The year has begun with a sometimes-heated debate about the First World War, with politicians, historians and columnists offering strikingly different interpretations of the war’s causes. I think this debate is in itself a testament to the complexity and importance of the conflict. As the BBC begins its collection of programming, we know that by many definitions, it is the most ambitious season we have ever mounted – running for four years across television, radio and online and across national, international and local services. There are already well over 100 specially commissioned new programmes and, in total over the next four years, we expect there to be around 2,500 hours of output related to the centenary.
But why embark on output on this scale for a series of anniversaries of events 100 years ago and from which there are no living survivors?
Above all, because it matters so much. The war shaped how we live now. It changed the map of the world and the social and political makeup of Britain. But the war also matters to almost all of us as individuals. Scarcely a family or community in Britain was left untouched – and as the memories merge into history, this is a chance to take stock of the individual stories – of bravery and tragedy, of transformation and endurance.
There is a third reason, too. Despite the volumes that have been written and broadcast about the war over the past century, there is still something new to say. Something that puts the war in its proper perspective, explaining how it was the first truly global war, fought not only in Europe but also in Africa, Asia and the South Atlantic. Something that explains how the First World War changed not just how wars were fought but the profound impact it had on areas such as medicine, the arts and journalism.
We have turned to many of the world’s most eminent historians to offer the latest interpretations and we will look at the war from many different perspectives, helping people make up their own minds about what happened and why.
The actual anniversary of the outbreak of war falls this summer – Britain’s entry took place on 4 August 1914. By August 2014, we will already have broadcast many programmes and there will still be four years and three months until the centenary of the Armistice. The early programmes are an important foundation for us, giving an overview of the war, analysing its causes and considering its impact on Britain. A subject as vast as this can only be done justice by many hours of output, but it will certainly not be homogeneous; the range of programmes is designed to appeal to audiences of different ages, with different interests. As you would expect, there will be many documentaries, but also dramas on both television and radio; we will go online for more detailed guides to many aspects of the war and, throughout the four years, we will offer live coverage of the key events. We will also be repeating some of the most important programmes from the archive and, at defining points, we will follow the events of 100 years ago as they happened in real time.
The debate about the war is likely to continue, right through until the centenary of the Armistice in November 2018. It was a war that changed the world and which still has lessons for us now. We hope that through our programmes we will help everyone understand those changes better.