Most of us remember history class lessons about the brutal trench warfare in World War I, or seeing it in movies like "All Quiet on the Western Front" or "Warhorse." But these depictions tell just part of the story of the 1914-1917 conflict; the History miniseries "WWI: The First Modern War," intends to fill in the blanks.
Highlighting innovations that changed the course of history, the four-part documentary, which airs on July 26, uses archive footage, re-creations and readings from eyewitness' letters and memoirs to tell the story of the war that began 100 years ago and set the stage for future combat. Paul Wooding, executive producer for "Impossible Factual," shared his insights.
MNN: Why were the weaponry advancements of World War I so important?
Paul Wooding: World Wwar I was the first mechanized war: use of weapons of mass destruction, attacks on civilians with subs and aerial bombing. It was a step-change in warfare.
We know all about World War II but less about this war. Why do you think that is?
Probably partly because there is no longer living testimony and partly because events of World War II have somewhat eclipsed it. Also World War II was considered more of a just war. But many of the horrors of war first appeared on the battlefield in World War I. For example, we had air raid shelters and gas masks in World War II because of events in World War I.
The remains of a bombed city appear in this still from "WWI: The First Modern War."
Why did you choose these four topics — tanks, air attacks, chemical weapons, and submarines — to highlight in the series?
These are the four most significant technological advancements in weaponry and their application: mechanized armored vehicles to attack the front line in support of foot soldiers and mounted ones, the very first 'Blitz' (which most people associate with World War II) aerial attacks on civilian population to demoralize the enemy, chemical weapons (mustard gas, for example) and large scale tunneling with explosive charges on the front line were really the first weapons of mass destruction. Submarines illustrated how important the supply line across the Atlantic from the U.S. to Europe was during the war and why the Germans used subs in a totally new way as an offensive weapon.
What were the particular significant and game changing advancements in each that turned the tide in the war and laid the groundwork for future conflicts?
Tanks: Applying them in a support role and leading the charge and following up with foot soldiers to take ground quickly was copied in World War II by Germans — who at first underestimated their effect as they were not being used effectively — when they 'Blitzkreiged' across Europe.
Air attacks: Using long range bombers to attack supply lines (such as ports), munitions factories and later civilians — something that was copied in World War II but now has evolved into smart weaponry with less collateral damage.
Chemical weapons: Mines and gas were the first weapons of mass destruction. The latter was not totally effective on the battlefield and subsequently not used in future conflicts but adopted by terror organizations against civilians.
Subs: Underwater conflict was a new battlefield. The Germans used it to strangle the supply lines of Britain but it backfired when it contributed to bringing America into the war after sinking the Lusitania.
What were the challenges in illustrating the story and bringing World War I to life?
We didn't have a complete archive to work with, so we used CGI to dramatically illustrate some groundbreaking moments of World War I. We had a special agreement with the Imperial War museum to use their existing archive and add CGI elements to it to create the scenes so they would be as accurate as possible. We did a lot of research into the details of the tanks, aircraft, subs and ships to ensure they were true to the events. Matching the variable speed hand cranked camera footage and blending the CGI into the existing quality archive where among the many challenges.
A Zeppelin floats by in this still from "WWI: The First Modern War."
What did you learn making this series, especially things that surprised you?
When these new technologies hit the battlefield, both sides got into an arms race at accelerated speed, coming up with new weapons and measures to counter them. But most interesting is the testimony from the men and women who witnessed these significant events: the Germans hearing and seeing a tank for the first time and wondering what it is; ships being sunk by an invisible sub and assuming at first it was a mine, then having to change the way they operated because they couldn't pick up survivors for fear they would also be sunk; Londoners coming out in awe to look at a Zeppelin then to discover it was about to bomb them; the game of cat and mouse the men on both sides played when laying underground mines, trying to kill each other before they were killed themselves; and the extraordinary scientific research put into chemical weapons. Most surprisingly, that chlorine gas was first used by the Germans because they had a massive supply of it because it was used in chemical dyes.
What do you want audiences to take away?
That World War I was the technological turning point that introduced the biggest step-change in high-tech, deadly elements of any war.
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