Perhaps we are growing war-weary – weary, that is, of the gathering storm of World War One documentaries on the BBC. There have been so many, not just Max Hastings (for) and Niall Ferguson (against), but Jeremy Paxman keeping the home fires burning and the reheated I Was There interviews with veterans of the conflict whom age withered, unlike those who left their corpses to stink in the mud of Flanders.

For all that, 37 Days, the corporation’s recent reconstruction of the events leading up to Germany’s invasion of Belgium, was utterly compelling, once again confirming the place of docudrama in the history schedule. Not only was it beautifully realised (Downton with diplomacy); more to the point, it brought to the surface long-buried truths about that momentous summer of 1914, the consequences of which can be felt even into our own time and our immediate preoccupations.

Today it seems almost inconceivable that what is happening in Ukraine and Crimea could lead to anything like a world war. The images we summon up are, at worst, of the Charge of the Light Brigade, or Prague in 1968, not Passchendaele. But who knows? Those who believe that full-scale war in Europe is a thing of the past will eventually be proved wrong. History will find a way. Like the universe, history is ultimately on the side of chaos, and chaos is inseparable from war. A century from now the BBC may screen a successor drama showing how the decisions, by mainly young people and nationalists in Kiev in the winter of 2014, resulted “inevitably” in mass killings and the fracturing of large parts of eastern Europe and central Asia.

We hope not, obviously. But time, like Germany’s imperial army, is on the march.

For those who didn’t watch 37 Days, the approach of playwright Mark Hayhurst was simple and direct. We eavesdrop on a series of meetings, formal and informal, in London and Berlin, with excursions to Vienna, Sarajevo and Moscow (though not, oddly, Paris), at which the implications of the assassination of Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian zealot are assessed by the crowned heads of Europe and their henchmen. Foremost among the latter are Sir Edward Grey, the phlegmatic British foreign secretary – almost a parody of how high intelligence and myopia often run together, in his case literally – and Helmuth Moltke, the Kaiser’s bull-headed chief of staff, a man who sees no point in wearing a top general’s uniform if one is not planning, or actually conducting, full-scale war.

Grey has been rather lost to Britain’s folk memory. We remember Lloyd-George as the man who saw us through a dreadful war not of his making, and we recall Churchill as the heroically ill-fated proponent of the Gallipoli campaign who would, of course, redeem himself in the next lot, against Hitler. But Grey? Who outside of academia and war circles knows much about him? In fact, he was the longest-serving foreign secretary in history, a household name in households from the Appalachians to the Urals, presiding over the diplomatic aspect of British power at the very height of empire.

The British side in 37 Days (Picture: BBC)

37 Days: the British side (Picture: BBC)

Hayhurst, whose previous credits include The Man Who Crossed Hitler (about Jewish lawyer Hans Litten)and Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution, didn’t pluck his opinions out of the air. He did his research.

“I traced every conference, every telephone call, private letter and telegram swirling around Europe. This helped me understand what my main characters would have known and said. I was also keen not to break any major timelines in the plot.

“Writing 37 Days did change my perspective of war. I started thinking Europe had slept-walked into war and all the nations were equally to blame. But I came to think that it was the German war machine that gave the crucial push.”

The Kaiser he presents is jealously aware of Grey’s seniority in affairs of state. Wilhelm and his Chancellor, the redoubtable Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, each resent the Englishman’s seeming sway over events, backed as it is by the might of the Royal Navy. The dramatic contrast between measured discussions in London and the bombast in Berlin may be overplayed, but not, I suspect, by very much. Grey, following an unexpectedly misspent youth, had by 1914 very much grown into the role of elder statesman, Devoted to personal contacts but aware of human frailties, he was always ready to second-guess, even third-guess, every move of his fellow players, as though the Great Game might end in checkmate rather than ruination.

He rarely travelled. He never, for example, visited Germany. But he knew everybody who mattered (or thought he did) and considered himself an authority on Chinese whispers, interpreting distant events from the standpoint of one whose judgement was rarely questioned.

Cock-sure, unwilling to have his feathers ruffled, Grey was a wily old bird­ (though younger than the actor who played him, Ian MacDiarmid, giving the performance of a lifetime). He knew that Britain’s naval power was less absolute than it appeared, and was painfully aware of the incapacity of the British Army, primarily a colonial police force, to fight a major European war. In 37 Days, while soft-soaping his friend, the German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky, he feels obliged to warn the more belicose French envoy that Paris is overestimating Britain’s power to dictate events.

Kaiser Wilhelm (played to the hilt, though not quite for laughs, by German actor Rainer Sellien) comes over, by contrast, as a combination of the Queen and Knave of Hearts. Totally in charge of the national agenda, declaring things to be so or not so (for example that regicide is the worst of all crimes), His Imperial Majesty demands an unquestioning subscription to his petulant Weltanschauung, that Germany must dominate Europe, then go on to plunder the world.

General Moltke (Bernhard Schütz) is just the man for the job. Frustrated by the fact that Germany has not been involved in a decent war since his uncle captured Paris in 1870, Moltke, aged 66, appears as an old man in a hurry. He has built the imperial army into a formidable force and is desperate to show what it can do. He goads the Kaiser ­–­ at one point, less than credibly, mocking him for his withered arm – and the Kaiser goads everybody else, including the hapless but otherwise overbearing Bethmann-Hollweg (Ludger Pistor). The rest, alas, is history.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife drive through Sarajevo (Picture: BBC)

37 Days: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife drive through Sarajevo (Picture: BBC)

Vienna is very much noises off. The old Austro-Hungarian emperor is portrayed as a dottard, almost strangled by his moustache, concerned solely with his own and his ramshackle empire’s amour propre. In this, I suspect, Hayhurst gets it exactly right. No doubt there were those in Austria who felt that war with Serbia, leading in all probability to Russian intervention, was suicidal. But they knew when to speak up (rarely) and when to keep silent (most of the time), so that in the end it was only the voice of the Kaiser that was heard in the halls of the Hapsburgs.

Viewed from our present day perspective, the threat of imperial Russia may have been overplayed. But no one at the time knew that Germany’s forces would prevail on the eastern front, still less that Lenin’s revolution was just around the corner. The Tsar’s appearance in Hayhurst’s script, like that of his Austrian counterpart, is out of opera bouffe. He broods, he struts, he glares. But much though he would like to believe himself the captain of his fate, he is in fact in a death grip that will within a few short years extinguish not only him, but almost his entire family.

The absence of Paris from the main stage is left unexplained. Grey may not have bothered to visit Berlin, or even Baden-Baden, but Paris was easily reached from London and must surely have been consulted on a regular basis. Or so you would think. The trouble was that the French prime minister and foreign minister immediately prior to the crisis was one Gaston Doumergue, whose government collapsed on June 4. Next up was Alexandre Ribot, a recurring figure who on this occasion managed just four days in power. Finally, there was René Viviani, born in Algeria to Italian parents, dedicated to workers’ rights. His administration barely survived the outbreak of hostilities. None of these men was up to taking on the Kaiser and it was left to the Third Republic’s relatively powerless President, Raymond Poincaré, something of a blowhard, known for his shifting enthusiams, to demand that London should stand behind its commitments.

Thus, in the end, everything fell to Edward Grey. But hang on, you might reasonably exclaim. What about the prime minister? Why didn’t he take charge? Well, Herbert Asquith, though a consummate PM – the Stanley Baldwin of his day – and, simultaneously, Minister for War, was apparently out of his depth when it came to Europe. He preferred to leave matters of life and death to his trusted lieutenant. If we are to believe Hayhurst, Asquith’s wife, Margot, a proto-feminist, would have done a much better job.

Which brings us to the final act of the overture to war. In cabinet, with Asquith desperate for consensus, Grey seeks to convince his colleagues that standing up to the Kaiser on the side of France and Russia (the Triple Entente) is the only option left to them. Germany has mobilised and is moving east and west. He has done his best, and made mistakes. But, gentlemen, what trust could the world ever again put in the word of Great Britain if it deserted its friends, ignored treaties solemnly (if secretly) entered into and sat out the coming conflagration?

The die was cast. Those who spoke out against the war were entirely right. Those who resigned their posts had every justification. But, as Simon Jenkins pointed out last week in discussing Ukraine, though something clearly had to be done to avert the slaughter, it was just as clear that nothing could be done. Nothing except rallying the troops and handing out the entrenching tools. In Germany, in a rare moment of comedy, it was time for Bethmann-Hollweg to don his Pickelhaube.

For those assembled in Hayhurst’s Number 10, the poignancy of the occasion was not missed. The lights were indeed going out all over Europe. With the declaration of hostilities, Grey’s career was effectively over, along with his chance of playing a lasting role in our island story. Well-intentioned, but too brilliant, perhaps too knowing, for his own good, he did his best. The tragedy was that his best wasn’t good enough.

As the revived and digitised I Was There revealed for the umpteenth time, no doubt with more to follow, the result was horrendous. An entire generation would be mired in blood and death for the next five years – and all to prepare the way for the rise of the Nazis, Stalin and World War II. Those whose testimony we heard were brave and wonderful, if mainly quite posh. We didn’t deserve them and they, surely, didn’t deserve us.

Walter Ellis is a former Fleet Street journalist and author who now divides his time between New York and rural France.

Tags: 37 Days, BBC, Crimea, documentaries, First World War, France, Franz Ferdinand, Germany, Helmuth Moltke, Kaiser Wilhelm, Paris, Sarajevo, Sir Edward Grey, Tsar Nicholas II, TV, Ukraine