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from the Guardian Thursday 5 July 2001

Horr story too farThe latest reality TV project will attempt to recreate life in the first world war trenches. It can't be done, Jack Davis tells Mary O'Hare. And he should know - he's Britain's oldest living survivor of the front line.

A horror story too far

Can they do that? I donít think so," says Jack Davis when he learns that the BBC is planning a "reality TV" show intended to recreate the trenches of the first world war.

The 106-year-old veteran raises his arms in a gesture of disbelief and lunges forward with the energy of someone 50 years younger. "I canít see how they can recreate what canít be recreated." He is angry and astonished, but remarkably composed. He settles slowly back in his chair and apologises for the few seconds it takes him to catch his breath. He has a chest infection, but refuses to let it get in the way of a two-hour interview.

Jack Davis"Iíve been to reunions. Iíve been to Paris and Iíve laid wreaths here, there and everywhere. I have a picture of Ypres as it was left, you know ó hardly a tree or a house left standing." His voice softens. "To try to depict something that actually happened and to try to show all the horror that was there for just one person ó you could never convince me they could recreate it."

The Royal British Legion is keeping an open mind on the programme. It will wait and see. But Davis, from High Wycombe, Bucks, who fought with the Duke of Cornwallís Light Infantry feels certain that it will not work.

"When my battalion was at Ypres, one of the four main positions held was known as the ĎCloth Hall'. It was a big old building. On the German side they had a 17in gun in place mounted on a railway line. One time, it was pointed at the Cloth Hall. It was my company which was to occupy the basement of the Cloth Hall, ready for attack. But at the last minute, C company took over instead of us. I donít know whyó maybe it was the toss of a coin. But five minutes after they got settled in, the Germans started to use the gun and there was a direct hit. It went on and on, with only 10 minute gaps in between shelling, and then great, massive tonnes of masonry was suddenly on top of our boys and they were buried. Most of the bodies werenít rescued until five years later when the building was being rebuilt. We lost almost a whole company of men; lost the second-in-command, two officers and the medic. Tell me, how can you recreate anything like that?"

Davis recalls the day he saw a whole company of men blown up: "Incidents like these ó they can only represent them, and only to people who maybe interested in it as a form of entertainment. But to those who were there? They canít do it."

He was 19 when he volunteered to fight on the day war was declared, lie fought along with his two brothers - one of whom was wounded ó in the trenches of Arras, Ypres and the Somme. The three men survived the war, but only after seeing thousands of their comrades die.

Davis says he and his brothers found it difficult to settle back into civilian life, but adds that, in general, fortune has favoured him. He had a lovely wife and saw four generations of his family born ó his two Sons served in the RAF in the second world war. He has lived in three centuries and under six monarchs.

Filming for the programme (provisionally called The Trench) is due to start in northern France in November, with a showing due on BBC2 next spring. The producers have said they are trying to recreate every detail of the misery of the trenches. But a BBC spokesman said yesterday: "Of course there is no way we can 100% recreate the experience but we can try to illustrate it as closely as possible to as large a group of people as possible. One of the problems is that people have labelled the programme as reality TV, but it will actually differ in many ways. For example, there are no winners. It is not a game. What we are trying to do will go beyond archive. We are consulting historians and have the support of some veterans."

The programme-makers intend to simulate conditions in the trenches such as the smell of rotting corpses, meagre rations, mud, sleep deprivation, tear gas and the sound of bombardments. But modern health-and-safety requirements will restrict the severity of hardships for those taking part in the re-enactment. There will be no mustard gas, for instance.

During the two-week experiment, the producers will occasionally pullout, without notice, one of the 25 recruits. This is as close as it will get to what Davis says is the central fact of war that is impossible to recreate ó the constant fear of death. "You don't get the truth," he says. But worse than that, he fears that it could trivialise the actual experience of watching others die and of dealing with the prospect of death the way the soldiers involved were expected to.

"I would just like to know how the BBC are effectively going to convince people what a particular situation was like. They canít do it as far as Iím concerned ó not with any degree of authenticity. I believe the conditions for those of us who were there canít be shown in this way."

He recalls: "One time my battalion was taken to Ypres. The Germans held all the high ground. It was all trench warfare. My battalion was to act as a decoy. Communication to the front line meant scrambling over the top and running, and dodging shell holes 10 to 15 yards across up to the line. As I approached the front line I heard someone say, ĎI recognise that voice!í I looked round and I saw my brothers. I hadnít seen them for six months. I didnít know where they were." He pauses for a moment. "1 canít really explain how it felt. It was very emotional."

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