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American Cinematographers in the Great War, 1914-1918

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At the start of hostilities in World War I, when the United States was still neutral, American newsreel companies and newspapers sent a new kind of journalist, the film correspondent, to Europe to record the Great War. These pioneering cameramen, accustomed to carrying the Kodaks and Graflexes of still photography, had to lug cumbersome equipment into the trenches. Facing dangerous conditions on the front, they also risked summary execution as supposed spies while navigating military red tape, censorship, and the business interests of the film and newspaper companies they represented. Based on extensive research in European and American archives, American Cinematographers in the Great War, 1914–1918 follows the adventures of these cameramen as they managed to document and film the atrocities around them in spite of enormous difficulties.

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Chapter 1 Over There

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This book is a book on film. However, it starts as primarily a newspaper story. There are several reasons. In 1914 newsreels were still very young. While some major studios such as Pathé and Universal were already in the newsreel business, newspapers were entering into an intense period of competition and were seeking new ways to improve profits. It was a cutthroat war between vigorous and expanding entities, imitating what was happening among nations overseas. So there was a rush to send the journalists to the war. As the appeal of newsreels became ever more apparent to the newspapers, there was also a great need for cinematographers, who in many cases had been press photographers until very recently. It is a credit to them how quickly they adapted to lugging and working with 150 pounds of cumbersome film equipment after having worked for years with a Kodak or Graflex.

Since many of them were newspaper people, it was very difficult in many cases to distinguish much difference between the journalists and the cameramen, although there may have been a type of caste system giving deference to the writers. Once overseas they suffered the same problems and shared the same successes. They were in bed together, literally. In October 1914 in Antwerp as it was being shelled by the Germans, Edwin F. Weigle, cinematographer for the Chicago Tribune, Donald C. Thompson, photographer for the New York World, Arthur Ruhl of Colliers and Edward Eyre Hunt, who wrote War Bread, were cowering under the same roof at 74 rue du Péage. Later Horace Green wrote about the same shelling, and James H. Hare, another famous war photographer, photographed the battered facade of the building, American flag still flying, for Leslie’s Weekly. It was a new kind of war, and the journalists and photographers were in it together.

 

Chapter 2 Over Here

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On 28 July 1914 World War I officially began in Europe. However, just as there are often preliminary geological disturbances before the major explosion of a volcano, there had been flash points involving the United States and especially Germany for quite some time. In addition, the United States, like Germany and the other major powers in Europe, was expansionist in mood and had been since the Spanish American War. There were bound to be collisions. This had led to numerous incidents both with Germany and England.

In 1898 naval units of Kaiser Wilhelm II suddenly appeared in Manila Bay looking for anchorages in the Philippines. Admiral Dewey, who was busy blockading the Spanish fleet, heatedly told the Envoy, Captain Lieutenant Paul Hintze, that if the Germans wanted war with the United States, they could have it. In 1902–03 there was an English, German and Italian blockade of Venezuela when it could not pay its international debts, challenging the Monroe Doctrine. This led to President Roosevelt’s corollary: America could intervene in situations like this when countries in this hemisphere could not pay their international debts. In 1909 there were rumors that the Kaiser, also known as “Wilhelm the Sudden”, was planning to buy a port on the Pacific coast of Mexico at Baja California, much to the horror of his own foreign office. Again, the Americans expressed their displeasure. In 1911 there was the Second Moroccan Crisis in which France and England forced Germany into a humiliating withdrawal of its claims in Morocco. It is conjectured that this debacle was responsible for the Kaiser’s subsequent hatred for England and the ultimate decision to enter World War I. The Americans were alarmed. Even in the first Moroccan crisis of 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt told a British diplomat: “[The Kaiser] is altogether too jumpy, too volatile in his policies … I would never count on his friendship for this country”. Meanwhile the Hearst press had been exacerbating relations with England, especially on the Irish question, the payment of duties by the British at the newly-opened Panama Canal, and overall with its pro-German stance.

 

Chapter 3 Belgium

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When the war was hours old, the first American journalists and cameramen were on their way to Belgium. Joseph Medill Patterson, co-editor of the Chicago Tribune, formed one team with Edwin F. Weigle. Others that went individually and teamed up in Belgium were E. Alexander Powell, journalist for the New York World, and Donald C. Thompson, cameraman.

Belgium was where the war began and the critical feature from the war correspondents’ view was the chaos resulting from the Belgians being overwhelmed by an invading army they were not prepared to fight. The Belgians had no plans for handling war correspondents and would have had no time to do so even if they had. William G. Shepherd called it the “free lance days”, a period of openness at the beginning of the war when anyone could catch a boat for Antwerp from elsewhere with no press credentials necessary. A lot of fakes and amateurs came to Belgium who claimed to be covering the war and there was even one individual who sent dispatches “from the front” without ever leaving his hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Paris. But the situation benefited the real news gatherers who were generally free to cover whatever they wanted, unless they were unfortunate enough to meet a real martinet. For journalists, it was like Dodge City of the Old West.

 

Chapter 4 William Randolph Hearst and the War

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As previously noted, William Randolph Hearst was pro-German, anti-English, and not a supporter of World War I. Hearst may have been ideologically driven to support Germany. However he would never pass up a good story, even if it came from the side of the Entente. For example, a Hearst-Selig News Pictorial newsreel of the German naval raid on Scarborough, England, in December of 1914, widely felt to be an example of German barbarism at the time, still survives in the John E. Allen Collection. Hearst was primarily a businessman interested in selling newspapers, so the fact that one of his cinematographers, Ariel Varges, ended up covering the war with the British did not bother him excessively. But in this chapter we will discuss two cinematographers who went to cover the German side of the war for Hearst (Colour Plate 5).

One of the most fascinating stories about the Americans in Germany involves Wallace, Dr. Lewis Hart Marks, American Ambassador James W. Gerard and Count J. M. de Beaufort. Offstage pulling largely invisible strings, we have William Randolph Hearst and Mumm von Schwarzenstein, press chief of the Auswärtige Amt or German Foreign Office. To a lesser degree Woodrow Wilson and Kaiser Wilhelm II were involved. For a while, these wildly dissimilar figures used each other to achieve their goals in wartime Germany.

 

Chapter 5 Behind the German Lines

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After the campaign in Belgium, there was something of a lull as far as the correspondents in Berlin were concerned. The photographers were back in Germany patrolling their old beat. Weigle was back in Europe, having sailed with Donald C. Thompson and publisher Robert R. McCormick of the Tribune to Europe on 10 February 1915, and again was staying at the Adlon in Berlin. After having been detained in Britain, Weigle and the others had finally sailed from Hull to Rotterdam on the steamer Kirkman Abbe. Thompson and McCormick had traveled to cover the war from the Russian side. Durborough and Ries had arrived in April and were also staying at the Adlon.

Albert K. Dawson was one film correspondent who had relatively little trouble getting trips out of Berlin, even to the coveted western front. He and Edward Lyell Fox were of course on the German payroll, and therefore were reliable in a way that no free agent could be. As Count von Bernstorff indicated, the German authorities in Berlin had a particularly good reason to show the American people their side of the war. Within days after the invasion of Belgium, there were rumors about German atrocities against civilians. This proved to be a serious propaganda issue which was quickly exploited by the Entente. The Germans indignantly complained about Belgian guerrilla fighters who didn’t comply with the rules of regular warfare. As pointed out in Chapter 3, a lot of it came down to how one defined atrocities and whether one was inclined to admit that German soldiers could lose their heads.

 

Chapter 6 Filming the Central Powers’ Drive across Russian Poland

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It is difficult to impress a twenty-first century audience, especially a western one, with the importance of the siege and capture of Przemysl in Poland. Even at the time in 1915, the British and the Austro-Hungarians made fun of its name. Mary Roberts Rinehart said about the fortress: “Before I went abroad I had two ambitions among others. One was to be able to pronounce Ypres; the other was to bring home and exhibit to my admiring friends the pronunciation of Przemysl. To a moderate extent I have succeeded with the first. I have discovered that the second one must be born to.”1

The campaigns around Przemysl in 1914–1915 have given it the apt description of “The Stalingrad of World War I”. Przemysl was the center of the Austro-Hungarian defense system in Poland, protecting the crossings between the marshes of the San – Dniester River line, and so protected Hungary.2

World War I started when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. Austria-Hungary’s reluctance to declare war on Russia can be judged by the Austrians’ delaying the declaration of war until 6 August, and then only under extreme German pressure. The Central Powers now had a choice. Conrad von Hötzendorff, the not very competent Austro-Hungarian head of the armed forces, first wanted to fight Serbia, and then deal with Russia later. (It was said that Conrad could only stay mad at one country at a time). Germany, threatened by the Russian Army in East Prussia, wanted Austria to concentrate on Russia and deal with the Serbians later. They also made the not insignificant point that the Serbian campaign could be kept on hold, but the far more imposing Russian Army, which had mobilized much faster than it was thought possible, could not. So from the very beginning of the World War, the Austro-Hungarians were already fighting a war on two fronts and at odds with their partner, Germany.

 

Chapter 7 Cameramen with the Entente

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It was noted in Chapter 1 that the French, Russian and British armies did not allow foreign correspondents at the front. This remained the case throughout the war.

There was one way that correspondents could circumvent this and that was by gaining entry to the battlefront by private means. Edwin Weigle was smart enough to have figured this out in Belgium. If a journalist or cameraman could establish a relationship with a non-governmental organization, such as a private charity or the Red Cross, or alternatively, approach an individual with so much clout that he could make his own rules, the cameraman would be able to make an end run around the government. And the few individuals featured in this chapter did just that.

Varges was the major exception to the ban on non-official and foreign correspondents in Britain, which is all the more ironic as Varges started the war as a Hearst photographer. Hearst was such an anathema to the British that in 1916 all Hearst representatives were banned from any British theater of war. But it is the exception that proves the rule, because it came about in an extremely British way: by pressure from an individual too rich and prominent to ignore.

 

Chapter 8 Mobilizing Movies: the U.S. Signal Corps and the Committee on Public Information

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The American entry into the war soon attracted increased attention by the authorities to film censorship and control. In April 1917 the U.S. Attorney General in Pittsburgh requested the Pennsylvania Board of Censorship to stop exhibiting three films, including the movies Civilization and War Brides, because these productions were considered pacifistic and so had a bad influence on public opinion. In Ohio the censors themselves took action and announced all war films would be checked intensively. Senator George Allen Davis from Buffalo, New York, proposed that the Federal Government ban all films with graphic scenes of the war because these would have a detrimental effect on recruitment.

Just a few days after the declaration of war by Congress, the Federal authorities began communicating with the film companies on ways to deal with war-related footage. Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, sent a letter to all newsreel companies asking them not to show any scenes of navy ships, naval exercises or preparations for war unless these films had been approved by his department. This complicated the production of newsreels significantly. To make matters even more difficult there were no official guidelines yet on what sort of film scenes could be recorded or regulations on securing an official permit to produce such films. Not until August 1917, four months after entry into the war, did the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the U.S. wartime propaganda and censorship agency, provide guidelines to American film producers. One of the most significant measures was the regulation that no photographers would be permitted to accompany the army abroad on active service in the war zone except official photographers in the government service (shades of the European authorities in 1914!).

 

Chapter 9 Aftermath

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The impact of the First World War cannot be fully comprehended by reading statistics about the millions of casualties. These are in the end only figures. Some images tell a far more striking story. After four years of fighting, when on 11 November 1918 the guns fell silent, the frontline area between the English Channel and the Swiss border had changed into a completely devastated landscape. Treeless, scarred by mine craters and endless trenches zigzagging through muddy fields and ruined villages – these relics from the Great War as seen from a bird’s eye view resembled an horrendous scene from Dante’s Inferno that would stick in the minds of numerous soldiers who were fortunate enough to return home.

Many books have been written on the way this tremendous war was remembered in literature and poetry. Statesmen and generals wrote their autobiographies. Military regiments all had their official histories compiled. Political movements originated in the trenches, notably fascism which propagated the belief that life was a continuing struggle in which only the fittest should survive. In many respects the Great War was internalized and continued to be very much alive, if only in the minds of the men and women who had experienced it. The war provided invaluable ammunition for the Nazis as a propaganda issue and to take revenge on old enemies. On the other side of the political spectrum, the war also was a powerful motive for politicians like the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to avoid a repetition of events, search for appeasement with Germany and “peace in our time”. It is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century that it had to take a second global conflict before the long-term effects of the Great War were completely annihilated.

 

Colour Plates

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Fig. 1. Uncle Sam filming world leaders. An injured Dove of Peace looks on. Poster © 1914, New Electro Corporation. [Courtesy Library of Congress.]

Fig. 2a. Picture postcard sent by Albert Dawson to a friend in Vincennes. His handwritten note says: “Antwerp last week. Through Belgium in a military auto.” Dawson is in the back seat at the right. Dated Berlin, 24 February 1915. [Private collection of the authors.]

Fig. 2b. Reverse side of Dawson’s picture postcard, February 1915.

Fig. 3. On the Firing Line with the Germans poster. The Thiel Theatre in Marshfield, Wisconsin, only opened in April of 1916. In 1890, two-thirds of the townspeople were of German ancestry and one of the two local newspapers, Die Demokrat, was published in German. There was much pro-German feeling during the World War. [Courtesy Hershenson-Allen Archive (eMoviePoster.com).]

Fig. 4. The Charge of the Light Brigades, 1916. Some American movie companies advertised their war films in a highly misleading way. Reproduction Motion Picture News, 25 March 1916.

 

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