Fortunes of war

The BBC drama The Passing Bells tells the story of two ordinary young men who volunteer to fight for their country during World War One.

The series traces the fate of English delivery boy Tommy Edwards and German farmer's son Michael Lang, as their experiences unfold over the five years of the war. What would life have held in store for a British 'Tommy'?


Hopes and expectations

The Passing Bells

Tommy Edwards with family in The Passing Bells

By December 1914 more than a million men had volunteered to fight.

Although most Britons could see conflict looming by summer 1914, few could have foreseen the length or nature of the war that was to come.

On the whole young British men, like Tommy Edwards, expected to have to fight for king and country. Notions of glory, honour and the stigma of cowardice were wrapped up in the rush to volunteer. Prompted by the call to arms, half a million men signed up for action in the first month of the war.

Read more about The Passing BellsThe Passing Bells: A German soldier's tale


Underage soldiers

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

In this scene from The Passing Bells, Thomas lies about his age so he can sign up to fight overseas.

In Britain the legal age for armed service overseas was 19. But this didn't stop younger hopefuls like Tommy trying their luck at recruiting stations.

Recruitment officers were paid two shillings and sixpence (about £6 in today’s money) for each new recruit. Either with their tacit approval, or else by lying about their age, around 250,000 underage soldiers succeeded in signing up. The youngest on record was 12-year-old Sidney Lewis, who enlisted in August 1915 and ended up fighting at the Somme. Thousands more youngsters were turned away. This was more easily done if the would-be soldier failed to meet the physical requirements.

How did Britain let 250,000 underage soldiers fight?

It will not be easy. It will be a long job; it will be a terrible war; but in the end we shall march through terror to triumph.

David Lloyd George, Queen's Hall speech, 1914


Welcome to Ypres

The Passing Bells

British trench at Ypres in The Passing Bells

British troops were posted to Ypres in Belgium to check the German advance and defend the Channel ports.

The Belgian city of Ypres, the destination for many British soldiers, saw a lengthy series of intense battles between German and Allied forces.

The city – nicknamed 'Wipers' by troops – was positioned on the path of Germany's planned route through Belgium and into France. Germany's army surrounded the city on three sides, while the Allies attempted to make advances at great cost. In the first Battle of Ypres (19 October to 22 November 1914) the town was captured from the Germans, but the following year saw the first gas attacks against British, French and Canadian soldiers.

The Wipers Times - the funny side of WW1

The Germans have hand grenades. We don't. So we're improvising.

Corporal Bond in The Passing Bells


Gas attack!

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

British soldiers struggle after being subjected to a German gas attack, in a scene from The Passing Bells.

Soldiers had more to fear than bullets and shells. Tear gas and mustard gas could disable, while agents like phosgene and chlorine were lethal.

The first chlorine gas attack launched by the Germans came in April at Ypres. Most Allied soldiers had gas masks. Those exposed to the gas could expect a burning sensation in the eyes, throat and lungs, coughing and vomiting. Serious exposure might result in a slow death over a number of days. The use of gas increased, causing around 1.3 million casualties. But by 1918 its effectiveness was limited against well trained and equipped soldiers.

Watch a BBC clip on chemical warfare during WW1


Mission of mercy

The Passing Bells

Joanna from The Passing Bells

Joanna from The Passing Bells.

Although trench battles were fierce and brutal, there were occasional brief pauses to allow both sides to attend to the dead and injured.

Soldiers like Tommy would have worked with stretcher bearers to help the fallen, often alongside the enemy. Field hospitals were overcrowded as medics and nurses hurried to comfort wounded soldiers. A seriously hurt soldier might face amputation or repatriation. Hopeless cases were sedated and left to die in the 'moribund' wards. Some 329 Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses were decorated for their work during World War One, with 886 mentioned in dispatches.

The many battles faced by WW1's nurses

The idea that a war can be won by standing on the defensive and waiting for the enemy to attack is a dangerous fallacy.

General Douglas Haig, British commander-in-chief


Over the top

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

British soldiers climb out of their trenches into enemy fire, in a scene from The Passing Bells.

Troop rotation kept British troops mostly behind the lines. But when the big push came a Tommy in the front trench found himself in the firing line.

On 1 July, after a week-long shelling of the German lines,150,000 British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and moved towards the German lines at the Somme. Yet many who made it that far would have seen the German wire largely unbroken and the enemy's front trenches lined with machine gunners and riflemen. Sixty thousand British men were killed or wounded in a single day.

How did so many soldiers survive the trenches?



You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Derek walks into No Man's Land, in a scene from The Passing Bells

The war was more brutal than anyone who lived through it could have imagined. In time life at the front became too much for some men to bear.

In the British trenches soldiers lived under enemy fire with the threat of execution by their own countrymen for cowardice or desertion. By the war's end 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers had been executed for these offences. The first was Private Thomas Highgate, 19, who was shot on 8 September 1914 in front of soldiers from two other units. Just 25 men were shot in similar circumstances on the German side.

Shot at dawn: cowards, traitors or victims?


Shell shock


War poet Wilfred Owen

News of Wilfred Owen's death reached his parents on 11 November 1918, Armistice Day.

Those who survived the fighting often paid a heavy price in body and mind. Shell shock was the term given to a common form of psychological trauma.

If he'd avoided the symptoms himself, by this stage of the war a British soldier would likely have witnessed the anxiety, nightmares, bodily ticks, hysterical blindness or paralysis of those afflicted. Occasionally mistaken for emotional weakness, shell shock affected 80,000 men on the British side. Eighty per cent of them never returned to the front. War poet Wilfred Owen, from whose work the title The Passing Bells was drawn, was among those who did. He was killed a week before the war ended.

Did shell shock make us serious about mental health?

The humour developed by this war is not exactly suitable for drawing rooms, but it is marvellously effective in an atmosphere of high explosives.

Philip Gibbs, war correspondent



You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Soldiers developed their own ways of keeping up their spirits.

Amid the horrors of war a healthy dose of trench humour and letters from home did much preserve the sanity of the frontline Tommy.

Trench humour was usually quite dark, from shaking hands with the the outstretched arm of a dead soldier to singing songs about officers 'hiding' in dugouts or the lack of anti-gas equipment. Throughout the fighting soldiers were kept in touch with home with the help of 12 million letters delivered to the trenches each week.

How morale proved a most effective weapon during WW1


The legacy of victory

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

The social landscape of Britain was changing in 1918 with women now allowed to vote.

Britain experienced great social change during a war which claimed the lives of nearly a million of its servicemen and injured two million more.

Soldiers returned home to find their jobs had been maintained by their mothers, sisters and wives, while pre-war class distinctions had started to blur. The war marked a decline in Britain's status as a world power, and was followed by a profound economic recession of 1920-21.

Did World War One nearly bankrupt Britain?