A hundred years ago Britain was mired in a nightmare war that seemed to be going on forever. It was meant to have been over by Christmas 1914 as Britain’s men were encouraged to do their bit for ‘King and country.’ There are those that try to varnish the past from the reality of the Great war and attempt to portray it as a necessary war. It was as Edmund Blackadder said to Baldrick ‘a war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week,’ such was the strategy of the Generals.
The saddest aspect was that it was a futile war. It was more about protecting Empires and asserting their own power over rivals. Once the patriotic fever was over it was not an adventure but a horrible nightmare of mud, barbed wire, trenches, and the continual slaughter were whole village regiments were virtually wiped out.
Blackadder goes forth pretty much captures the madness through its dark humour. From the insane General Melchett who has Blackadder court martialed and sentenced to be shot at dawn for killing his pigeon ‘Speckled,’ Jim. Indeed soldiers some of whom suffered from shellshock were summarilly tried and executed for ‘cowardice.’
Then of course there is Field Marshall Haig who casually uses a brush and rubbish pan to sweep up the toy soldiers from his plan of the battlefield. The scene of course showing the disregard that the Generals had for their men.
Each week for the six episodes we watched Captain Blackadder desperately trying to escape the madness of the trenches. Whether it was posing as Chefs, organising a variety show or hunting a German spy in the hospital Blackadder tried every method to try to escape certain death.
At times it would drag Blackadder almost too close to being killed until he eventually runs out of luck in the last episode. From being the commissioned artist who goes into no man’s land with Melchett sending a couple of flares up that he is ‘lit up like a Christmas tree for miles around!’
Then there was the episode when Blackadder joins the flying corps believing that all he has to do is twenty minutes work and spend the rest of the time ‘loafing about in Paris, drinking gallons of champagne,’ with experienced French girls.
The look on Blackadder’s face as he realises that the reason why Flashheart’s flying corps are called the ‘twenty minuters,’ is because the average life expectancy of a new pilot is twenty minutes, is one of jumping out of the pan into the fire. Again there is some element of truth as pilots and certainly those fresh from flying school were not expected to last long. They may have had in the words of Flashheart ‘tasty tucker,’ and a uniform so smart it’s got a PhD from Cambridge,’ but the finger of death was never far away.
So much so that like some troops who shot themselves in the foot to escape the western front, Blackadder shouts at George ‘You lucky, lucky, lucky bastard,’ after a German bomb puts George in hospital. In desperation Blackadder sticks his leg out and shouts ‘over here, Fritz! What about me?’
The madness of the Great war is something that Blackadder goes forth captures perfectly. In ‘Captain Cook,’ Melchett tells Blackadder that Field Marshal Haig has formulated a brilliant tactical plan to ensure final victory. Blackadder asks ‘would this brilliant plan involve us climbing over the top of our trenches and walking slowly towards the enemy?’ Captain Darling asks Blackadder how he knows as it is classified information. The response being that they have used the same plan over and over again. Melchett madly says that the Germans won’t expect it again and will ‘catch the watchful Hun off guard.’
Incidentally the British troops were instructed to walk slowly across no mans land during the battle of the Somme. The belief was that the heavy artillery fired previously would have broken up the barbed war and killed many Germans. Instead they were slaughtered in their thousands.
For the likes of Melchett the Great War is more like a sporting game. When it is pointed out about the danger and deaths, Melchett just casually brushes it to one side and likens it to his old school rugby match who won against all odds. ‘We ducked, and we bobbed, and we wove, and we damn well won the game 15-4.’ Even when Blackadder points out that the Harrow full back wasn’t armed with a machine gun, Melchett dismisses it with the wave of a hand before instructing Captain Darling to make a note of Gunners for the Harrow full backs.
Despite the endless slaughter of men nothing much was gained. For example when Blackadder is captured behind enemy lines, Melchett asks Darling how much land they have recaptured by looking at the plan which is the actual copy of the couple of yards taken.
Even now after twenty-eight years after the final episode titled ‘Goodbyeee,’ it is still a very moving and emotional episode. The walls are very much closing in as Blackadder frantically tries to escape ‘Insanity Melchett’s invite to a mass slaughter,’ or in other words preparing to go over the top at dawn.
There is very much a sombre mood as we quietly count down to when Blackadder and co. get ready to go over the top. At the beginning George is very much gung-ho believing that the big push will be worth it. Blackadder questions how it can be worth it when ‘millions of men have died since 1914 and we’ve moved no further than an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping.’
Ever the optimist George declares it will be ice cream in Berlin in fifteen minutes whilst Blackadder declares that the reality is that they will be ice-cold in fifteen seconds in no mans land. Now is the time that Blackadder believes that he needs to get out of the madness of the war.
There is a slow realisation from George that he is the last of the ‘Trinity tiddlers,’ who had all volunteered in 1914 fresh from Cambridge University. Baldrick tells of the pride of how he felt joining up with a woman kissing him as he marched. Again this would have been the feeling of those volunteers in 1914 as the country was whipped into a patriotic fever.
With Baldrick there is almost a childish quality as he realises that they have been stuck in the mud of the trenches for three years. Suddenly Baldrick asks ‘why can’t we stop, Sir? Why can’t we just say no more killing, let’s all go home? Why?’
George is at a loss to explain why they just can’t pack up and go home despite his blustering that it just wouldn’t work.
Desperation sets in for Blackadder who sticks two pencils up his nose and sticks his underpants on his head pretending to be mad. Only Melchett is onto that trick having shot a whole platoon in the Sudan for trying that stunt. Overhearing Blackadder pretends to tell Baldrick of the story.
The reality of what awaits is still there in the air even when General Melchett declares Blackadder’s soldiers as ‘fine body of men out there.’ In response Blackadder coolly replies ‘Yes Sir – shortly to become fine bodies of men.’
Time starts to ebb away as the trio talk as though it is going to be their last night together. Blackadder is getting increasingly agitated as he sees any chance of escaping certain death slipping away if he can’t think of something to get him out. It doesn’t help that Baldrick is also delivering an oratory of his war poems as Blackadder cries ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve just got to get out of here!’
Without realising Baldrick gives Blackadder a belief that he can escape the big push by calling on a favour of Field Marshall Haig. This was a promise made to Blackadder after he saves Haig’s life twenty years previously from a sharp piece of mango when they served together at Mboto Gorge.
It literally is the last throw of the dice with Blackadder thinking that he has escaped by the skin of his teeth. Only he hasn’t after Haig’s advice is to ‘ put your underpants on your head, and stick two pencils up your nose. They’ll think you’re crazy and send you home.’ Blackadder’s response after Haig slams the phone down is ‘I think the phrase rhymes with clucking bell.’
Poor Captain Kevin Darling now finds himself reluctantly being sent to the front. The huge shadow of Melchett’s driver that looms over Darling might as well be the shadow of death as he is on his knees begging Melchett not to be sent over the top.
There is an air of self resignation as the minute hand draws ever closer to the big push. George confesses that he is not at all keen at dying whilst Darling admits that he wrote in his diary ‘bugger,’ when being driven to the front.
As the orders can be heard in the background Blackadder reminds George not to forget his stick, who responds that he wouldn’t want to face a machine gun without one.
The tension can be felt as the guns temporally stop. Darling, George, and Baldrick think that they have been pulled out of the fire as it indicates a ceasefire. Blackadder advises the trio that they have stopped as the Generals are not that insane as to shell their own men. Instead they find it more sporting to let the Germans do it.
It appears that time has finally ran out for Blackadder and co. although it doesn’t stop Baldrick telling Blackadder that ‘he has a cunning plan.’ The response from Blackadder eloquently sums up his attempts of trying to get out of the trenches.
‘Well, I’m afraid it’s too late. Whatever it was, I’m sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?’ That comment more than sums up the insanity of the Great war and had more than a grain of truth in it.
As the whistles can be heard to tell the men to go over the top there is a realisation for the viewer that Blackadder and his friends are not going to get out of this. Like many soldiers of the Great war there is that fear that death is only minutes away as soon as they step over the top. To feel that trapped and fearful of being mown down by German machine guns can probably not be described. Hoping against hope that they somehow get through it.
The final scene even now gives you goosebumps and you can feel a lump rising in your throat as the haunting playing of the Blackadder theme sorrowfully plays out as they charge over the top. There is the low heavy sound that could be guns as the viewer realises that Blackadder, Baldrick, George, and Darling have been killed. A slow mist descends over the mud and barbed war before it slowly transforms to the present and a field full of poppies were Blackadder and his friends met their fate.
Some historians have tried to pour scorn on the anti-war and the futility of the First World war that Blackadder goes forth portrayed. There are even those that try to defend Field Marshall Haig like Gary Sheffield that he was not a callous man and that inevitably there would be lots of casualties. Although Haig cannot be solely held accountable the deaths of soldiers are not just mere statistics. These were people who were slaughtered in their thousands. They were someone’s son, husband, brother, Father, and friend whilst whole village regiments were almost wiped out in a senseless war.
Wilfred Owen who in one of his famous poems ‘Dulce et decorum est,’ sums up the futility and pointlessness of the Great War. ‘My friend, you would not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ (How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country).
Blackadder goes forth captured some of the sentiments of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et decorum est.’ It is worth considering this especially as there are attempts a hundred years on to gloss over the mindless slaughter of the Great war. This was meant to be a war to end all wars with the poppy not just a symbol to remember those who fell but a symbol that all war is futile.