It's now 100 years since the end of the first world war a conflict that claimed the lives of over three-quarters of a million british men now featuring rare and previously unseen personal testimony.
Alongside newly restored archive film this groundbreaking three-part series will tell the story of the great war as never before from the suffering and sacrifice experienced by the men on the front line the corpses there they all had rat's nests in the cage of the chest.
And when you disturb them the rats ran out of the chest you can't forget things like that to the dramatic change in women's lives on the home front i felt when i was working on munitions i really thought well haven't got any brothers to go and fight i'm doing the next best thing and i was quite pleased.
To be able to do it in this film we'll hear about the terrible battles of 1917 and 18. to go through fashiondale it took off through hell that's another way of putting it.
And we'll find out how britain turned a looming defeat into victory it was a case of chasing the germans we knew they were going back and we just followed them we thought we were winning the war all right there was no doubt about that.
this is the story of the tragedy and turmoil of britain's great war most of the british soldiers who'd fought on the sam in 1916 were volunteers but as recruitment levels at home fell.
The government introduced conscription initially for single men aged between 18 and 41 one of these conscripts would go on to become an iconic figure the last survivor of the trenches he was discovered living in a somerset nursing home in the late 1990s from where he told the story of his war.
For the very first time i didn't want to join though no though i came from a very sheltered family had my i was the youngest of three brothers.
I didn't want to go but it was a case of had i mean why why should i go out and kill somebody i never knew for what reason there was no reason at all in it in my way of thinking i was put on the louis god number two.
Number one had the gun number two the spare parts and the other three were ammunition carriers you were a team and that was it by may 1916 married men were being conscripted too so more children were separated from their fathers.
Oh it was terrible days terrible days my father said to my mother oh i've got to go my group is caught up and i've got to go i've got to go tomorrow and of course she was very very.
Upset and asked her two children real well and the world had come for us with daddy going within a year around half of all new recruits were conscripts they would arrive on the western front.
To fight alongside britain's seasoned soldiers in one of the most infamous battles of the entire war to go through fashion dale it to go through hell that's another way of putting it you went through hell a man it's been through our own passion and he's been.
Through hell that's a dial the most terrible war i'd under terrible conditions the like of which nobody will ever see again to see the conditions literally actual fighting that we had to fight in.
Would say well it's impossible after two previous battles and 120 000 british casualties the belgian market town of eep was in allied hands but to the south and east german forces occupied a series of ridges overlooking a salient a bulge in the line that left the allies.
Exposed to inflating fire and artillery bombardment the plan was to capture these ridges in a series of attacks beginning in the summer of 1917 they would eventually lead northeast of hooge to the village of paschendale but years of bombardment.
Combined with unseasonably heavy rainfall had turned the low-lying battlefields into a quagmire passenger was awful it was i think about the worst place i remember ever going through it seemed to be just like a mess of.
Shallow holes and they were filled with water actually there's all sorts of people who apparently got drowned in them different ways we were always told that when we were going up or coming back if a fellow fell into a shell hole we.
Should fill with water leave him there because it was liquid mud if you tried to get him out to go in yourself and that was it it had been so shelled what they had to do was put down what they call duck boards they see stretchy boards going across.
Look like letters of thick wood and they put three sections those across made with used to walk on and it's so dangerous walking along those duct boards because you could easily slip off the conditions was hopeless your the mud was almost ankle deep if you.
Drop down with your rifle you find out your rifle was useless with muds and know i think the machine gunners they must have been the same if they drop their gun it would be out of action with mud the whole situation was just a nightmare.
The guns themselves sank up to the top of the wheels so we had to get them out by hand as you shoveled it foreign the mud had come back again you see when they couldn't get out an opposite had come along with this uh revolver and shoot it.
They wouldn't be bothered to only get it out despite the conditions there was good reason to launch an offensive east of eap victory would give the allies access to a vital railway junction at ruler and to the channel ports of ostend and zebruga home to the german u-boat fleet.
From early in the war these u-boats had been targeting merchant ships that brought vital supplies to britain by the beginning of 1917 their attacks had intensified as germany attempted to starve the british into surrender my mother and grandmother used to go out.
In the fields with the permission of the farmers of course and picked the greens off the turnips and the swedes take them home and cook them with potatoes and mash it up with margarine that was our sunday dinner mother say you used to say eat it.
Imagine that you're having a nice roast dinner and then we made ourselves believe it and it went down good because we were hungry throughout the summer and autumn of 1917 the allies inched eastwards from eep toward the village of passchendaele.
But fighting through the mud against an enemy on higher ground meant heavy casualties it was pure hell as far as i was concerned because if you stood a wreck to go forward with your gun ready to fire your rifle you'd have been shot down by machine.
Guns they were just sweeping back and forward with their machine guns you're just targets we had one young officer and i saw this officer what was left of his face was shot away he'd been hit by the photo burst of a german.
Full burst of a german machine gun it must have got about six or seven bullets they've no face left if anybody tells you they went over the top and they were scared that no.
He's not telling you the truth i know i was i was scared stiff when you saw a friend struck there with a terrible leg wall and you are the instructions.
Your car got to him that was really when we feel that we've lost something that could never be put back he screams sometimes really i can hear now the third battle of eep ended on the 10th of november 1917.
When canadian forces captured what was left of the village of passchendaele by that time allied casualties totaled over 325 000 men the whiz bag came over i saw the flash you don't hear any uh.
Sound from it you simply see the flash and i didn't know i'd been hit until some minutes after when the pain came back and then i could see the blood we were five of us in the team.
Number one got away with it but the other fellows they must have been right back where the shell burst really and they must be blown to pieces with it but uh they never found anything off them they took the.
They took the whole blast with the shell and when i told them how wonderful you were they didn't believe in 1917 just before my ninth birthday a messenger came on a bicycle.
Because in those days i suppose it was a telegram boy with like a pillbox hat or red and brought a telegram to say um i think it just said killed in action the shock sort of stopped our life for a little.
While you know really in the sitting room mum had this great big picture on the wall of dad in his uniform head and shoulders and she just turned it.
Round the other way probably because it upset her to see it every time she went in the room you see mum had to go out to work to earn some money so at nine years old i was left with the.
Family to look after i had a brother a year younger than me and there were three girls younger than him and then a young baby very young who was uh you know used to worry me a lot because.
He cried you couldn't show any emotion because the younger children so i used to sort of go to bed and cry my eyes out cry myself to sleep with it all you know really.
Back on the western front winter had arrived and in the freezing conditions it was a struggle for the men just to keep warm i sat on the horse one day i was absolutely perished cold you know white in there and the shell come very very near and burst about.
Six feet from the ground huge ball of fire and i thought oh if you said only come a bit closer i could have warmed my hands on this don't remember that as flight as anything i thought if you could come any closer you would have blown me to pieces.
Didn't you that's where the water and mud got up between the boot and and the putty and then went into the boot so there their boots their feet really were in cold mud.
And and thread the slump came on the end stepped off my left foot mainly the right foot wasn't so bad came up about the size of a golf ball just just collecting pus so it sent me down to hospital.
And the two australian doctors had a look at it and noticed to carful with them there's assistant something to them and passed on so the next day they came round and they had a look at it the whole thing had burst open and they said oh.
Well jock he says that saved us a big job so it passed on and i back into the corporal i said what they mean by a big job he looked at his list oh your left leg was due for amputation below the knee.
with the spring came a bigger problem rumors the germans were about to launch a full-scale attack along the lines the allies made defensive preparations out in the front of our line there's bullet court.
They've been sending up a working party of the night with engineers in charge and digging out in the front of the front line a small extra trench and that trench was going to be occupied solely by a few snipers we were sent out there.
To occupy that trench because they are anticipating the german attack the next day and then the morning came and about six to seven o'clock in the morning the germans opened up as anticipated the big barrage.
The german spring offensive began on the 21st of march bolstered by 50 divisions of troops redeployed to the western front after the end of the campaign in russia their objective was to win the war before the arrival of the americans the attack was swift.
Led by groups of elite stormtroopers trained to bypass the front line to attack allied headquarters and artillery units at the rear while the trenches were overwhelmed by a second wave of german infantrymen they came from the back of us you know.
Where our line used to be they simply came there with loud speakers shouting out uh your your more outmanned or something rather than i could hear it down the road.
And throw your arms down and we won't fall one came straight for me i put down the gun and he got a fixed bayonet he come rushing straight up to me and from that moment i said goodbye.
There was no more of me that was the finish i expected that bonnie to go straight into me but he didn't strange enough when he got up to me he stopped and the thing he said to me was cigarette and comrade.
I nearly dropped the gown with surprise cigarette i thought he wants a cigarette so i felt in my pocket well i carried a little tin of ready-made cigarettes nice it is and he took some of them he's put him in his pocket and then i put the tin back he says loose there loose there loose there.
Pointed to our equipment everything we've got to take it off and drop it down and leave it and get off over the top that's what he was trying to tell us so of course we could do no more and that was my birthday the 21st of march 1918.
In some places the british trenches were shelled with mustard gas it closes your eyes to begin with and it chokes you that's the first effects you feel you feel choking your throat's got it and you can't breathe very well.
And you try to vomit that's another thing that's the main symptoms of being gas and anything else that's might so get it it clings to it and it seems to boil its way into you.
You just lean the fire and try to draw it up from your inside try to enjoy the the poise notes you think it says it didn't it but nothing comes up i had to go give and go to get medical attention.
And well when i got there there were about 20 or more they're all the same lying on the ground screaming someone shouting.
Those not lucky enough to get away were held prisoner in makeshift camps i got carted off they put us in a field and we hadn't been there long and the voice said if there's anybody knows how to deal with wounded we'd be very pleased if they'd.
Volunteered to go in the church which has had quite a number of wounded in there for six days we've done what we could but we've got our own people look at so i said i'll go all the length of this place it was nothing but people laying on the floor.
British i started on them and any rate the next morning the sergeant came and he came up there he said to me he said my first mission he said is to thank you on behalf my commanding officer he said.
And if he was here himself he'd like to shake your hand for a volunteer and to do this job after bill had helped german medics to move the wounded onto wagons something extraordinary happened and it was captured in a remarkable photograph i was invited to a celebration.
For their big victory and they all showed that willem because that's the nearest they get to william and they were cheering and shouting and go ahead and oh people were coming shaking the hands with me and then.
The sergeant major he announced the fact that they were gonna honor me for making me a sergeant and that if i gave an order there are men would obey it and that's why i was made saddened i was on resurgent and those fellas went wild they cheered.
But the special treatment wouldn't last and bill joined the rest of those captured in the advance the next day they marched this off just as we were till we got to a railway line when we got to a railway line we had to.
Wait and along came a great long row of cattle trucks and there they forced us into these cattle trucks we had to go into them with about 30 or 40 in a truck they packed us all in as fast as they could until we passed those we must have.
Filled the trade before the train kept moving and then moving and we were in that trade without anything to eat or drink for about two days until finally we got out of the station and that station.
Was in germany seventy five thousand british men were taken prisoner in the spring offensive and almost 200 000 were killed or wounded within weeks the german army had made the greatest advance of any side since 1914.
Even forcing the allies to give up the ground they'd fought so hard to win at paschendale given the enormous losses and the urgent need for reinforcements the minimum age for british soldiers to serve overseas was reduced from 19 to 18 and a half and thousands more young men were now.
Called upon to fight on the 21st of march the german big attack started on the 24th our training ceased cut off just like that we equipped for the front the general had told us.
He had we were inspected in a big park in norwich then he got up on his desk and he said you men well of course i know that you're not men you're only boys but the germans have broken through our fortifications and you're needed at the.
Front at once he said you've got to play the part of men we didn't think of the danger after nearly four years of fighting britain was at crisis point both on the western front and at home.
I was very worried as a little girl i really wondered what was going to happen i thought this man caser was going to come over and take to take england and my mother used to say don't worry if the germans do get here they're not going to have us.
She said i shall i kill you and myself no she said no german's going to have you don't you worry it's being short of food made us think that it would be long before the germans would be over here and my mother i don't know how she.
Managed it was nothing to see her sit at the table with an empty plate remember you're not eating well i'm not hungry whatever she had was for my brother and myself across the country rationing was introduced as food stocks fell desperately low and while many people relied on.
Government-backed public canteens which provided subsidized meals others found help closer to home money was short but um we were surrounded by i suppose good neighbours and um i used to go to bakers and get um.
Shillings with the bread you've got yesterday's bread three loaves for a shilling or to the local grocer where you got six pen at the bacon bones hopefully there was a lot of bacon left on them because you weren't boiled out you see.
It with different vegetables i think we were very lucky really i suppose in a way uh the butcher and different people knew us perhaps felt sorry for us had known my dad who was popular and we used to get all these things so.
We were very lucky meanwhile back on the western front britain's new recruits were getting their first taste of action we were sorted out and started to march and it was dusk and in the front we could see the flickering and.
Star shells going up and then we saw a plane coming towards us could see a blackout line in the [__] sky and corporal hobson a regular soldier he said don't worry lads it's one of ours and then the bombs drop we just passed an empty trench so we.
Turned around and scuttled the back and corporal hobson got a bit pushed and he said i thought i'd brought some men up the line not a bloody lot of bloody scared kids that settled us we never showed fear again in germany british prisoners of war were facing.
Hardships of a different kind as many were forced into slave labor you'd be working at a camp and the slightest thing that had gone wrong the guards used to get annoyed and then you'd probably get a bang with a rifle pot.
Which anybody who's had it know that's very painful it's painful in the start but it's damn so it works for the next morning because stiffers are bored and they still expected you to go and do whatever you were doing they gave us half a loaf of bread every.
Fifth day german bread was very brown but very dark but half a loop a bit and make it last for five days yeah make it last for five days half an open bit it don't seem possible but it was so.
Yeah working on empty belly seems phenomenal doesn't it but that is true dinnertime we had they used to go around with the can to the cook house and the germans were eating themselves.
The mangle warsaws and we were given the water that they were cooked in in these tins as a drink and they were supposed to be nourishing foil that was our midday meal that was our ration for the day and i lost over two stone easily might have been more.
I was nearly falling to pieces in august 1918 the war on the western front took a different turn by then the german offensive had ground to a halt as they'd advanced so quickly their.
Supply line couldn't keep up and in three months of fighting they'd lost nearly seven hundred thousand men mostly from their elite divisions now with the arrival of the americans giving them strength in numbers the allies counter-attacked it was a case of.
Chasing the germans we knew they were going back and we just followed them we thought we were winning the war all right there was no doubt about that because we couldn't imagine the gentleman's going back if it wasn't.
They didn't think they were losing the war oh it was a treat once we got out of the about the middle of october we were on the beautiful roads it was a treat to march after them not.
Crossing country and i took prisoners in october and i was all alone and i came to a red brick farm which hadn't been damaged see where we'd come from it was all wrecked places so i don't know what i'm going in here to see i went in and i found that they'd.
Taken refuge in there and they put their hand up as soon as they saw me it was an easy capture i was completely in charge you in the army you've got men under you and you've got officers and sergeant majors over you but i was the war was mine it was my personal war that morning that's how i.
Felt with the war once again mobile the cavalry led the way horsemen who'd spent much of their time in the trenches were now back in the saddle witnessing the collapse of the german army.
Well we got them on the run they'd thrown their arms away and given in you see my men and and we were passing 10 20 50. kappa kappa kappa means finished the capital they're done.
Catboy you've had it yeah they i remember that kept putting their hands up capital uh capote within a month the germans had retreated to defensive positions along what was known as the hindenburg line but this too fell in october.
As the allies continued their advance liberating towns and villages as they went finally after more than four years of fighting and with around 40 million military and civilian casualties worldwide germany surrendered it was the 11th of november 1918.
we got one of the wall was finished and we happened to be at that point we're outside a a convent or a nunnery and all the nuns came out with flowers bunches of flowers i think there must have been chrysanthemums at that time.
And they decorated our company with them pushed them in our rifles and that we went along with singing songs they're always over my first thought was very selfish i thought so i'm going to live you've got to be for months on the sign of my my life belongs to my country they can have it anytime.
You see i can't stop it i can't say i've had enough i'm going home or can i have a fortnight oh but now i'm gonna have a life i need a fear that i shan't survive i have survived when the end of the war come the village went mad.
I don't think there was one person in their home everyone was out in the streets the band was playing and the people were all dancing no matter who they were whether you knew them or not and the streets was covered in in decorations and.
Oh union jacks hanging out everybody's windows it was a wonderful time i can remember that at the end of the war i was quite happy that we were intact.
so many families have been destroyed the men had gone the fathers the brothers the sons had gone but we were intact.
We had survived and i think i was thankful these children officer we had he was in the habit of coming out and calling us in german swine hunts these are this finance he used to call us violence.
Every time never addressed us any other way but on this particular morning we were all brought out on parade in the middle of the camp and the first thing when he got up and he got up and he his first word he said was gentlemen.
He addressed us he called us gentlemen and he told us the war was over you ought to heard the noise oh i felt like nothing on earth i thought what's it gonna be like to be home just to see my people again you know to be free oh i couldn't believe it.
when i came home and i saw my sisters and my mother i knew the other peter i didn't know what so i nearly dropped i was mindless to be home again and be free you know i couldn't believe it the first person i saw was my dad going.
To work of course he down to us and he told his workmates tell the mom i'm not coming on time today tell them why and i went home of course my mother mother was there she couldn't believe it her own eyes when she saw me.
I think she thought she'd lost me for good probably mother we didn't know my father was coming home he just walked in and the screams of delight we hung all around him you.
Know we wouldn't let him go and he had a beers he raised and shaved it off he had a beer and he he looked to me rough you know really rough and we made a terrible fossil yeah we were pleased to see him i was a proper daddy's little girl between 1914 and 1918.
Around 6 million british men were mobilized to fight in the first world war a lifetime later their reflections on their experiences are as different as the men themselves i wouldn't volunteer again to do it they'd have to call me up and do something i don't know.
We thought it was going to be a lovely little game you know but it wasn't it was wicked wicked sacrifice of young lives for nothing we all had great thumb really.
Tremendous fun enjoyed ourselves we really i just enjoyed the runny wall i think i don't know why but it was very fun i was happy i knew i did something in my country i felt happiness still feel happy but yes i still feel very happy that i.
Was in that war and that came out because if we say if it hadn't been for us a lot of people would be here today and they still maintain that some of those fellas gave their life so that other people could live and they still contained that they said this all they saved the country.
the reality of life in the trenches during the great war is now beyond living memory but as this invaluable collection of interviews reveals the most common shared experience among british veterans was the pain felt for lost friends.
80 years after george littlefair's best friend joe coates was killed he returned to the western front to visit his grave for the first time he was a grand lady and i'm not afraid to tell you when i was looking to this grave that i was gonna tell you down my face remember come and i'm not afraid to say.
It i i because we were we were bores and falls and he ought to get a digi lumpy shot well what we were going to do what to do we were on when we got back out of the forces.
I bored you hmm harry patch lived to be 111 years old he was britain's last surviving tommy i should never forget the three i lost behind me that upsets me more than anything september the 22nd.
That is my remembrance day that armistice day always very very quiet on that day after surviving the battles of the somme and passchendaele ted francis recalled a eulogy written to honour lost friends spotty was my pally was.
A generated bloke an everlasting guest bag and as stubborn as an oak he gears all up he did before he came to war by sporting all his bits of fridge what no one asked him for where we went to nobody knows.
But it wasn't like the fighting as your seated picture shows we had days of hell together till they told us to retire and spot his floor language set the watercolors on fire we were lying down at all yes dog with our very ends.
But he gets it quick and sudden if you're moving about or stands we will share it off of frank yes turn a turn about when i i filthy moves towards me and he said odd mate.
I'm out his eyes they couldn't see me no never will no more but his twisted mouth just whispered so long righty oliver but there was none quite the same to me.
Because it would be a panels and if i could have him back again huh you could keep your fancy girls but he's talking french in him there so it's no use feeling so but god knows how i miss him so long spotty horrible.