Monday, February 06, 2012

We few, we happy few ...



I’ve been quite enjoying season two of Downton Abbey, particularly with the added drama of England’s entry into the Great War—no one has escaped its effects or been left unscathed (one way or another). The show has done a nicely understated job of showing how the pressures of war exposed the extant fault lines in the British class system (and caste system), as well as cracking open new ones. The drama of manners we saw in season one has been transformed into what I like to think of as nascent tragedy: a suspended sense of catastrophe and Damocles-like helplessness made manifest by the flood of maimed and wounded now convalescing in Downton.

My viewing of season two has serendipitously coincided with reading the second volume of Tim Cook’s excellent history of Canada in WWI, Shock Troops . Volume one, At The Sharp End, covered the war from the beginning to the end of 1916; Shock Troops starts with Vimy Ridge and goes on to the end of the war, detailing the evolution of the conflict in terms of tactics and strategy, all the while grounding the narrative in specifics about the troops, their travails, and life in the trenches. Never does Cook become abstract: always is the reader aware of the human cost of the decisions made by the high command, of the brutal butcher bills that accompanied our troops’ greatest triumphs (our victory at Vimy Ridge, for example, was massively more costly than defeat at the Somme).

It has been instructive to read this book while following Downton Abbey, though at times somewhat frustrating. It has meant that, for example, when Matthew Crawley led his troops over the top at Amiens, I was painfully aware that the show got the historical specifics pretty much exactly wrong.


To wit: the scene begins in anxious silence in the trench as the soldiers wait, with Matthew checking his pocket-watch. Then he leads them up over the top into the teeth of German fire. They charge in a tight line across No Man’s Land; soldiers fall to shot and shell as we are shown the Germans, also tightly clustered in their trenches, firing their rifles.

The biggest inaccuracy was the silence preceding the attack. Early battle doctrine was to mercilessly pound the enemy lines with an artillery barrage, clearing the trenches and cutting the barbed wire. At the moment of the attack, the barrage stopped, and the soldiers tried to cross No Man’s Land as fast as they could, ideally before the enemy could reoccupy their trenches. More often than not, they did not succeed.

Later in the war, standard procedure became the “creeping barrage.” The gunners would lay down a heavy barrage that moved forward in fifty to one hundred yard increments, and the soldiers advanced as close as they dared behind the curtain of shellfire. This way, they could raid the enemy trenches immediately after the barrage lifted, clearing out the strongpoints with bombs and grenades before the enemy could emerge. The incremental movement of the shellfire acted as a massive killing broom, sweeping the enemy wire and trenches with methodical brutality.

It was the Canadian Corps who essentially invented and perfected the creeping barrage, and used it to do what neither the British or French had managed in spite of multiple attempts: take Vimy Ridge, easily the most formidably dug-in and defensible German possession on the Western Front.

My point is that there would have not been silence before Matthew Crawley’s attack: even the most stiff-necked and hidebound of British commanders had adopted the creeping barrage at that point in the war. Early in the war, the attack would have been heralded by the sudden silence as the guns ceased the preparatory barrage. Either way, the sequence gets it wrong.

All of which, I am sure, makes me sound very pedantic … but that is, I suppose, the curse of having a little knowledge.

The intersection of Downton Abbey and Shock Troops in my imagination has made me think, of all things, about the HBO series Band of Brothers (wrong war, I know). Of all the films, mini-series, and television shows I have seen depicting 20th century warfare, Band of Brothers has a strong claim on being the best. The series—mini-series, technically—ran for eight episodes and followed the fortunes of the paratroopers of Easy Company from the 101st Airborne Division. Like many HBO series, Band of Brothers is an ensemble drama; though the main character is arguably Lt. Richard Winters (played so well by Brit Damian Lewis), he more often than not fades into the background as other members of the company become the story’s focus.

The historical realism of the series is admirable, as is its refusal to fall into cliché. I find it endearingly ironic that it was produced by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks—because Band of Brothers is what Saving Private Ryan desperately wanted to be, but instead, after its stunning sequence depicting the Normandy landings, fell into sentimentality and every WWII film cliché imaginable.

What I wish for is a Band of Brothers treatment of Canadians in WWI. Reading Cook’s history, I am struck by how well it would work as source material for such a series, and how compelling our troops would be if treated with the kind of intelligent, unsentimental writing that marked Band of Brothers. If done right, it would fly in the face of many conceptions of Canadianness: our troops were notorious for their profanity, coarseness, and their chronic disrespect for authority (especially British authority). Many of our troops refused to salute their superiors, and rudely rejected the fussy discipline that was customary for British soldiers. A popular joke from the war involved a sentry demanding “Who goes there?” “British.” “Pass, Brits.” “Who goes there?” “Australians.” “Pass, Aussies.” “Who goes there?” “Mind your own fuckin’ business!” “Pass, Canadians.”

A series that, like Band of Brothers, followed a specific unit of Canadian soldiers over the course of the war—and did so with an eye to historical realism and resisting the urge to sentimentalize—could work really well. And I’m sorry, but Paul Gross can’t go anywhere near it. As much as I love him, Passchendale should disqualify him from ever doing anything about WWI again.

1 comment:

doctorofdreams said...

Thank you for this blog entry.
I too noticed the inaccuracies in the Amiens battle scene in Downton Abbey.
I googled looking for someone else who noticed the same thing ... thank you for being pedantic and thorough.
Much appreciated.
I would love to see a film adaptation of Three Day Road, but only if it was done holding true to history and the novel ... I agree, not another Paul Gross movie.
Harry