The Passing-Bells

Over the last couple of years, I have deeply enjoyed various contributions of the BBC to the Centenary Commemorations of WW1. One was the movie Testament of Youth, the powerful true story of Vera Brittain, from her memoir of the same name. The cast was very strong, including the increasingly recognized and lovely Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (her English accent is perfect).


As we are only halfway through the Commemoration years, I decided to pass the recent 34 degree C (feels like 40!) weekend heat in our front room air-con, knitting and watching the BBC’s series, now on SBS, The Passing-Bells.

The title required a little investigation, as it is not directly explained…….passing bells are those (usually Church) bells which might call hearers to awareness of, or prayer for the passing of a soul, commonplace in British villages a hundred years ago.

The author of the television drama The Passing-Bells, Tony Jordan, wrote this drama specifically for the young. It needed to suit a 7pm time-slot, and be true to the theme but not so gory as to make it unsuitable for that time-slot. He was inspired by Wilfred Owen’s poem:

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent maids,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred also wrote that other remarkable poem, Dulce et Decorum est (pro patria mori), which calls out ” the old Lie”, it is sweet and right to die for ones country.

We follow a British and a German youth and their respective families, from their enlistments from their home villages, and through each year of the war. It is interspersed with real film and audio at times. The experience offered is that of this war on Youth and these youths, not the politics of the war, or rights or wrongs. One of the aims was to draw for today’s youth some understanding of the inexplicable awfulness of war. We feel that the honour of dying for one’s country may be a lie, especially as, in this particular war, it was significantly inflicted by vain ego’s on both sides; and, by the middle and end of the war, we see the futility of terrible human losses.

A great watch, taken in it’s full context. The music by is haunting as it suggests the hope and aspirations of these teenage youth and the lightness of home, which they lost……for so many, life ended in the slime and mud of the Somme and Paschendale.

I think it drew enough of the facts, without being excessively traumatizing, to give modern youth a glimpse of that reality.

Poet, Wilfred Owen was killed Nov 4, 1918, a week before the end of WW1, at the age of 25.


Thoughts seguay to Rudyard Kipling, who via his contacts helped, his son, John, enlist as an officer. John was killed after leading (leading at 18?) his troops into battle at the Battle of Loos, France, disappearing in September 1915, six weeks after his 18th birthday. Rudyard never really recovered from this loss. John’s body was not recovered at the time, Rudyard searching for the next four years for him, tracking down his battalions survivors, his military contacts, the Red Cross, Swedish contacts and German ambassadors, before finally accepting that he had been killed, rather than taken prisoner.

Having been a keen supporter of the war, Kipling became critical. His haunting poem Common Form reads: “If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

In 1992, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission changed the inscription of an Unkown Soldier to John Kipling……he had lain those years un-named due to clerical errors:

He had been promoted in the field to First Lieutenant, not the original assumed Second Lieutenant, confused with another Lieutenant who had died in the field hospital, and, freshly geographically pinpointed due to a clerical error with the grid reference of the day. We now know on Rudyard’s behalf, where his son’s body lies.

(I did not previously know that it was Kipling’s idea that all war graves have equivalent headstones and crosses, there to be no distinction according to rank….and, Also, on war graves everywhere “Known unto God” is written, rather than “unknown”, again, Kipling’s words…..)

I want to re-see the movie My Boy Jack, now.

Kipling Poetry I have noted

The Thousandth Man


My Boy Jack

Jane’s Marriage – in this poem, Kipling gave to Jane (Austen) in Heaven, that which she had missed in life -the love of her ideal man.

This latter was my Aunty Bell’s favorite poem. She was born in 1901, so at coming of age, the flower of Australian youth had been killed in WW1. She never married.

Published by


Living in The Gap following growing up in Brisbane. Also lived in Nambour, Mt Isa, Cairns, Beaudesert, Ipswich, qualifying as a "Queenslanda". Retired and loving growing extended family, sub-tropical gardening, cooking, reading, politics, aquaerobics, family genealogy, sewing, knitting, film, IT, all things Mac, Pinterest, Goodreads, State of Origin.......

One thought on “The Passing-Bells”

  1. Lovely review – many thanks. Coincidentally, I just saw this show – I was prompted by the Dunkirk trailer.
    The young Scotsman (Jack Lowden) who played the German soldier (who was also rather good in War and Peace) is in the upcoming Dunkirk.
    I really enjoyed The Passing Bells- especially the final scene, and I have especially enjoyed finding out recently that the two sides played more than one game of football and swapped food and cigarettes on numerous occasions – all details scrubbed from the official unit war diaries.
    Wilfred Owen was from Oswestry – where I went to boarding school for 5 years. His legacy is beloved and never forgotten there xx M
    “Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) is widely recognised as one of the greatest voices of the First World War. He was born in Oswestry, and brought up in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury. Although he spent only a few years of his life here in Oswestry, his family history goes back generations and his grandfather was once mayor of the town. Oswestry Visitor & Exhibition Centre has a permanent display of Wilfred Owen’s letters to his mother and visitors who want to know more about his life in the town can download the Wilfred Owen Town Trail which will show you places in his life. “

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.