They Shall Not Grow Old is a fascinating and eye-opening documentary about World War I, which uses new technology and expert editing to illuminate the experience of ordinary soldiers fighting on the Western Front. With its colourisation and steadying of shaky old black and white film, its dubbing of sound effects and snippets of dialogue, Peter Jackson’s film humanises these men, bringing them back to life.
Director Jackson was given around 600 black and white silent films from the Imperial War Museum archive, much of it previously unseen, which he has spent the last four years working on. The film is narrated by the voices of 120 veterans taken from BBC and IWM interviews recorded in 1964.
They Shall Not Grow Old has been shown in UK schools and selected cinemas before being broadcast on the BBC to coincide with Armistice Day. Children may already be familiar with some of the gruesome details of life in the Trenches from reading Horrible Histories – the lice and the rats, the mud and the latrines (“to have a clear-out was terrible”) – but they probably won’t have seen dead bodies swarming with flies in such clarity.
It is unlikely that today’s teenagers would volunteer for such a conflict, but back in 1914 many young men were keen to escape their boring jobs. Only those between the ages of 19 and 35 were supposed to be eligible, but many 15, 16 and 17 year-olds joined up. If a volunteer confessed his real age, he was likely to be told by the recruiting officer: “you better go outside and have a birthday.”
We follow the soldiers’ progress as they are given piecemeal clothing and hard, ill-fitting boots (“I used to urinate in them and leave it in overnight,” says one veteran), then disciplined and marched into shape by sergeants. By the time they pushed off to France they were all “glad to be going.”
As we approach the devastation of the Front the black and white film becomes colourised and sharpened, though the palette is a muted one in the mud of the trenches, emphasizing the redness of poppies and blood. Amidst the continuous shelling the soldiers got used to the “nasty, sickly smell of death”. Some describe how they killed Germans, making a distinction between the “civilised” Bavarians and the “cruel” Prussians. “A lot of the Germans were good, decent people,” says one.
When there is a “big advance” and the infantrymen are ordered to go over the top, Jackson uses monochrome comic-strip images to evoke the combat. But the words of the servicemen are most effective, describing the “inferno in the air and in our heads” and the machine gun bullets strafing them “like hailstones … we were literally walking over the dead bodies of our comrades.”
When the end comes both sides agree “how useless war was”, questioning why it had needed to happen. The Germans “couldn’t care less who won, as long as the war was finished.” When the last gun fell silent there was no celebration, just a feeling of relief. Nearly one million British and Empire servicemen were killed between 1914 and 1918; estimates of total military and civilian deaths range from 15-19 million.
The surviving soldiers wondered what they were going to do next. They returned to mass unemployment and a widespread lack of understanding of what they had been through. “We were a race apart from the civilians,” says one. “You couldn’t convey the awfulness of the war. It developed into something ghastly. How did we endure it? The fear of fear. And not wanting to let comrades down.”