Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"The Battle of Alost" (GB/USA 1914)

On September 27, 1914, the Belgian city of Aalst (Alost) was the scene of heavy fighting. In a desperate attempt to push the invading Germans back, Belgian soldiers defended the banks of the river Dender. On the spot was cinematographer Arthur Radclyffe Dugmore who made a remarkable film of the battle of Alost.

Long considered lost, parts of the film were found recently by Dirk Meert in the German Federal Archives. The credit for identifying the cameraman goes to Walter De Swaef, co-author of a book on Aalst at the outbreak of the Great War. Walter did a terrific job researching the events in Aalst when local citizens were brutally executed by the German army.

The cameraman


Arthur Dugmore (1870-1955)

Arthur R. Dugmore was an Irish-born pioneering American naturalist and wildlife photographer who took part in photo-safaris in Newfoundland and Kenya. He also studied painting at the Bell' Arte in Naples and at the Academy of Design in New York. In 1914, Dugmore went to Belgium and filmed the invasion of this country by the German army. According to a tradepaper article in Moving Picture World, he managed to gain access to the frontline because his brother had a commission in the British army.

The movie

Dugmore later described his experiences as a frontline cameraman in his book When the Somme Ran Red. Together with another American journalist, Arthur Gleason, he reached Alost on Sunday, September 27, 1914. After having been declared crazy by the local military commander for trying to film the fighting, he joined a company of Belgian soldiers who had set up a barricade in the streets. Nothing much was happening at this moment, and Dugmore suggested staging a movie scene. In the surviving footage we see some of these soldiers supposedly falling dead behind a barricade with a machine gun car in the background. This barricade actually was built in order to film Dugmore's scene.

Released as The Battle of Alost in Great Britain, Canada and Australia the movie was a great commercial success. In the United States the film was released by the Lubin Company in November 1914. An important reason for the popular interest abroad is that the film tied in quite closely with the public feelings at the time. In belligerent as well as neutral countries there was a huge amount of sympathy for the suffering of the Belgians who were overrun by the German army.

Up until his final years when he wrote his autobiography Dugmore insisted his film coverage during World War I was authentic. However, as Walter De Swaef's research clearly shows, the movie on the battle of Aalst was a fake. In the book Walter produces several witnesses who described how Dugmore elaborated on the truth. One should not forget that journalism at the time already was commercialized. Also, reporters wanted to get the picture and in order to film the war scenes were frequently staged.



Scene from The Battle of Alost  (1914)


Lost footage

In the meantime, Walter De Swaef continues his impressive research on films that were taken around Aalst during World War I. The American trade press indicates Dugmore's film was widely released by the Lubin Company nationwide, including scenes that have not been found so far, showing Belgian cavalry and artillery passing through Aalst, the armored motor cars and Red Cross wagons in the city. Hopefully more scenes shot by Dugmore may be found either in the European or American film archives.

Apart from a description of Dugmore's film Walter De Swaef's and Peter D' haeseleer's book Duitse Oorlogsgruwel in Aalst (ISBN 978908232650) contains some interesting photographs taken from Dugmore's movie. Here you see an illustration that was used in a contemporary French postcard. Note the damage that was added to the window shops by applying a photo retouching job for dramatic purposes.



Streetfighting in Alost. French postcard. Courtesy Peter d' haeseleer.


In 1916 during the battle of the Somme Dugmore was gassed but he survived the war. He remained active throughout his life as a painter and photographer. By 1931 he was known for his films The Wonderland of Big Game and The Vast Sudan as well as his many books on wild animals.

Here is an interview by Lowell Thomas from the Oakland Tribune (January 5, 1930) on Dugmore's experiences as a cameraman during World War I in Belgium.  

We have uploaded the surviving footage shot by Dugmore in the streets of Aalst to our YouTube channel.


With special thanks to Walter De Swaef for his input on this weblog.



                                

3 comments:

  1. Dirk (Dick, sic) Meert, author of "Aalst 1914-1918. Het leven in een stad onder Duitse bezetting" (2012), "Aalst 1914-1918. Aalstenaars als slaven weggevoerd" (2013), in preparation "Aalst 1914-1918. Aalstenaars achter de IJzer" (2017).
    For more information about "The Battle of Alost" see
    http://forum.aalsthistoriek.be/viewtopic.php?f=32&t=2244

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for this additional information!

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    2. I also fixed your first name, Dirk. Sorry about the mistake!

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