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Battles of WWI

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Filming Faulk’s epic novel of love and the Somme: the story so far…

News from the set of BBC’s epic WWI drama Birdsong, now in production, is slow in coming, but here’s what we know at this point:

Cover of Sebastian Faulks' BirdsongIn May, the BBC revealed that Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ epic 1993 novel of illicit love, friendship under fire, and the ‘Great War’ that eventually alters everything, would finally be produced as a two-part television drama. This possibly disappointed some fans who for years have looked forward to a big screen adaptation.

That this hugely popular bestseller is coming to the screen at all, however, is certainly cause for excitement. Early, if so far meager, indications are that viewers will not be disappointed.

Birdsong is the story of young Englishman Stephen Wraysford, who, while temporarily attached to a textile plant in France in 1910, finds himself drawn to the plant owner’s beautiful wife Isabelle. They soon begin an intense affair that eventually meets an abrupt – and unexpected — end.

Much of the novel is set six years later, in the trenches near Amiens, during the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme. Wraysford and his friend Michael Weir are officers in charge of miners who dig tunnels and set explosives beneath enemy lines prior to the campaign.

One of the miners is Jack Firebrace, whose life will intersect with Stephen’s in a profound way.

British Tommies going over the top at the Somme

British Tommies going over the top at the Somme

Perhaps the most gripping arc in the story is the actual first day of the Somme battle itself. Faulks’ descriptions of the carnage and dreadful toll of that day are set forth with harrowing and unforgettable vividness. It’s the most chilling of several strong story arcs that have made Birdsong a much-loved – and bestselling – classic, and it’s sure to be the heart-rending set piece of the film.

Birdsong has sold more than three million copies worldwide.

Making Birdsong: the long odyssey from book to screen

In the BBC film, Stephen Wraysford is portrayed by Eddie Redmayne (Saving Grace, Pillars of the Earth, Glorious 39). His lover Isabelle is portrayed by Clemence Poesy (Harry Potter: Deathly Hallows 1 & 2, In Bruges).

Birdsong had an overwhelming impact on me when I first read it as a teen,” says Redmayne.

While the story has been a gigantic best-seller since it appeared in 1993, and more recently has been produced on the West End stage in London, the novel has long eluded the transition to the big screen.

For 18 years, film rights-holder Working Title has tried to get it there. Many directors have been attached. A number of scripts have been commissioned. Actors have been named and then renamed, among them Ralph Feinnes, Ewan McGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The script being shot is by Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady). Philip Martin (Wallander, Prime Suspect 7) is directing.

First Photos of Birdsong? and… the Battle of the Big Budgets

Filming got underway in Hungary in mid-June. One twitter post had Redmayne arriving at the airport in Budapest on June 10. Beyond that, scant information has been forthcoming.

As of August 29, however, these photos of Poesy and Redmayne, labelled Birdsong and bearing the stamp of BBC 1, have appeared on a Clemence Poesy fan site. The shots of Redmayne and Poesy together certainly embody the intensity of attraction between Stephen and Isabelle.

In May, BBC’s Head of Drama Ben Stephenson said Birdsong signals BBC’s intent to start making some of “the best drama in the world.” He added that the network aims to go head to head with American TV in the arena of big-budget drama.

The moving and uniquely British story of Birdsong is certainly big enough for such a budget. If all goes well with filming and post-production, there is no reason the result shouldn’t draw a massive audience, introduce many to the tragedy of the Somme, and give the Americans a run for their money.

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Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong Page (official)

Unforgettable: 20 popular songs inspired by the First World War, Part 1

The ‘War to End All Wars’ has inspired many songwriters through the present day, as this survey (with video) of 20 modern songs illustrates.

Welcome to the first of a series that examines “recent” popular songs inspired by events or themes of World War One.

With one exception, the songs featured in this series were produced after – usually long after– the war’s end in 1918. The earliest song dates from the 1920’s. Most were written after 1980. The most recent appeared in 2009.

Each installment will showcase three songs, presenting a little information about each one and the events that inspired it. Where possible, a link to lyrics will be provided.

Most of these songs are understandably poignant, tragic, haunting… and anti-war. It’s hard to imagine how they could be otherwise.

I’ve selected video clips for sound quality and for the way their visuals heighten the emotional impact of the song.

Without further ado, I present to you, gentle reader, in no chronological order, the first three of 20 songs inspired by the First World War…

“The Accrington Pals” – Mike Harding (1984)

The Accrington Pals was a part of the 11th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, one of many Pals battalions raised throughout Britain in response to Lord Kitchner’s call for a voluntary army. The Pals battalions were so-called because members were recruited with the promise they could serve alongside their friends, neighbors and co-workers, rather than being allocated arbitrarily to regular army units. The Accrington Pals were raised from in and around Accrington in Lancashire.

Following a brief deployment in the Suez in 1916, the Accrington Pals were moved to France where they took part in the ill-fated first day of the Battle of the Somme. The 31st Division, of which the Pals were a part, were to attack the village of Serre and secure the Army’s left flank, but the mission, like so much else for the British that day, was doomed to failure. Some of the Accrington men actually made it to the village, only to become casualties themselves. Of the 700 Pals that went into action, 235 were killed and 350 were wounded. Within the first half-hour of action, the unit was effectively wiped out. One rear-guard observer later wrote:

We were able to see our comrades move forward in an attempt to cross No Man’s Land, only to be mown down like meadow grass. I felt sick at the sight of the carnage and remember weeping.

Here is a site dedicated to the memory of the the Accrington Pals.

The Accrington Pals have also been the subject of a play by Peter Whelan.

Here are the lyrics to Mike Harding’s The Accrington Pals.

* * *

“1916” – Motörhead (1991)

The year 1916 was especially terrible in the long stalemate that was WW1, largely because of the awful slaughters of Verdun and the Somme. These campaigns alone accounted for some 802,000 casualties.

I am not too familiar with Motörhead, but from what I’ve read, this song, written and sung by group founder Lemmy Kilmister, is quite atypical of their usual heavy metal style. The music may be understated, but Motörhead’s so-called “sledgehammer” approach remains, however, in the lyrics’ unrelenting take on the horrors of war, and how easily youth are enticed to enter the sacrificial flames.

We were food for the gun, and that’s
What you are when you’re soldiers

The accompanying (non-official) video renders the lyrics all the more powerful. I must admit, the lyrics and images combined in this one cut me to the quick.

Lyrics to “1916”

* * *

“One” – Metallica (1988)

Dalton Trumbo’s 1931 anti-war classic, Johnny Got His Gun, is one of two books that turned me against all war unconditionally, the other being “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Trumbo’s novel details the experience of a young American soldier who, hit by a shell, has lost arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth and nose. Kept alive in a hospital bed, he remains conscious, with no companion but his thoughts. Condemned to such an existence, he experiences life only through dreams, memories and increasingly embittered reflections. He remains thus locked away from the world outside, until, one day, he discovers a way to communicate with his keepers.

Inspired by the Johnny Got His Gun, “One” was the last single to be released from Metallica’s …And Justice for All album, and it became their first Top 40 hit single.

It was also the first Metallica song to be made into a music video. The band went so far as to secure the rights to the 1971 film version of Johnny Got His Gun, with the result that scenes from the film are prominent throughout the video.

Readers of Guitar World magazine, incidentally, voted “One” as 7th of the “100 Greatest Guitar Solos” of all time.

Lyrics to “One”

All text Copyright ©2011 Rick Koobs

Learning WW1 history through model kits, movies, books and comics

How do popular cultural forms give relevancy and meaning to an event as seemingly antique as World War One?

Still from Beneath Hill 60

The tribulations of German and Australian miners beneath the trenches of Flanders are harrowingly depicted in the film Beneath Hill 60

I happened recently upon a moving YouTube video commemorating the infamous Battle of the Somme, which began on the 1st of July, 1916. In a war that set the standard for wanton wastage of human life, that date marks what remains the bloodiest single day in British military history, with casualties approaching 60 thousand British soldiers killed, wounded or missing.

My introduction to the horrific facts of the Somme was Sebastian Faulks’ epic 1993 novel Birdsong, which, incidentally, is finally in production as a two part television film for the BBC (more on that in an upcoming post). That novel is well worth taking the time to read, especially if you are, like me, a relative newcomer to the First World War. Not least among the many interesting aspects of the novel is its depiction of the miners on both sides whose unenviable (and dangerous!) task was to bore beneath the killing fields of Flanders and France to plant explosives beneath enemy positions. Again, google this subject to learn more. I’d also recommend the excellent, if harrowing, Australian film, Beneath Hill 60, which I intend to write about soon.

Speaking of writing: why this blog? Well, I certainly don’t iplan to expound upon historical arcana in professorial fashion. I am not (at least not yet) enough of an expert for that, and there are plenty of fine Web sites that do it well. (I’ll recommend many as we go along). But I do admit to an insatiable fascination with this cataclysmic, dreadfully sorrowful, but endlessly fascinating era of human history, and a desire to learn more.

Bi-plane kits, old flicks on TV… and Enemy Ace!
It’s an interest first kindled in the mid 1960’s, when I was in my early teens, building my first plastic model kits of quaint double-winged airplanes, the originals of which were flown by daring men with names like Richthofen and Rickenbacker. I read DC comic books starring a red Fokker-flying German known as “Enemy Ace.” On television, if I were lucky, I’d occasionally thrill to old movies like Dawn Patrol and Sgt. York. At the cinema, the big event of 1966 was The Blue Max.

Of course, because of all this, I soon sought out the books, the histories. But my interest in those days was still adolescent, semi-indoctrinated with strange notions of the “glory of war.” It wasn’t until I actually read, a bit later, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and, soon after, Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo’s dreadfully dark indictment of all wars, that I glimpsed the real secret of all wars: war is never glorious, and such enterprise is wasteful and ruinous. No conflict was more profligately so than the First World War, which claimed upwards of 15 million lives, and left few nations unscathed. Eventually, as I came of age and liable for the Vietnam-era draft, other interests came to the fore, and my fascination with the First World War receeded into the background.

Back with a vengeance
It resurfaced, however, some 45 years later. And again, model airplanes were the key! Whether it was a hankering for the scent of enamel paint, a desire to re-create some pleasureable hours of my youth, or just too much too much time on my hands, I don’t know, but I had a powerful desire to build one of those bi-planes again. With the internet, I found that my options had multiplied exponentially. The sheer amount of data available to one now, just on WW1 aircraft, mind-jarring. Beyond that, the universe of WW1 on the Web is vast. You can learn anything there is to know. You can find books aplenty, fiction and non-fiction. Countless films have been made and are there for the discovering. And there is much, so much, more.

Nieuport 17 model kit

My recently-completed 1:48-scale Nieuport-17. The kit is by Czech Republic manufacturer Eduard.

That’s where I hope, via this site, to make a contribution: to stimulate interest in this period, especially among “newcomers” like myself… not so much by rehashing the names, places and facts of the war themselves, but by seeking out and examining the many forms the event has taken – literary, artistic, commercial – in the popular mind and culture, over the 97 years since its advent. If as a result we find ourselves seeking to know more about those names, dates and places, so much the better. Because those things are still worth knowing about.

I invite you to join me in the exploration, which should prove interesting, edifying, sobering, entertaining and I’m sure (dare I say it?) fun.

The First World War soon turns 100

Let me quickly add that we’re rapidly approaching, in 2014, the centenary anniversary of that event. In the coming years, we’ll likely start hearing much about those times. Hopefully the more we hear, the less danger there will be of WW1 becoming an antique, forgotten relic of the past. Its terrors, repercussions and echoes remain with us in so many ways. It’s last veterans may have passed away in 2011, but the war itself was too terrible, too profound in its consequences, even for us today, ever to be forgotten.

All text Copyright ©2011 Rick Koobs

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