16 of the best TV period dramas set in World War 1

As we continue to mark the centenary of the First World War, we’ve picked out some of TV’s best period drama series set during the conflict.

The Great War lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918 and all these dramas, listed here in alphabetical order, are set during that period.

 

37 Days

What’s it about?

This miniseries aired on BBC Two in March 2014 and its three episodes cover the five weeks prior to World War I, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914 to the UK declaring war on Germany on 4 August 1914.

Who’s in it?

The cast includes Ian McDiarmid (Star Wars), Tim Pigott-Smith (The Jewel in the Crown), Sinéad Cusack (Marcella) and Bill Paterson (Outlander).

What did the reviews say?

“A clear and often brilliant dramatisation.” – The Times

“There were no romantic digressions or fictional appeals to sentiment, but instead an impressively wordy and careful imagining of the secret conversations conducted by Grey with Asquith’s Liberal cabinet and various foreign dignitaries.” – The Guardian

“Judging by the unshowy casting, 37 Days isn’t supposed to be the flagship drama of the BBC’s centenary season, but it’s terrifically well written, all the same. The dialogue, in particular, does an excellent job of conveying both the prevalent political mood and any diplomatic subtleties that might otherwise be lost on modern viewers.” – The Independent

 

ANZAC Girls

What’s it about?

Based on Peter Rees’ book The Other ANZACs – along with various diaries, letters, photographs and historical documents – this award-winning series is actually Australian but reveals a rarely told side of the WWI story. The six episodes aired in 2014 and tell the true stories of the nurses serving with the Australian Army Nursing Service at Gallipoli and the Western Front during the First World War.

What did the reviews say?

“If you enjoy the chipper British nurses of Call the Midwife or the earnest Canadian munitions workers of Bomb Girls, then you might want to check out Anzac Girls.” – NY Times

“…despite its shortcomings, it’s always refreshing to see stories of women at war.” – The Guardian

“It is a well-made conservative piece of work, full of good performances and nice detail.” – The Sydney Morning Herald

 

Birdsong

What’s it about?

BBC One’s drama was shown in 2012 and is based on Sebastian Faulks’ best-selling 1993 war novel of the same name, adapted by The Hour and Suffragette screenwriter Abi Morgan. The two feature-length episode tell the story of passionate young lovers Stephen and Isabelle, brought together by love and torn apart by the First World War.

Who’s in it?

Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) and Clémence Poésy (War and Peace) lead the cast, alongside Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey) and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones).

What did the reviews say?

“The BBC have done something important – they have made an elegiac, lyrical film (that is better than Spielberg’s War Horse) with which the next generation can associate the war. It aspires to the sentiments of the war poets.” – The Telegraph

“…a romance lovingly shot and adroitly told, but somewhat tedious in the buildup, the leads’ appeal notwithstanding.” – Variety

 

The Crimson Field

What’s it about?

Created by Sarah Phelps, the TV writer behind a number of recent Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens adaptations, this six-part series aired in 2014 on BBC One. The Crimson Field presents one of the Great War’s untold stories. In a tented field hospital on the coast of France, a team of doctors, nurses and women volunteers work together to heal the bodies and souls of men wounded in the trenches.

Who’s in it?

The ensemble cast features Oona Chaplin (Game of Thrones), Hermione Norris (Cold Feet), Rupert Graves (Sherlock) and Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster), alongside Downton Abbey stars Kevin Doyle and Jeremy Swift.

What did the reviews say?

“Together it makes for enjoyable viewing but I can’t help feel the series is unable to decide exactly what it wants to be. It’s not an amusing Downton romp, but it lacks the emotional pull of the BBC’s other forays into the same period.” – The Independent

“…this country loves a posh polished period soap for a Sunday night. [It is] lavish, performed with gusto (Norris’s matron stands out), obviously well researched, and historically fascinating. And a rare story of women among all the men and mud.” – The Guardian

 

Deadline Gallipoli

What’s it about?

Another Australian mini-series, Deadline Gallipoli aired in two parts in April 2015 and explores the Gallipoli Campaign from the point of view of four war correspondents.

Who’s in it?

Aussies Sam Worthington (Avatar) and Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under) are joined by Brits Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) and Charles Dance (Game of Thrones).

What did the reviews say?

Deadline Gallipoli is unique in that every battle scene is filmed from the perspective of a different war correspondents, giving it an intensity as you see the tragedy through their eyes as well as your own.” – The Guardian

“It’s a testament to the importance of the Gallipoli legend in Australian culture that many top Aussie stars signed up to appear in this drama. This is a TV drama that more than holds its own against big screen war epics. – Drama

 

Downton Abbey

What’s it about?

Created by Julian Fellowes (Godford Park), ITV’s hugely successful period drama launched in 2010 and was set in a fictional Yorkshire country estate between 1912 and 1926. The eight-part second season covers the years of the First World War, including the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Who’s in it?

Many of the show’s cast were previously unknown actors but have gone on to become international stars, including Jessica Brown Findlay (Jamaica Inn), Lily James (Cinderella) and Dan Stevens (Legion, Beauty and the Beast), who features heavily as Matthew in the WW1 storylines.

What did the reviews say?

“There are deaths that will make your eyes mist over, pregnancies, clandestine love affairs, secrets tucked away and sometimes shared. By the wonderful final episode of [Season 2], which takes place as a new decade dawns, you will be — as I was — mildly desperate for your next Downton fix.” – Huffington Post

“[Season 2] picks up the story in 1916, two years into a war which will irrevocably change the genteel world of Downton Abbey’s refined inhabitants.” – The Telegraph

 

Fall of Eagles

What’s it about?

An epic 13-part BBC mini-series from 1974, Fall of Eagles spans from 1848 to 1918, dealing with the ruling dynasties Austria-Hungary (the Habsburgs), Germany (the Hohenzollerns), and Russia (the Romanovs). The final four episodes cover the events surrounding the First World War.

Who’s in it?

The massive cast includes Michael Aldridge (Last of the Summer Wine), Colin Baker (Doctor Who), Michael Gough (Batman), Gemma Jones (Last Tango in Halifax), Patrick Stewart (X-Men) and Michael Kitchen (Foyle’s War).

What did the reviews say?

“The huge cast features the usual Seventies BBC drama stable, with a superb turn from Patrick Stewart as Lenin – impenetrable, cunning, coolly yet utterly ruthless, seductive. Still, this is a series that, 40 years on, might appear an odd and somewhat plodding mix of narrated world history and court drama.” – The Arts Desk

 

Flambards

What’s it about?

Based on the trio of Flambards novels by English author K. M. Peyton, this ITV drama series from 1979 is set from 1909 to 1918. Set during an era of great social and political chang, the thirteen episodes tell the story of orphan Christina Parsons, who is passed around from pillar to post by family members until finally settling with her uncle at his Essex home – Flambards.

What did the reviews say?

“With fantastic costumes and detail to the period, Flambards is a delight from start to finish.” – Amazon

 

Gallipoli

What’s it about?

A third Australian mini-series to mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign in 2015, this seven-part drama is adapted from the best-selling book Gallipoli by Les Carlyon. The story follows a 17-year-old boy who lies about his his age so that he can enlist with his brother to fight at Gallipoli.

Who’s in it?

The brothers are played by Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men Apocalypse, The Road) and Harry Greenwood.

What did the reviews say?

“Smit-McPhee is superb as Tolly. A lot of the success or failure of this Gallipoli miniseries rests on his shoulders, and he easily carries the burden. The young actor’s expressive face fully conveys the mix of courage, determination, horror, disappointment, and sheer terror a teenage soldier would experience in what quickly becomes hell-on-earth.” – News.com.au

 

Our World War

What’s it about?

Inspired by the BBC’s 2012 BAFTA-winning series Our War, which tracked the first-hand experiences of British troops on the frontline in Afghanistan, this follow-up series is based on eyewitness accounts of the soldiers who served in the First World War. The three episodes immerse viewers in the real stories of British troops on the frontline.

What did the reviews say?

“With rumours of indie pop, odd camera angles and Call of Duty style graphics I had feared the worst but actually… I really rather enjoyed This is a very fine piece of docudrama from the BBC and a fitting addition to their WW1 Centenary season.” – WW1centenary.net

Our World War deserves some credit for its willingness try something different from the usual First World War drama that we’ve seen many, many times before, but the experiment has failed.” – The Independent

“It still might have misfired like a jammed Vickers if they’d done it badly – significant history trivialised by youth TV. But this is done beautifully. It works.” – The Guardian

 

Parade’s End

What’s it about?

Sir Tom Stoppard (Empire of the Sun) adapted Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End for the BBC and HBO in 2012. The English author’s series of four novels was originally written from 1924 to 1928. Set from the twilight years of the Edwardian era to the end of the First World War, the story’s centre is English aristocrat Christopher Tietjens, his beautiful but wilful wife Sylvia, and Valentine Wannop, a young suffragette.

Who’s in it?

Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch and Hollywood actress Rebecca Hall led the cast, with Rupert Everett (Shakespeare in Love), Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow), Anne-Marie Duff (Suffragette), Roger Allam (Endeavour) and Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) also appearing.

What did the reviews say?

Parade’s End, I believe, is one of the finest things the BBC has ever made. Shower it with Baftas and Emmys.” – The Independent

“The end result is a kind of higher-brow Downton Abbey (covering similar themes of class structure, entitlement, British resistance to change and how the onset of World War I erased so much of that).” – Hollywood Reporter

 

The Passing Bells

What’s it about?

Airing over one week in 2014 as part of the BBC’s First World War centenary season, this five-part British-Polish mini-series sees two teenage boys – one German and one British – defy their parents to sign up. But their enthusiasm is tested when they get their first taste of battle.

Who’s in it?

The two teens are played by Patrick Gibson (The Tudors) and Jack Lowden, who has gone on to star in Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dunkirk movie.

What did the reviews say?

“With fine performances, a welcome absence of jingoism and the beginning of a trajectory of inevitable tragedy, this offered a solid foundation for a serial which will surely accumulate emotional impact night after night.” – The Telegraph

“With an ending to rival the final episode of Blackadder, The Passing Bells was one of the saddest war dramas we have seen on television.” – Daily Express

 

Reilly, Ace of Spies

What’s it about?

Originally shown on ITV in 1983 and written by Troy Kennedy Martin (The Italian Job), this 12-part series dramatises the fascinating life of Sidney Reilly, a Russian Jew who became one of the greatest spies ever to work for the British. His achievements included infiltrating the German General Staff in 1917 and a near-overthrow of the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Who’s in it?

Reilly is played by Jurassic Park star Sam Neill, who is joined by Jeananne Crowley (Educating Rita), Leo McKern (The Omen) and Kenneth Cranham (War & Peace).

What did the reviews say?

“Clearly, this is rich material, a plum pudding of derring-do and geopolitics.” – NY Times

“Throughout this ever-changing drama, the series’ writing is a marvel of historical fact and intriguing speculation about Reilly’s whereabouts, exploits, and private passions.” – Amazon

 

Tom Grattan’s War

What’s it about?

Telling the story of the titular Tom Grattan, a 15-year-old boy from London who is sent to live on Yorkshire farm with relatives during World War 1, the series ran from 1968 to 1970.

What did the reviews say?

“The stories are superb… the actors are warm… and Yorkshire is just glorious… 26 colour episodes that dark winter nights were made for.” – Amazon

 

Upstairs, Downstairs

What’s it about?

This classic BBC series explores the lives of the servants “downstairs” and their masters “upstairs” in a large townhouse in Belgravia, London. The show’s original 1970s run (it later returned to BBC One in 2010) covered the years between 1903 and 1930, with the fourth season set during World War 1.

What did the reviews say?

“Though the series was, in many ways, a typical soap about life among the manor-born, Upstairs, Downstairs broke new ground in a handful of intriguing ways.” – A.V. Club

“The series was able to maintain a very credible, steady focus on illustrating the evolution of English society from the Edwardian period up through WWI and the world-wide depression of 1929.” – DVD Talk

 

Wings

What’s it about?

Royal Flying Corps drama series Wings ran for 25 episodes from 1977 to 1978 and followed a young blacksmith turned fighter pilot in World War 1. Other characters included his teacher and mentor, Captain Triggers, and his upper-class friend, Charles Gaylion, who entered into a relationship with Farmer’s girlfriend while Farmer was thought to be dead.

Who’s in it?

Tim Woodward, son of Edward Woodward, played 2nd Lieutenant Alan Farmer. The cast also included Nicholas Jones (Vera Drake), Michael Cochrane (The Iron Lady) and David Troughton, whose father was ’60s Doctor Who star Patrick Troughton.

What did the reviews say?

“All the realism is here: the perils of early flight, the thrills and chills of being airborne, the horrors of war in the air (and on the ground in the trenches); all at a time when these original heroes of flying carried little defensive armament and no parachutes.” – Amazon