37 Days: How the First World War Began


Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word—the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
Philip Larkin, from “MCMXIV”


In 2014, the BBC announced a four-year schedule of over 2500 hours of commemorative programming, marking 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 through to the centenary of the Armistice on November 11, 2018, covering all the key moments, including the anniversaries of Gallipoli, Jutland, the Somme and Passchendaele.

The commemoration comprised documentaries, such as Jeremy Paxman’s four-part series Britains Great War, historical debates, commentaries and dramas—which included The Crimson Field, The Passing-Bells, Great War Diary, Oh, What a Lovely War!, Home Front, Tommies and 37 Days.

Joe Dolce’s TV columns appear in every Quadrant.
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Mark Hayhurst, who wrote the screenplay for the three-part mini-series 37 Days, which focuses on the crucial weeks that led to the outbreak of the war, said he had been interested in the war since he was a boy, but had never understood how people could have allowed it to happen. He and the producer Sue Horth have created a coherent and concise perspective of the probable way this rolling juggernaut of death and destruction was allowed to be released. Based on the political discussions that occurred in those weeks, it is a brilliant aid to understanding how complex and logical networks of treaties, injected with a large dose of megalomania, and general unrest among common people, can combine to produce unthinkable catastrophe.

The mini-series, directed by Justin Hardy, begins with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo in June 1914. It has the ultimate “ticking time-bomb” structure for suspense. Periodically, throughout, we are given the countdown: thirty-two days to war, twenty-eight days to war, fourteen days to war. Andrew Anthony, in a review for the Observer, wryly commented: “Spoiler alert: negotiations didn’t work.” To create the script, the producers and director assembled a 175-page war book comprising “every conference, every telephone call, private letter and telegram swirling around Europe”.

37 Days does not delve too much into the back-story of the European political landscape of the early 1900s, such as the death of Edward VII, which has been covered in other excellent books and popular documentaries, such as The Guns of August. Instead, we begin with the almost accidental opportunity presented to the Bosnian-Serb militant Gavrilo Princip, played by Chris Kelly, as he sits in a coffee shop in Sarajevo, during Vidovdan, June 28, one of Serbia’s holiest days—a day to commemorate Serbian national identity. Princip is a member of the Black Hand, a group that believes Bosnia should be a part of Serbia and that the Austrian rulers should be kicked out. During an open-vehicle procession through the streets, the unpopular Archduke Ferdinand’s car takes a wrong turn down a side street and stalls in front of Princip’s coffee shop. Hardly believing what he sees, Princip acts quickly, drawing his pistol, striding out into the street and killing Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.

As the series shows, however, the assassination was never the reason for the outbreak of the war. It was not even the catalyst. It was only the excuse.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, played by Rainer Sellien, is offended by the regicide of Ferdinand, which he considers the worst possible crime. The Habsburg empire had been crumbling for years and Wilhelm detests the Serbs—“Serbia should learn to feel the Habsburgs again.” He wants to punish them, but only in a limited way, with a “quick” war.

Wilhelm’s chief of staff, General Helmuth von Moltke, played by Bernhard Schütz, is depicted as the true war-monger, seeing the perfect opportunity to use the assassination as a means of goading Russia, which supports Serbia, into a larger conflict, to neutralise their growing threat on their common land border. He says: “There can’t be a powerful Germany and a powerful Russia on the same continent—one has to submit.”

Moltke’s uncle, Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke (known as Moltke the Elder) had led the Prussian Army in the War of 1870 that crushed France and occupied Paris. Aware that Russia and France have an agreement (the Franco-Russian Alliance) over mutual strategic military interests, von Moltke understands that Germany will first have to subdue France.

The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, played by Ian McDiarmid, preoccupied with problems in Ireland, cannot see the implications of what is unfolding, but the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, played by Nicholas Asbury, alerts him to the impending danger.

Austria, now backed by Germany, sends a demeaning ultimatum to the Serbs—neither expecting nor desiring the acceptance of the terms—to which the Serbs surprisingly agree on every point. Grey wrote, “I had never seen one State address to another independent State a document of so formidable a character.” Yet the Germans are not satisfied, as their real goal is the bigger confrontation with Russia.

Grey attempts to encourage the French ambassador, Paul Cambon, played by Francois-Eric Gendron, to keep Anglo-French neutrality in any possible conflict between Germany and Russia, but France, bound by treaty, has to stand with Russia. Britain, also due to a written commitment with France, the Entente Cordiale, has to support France in any invasion. British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, played by Tim Pigott-Smith, fears that England will be pulled into the conflict, whether the British people want war or not. Grey argues that Britain most likely is not technically bound by any military alliance to defend France, and examines ways to renege on the Entente Cordiale. But before this can happen, the German army invades neutral Belgium as a corridor on their march to France. For the British, also bound by the 1839 Treaty of London to protect Belgium, this is the decisive move of aggression that forces Britain to declare war on Germany.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was neither the isolated action of a lone gunman, nor Princip’s first attempt. There were five other conspirators lining the route of the motorcade. Princip’s first opportunity was foiled by the heavy crowds and the high speed of Ferdinand’s car. He may have felt he had lost his chance when he went into that café. One of the other conspirators was supposed to throw a bomb but lost his nerve. Another one, a nineteen-year-old like Princip, managed to throw a hand grenade but the driver saw it and accelerated, causing it to explode under one of the following cars. Two passengers and twelve bystanders were hurt and had to be hospitalised. Those in the motorcade were now aware of the danger they faced, and Ferdinand’s car had actually been on route to the hospital, where he was to visit the wounded, when his car mistakenly turned down Franz Josef Street and stalled. Sitting in the open car, he and his wife were unprotected and vulnerable.

Princip was arrested immediately after the assassination but, too young to receive the death penalty, was sentenced to twenty years. He attempted once to commit suicide but failed and, three years later, in prison, died of skeletal tuberculosis. Buried in an unmarked grave, his bones were later secretly dug up by Slavic nationalists and buried in Sarajevo, at St Mark’s Cemetery, in a plot “to commemorate for eternity our Serb heroes”.

Mark Hayhurst also wrote the screenplay for the BBC film The Man Who Crossed Hitler, also directed by Justin Hardy, the true story of Hans Litten, a Berlin lawyer who, in 1931, took Hitler to court to make him explain why stormtroopers were bludgeoning people when the soon-to-be-Führer had recently disavowed violence. Litten eventually ended up in a series of concentration camps, where he committed suicide.

Hayhurst said, “Writing 37 Days did change my perspective of war. I started thinking Europe had sleepwalked into war and all the nations were equally to blame. But I came to think that it was the German war machine that gave the crucial push.”

Justin Hardy, educated as a historian, won the Royal Television Society’s first-ever award for Best History Film in 2001 with The Great Plague, and twice more in 2003 and 2005 with Invitation to a Hanging and Trafalgar Battle Surgeon.

The music is written by a relatively unknown British-born composer, Andrew Simon McAllister, and features strong solo piano motifs throughout the opening episode. As war approaches, a darkening tension created by a string ostinato begins to strengthen and overpower these early motifs, suggesting the catastrophe that is about to come. In the final episode, McAllister introduces mechanical Philip Glass-like orchestration, as events begin to progress under their own almost automatic momentum. In the final scenes, solo piano returns to underline the tragic, but noble, acceptance of the sacrifices that will be required.

Nicholas Asbury creates a wonderfully different younger Winston Churchill—a Churchill who still has hair—with cigar, signature pursed lower lip and classic Churchillian ripostes: “Sporting metaphors will be the death of us one day … pursuing a rolling ball teaches you nothing apart from how to pursue a rolling ball.” While playing billiards, and asked by Sir Eyre Crowe, the Assistant Under Secretary at the Foreign Office, for his opinion of Kaiser Wilhelm, Churchill replies: “[He] looks on war as a child. He never got past the tin soldier stage.”

In Barbara Tuchman’s 1963 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Guns of August, she writes that the war’s opening “produced deadlock on the Western Front. Sucking up lives at the rate of 5000 and sometimes 50,000 a day, absorbing munitions, energy, money, brains, and trained men.” Her book was adapted in 1964 into a visually powerful but politically slanted popular documentary. The titles opened with these disturbing credits:

Millions of peaceful and industrious people were hounded into a war by the folly of a few all-powerful leaders. This war was in no way inevitable. The innocence of the people was in the streets of Europe. The guilt was in the cabinets.

With this kind of popular propaganda, and ignorance, it is no wonder there was so much misunderstanding about how the First World War began.

There was an assumption, in this irresponsible statement, that all the political parties involved were foolish, when in reality, one government, Germany, unleased a war machine, and the others were forced to resist it, whether they wanted to or not. This was courage on the part of the defending countries, not the act of fools. Once Germany made its aggressive move into Belgium, war was inevitable.

Another fallacy in The Guns of August’s opening remarks attributes the “guilt” to politicians and exonerates those “innocent” people in the street. This is naive thinking and attempts to assign blame onto others. The “peaceful and industrious people” of pre-war Europe possessed a deep dark side—a mix of racism, xenophobia, fear, jealousy of those who were better off, paranoia, a desire for revenge and the feeling of impotence in the face of authority.

The German Socialists, who numbered almost six million, about half of whom were Jews, voted overwhelmingly to approve the war credits to Germany to finance the war. Had they voted No, there might well have been a different outcome.

It was “average” Slavic nationalists who killed Franz Ferdinand, blew up bystanders and later dug up and enshrined the assassin Princip’s remains as the honourable relics of a Serb martyr. As Sir Eyre Crowe said in the first episode of the series, in reply to Churchill’s comment that the Serb people were “thrilled by violence, by the reality, not just the idea”:

It is the land of the blood feud. A contested will, pistols are drawn. An argument over a worthless plot of land, out come the knives. And the embittered past is always there threatening to engorge the present.

To which Lady Asquith, played by Sinead Cusack, replies, “Dear God, it sounds just like Ireland.”

Alice Miller, in her psychobiography of Adolf Hitler, For Your Own Good, wrote that if the German people were looking for an “avenging angel”, they found one in Hitler. But they had also found an earlier one in General Helmuth von Moltke. Von Moltke’s imperialistic drive coupled with Wilhelm’s probable insanity created the prototype for the Third Reich.

Britain had initially considered breaking the treaty with France but, as the Secretary of State for India, Lord John Morley, played by Bill Paterson, commented before his resignation, on England’s decision to finally defend the French coast against the German navy, “We were pressed by the Prime Minister and Grey to examine the neutrality of Belgium and our obligations under the Treaty of 1839.” Morley didn’t have a problem with Germany invading Belgium but he hated Russia and refused to be part of any alliance with them. In Morley’s 1914 Memorandum on Resignation, there is a private and heartfelt letter from Prime Minister Asquith urging him to stay on:

My dear Morley,

This is, to me, a most afflicting moment. You know well after nearly 30 years of close and most affectionate association, in the course of which we have not always held the same point of view in regard to accidentals, though in essentials I think we have rarely differed, that to lose you in the stress of a great crisis is a calamity which I shudder to contemplate, and which (if it should become a reality) I shall never cease to deplore.

I therefore beg you, with all my heart, to think twice and thrice, and as many times more as arithmetic can number, before you take a step which impoverishes the Government, and leave me stranded and almost alone.

Always yours, H.H. Asquith

But Morley resigned, along with the President of the Board of Trade, John Burns. Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, had originally argued against war, and also threatened to resign, but changed his mind when Germany entered Belgium and, from then on, strongly advocated intervention. His passionate stand convinced the remainder of the divided cabinet.

The most negative criticism of 37 Days has come from David Elstein, Chairman of the Broadcasting Policy Group and former director and producer at the BBC and Thames TV. Elstein chaired the British Screen Advisory Council, and was an executive producer at Portobello Films (whose Ida won the 2015 Oscar for Best Film in a Foreign Language). He said:

It is bad enough to pretend that nothing important happened in Paris and Belgrade (which are not even glimpsed), or in Vienna and St Petersburg (reduced to a couple of scenes each in which, respectively, a decrepit Emperor Franz-Josef and a stern Tsar Nicholas are left wordless as our narrators dismiss them).

Heyhurst replied: “I think the one fair criticism that Elstein makes is where 37 Days placed its focus (ie London and Berlin). But any three-hour drama will surely be open to criticism on this score, no matter where the focus is actually placed.” He said he wished he could have had “more time to explore the politics of the Tsarist court. A 6-part series would have sorted that one out!”

Elstein considered the portrayal of the long-serving Austrian ambassador to Berlin, Count Szőgyény-Marich, “wordless, in the guise of diminutive fop: we are now in the realm, not of dramatic licence, or even comedy drama, but racist nonsense”. He also felt it was dismissive to characterise Franz Ferdinand as arrogant and bullying “when he had personally intervened dozens of times in 1913 alone to prevent Austria-Hungary’s military leaders from declaring war on Serbia”.

But Heyhurst countered Elstein by quoting the British historian A.J.P. Taylor, “who knew a thing or two about Austria-Hungary … [he] once called Franz Ferdinand ‘one of the worst products of the Habsburg house: reactionary, clerical, brutal and overbearing’. We were quite kind in comparison.”

Adrian Van Klaveren, Controller of the BBC First World War commemoration, said:

the main criticism … seems to be that it misrepresented the motives and behaviour of the central characters. I fear there are countless interpretations of these human actions and any drama is likely to fall short of expectations for anyone who takes a differing view to those portrayed … there is of course a limit to what can be achieved in three hours of television drama.

The Sunday Times said: “This three-part dramatization … is little short of a triumph—gripping, complex, superbly performed and as clear as clear could be … On this rare occasion, history is better served by drama than documentary.”

There is a touching scene in the final episode, where we are reminded of the almost forgotten uncertainties of the early 1900s. Churchill and Grey are walking together. Grey asks, “Tell me, Winston, what does it take to lead a democracy into war?” to which Churchill replies, “I do not know. It has never been done before. We would be the first. In Europe, at any rate.” Grey: “It means seeking the approval of those who are going to die in it, I suppose. Our forebears never had that problem.”

Sam Wollaston wrote in the Guardian:

37 Days is fabulous—a forensic political thriller, but still very human, as much about the people involved as the momentous events themselves. It’s convincingly written and has loads of great performances, but Ian McDiarmid’s Grey stands out. And the dates flicking past … give the whole thing a sense of urgency and doom. Like an advent calendar, but the last window is a window onto hell.

The entry of the Ottoman empire on the side of Germany, with a surprise attack on the Russian Black Sea coast in October 1914, stretched the war out another three years. Russia, France and Britain declared war on the Ottomans. The Gallipoli campaign began in February the following year.

The US entered the war in 1917, with two million men, half of whom saw frontline service, at the rate of 10,000 a day, at a time when the Germans were unable to replace their losses. A year later, the war was over. Ten million people had died, four empires had been shattered and it was the end of four royal dynasties.

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