Posted by: sommecourt | 07/11/2010

The First World War From Above

This was screened on BBC1 on Sunday 7 November. I had been looking forward to this as I have been collecting WW1 aerial images for many years (see the one left of Ploegsteert) and although the film from 1919 was touted as ‘new’ it was something I had seen before. So a combination of this fascinating archive and some potentially good contributors (Peter Barton & Nigel Steel) made me hope this would be an excellent documentary. Instead it was an hour of drivel. Despite the likes of Peter and Nigel – who were asked some pretty inane questions – a programme that was meant to be about the Western Front only looked at Flanders and the Somme, and spent a good proportion of its time discussing the war below the Western Front: tunnelling!! Factually it also fell on dodgy ground; one ‘expert’ claimed that the glass negatives for aerial images were ‘washed in ditches’ (!) and the usual stories of ‘why did we send men to fight in that’ were trotted out. Lazy television and a terrible waste of a fantastic resource.

BBC Link:



  1. Paul a shame. I haven’t watched it yet as I have been at work. As you say it seems like a missed chance.

  2. Couldn’t agree more – it was a compete load of cr*p. Some enlightened soul needs to tell me a) why Fergal Keane was presenting b) why if they had an hour and 10 mins aerial footage they mainly ignored it c) why they spent 10 mins at the Somme, which wasn’t even on the film, d) why the commentary was like absolute recycled bubblegum, e) where the money went for the CGI (because it certainly didn’t go ON the CGI, f) why after 50 minutes they decided it was about the aerial footage after all and so went off in pursuit of the film-maker’s daughter just to make her cry for a cheap ending, and g) why they bothered at all? Yet more gimmick ridden self-obsessed opportunity seeking television from a broadcaster that used to be the envy of the world when it came to factual production. It’s one thing to discover an important historical document in this case the film in France, Auntie – it’s another thing to know what to do with it. A wasted opportunity, and no doubt they’ll be slapping themselves on the back at TV Centre for yet another histiry job “well done”.

  3. There should be a law prohibiting any British documentary about WWI from mentioning the first day of the Somme. Simply in order to avoid lazy historical cliches coming to the fore. The same law should also require any mention of casualty figures to be followed by an explanation that they include wounded and PoWs. Finally there should be a mandatory closing statement (preferably read by Judi Dench) to the effect that casualties in WW2 were in the order of 3 times worse; only no one in this country cares because most of them were Russian civilians.

  4. Hello, gents. As a reasonably well-informed WWI enthusiast with a media background, I share your dim view of the doco. Mr. Paton sums it up most succinctly. I have added my thoughts to the BBC blog on the prog.

    Probably the only thing I would say in Mr. Radice’s defence is that he doesn’t appear to imply that M Prevaux’s film has just been discovered (although many websites have formed that impression). Portions of it have been sighted on several occasions in the past, most notably in a rather well-done Belgian doco in 2007. I suspect it has simply been on a shelf at ECPAD.

    However, one assumes that the “meticulous digging by our French researcher” to discover M Preaux’s fate consisted of buying a copy of his biography, which was co-written by his daughter and published in 2000.

  5. Thanks for all your comments on this.

  6. Is it possible to trace individual photographic prints shown on the programme? I’d like to know more about the still/photographic portrait of an aerial observer shown with a camera as he resembles my grandfather! Well, he’s got to be someone’s relative! How can I trace the print?

    By the way, I thought the programme was fascinating.

  7. […] The busiest day of the year was November 8th with 111 views. The most popular post that day was The First World War From Above. […]

  8. Incredible view point. Worth it just to see the airship pilot’s daughter watching her dad for the very first time.

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