demands of troop shipment, coal supply to ships, munitions and more.
There’s no Bradshaw’s guide to the wartime railway, but instead Portillo consults several other period publications – manuals for mobilisation, war diaries and poignant forgotten poetry.
This is probably my favourite documentary of the centenary year. Informative and accessible; extremely well-researched, and never patronising. My only complaint is that around five minutes of each programme is given over to intro and outro, repeating several snippets over and over. This series could’ve been twice as long and we didn’t need three minutes of introduction to each episode. Even so, it’s still one to watch again.