Two very different looks at the Great War, one on TV and one a film adaptation of a play written in 1928. I am a great believer in the power of soap operas to get messages across 🙂 , and I love the idea of exploring history via soap characters – maybe ITV and BBC could do more of this! Personal history is increasingly popular, probably because the rise of the internet’s made it so much easier for people to become involved in genealogy, and the idea of this was to show how the war affected a number of individuals from Esholt, the Yorkshire village where Emmerdale used to be filmed, in a series of programmes presented by Emmerdale actors whose characters have similar jobs/positions. Journey’s End, by contrast, was about fictional characters but took us right into the hell through which soldiers were living during the Spring Offensive of 1918, with almost all the action taking place in an officers’ dugout in one of the trenches.
It (Journey’s End) focussed on the mental hell as much as, maybe more than, the physical hell. Although the action all took place towards the end of the war, we see at the beginning the attitude associated with the early months, a naïve young lad straight out of school desperate to get stuck into the action. He was sent to the Front after only a few weeks of training. Emmerdale 1918 showed us a video of some of the training: Charlotte Bellamy (Laurel Thomas) commented that it looked more like her legs, bums and tums class at the gym than something designed to prepare novice solders for war.
Our lad, Second Lieutentant Raleigh, was a public schoolboy with relatives in high places, and pulled strings to get himself assigned to a company captained by a family friend who’d been a few years above him at school, someone he’d always hero-worshipped and who’d got a bit of a thing going with his sister. Only they weren’t at school any more, and the boy he knew at school was now aggressive, anxious, drinking too much, and convinced that his relationship with his friend’s sister would break her heart – either he’d die, or he’d go back to her a completely different man from the one she knew and loved.
We didn’t actually see the fighting, although we heard about the men who’d been killed: we saw how things played out in the dugout. It wasn’t easy to watch: it was very intense and, because it was nearly all set in such a confined space, and over the course of over a few days, quite claustrophobic: it probably got the psychological hell across as well as any dramatisation could do.
The second episode of Emmerdale 1918 was also about a young lad with no military experience, going to the Front. In this case, he was Joshua Booth, a working-class lad from a small Yorkshire village. Of the 200 people living in the village, 50 went away to war. That’s very hard to take in. 25% of your local community gone to war. They don’t seem to have been in a Pals battalion, which at least was something. In this case, we got the background: we saw the normality of this young man’s life at home, and we were read extracts from his letters to his sweetheart – who threw him over and married someone else. You don’t expect that in a war programme, do you? I know it sounds daft, but wartime romances are meant to end in either tragedy or joy, not in one partner dumping the other. It was far less tense, far less intense, because it was indirect, and not so focussed on a small space and short period of time; and yet it had the intensity of being about just one person and, significantly, someone who really lived.
Different approaches, different backgrounds, and yet both stories ended the same way: neither young man survived. Journey’s End didn’t tell us what happened to his comrades. Emmerdale 1918 did tell us that the other 49 men from Esholt who went away to war all survived, which was incredible really … and yet some of them must have had life-changing injuries, physical or mental, and none of them could ever have been the same again. Nor could anyone else who lived through that time. The series is about the fact that it was a total war: we’re also getting land girls, chefs, vets … everyone’s lives turned upside down.
Do schools did get kids to compare The Soldier and Dulce et Decorum est? It was a standard English Lit GCSE essay topic in my day. Journey’s End was very Dulce et Decorum est: you just felt broken. Emmerdale 1918 inclined more towards The Soldier – not as sentimental, but concentrating on remembering the bravery, the heroism, the sacrifice. More John Maxwell Edmonds – for our tomorrow, people like Joshua Booth gave their today. So many lives lost, so many other lives irrevocably damaged.
It’s hard to believe that we’re now almost as far from the end of the Great War as the end of the Great War was from the end of the Napoleonic Wars. 25 years ago, people were starting to day that the idea of Remembrance would gradually die out, but it hasn’t. It’s good that it hasn’t, but what a tragedy that, every year without fail, there are more and more war dead to be remembered. And more and more people who’ve survived but suffered life-changing physical injuries and or horrific trauma.
Journey’s End is hard going, and certainly not enjoyable, but it’s worth watching. As for Emmerdale 1918, I think this is a brilliant idea. Soap stuff makes headlines! We’ve seen that with so many crucial social issues. Can it now branch out into history? OK, I think this series is a one-off, and I don’t think we’re about to see the cast of Coronation Street marking the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre or the cast of EastEnders showing us life in medieval London … but it would be great if we did.