Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Creel Committee - Films in World War I

When the United States entered World War I in 1917 films became an important tool for official propaganda purposes. The organization behind these operations was the Commitee on Public Information (CPI) or the "Creel Commitee". Named after its chairman journalist George E. Creel, the CPI launched a massive publicity campaign to get America behind the Great War.

Advertisement Under Four Flags produced by the CPI. From Moving Picture World, 11 January 1919

"The World's Greatest Adventure in Advertising"

Creel was a firm believer in the power of the media and he called his publicity campaign "The World's Greatest Adventure in Advertising". Although films were a relatively new medium at the time the CPI did not neglect the movies. America's participation in the Great War was widely shown on screen. Using official footage shot by military cameramen of the U.S. Signal Corps the CPI produced three feature documentary films, as well as numerous shorts and a newsreel, The Official War Review. Film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks were also mobilized by the CPI to urge people to buy War Bonds and enlist for the American Army.

More information on Creel's film program can be read in a chapter of our book American Cinematographers in the Great War.

Here is a short clip uploaded to our YouTube channel on these films by the Commitee on Public Information.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Ariel Varges Appointed with the Order of the British Empire

For his photographic work during World War I American cameraman Ariel Varges (1890-1972) was appointed an honorary member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. We recently found the official letter signed by King George V in Varges' personal collection which was put up for sale on the Internet.

Ariel Varges (1918). On the frontside Varges wrote "Sincerely yours, Ariel Varges, New York American staff"

Varges featured before in this weblog. He ranked among the most prominent, pioneering film cameramen of World War I. As described in our book on the American cinematographers of the Great War, Varges worked for William Randolph Hearst and he came to Europe in December 1914. By using his close contacts with Sir Thomas Lipton, Varges got on a ship for the Serbian front and filmed the war in the Balkans. From 1916, Varges became an official cinematographer for the British Army and filmed in Greece and Mesopotamia.

Signed photograph

The letter by King George is dated November 4, 1919. Varges apparently received this honorary appointment when he was in Paris one year later, because there is an accompanying letter dated June 26, 1920 in his personal collection, which was signed by the British Ambassador in France. The collection also has a signed photograph of Varges. The backside of this picture is dated October 1, 1918. On the frontside of the picture one of the newspapers he worked for is mentioned, the New York American.

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire was established by King George V in June 1917 for services to the British Empire, rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations and public service outside the Civil Service. In December 1918 the Order was split into two divisions: a Civil Division for civilian recipients and a Military Division to the Order for awards to be conferred on commissioned officers and warrant officers for distinguished service in action. Because of his photographic work during World War I Varges was awarded with a Military Division Order of the British Empire.

His personal collection can be seen on this website of an online auction.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Reporting from the Front - Robert S. Dunn

Among the American journalists reporting on World War I Robert S. Dunn deserves a special note of interest. Born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1877, Dunn was an explorer and naval officer whose interests carried him into many corners of the world. After his graduation from Harvard in 1898, he travelled the Yukon Trail to the Klondike and became a journalist upon his return.

Robert S. Dunn (1903) 

In 1908 Dunn led the first climbing party that reached the top of Mt. Wrangell, Alaska. As a war correspondent he covered the Russo-Japanese War, the attack by the US Marines on Veracruz and General Pershing's expedition into Mexico against Pancho Villa. During World War I he was a correspondent for the New York Post. Dunn described his war experiences in his book Five Fronts - On the Firing Lines with English, French, Austrian, German and Russian Troops (1915).

Official Film Report

As mentioned in a previous weblog, the German government in January 1915 produced a film on the living conditions in occupied Belgium. American cameraman Albert K. Dawson and Austrian newsreel photographer Hans Theyer were assigned to accompany Dunn and a group of fellow American reporters, including Jack Reed, to make an official film. The film project was set up to show the world that the Belgian people were treated decently, thus trying to disprove the stories on atrocities committed by German soldiers in Belgium. Scenes from this movie were found by the authors while researching our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. You can read more on this historic film in our latest book.

German frontline in the Argonne forest, photographed by Albert Dawson, January 1915

Cameramen under Fire

Like Reed, Dunn mentioned the film coverage of their 1915 trench trip in his book Five Fronts. Here is how he described Dawson's and Theyer's frantic return from the frontline after they had just filmed a terrifying French artillery barrage near Comines:

Comines lies just across the old French frontier, in Belgium. We had luncheon with our generous corps' staff, in some residence all dark with ambrequins and terra cotta plaques. It was the usual officers' mess - the long table lined with mystifying uniforms, bantering one another but carefully gracious to you; boiled meats to eat, yet more of the wine of the country than beer. And that our hosts were all-Bavarian was plain from the captain on my right, who had been to Oxford, and was willing enough to admit in argument the social and economic dangers of a military hierarchy. Consider that, from a  hide-bound German soldier, on the edge of battle! 
Three o'clock found us threading the narrow streets of Houthem, the divisional headquarters, and a stage nearer the inferno of the trenches. Already any windows left in the village were rattling to the detonations of shrapnel; their sudden spawning white plumes over the long rise west of the town made the woods on its crest seem alive. The place itself was shelled nearly every afternoon. A few more house size holes in its walls and roof, and the brick church de l'Assomption would be no more. We climbed the belfry, but only to see a shattered Norman church, with a rooster weathervane and a wrecked village rise from the crest of woods. Between and beyond these, the German cross-fire over the invisible French trenches yonder appeared to meet, in white spurts like two streams of cloud sped from separate air currents and waxing furious, brought out a hundering answer from the French batteries further north.  
On the ground again by the divisional station, two soldiers came down the road from that quarter carrying an elegant new coffin on their shoulders. And behind them tooted the motor-car that had taken our official cinema men [Dawson and Theyer] to the artillery up there. Exactly what had happened, the counter insinuations in the pair's stories only fogged. A shrapnel shell — or a grenade — had exploded in the air or hit the ground ten up to a hundred yards away. Somebody had dropped his [movie] machine and run, but some one else had skipped out first, while No. 2 had fled only because No. 1 wouldn't stand his ground while he had shouted to him, thought he had, et cetera. One boasted of a splash of mud hurled against his back, which was quite clean, both where he could and couldn't see it. They agreed only in their breathless resolve to hustle back to Comines, with the twenty feet of film that the first peep of sun in a week had vouchsafed them. 

In 1918 Dunn was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Navy, and served as an intelligence officer in London and in Constantinople. During his later years, he concentrated on horticulture and on writing in his home in Katonah, New York. He wrote two published novels, Youngest World and Horizon Fever and one book of verse. Dunn's autobiography was published in 1956 after his death.

Robert Dunn's book On Five Fronts (1915) can be read and downloaded here.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Anti-German Film Propaganda (USA, 1917-1918)

In the online collection of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. the authors recently came across a fascinating film entitled "Anti-German Propaganda" that was produced by the American government in 1917-1918.

Warning: Graphic Contents!

First a warning to anyone who would like to see this footage: the film has very graphic contents showing dead soldiers and children. It is a strong example of World War I atrocity propaganda in which the Germans are shown as the ultimate bad guys.

A.E. Wallace with the German army. Copied from the Boston American, 29 August 1915

The American film studios during World War I produced many propaganda movies and a lot of these films are by modern standards absolutely outrageous. This film is something completely different. It isn't drama - the movie is compiled from documentary footage and still photographs. The pictures were clearly distributed to arouse antipathy toward the German war effort. Pictures show dead Germans in trenches, the Kaiser inspecting troops, dead women and children piled in a field, German troops retreating, captured Germans in a stockade, and French families inspecting their rubbled homes. Films show German troops in close-order drill, doing excercises and engaged in infantry and cavalry maneuvers, French refugees trudging along a road and Allied prisoners being guarded by German troops.

Newsreel Footage Identified

The technical quality of these pictures is outstanding. We also recognized the scenes showing the German troops in close-order drill. These were shot by American newsreel cameraman Ansel E. Wallace who went to Germany in December 1914 for the Hearst-Selig News Pictorial. This footage was taken in Frankfurt am Main. We found it in the Allen Collection at the Library of Congress but could not publish it because of copyright issues. This footage from the National Archives however is in the public domain and can be watched without any restrictions. Ironically, the Wallace footage of troops on the drill field at Frankfurt am Main was shot in 1915, two years before the United States got into the war.  And it was made at the order of William Randolph Hearst, who was then pro-German, and with the direct blessing of the German Foreign Office -- another demonstration of how a film shot can often be exploited for almost any propaganda purpose.

You can read more on Wallace's film work during World War I in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War (2014).

We have uploaded this anti-German propaganda film on our YouTube channel.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

"Our American Boys in the European War" (USA, 1916)

Long before the United States entered the First World War, American films capitalized on the notion of an active involvement of their country in the Great War. One of the best examples is Our American Boys in the European War, a four-reel film released by the Triangle Film Corporation in the summer of 1916.

Film poster of Our American Boys in the European War (USA, 1916) 

This documentary film pictures the American Field Service, an organization of volunteers driving ambulances behind the French frontlines, as well as the American pilots that joined the Lafayette Escadrille on the French side of the war. Long considered a lost movie, the film has been partially retrieved. Two reels of a revamped version were found recently in the film collection of the Library of Congress. This version was released in the United States in 1917 as Our Friend France and has some additional scenes.

The American Field Service

For a country that was strictly speaking neutral at the time when this film was first shown, it is somewhat surprising that this movie was released. But one should not forget that when the German army closed in on Paris in 1914, many members of the American colony rallied to the French cause. Its two prime movers, former U.S. ambassador to France Robert Bacon and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, persuaded the French government to provide facilities for taking care of wounded French soldiers at the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine, a little suburb northwest of Paris. The next step was to set up operations for an American ambulance service, which came into effect around June 1915.

Somehow in 1916 the American Field Service managed to close a deal with the Triangle Film Corporation and with the assistance of the French authorities Our American Boys in the European War was produced. According to Ed and Libby Klekowksi in their excellent book Eyewitnesses to the Great War, the film was shot in the vicinity of Pont-à-Mousson, in the Lorraine, which was a relatively quiet frontline sector. Although the Triangle Film Corporation in some press releases claimed the company had sent its own cameramen to Europe this is highly unlikely. Most of the footage was probably made by official cinematographers of the French army, and some scenes were spliced in that were also used in other American films, notably Donald C. Thompson's War As It Really Is (USA, 1916).

Preparedness Movement

Our American Boys in the European War premiered in July 1916 at the Hotel Majestic in New York City. Special benefit shows for the American Field Service were arranged that summer for members of the East Coast high society at fashionable seaside resorts. The film not only was an important fund raiser for the American Field Service. It soon also became a significant propaganda instrument for the preparedness movement in America. Although the enemy was not mentioned in the speeches that accompanied the presentation of this film, it is clear the movie was used for pro-French publicity, as well as promoting a stronger national defense in the United States. As an example, the trade paper Moving Picture World reported the film was shown in September 1916 at the Plattsburg military training grounds in New York under the auspices of the 9th Regiment.

Scene from Our American Boys in the European War (USA, 1916) 

When in 1917 America entered World War I the Triangle film was shown again and soon a new version was edited, which included additional shots such as a scene showing the French General Rageneau conferring the Cross of the Legion of Honor upon A. Piatt Andrew, organizer of the American Field Service. This revamped film also has an appropriate introduction by General Joffre, commemorating French-American friendship dating back to the American Declaration of Independence. This footage must be a compilation of at least three different film versions, because there are at least three different styles of intertitles.  A number of shots in the first film (about the first 20 minutes) are also scattered through the John E. Allen Collection at the Library of Congress.

Here is a copy of this 1917 version of Our American Boys in the European War, which can also be found on the website of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives.)


Friday, February 16, 2018

Lost World War I Film Scenes Now Online

In the early days of American film history production companies frequently deposited frame enlargements at the Library of Congress for copyright application purposes. Many of these reproductions can now be accessed online and are an important source for identifying lost films.

"Bandaging the Wounded". Film scene showing Austrian Red Cross soldiers in action at the Eastern Front. From Albert K. Dawson's World War I feature film The Battles of A Nation  (USA, 1915). Frame enlargement from the Library of Congress' Prints & Photograph Division. 

While researching our book American Cinematographers in the Great War we found a number of frame enlargements that had been deposited by the American Correspondent Film Company. The dates on the backside of the pictures, as well as the name of the production company, all pinpointed to cameraman Albert K. Dawson (1885-1967). From 1915 Dawson worked for this film company and he accompanied the German as well as the Austro-Hungarian and the Bulgarian army in wartime Europe.

Frame enlargements 

At the time of our research these frame enlargements had not been digitized by the Library of Congress, but now the pictures can be viewed online. Dawson's pictures are in a special World War I collection named "Selected copyright deposit photos of the First World War" (Lot 880). Some of these pictures are scenes from his war films  The Battle and Fall of Przemyśl and Battles of A Nation (1915). Others are regular press photographs taken by Dawson during his trench tours along the Western and the Eastern Front.

We have uploaded Dawson's pictures from this collection on our photo channel.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Movie Posters that Sold World War I to the Americans

When the United States entered World War I a professional campaign machine was established to get the American people behind the program. Launched by America's wartime propaganda agency - the Committee on Public Information (CPI) - this publicity drive was on a scale people had never witnessed before. Posters, lobby cards and advertisements all contributed to promoting the CPI official films of the Great War.

Poster for official film presentation in Baltimore, Maryland, March 1918

Musical artillery barrage
The films produced by the CPI ranged from shorts to an official war newsreel and three feature documentary films: Pershing's Crusaders, America's Answer and Under Four Flags. All movies were boosted by a professional publicity campaign which included special screenings, direct mailings and the use of theatrical techniques to produce a stunning presentation. As an example, when in 1918 America's Answer premiered in New York City the curtains were raised and the stage revealed one hundred U.S. sailors singing the national anthem, followed by the theme "Over There!" which was accompanied by a breathtaking musical 'artillery barrage'. The audience when seeing and hearing all this was electrified. 

For more information on the official war films by the CPI check out our book American Cinematographers in the Great War (2014). Here is also a video on the American posters of World War I:

As an interesting illustration of how these official war pictures were turned into a "show" we have collected a series of film posters, lobby cards and movie advertisements which were used by the CPI throughout the United States to promote America's involvement in the Great War.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The New York Times War Pictorial (1914-1918)

During World War I leading American newspapers took advantage of a new printing process that dramatically altered their ability to reproduce images. Rotogravure printing, which produced richly detailed, high quality illustrations was used to create vivid new pictorial sections. This new technique also made it possible to produce special war pictorials on an unprecedented scale. 

Belgian machine gunner. Copied from the New York Times War Pictorial (1914)

Beginning March 29, 1914, the New York Times became one of six US newspapers to regularly publish rotogravure art sections as a separate section, mid-week and on Sundays. The Times later compiled images from these sections into a book entitled The War of the Nations: Portfolio in Rotogravure Etchings. This volume included images from the New York Times mid-week pictorials published from the start of World War I in 1914 until the signing of the Armistice in 1919.

Research source

Most of the Sunday edition pictorials have been scanned and digitized by the Library of Congress, and prove to be an important historical source. While researching our book American Cinematographers in the Great War we frequently used the New York Times War Pictorial section. Because many of the war photographers that we researched handled both a still and a movie camera their work also turned up in the war pictorials that were published in this newspaper. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

"Sinking of the Lusitania" (USA, 1918)

In 1918 American cartoonist Winsor McCay recreated the never-photographed sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania. At twelve minutes it has been called the longest work of animation at the time of its release. The film is also the earliest surviving animated documentary.

Advertisement Sinking of the Lusitania, Moving Picture World, 24 August 1918

The sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine outraged McCay, but the newspapers of his employer William Randolph Hearst downplayed the event, as Hearst was opposed to the US joining World War I. McCay was required to illustrate anti-war and anti-British editorial cartoons for Hearst's papers. In 1916, McCay rebelled against his employer and began to work on this project on his own time with his own money. It took him 22 months to complete the film.

Strong Propagandist Feel

The animation combines editorial cartooning techniques with live-action-like sequences. The intertitles emphasized that the film was a "historical record" of the event. The movie has a dark mood and strong propagandist feel. It depicts the terrifying fates of the passengers, such as the drowning of children and human chains of passengers jumping to their deaths. The artwork is highly detailed, the animation fluid and naturalistic. McCay used alternating shots to simulate the feel of a newsreel, which reinforced the film's realistic look.

There are several versions of this remarkable World War I film online. The best copy we could find was uploaded in 2015 by Tina Chancey and has an improvised musical score.


Monday, January 29, 2018

Peter Jackson's Passion for World War I Film

Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson, last week made international headlines when he announced a new documentary film based on a restoration of World War I footage from the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

The results will be shown in cinemas, broadcast by BBC One on Armistice Day November 2018, and a copy will be sent to every secondary school in Great Britain this autumn. The footage will be accompanied by interviews with veterans, some recorded half a century ago for the acclaimed 1964 BBC series The Great War.

Crossing the Line (2008) 

Jackson's passion for World War I film goes back to his early childhood. His grandfather was born in Britain. Jackson Sr. was a professional soldier who fought in the Great War and joined the ANZAC Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli. In 1916, he was transferred to the Western Front and went over the top at the Battle of the Somme. Peter Jackson never got to know his grandfather who passed away before he was born, but his special interest in preserving the memory of World War I has been with him for as long as he can remember. We have mentioned in an earlier weblog Jackson's work on restoring the historic footage that was taken of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli in 1915. His passion for World War I also shines through in Crossing the Line, a short film produced in 2008 that was originally intended as a collection of test shots for a new type of high res digital camera. Instead Jackson produced a stunning film on war at the Western Front, as seen from the air and the trenches. Unfortunately, Jackson never released the full movie online, but here is a link to the trailer. Watching this film makes you wish he expands on this project and produces a full-blown film on the First World War. The movie is simply amazing.

In 2015 Jackson also collaborated on a World War I exhibition in Wellington, New Zealand, and who would have guessed he has a unique collection of Great War fighter planes that can actually fly? Judging from the publicity, Jackson's collaboration with the Imperial War Museum and the BBC for the upcoming documentary promises to be something quite extraordinary.

For those of you who would like to know more about Jackson's interest in World War I, here is a personal interview by a New Zealand TV channel that was broadcasted in October 2014.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Ariel Varges Revisited - Filming the War in Mesopotamia

American cinematographer Ariel Varges featured before in this weblog. He shot film with the Serbian and the British army during Word War I and was in a unique position to cover the military operations in Mesopotamia (Iraq) which drove the Turks out of the Middle East.

Soldiers shielding their ears during the firing of a 60 Pounder in the desert. Photograph by Varges from the collection of the Imperial War Museum

In a previous weblog we described his newsreel work with the British army from 1917 when he followed the British offensive in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and covered the fall of Baghdad. Apart from newsreels Varges also produced footage for a series of topical films that were sponsored by the British War Office Cinema Commitee. The website of the Imperial War Museum lists 21 short films in this category, which all have footage that has been credited to Varges.

Scene from footage shot by Ariel Varges with the British forces in Mesopotamia

Norton's Column (1917)

An interesting example is the short Norton's Column in Mesopotamia, a jumbled film of the raid into Kurdistan by Brigadier-General C.E.G. Norton's Expeditionary Force in September 1917, showing the 7th Indian Cavalry Brigade, 14th Light Armoured Motor Battery and 'S' Battery Royal Horse Artillery conducting operations towards Mandali. The footage also has a scene showing a "Turkish spy" who is brought blindfold into the British camp. The same scene appeared in the War Office Topical Budget newsreel no. 336-1, which was released in Britain in January 1918 and is credited to Varges.

The film collection at the Imperial War Museum demonstrates that Varges accompanied the British in August-September 1918 during a raid into Baku (Southern Russia). He also filmed a series of test shots of British generals during the campaign in Mesopotamia, notably Lieutenant-General Sir William R. Marshall, Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, filmed wearing a cap, then a sun helmet. Apart from scenes showing the British military campaign Varges also seems to have been very much interested in covering the rich cultural heritage in the country. His films have many scenes of monuments at cities such as ancient Babylon and Ctesiphon.

For a list of all of these 21 films credited to Varges at the Imperial War Museum click this link.

We have also uploaded a selection of scenes from this footage on our YouTube channel.


Friday, January 19, 2018

Filming Lawrence of Arabia (USA, 1918)

In March 1918, American reporter Lowell Thomas turned up in Jerusalem and asked to see a young British officer whose exploits were the subject of marvelled rumour. Thomas was accompanied by Harry Chase, a seasoned photographer who also carried a motion picture camera. The meeting started the film legend of Lawrence of Arabia.

Harry Chase, shooting war in Palestine. His movie camera is a Moy & Bastie

Colonel T. E. Lawrence and his role in the Arab revolt is well documented. Despite of all these sources myth has taken over from history. The man responsible for this was journalist, writer, broadcaster, traveler and film producer Lowell J. Thomas (1892-1981). In April 1917, when the United States entered the Great War,  the U.S. War Department asked Thomas to report on World War I under its auspices with authorization from President Wilson. He was to gather material and stories that would encourage the American people’s support for the war. With the financial backup by a group of business men from Chicago Thomas purchased the contract of crack cameraman Harry Chase, formed a company called Thomas Travelogues, got married, and set off for Europe with his new bride, Frances, and his cameraman to cover the war.

T. E. Lawrence (left) and Lowell Thomas in Aqaba, 1918

Upon arrival in France, Thomas soon discovered that the slaughter, the mud and the trenches at the Western Front were hardly suitable for a promotional campaign. So, he went to Palestine where the British forces had just conquered Jerusalem from the Turks, and this was where he met T. E. Lawrence. It should be noted that Thomas and Chase only met Lawrence briefly. Lawrence saw that Thomas’ mission could be used to help promote the little-known Arab revolt. But he wished to keep Thomas at arms’ length to protect his much-valued privacy. This is borne out in the photographic and cinematographic record. Lawrence permitted Chase to take a number of photographs of himself in Arab dress, both in Jerusalem and outside his tent in Aqaba. But Thomas only spent a couple of days close to Lawrence and never accompanied Lawrence on his campaigns. The film record also bears this out.

With Lawrence in Arabia

It was only after the Great War in 1919 when Thomas was showing his series of five films on the war that - much to his own surprise - he noticed the public interest was building up and more people wanted to see this strange, young British officer dressed in Arab oufit. In order to secure enough pictures Thomas organized a second photo shoot in London together with Lawrence. Then, after the publication of his book on Lawrence and the Arab revolt, Thomas edited his travelogue footage into the film With Lawrence in Arabia that was released in 1927. By then, the legend of Lawrence of Arabia had been fully established.

As an interesting sideline, in December 1934 Lowell Thomas hosted a radio show in New York City and a special guest for this show was Albert K. Dawson. Like Thomas, Dawson had been a film correspondent during World War I. He shot movies in 1915-1916 with the German, the Austro-Hungarian and the Bulgarian army. Dawson was working in the tourist business then, and after the Second World War corresponded with Thomas. Here is one of his letters to Thomas. More information on Dawson can be found in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War.

A complete and original version of With Lawrence in Arabia (USA, 1927) is hard to find online. The Imperial War Museum has quite some scenes from this movie, running just over 15 minutes, as well as a collection of unsorted footage. We have uploaded segments from Thomas's original movie, together with a short introduction on how T. E. Lawrence was filmed, on our YouTube channel.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

World War I Cameramen Behind The Lens

While researching our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, we came across an interesting collection of pictures from the collection of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. These are all from the records of the U.S. Signal Corps that was assigned to film and photograph America's involvement in the Great War.

U.S. Signal Corps crew filming American troops arriving in a village in Lorraine, France (1918)

Quite a number of these photographs show the U.S. Signal Corps cameramen at work on the Western Front in 1918. Thanks to research by Harry Kidd at the National Archives these pictures have been scanned and uploaded on the internet. Finally, after almost one hundred years, we can see how these official war pictures were made.

For a sample of these photographs here is a weblog by Geralt Novak, showing the activities of these World War I photographers.

Weblog: Behind the Camera Lens - World War I Photographers

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

"With Our Heroes on the Somme" (Germany, 1917)

In January 1917, the Bild- und Film Amt (BuFA) released Bei Unseren Helden an der Somme. Proclaimed by the Germans as a depiction of "the German will in war", the film was supposed to counteract the enormous success of the British film Battle of the Somme.                  

Movie poster for Bei Unseren Helden an der Somme (1917)

When this war documentary was shown on the screen the German authorities realized they were about to lose the propaganda war with the British. In the early years of the war the use of film for wartime publicity had been limited. As we described in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, it took a lot of initiative for American cameramen to cut through military red tape and censorship and make movies with the German army. The effect of The Battle of the Somme, both at home and in neutral countries, changed all of this and it must have contributed substantially to the decision by the German government to intensify official film propaganda and set up the Bild- und Film Amt.

Bei unseren Helden an der Somme was BuFA’s first attempt at a feature length propaganda film and was largely unsuccessful in comparison to the British film. The film’s lack of success was due mainly to the strict censorship by the military authorities, which resulted in the absence of combat footage. Rather than sending cameramen to the front when audiences demanded this footage, the Germans created it using a combination of scenes staged in training areas and footage from previous wars.

Staging the Battle of the Somme

When the decision was made to produce a German film on the Battle of the Somme a problem first had to be solved: the Germans had not covered this campaign on film. Accordingly, although the first part of the film has some authentic footage, both the second and third parts were reconstructed to “show” what happened on the Somme front. These segments were compiled from films showing military trainings and previous conflicts. A forest - supposed to be at Saint-Pierre Vaast and an important fighting ground during this campaign - turns out to be completely free from damage. There are also inconsistencies in the type of helmet worn by German soldiers. Both the pickle and the steel helmet, which replaced the pickle in 1916, appear throughout the film.

Yet the German press campaign that accompanied the film dwelled on the film’s excellence. With Our Heroes on the Somme was presented as a documentary, but the gap between authentic and staged scenes was too big to allow for long-term success. The Somme movie however was instrumental in setting up German propaganda strategy during the Second World War, which was aimed at total media control.

A copy of this official war film from the collection of the German Federal Archives has been uploaded on our YouTube channel.


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Filming Field Marshal von Mackensen (1916)

Nelson Edwards, circa 1914. Copied from the Baltimore Sun, 1944

In March 1916, Field Marshal August von Mackensen visited the Turkish capital Constantinopel. Von Mackensen was sent from Berlin as Kaiser Wilhelm's emissary to pay his regards to the Turkish Sultan and strenghten the military alliance with the Ottoman Empire. Mackensen - one of the best field commanders of the German army during the First World War - was filmed during this occasion. The historic footage is from the German Federal Archives and was probably taken by American cinematographer Nelson E. Edwards.

European Film Gateway

The film report was uploaded by the German Federal Archives to the webportal European Film Gateway in November 2014, as part of a program to digitize contemporary films of the Great War by all of the major European film archives. The film was exhibited in 1916 in German movie theaters as part of the weekly Messter newsreel. The cinematographer however probably wasn't German, but he was an American newsreel cameraman, Nelson Edwards.

Field Marshal von Mackensen, inspecting Turkish soldiers. Scene from Messter Woche newsreel (1916)

Edwards' experiences as a film cameraman in Europe have been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. He was sent to Turkey by the Germans in early 1916 to publicize the recent defeat of Serbia by the Central Powers, as well as the resulting celebration of German-Turkish amity. Edwards filmed von Mackensen on his arrival in Constantinopel and covered his visit to Turkey closely. Edwards was quite taken with von Mackensen, a man he described as "a fierce, swift fighter, a brilliant strategist, a doer always of the unexpected."

The scenes that were shot by Edwards were shown in the Hearst newsreels in the United States in June 1916. On his return to Germany Edwards agreed to let Messter Woche newsreel use his footage by a letter dated 20 April 1916. And so these scenes were also exhibited in Germany, which explains how we found his film report of von Mackensen's visit in a contemporary German newsreel by Messter.

We have uploaded this film report from the Messter newsreel on our YouTube channel.