Saturday, July 16, 2016

Filmed by Albert K. Dawson - The Catacombs of War (1915)

On August 1, 1915, American cinematographer Albert K. Dawson while following the offensive on the Eastern Front with the Austro-Hungarian army produced a fascinating film report on the Russian trench system. "The breastworks are remarkably modern. I have taken some really great pictures of these trenches", Dawson noted that day in his war diary.

Dawson with movie camera in the destroyed city of Ivangorod. Photograph from the Austrian National Archives

When Dawson wrote these lines he accompanied the Army Detachment under the command of General Remus von Woyrsch, which was just about to capture the Russian forts around Ivangorod. Dawson's notebook shows how he managed to get himself attached to this army and how he risked his life to cover the offensive. Because of the historical value of Dawson's work as a pioneering camera correspondent his war diary on this military campaign was partially published by the authors in 2011 in an article for Film History magazine.

Trench Warfare

Born in Vincennes, Indiana, in 1885, Albert K. Dawson was one of the most enterprising film correspondents in World War I. His movie report is particularly significant because - although the Russian front in World War I wasn't known to have been heavily fortified - it does indicate that the Russians had in some sectors developed some remarkably elaborate defenses. According to Dawson, the Russians had learned from the war against Japan in 1905 when the enemy used trenches extensively.

Dawson (right) inspecting Russian trenches near Ivangorod

Shortly after his return to Berlin, Dawson wrote a letter on this trench trip to his family in Indiana, in which he described his experiences. The letter was printed in the [Indiana] Seymour Republican on November 29, 1915:

On my last trip I had occasion to visit and study some of the Russian fortified field positions in Poland. From a military engineer's point of view they were simply beautiful. To take them with a direct frontal attack would require a force a hundred times as large as the defenders and the loss would be very heavy. In fact, I do not see how any number of infantry could break through without the help of artillery. Scientifically constructed barbed wire obstructions present an obstacle which is well-nigh impassable unless one has a good pair of clippers and a lot of time. And behind these obstructions in underground shelters are concealed machine guns which are so placed as to cover with their sweep the entire front.
Of course artillery, if you have enough of it and the right kind, will prepare the way for these attacks by blowing these positions up with explosive shells, but that takes very accurate work and costs a lot of time and ammunition. A well placed shell will do a lot of damage but if you miss your mark just a little bit you can shoot all day and do no damage at all. That is one big lesson we must learn, "digging in". 

Also, in May 1917 Dawson published an article for Scientific American on the Russian trench system, which can be viewed and downloaded here.

We uploaded scenes from Dawson's film, showing his visit to the Russian trenches, on our YouTube channel.

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