Railways of The Great War with Michael Portillo [DVD]
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In this five part series for BBC2, Michael Portillo marks the centenary of the First World War by discovering the central role the railways played in securing victory, repatriating the dead and wounded, and feeding the insatiable appetite for weaponry and supplies that the theatre of war demanded. This is a story of how a British invention that brought trade, travel and prosperity in peacetime became an engine of war.
Michael will track down the fascinating, emotional and sometimes tragic stories of the wartime railways that criss-crossed Britain and Europe. Railways then were widely considered the new arm in modern warfare as it was a time where motorised transport and roads were in their infancy.
Over the five episodes, Michael will travel to the key railway locations that would become synonymous with the victories, defeats, battles and campaigns of the First World War, showing how they were intrinsic to our success, often in surprising ways and how they resulted in the Europe we know today.
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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.
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