There’s a moment in Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, where the screen expands from the familiar black and white century-old 4:3 ratio to a modern, colour 16:9 ratio. It’s a key moment in the film, where the shroud of familiar alienation from First World War footage is removed and for the first time we can recognise these young men as they were.
The film consistently plays with this familiarity and alienation throughout. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to think how frustrating it would be to only have one flavour of jam (plum and apple was regularly the only choice), but however much cleaned, coloured footage we see, the visceral and terrifying nature of the trenches still remains out of grasp. One of the voices describe them as “one of the most desolate places on earth” and thankfully most of us are unfamiliar with the ever-present stench of the rotting human flesh that many describe. Indeed, these trenches were so horrifying and terrifying for those involved that it changed the very meaning of the word ‘horror’.
It seems relatively easy to put ourselves in the place of recruiting officers trying to fill as many places as possible, but thankfully our modern ears are shocked by the repeated assertions of those officers telling 14-17 year olds to walk outside and come back in, pretending to be 18. The fact this means that many of the soldiers were only 18 at the *end* of the war. There’s a common refrain of how today’s youth are coddled, but the fact a majority today’s western adults would try and protect a 14 year old child from fighting a war seems an improvement.
The theme of recognition and alienation applies across no-man’s land as well. For groups of people who have spent many years shooting huge explosives at each other, the footage of them actually meeting, when Germans are captured, is another shock. There’s no animosity in this footage at all (accepting that it was unlikely any mistreatment or animosity was unlikely to be caught on film). Soldiers from both sides play and joke with each other. This mysterious, terrifying ‘other’ who may have shot a friend’s head off yesterday, today turns out to be just like them – a small, frightened youth. The soldiers talk of how they “admired and respected” their opponents and discussed with them “how useless war was and why it had to happen.” They constantly play with each other’s hats as though realising that it’s only the uniform that sets them apart.
The First World War is an appropriate conflict for this sort of treatment. In the film some describe the arrival at Calais, the changes of expression from excitement to fear and the first sound of a shell close up. ‘Close up’ is key here, because reports from the time suggest that the shelling could be heard from Dover, perhaps even London. However, unlike the Second World War, where many were familiar with the horrors of regular bombing, the First did not directly touch those who stayed at home.
The war seemed distant for many in the UK – it was in Europe, a place that many would not have visited, especially not at 14, but it was taking place a few hours’s journey away. Brookes’s “corner of a foreign field” could theoretically have been visited in a day. It was physically near, and yet still, unmistakably ‘foreign’ in so many ways.
On their return to the UK, soldiers felt this alienation, but this time with the country they had departed from up to four years previously. Signs went up saying “No ex servicemen need apply”. Like many service personnel today, they returned to a country that did not, indeed, could not, understand what they had been through. War is, thankfully, alien to those who have not experienced it. They Shall Not Grow old does an astonishing job of giving us a sense of recognition through time, but this final step of giving a deep understanding what it is like to experience war remains, thankfully, outside its grasp.