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.