Thursday, August 3, 2017

Lost and Found - "On Belgian Battlefields" (USA, 1914)

The Chicago Tribune's On Belgian Battlefields is ranked as one of the most popular films on the Great War that was shown to the American people in 1914. Now sadly lost, the movie featured cameraman Edwin F. Weigle's report on the German attack on Belgium. Thanks to painstaking research by local historian Walter De Swaef from the Belgian city of Alost (Aalst) a scene from this historical film has been located and identified.

Weigle filming war in Belgium. Copied from the Chicago Tribune, 11 February 1915

Edwin Weigle's film adventures in World War I have been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. Weigle was the Tribune's star cameraman who had just before the outbreak of the Great War filmed the U.S. Marines attack on Vera Cruz, Mexico. After the outbreak of war he filmed in Belgium, Germany as well as on the Western and the Eastern front. When the United States entered the First World War Weigle was among the first officers to set up a photographic division for the U.S. Signal Corps which had been assigned to cover the American involvement in World War I.

Filming Alost in Flames

In his book My Experiences on the Belgian Battlefields (1914) Weigle described how he accompanied the Belgian army from Antwerp on several trips to the frontline. On September 27, 1914, Weigle reached Alost (Aalst) which was under heavy fire by the retreating German army. Here he shot film as well as still photographs of the destroyed railroad bridge across the river Dender. Walter De Swaef was able to identify Weigle's film report of this scene because it has a full match with a still photograph by Weigle which was published in his book, as well as a similar picture that was printed one month after the event took place in the New York Times:

City of Alost in flames, photographed by Weigle. From the New York Times, 25 October 1914. 

High res image (7Mb) available for download here.

Walter explains: "In your book American Cinematographers in the Great War I first read about Weigle, and that's how I found a reference to his book on his experiences in Belgium. Somewhat later I saw the movie fragment showing the burning of Alost and having checked out Weigle's book on page 44 I noticed his photograph with the caption "The burning of Alost showing destroyed R.R.Bridge". This picture was published in our book on Alost during World War I, Duitse Oorlogsgruwel in Aalst. Then it occurred to me I had seen this scene before on film but with the wrong intertitle "Bombardment of Ghent". The fragment from his movie is most remarkable. You will notice the black smoke above the houses in the center of the picture. Behind these houses was a factory that produced chemical agricultural stuff. In the morning of September 27, 1914, the German artillery bombarded this part of Alost. The complete factory and the houses around all burned down. Weigle must have taken his pictures there in the afternoon of September 27, around 2 P.M. when the Germans stopped bombarding the city for a couple of hours. I suppose that Weigle at this time also was able to enter the city and take some photographs and films of the damage. In order to do this he must have climbed on the damaged railroad bridge. Considering the dangerous situation he was in Weigle's visit to Alost seems to have been short."

Weigle evidently did not take any unnecessary risks while shooting these war scenes. As he admitted in his own book, either prior to his visit to Alost or the following night he was forced to spend the night in a barn outside of the city. These pages from his book My Experiences on the Belgian Battlefields, including the photograph mentioned by Walter De Swaef, have more information on Weigle's visit to Alost in September 1914.

Film Collections

Walter De Swaef found Weigle's report in two different film collections. The movie scene appears to have been edited into a compilation film produced during World War I, which is now in the stock collection of Periscope Films. An extended version of Weigle's film scene was found in the collection of the Royal Belgian Film Archive. This version has tinted film and was restored in 2002. We have uploaded all of these scenes on our YouTube channel. In addition, according to Walter De Swaef, Weigle's still picture of this scene appears to have been reprinted in 1915 in the German military magazine Landsturm.

Also, here is link to a previous post on another film showing the city of Alost during the Great War, that Walter was able to identify, shot by American cinematographer Arthur Radclyffe Dugmore.

Great job, Walter, and keep up the good work!

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


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