The TV Series
On Tuesday, September 22, 1964, CBS broadcast The Summer of Sarajevo, the first of 26 30-minutes-long episodes of a documentary series titled World War One. Written by John Sharnik and Irve Tunick and released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the conflict, World War One featured a score by composer Morton Gould and narration by actor Robert Ryan.
Like NBC’s 1952-53 documentary Victory at Sea, World War One was broadcast in black-and-white and, unlike The World at War, Thames Television’s later documentary about World War II, it didn’t feature any contemporary “talking head” interviews with survivors (the youngest of whom might have been in their 70s) or historians. Stylistically, it might as well have been a sequel to Victory at Sea, since it was presented in the same fashion (B&W archival footage from Australia, Austria, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Russia (then called the Soviet Union), Turkey, and the United States; a “voice of God” narration, and a symphonic score in lieu of sound effects) and one of its producers, Isaac Kleinerman, also produced the earlier series (which focused on naval combat during World War II).
World War One follows the course of the 20th Century’s first great tragedy from the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by a young Serb terrorist in Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 to the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty five years later. The series examines the political and military rivalries in Europe during the latter parts of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th, starting with the emergence of a unified Germany in 1871 and its attempts to become a world power co-equal in prestige, colonial holdings, and military strength as its neighbors (Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Great Britain). The decline of two of the great imperial dynasties (the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs), as well as the psychologically damaged Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troubled personality, are also topics of interest in the early episodes, including The Summer of Sarajevo and The Doomed Dynasties.
Naturally, World War One devotes much of its air time to the military aspects of the conflict; most of the episodes focus on specific campaigns (the Race to the Channel and Germany’s fateful invasion of Belgium in a bid to capture Paris in 42 days per the prewar Schlieffen Plan; trench warfare; the Battle of Jutland; Verdun; Gallipoli; the air war and the public fascination with “aces” such as Manfred von Ritchofen (“the Red Baron”) and Eddie Rickenbacker; submarine warfare; the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne – all of these are covered in specific episodes.
But armed conflict is rooted in politics and socio-cultural mores, too, and World War One examines the non-military aspects of the 1914-1918. Viewers will see episodes that look at “balance of power” maneuvering among Europe’s dynastic empires and its two democracies with colonial holdings of their own, the influence of nationalism in the Balkans and the Middle East, the decaying Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires, the rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in a sharply polarized Russia, Woodrow Wilson and American neutrality, and the role of propaganda in the war efforts of both the Allies and the Central Powers. There’s even an episode devoted to the war-related music of the period (Tipperary and All That Jazz).
When World War One aired during the 1964-1965 season, CBS first scheduled it for broadcast on Tuesday nights at 8 Eastern (7 Central). However, it was up against ABC’s World War II action-drama series Combat! and NBC’s Mr. Novak, which were popular with audiences. As a result, the network moved World War One to the safer time slot of Sunday evenings at 6:30 Eastern (5:30 Central).
In the years after its initial run, CBS News either allowed the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to air repeats on local public television stations such as WPBT-Channel Two in Miami (Florida) or in its own late-night programming slate. CBS also released it for viewing on cable channels such as A&E and The History Channel in 1995 to commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the Great War (and the 30th of the series). It’s also been available on VHS since the 1980s and on DVD since the early 2000s.
The DVD Set
In 2014, to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the First World War and the Golden Anniversary of the series, CBS News granted the DVD licensing rights to World War One to Timeless Media Group. The result: a four-disc set titled WWI: The Complete Story – 100th Memorial Edition, which was manufactured by Shout! and released on May 20, 2014.
The set divvies up the 26 episodes of the documentary among three DVDs – the fourth DVD is a Special Bonus Disc with a separate documentary titled A Century of Warfare about the “history of the United States at War in the 20th Century, including World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm.”
It began as a regional conflict and escalated into a war of Empires that covered the Earth. WWI The Complete Story is a comprehensive look at The War to End All Wars. Produced by CBS television in the early 1960s in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the onset of World War I, this unflinching 26 episode series is more than just the history of this global conflict; it is also a photo album of the early twentieth century. From the political intrigues that led nations to war to Armistice day more than four years later, you’ll meet the men and machines that fought the war and witness every major battle and event of this global struggle. No other collection offers such a complete overview of one of history’s most destructive conflicts. – DVD packaging blurb, WWI: The Complete Story
WWI: The Complete Story (note the rebranding of the series) presents the original series thusly:
Disc One: The War Begins
- The Summer of Sarajevo (Original Air Date—22 September 1964)
- The Clash of the Generals (Original Air Date—29 September 1964)
- The Doomed Dynasties (Original Air Date—6 October 1964)
- Atrocity 1914 (Original Air Date—13 October 1964)
- They Sank the Lusitania (Original Air Date—27 October 1964)
- Verdun the Inferno (Original Air Date—10 November 1964)
- The Battle of Jutland (Original Air Date—17 November 1964)
- The Trenches (Original Air Date—24 November 1964)
- D-Day at Gallipoli (Original Air Date—1 December 1964)
Disc One also has the following extra features under the umbrella of Great Events Before the War
- 1910: King Edward VII Dies
- 1911: The South Pole is Conquered
- 1912: The Titanic Disaster
- 1913: The Panama Canal
Disc Two: The Loss of Innocence
- America the Neutral (Original Air Date—8 December 1964)
- Wilson and the War (Original Air Date—20 December 1964)
- Revolution in Red (Original Air Date—27 December 1964)
- Behind the German Lines (Original Air Date—3 January 1965)
- Year of Lost Illusions (Original Air Date—10 January 1965)
- Over There (Original Air Date—17 January 1965)
- Over Here (Original Air Date—24 January 1965)
- Daredevils and Dogfights (Original Air Date—31 January 1965)
- The Agony of Caporetto (Original Air Date—14 February 1965)
- Tipperary and All That Jazz (Original Air Date—21 February 1965)
- The Promised Lands (Original Air Date—28 February 1965)
Disc Two also has the following extra feature
- Up From the Trenches
Disc Three: The Tide of War
- The Tide Turns (Original Air Date—7 March 1965)
- The Battle of Argonne (Original Air Date—14 March 1965)
- The Day the Guns Stopped Firing (Original Air Date—28 March 1965)
- Wilson and Peace (Original Air Date—4 April 1965)
- The Allies in Russia (Original Air Date—11 April 1965)
- Heritage of War (Original Air Date—18 April 1965)
Disc Three also includes the following extra features under the banner Post War Great Events:
- 1920: Prohibition
- 1920: Suffrage
- 1921: The Irish Free State
- 1922: Mussolini Takes Over
The bonus disc, A Century of War, consists of four minidocumentaries:
- World War II
- Desert Storm
I remember watching repeat episodes of World War One (as it was known before 1995) sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. My recollection is rather vague because I only saw it once on broadcast TV way after its original airdates of the 1964-1965 season. (I was one going on two years then, so I couldn’t have watched – and remembered – it during its broadcast run on CBS. My parents might have watched it, but my father died in a plane crash on the Saturday before The Agony of Caporetto aired on February 14, 1965.) I probably have watched it on PBS when I was in junior high. We didn’t have cable then and the series was shown in its “as seen on CBS” form, complete with its original main title sequence and name.
I emphasize the part about the main title sequence because somewhere between the PBS rebroadcast and the series’ release on home media, the title was changed from World War One to WWI: The Complete Story and the original main title sequence, which ended with an iconic shot of an Allied soldier – either British or American from the look of the silhouette – rising up from a crouch position to aim a rifle, at which point the image was frozen, has been deleted. The new title sequence still features a section of Morton Gould’s main theme, but It has been modernized and shorn of most of its credits. More likely this was done to appeal to more modern audiences with shorter attention spans and to cut the episodes’ run time to allow cable channels to cram more ads into their 30-minute time slots.
As far as I can tell, the main content of the episodes is left intact, and because CBS News and CBS Home Entertainment are still listed as owners of the editorial material, the episodes don’t seem to have any flaws in the editing or completeness of content (except, of course, for the revamped main title sequence at the beginning of each episode).
From a history buff’s perspective, WWI: The Complete Story is a good introduction to the topic; like Victory at Sea, it’s a Big Picture-type of historical overview; it’s not as immersive or detailed as the shorter but more specific 2017 American Experience: The Great War, a three-part documentary by Stephen Ives (The West), which focuses on the U.S. involvement in the war. However, it is a decent if rather general overview that gives viewers who are more familiar with the 20th Century’s other – and even bloodier – global conflict, World War II and its sequels a deeper understanding of why peace after Versailles proved impossible.
To their credit, the series’ writers – John Sharnik and Irve Tunick – don’t just focus their attention on the purely military aspects of the war – aspects such as strategy, tactics, weapons, or technology. Considering that each episode is about 26 minutes long, they convey some of the human dimensions of the war by adding occasional mentions to the strengths and flaws of leaders such as Kaiser Wilhelm II (a man who overcompensated for a deformed left arm and a tendency to waffle by acting as Europe’s bellicose bully) and Nicholas II (a well-meaning man who nevertheless was intellectually incapable of leading Russia into the modern world and resisting the need for political and economic reforms). WWI: The Complete Story also goes out of its way to explore the home fronts of Germany, Russia, and the United States, which was dubiously neutral and had as its President a complex man who was in turns idealistic and arrogant.
So far, I have not noticed any serious flaws in Timeless Media Group’s presentation of the rebranded World War One documentary; I’ve seen at least one sloppily presented version of the earlier Victory at Sea on DVD where the distributors crammed in the 26 episodes on two DVDs. (That set, which was a Mill Creek production, was ghastly. It had really sloppy edits and poor video quality that made for a truly unpleasant viewing experience. Such is not the case here, Timeless Media Group partnered with the copyright owner, CBS News – the network’s iconic “Eye” logo is on the spine of the DVD package and is also seen in the start of playback of each disc – so quality control was a top priority in the making of this set. The images – both motion picture and stills – are decent, considering the fact that the archival footage used by the producers was already 50 years old and had flaws caused by damage and the passage of time.
The only serious issue I have with this DVD set – other than the change in title from World War One to WWI: The Complete Story – is the lack of subtitles for the deaf or hearing impaired. I am not 100% deaf, but I do have a hard time hearing clearly In situations where I can’t have the volume set at 60% or higher on the volume bar of a TV set. (On my computer, where I’ m closer to the monitor/speakers or can use a headset, this isn’t a problem. But in the TV room late at night…that’s another situation altogether.) Subtitles for the deaf or hearing impaired would have been nice on this set.
Overall, this DVD set is worth getting. Although the episodes are – like Victory at Sea a decade or so earlier – under 30 minutes in running time, it is well-researched and free from the wartime propaganda biases that colored the belligerent nations’ views of the war while it was ongoing. The narration is well-written and delivered without dramatic embellishment by veteran actor Robert Ryan, and composer Morton Gould’s score is used for great effect instead of artificially added sound effects.
I strongly recommend WWI: The Complete Story to anyone who is interested in learning about the cataclysmic event that shaped and continues to affect our modern world.