It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Sunday evening must be in want of a period drama

Portrayals of the Great War

Portrayals of the Great War


‘We should all make a silent prayer to mark the finish of this terrible war and what that means for each and every one of us, let us remember the sacrifices that have been made and the men who will never come back and give them our thanks.’ Lord Grantham, Downton Abbey

After a day of remembrance which marked a full century since the guns fell silent on the western front, I immersed myself in Downton Abbey Series Two which is so influenced by the Great War. The war (1914 – 1918) spans six of the eight episodes in this series which also deals with the aftermath of the war and the Spanish Flu. It deals with life in the trenches for Matthew, Thomas and William, and life at home for their loved ones. This is a fairly gentle portrayal of the horrors of the War (there is heartbreak and death but it’s more sanitised that many other stories).*

While Downton is now so familiar to me that (to dreadfully paraphrase Jo March) watching it is like coming home again, I realised that my repertoire of period dramas is sadly lacking in first world war pieces.

To rectify this, I have sought out a range of films and series about the First World War, some comic, some heartwarming many heartbreaking. I have yet to watch several of these, but with a port in hand and a fire in the hearth, it seems the perfect moment to start. (Perhaps with tissues in hand, heartbreaking tragedy is bound to ensue, and quite rightly so if an accurate portrayal is to be found.)

1)Testament of Youth

This is first on my watch list this week. Released in 2014, this film is based on Vera Brittain’s First World War memoir about life as a war nurse. Vera Brittain leaves her hard-won place at Somerville College, Oxford to volunteer as a nurse for the Voluntary Aid Detachment. It details her experiences of the war and those of her lover Roland Leighton, brother Edward and his friend Victor Richardson.

The Telegraph called it ‘stirring’ and an ‘appalling catalogue of personal loss, a scalding of the soul.’

2) To Serve Them All My Days

I’ve read this book but not watched the adaptation – yet! A BBC series with 13 episodes, this was broadcast in the early 1980s. It deals with the aftermath of the war, with an injured and shellshocked protagonist seeking to move on from his experiences in the trenches as he teaches modern history at Bamfylde School in North Devon. Filmed in Devon and Dorset, this series stars John Duttine, Frank Middlemass, Alan MacNaughton, Belinda Lang, Patricia Lawrence and Nicholas Lyndhurst.

As an aside, this, along with the other brilliant Delderfield story ‘A Horseman Riding By’ MUST be ripe for a new adaptation a la Poldark.

Some episodes are on YouTube or you can buy the DVD secondhand from Amazon –

3) Blackadder goes forth

The comedy option, this depicts the trenches in Flanders during World War I. It follows Blackadder, Baldrick and George attempting to escape from the trenches. It is black comedy, which constantly digs at the leadership of the British army in Flanders. This series includes the immortal line: ‘As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.’ Brilliant.

This is available on Netflix.

4) War Horse

This Spielberg film is based on the Michael Morpurgo novel and has a stellar cast including Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston. It is a tragic story of Albert and his beloved horse Joey, a bay thoroughbred, who is purchased by the British cavalry and sent to war. Expect to weep.

Available to buy or rent on Amazon Prime.

Other notable mentions which deal with the Great War are A Little Princess (one of the first films I ever saw at the cinema), the Crimson Fields, Birdsong, My Boy Jack and Goodbye Christopher Robin (which deals with both World Wars).

*All episodes of Downton Abbey are available on Amazon Prime