Monday, April 3, 2017

Reporting from the Front - Jack Reed (1915)

John Silas "Jack" Reed hardly needs an introduction. Best remembered for his first-hand account of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, Reed died in Russia in 1920 and was buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. His war reports also reveal a tantalazing glimpse on how for the first time in World War I the Germans made official movies at the Western Front.

Jack Reed (1887-1920)

When the First World War broke out Reed immediately went to Europe as a correspondent of the Metropolitan Magazine, visiting England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Belgium. While in Europe Reed was frustrated by wartime censorship and the difficulty of accessing the front. He spent most of his time drinking with French prostitutes and pursuing an affair with a German woman. The pair went to Berlin in early December 1914. And this was when he got an invitation by the German Foreign Office for a trench tour to the Western Front, together with a number of other American reporters.

Filming the Western Front

This trip to the Western Front by the American journalists was filmed by American cinematographer Albert K. Dawson and an Austrian newsreel cameraman, Hans Theyer. The film project was set up by the German authorities 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.

Dawson in Belgium, January 1915. The original caption reads: "An American correspondent arrested by a German guard in a Belgian city". The picture was probably staged and may have been taken in Brussels. Copied from the files of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. 

The Worst Thing in Europe

Although Jack Reed doesn't mention their names, his report has a reference to Dawson and Theyer. Here is an excerpt from the article The Worst Thing in Europe, which he published in The Masses on March 13, 1915:

In a city of Northern France occupied by the Germans, we were met at the train by several officers and the Royal automobiles. The officers, genial, pleasant, rather formal young fellows in the smart Prussian uniform, were to be our guides and hosts in that part of the German front. They spoke English well, as so many of them do; and we were charmed by their friendliness and affability. As we left the station and got into the machines, a group of private soldiers off duty loitered about, looking at us with lazy curiosity. Suddenly one of the officers sprang at them, striking at their throats with his little "swagger stick."
"Schweinhunde!" he shouted with sudden ferocity. Be off about your business and don't stare at us!"
They fell back silently docilely, before the blows and the curses, and dispersed...
Another time a photographer of our party was interrupted, while taking moving pictures, by a sentry with a rifle.
"My orders are that no photographs shall be taken here!" said the soldier.
The photographer appealed to the Staff Lieutenant who accompanied us.
"It's all right," said the officer. "I am Lieutenant Herrmann of the General Staff in Berlin. He has my permission to photograph."
The sentry saluted, looked at Herrmann's papers, and withdrew. And I asked the Lieutenant by what right he could countermand a soldier's orders from his own superior.
"Because I am that soldier's commanding officer. The fact that I have a Lieutenant's shoulder-straps makes me the superior of every soldier in the army. A German soldier must obey every officer's orders no matter what they may be."

The full story by Jack Reed on his trip to the Western Front in January 1915 is available for download here.

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