Monday, November 27, 2017

Shooting the Desert War in Iraq, 1917-1918

In January 1917, American cinematographer Ariel Varges accompanied the British army to cover the desert war in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Advancing on both sides of the Tigris river, forcing the Ottoman army out of a number of fortified positions along the way, the British on March 11, 1917, entered Baghdad where they were greeted as liberators.

Captain Varges, the official Cinematographer, in a forward post near Ramadi, 1917. Photograph from the collection of the Imperial War Museum

Varges' film work during World War I has been described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. As mentioned in a previous weblog, as a result of a new resource website on the history of British newsreels we are now able to pinpoint Varges' film work with the British, starting with his coverage of the Great War at Salonika, Greece, right down to the desert war in the Middle East. Commissioned as a Captain in the British Army, Varges was in a unique position to cover the First World War with his movie camera.

"With the British in Baghdad"

The newsreels shot by Varges were released by the British War Office and appeared in the Official Topical Budget series that was shown twice a week in British theaters.  The footage was probably syndicated to other newsreels both in Europe and in the U.S.A. Based on the records available, Varges is credited as cinematographer for 13 newsreel scenes showing the desert war between the British and the Turks in 1917-1918. He was in Baghdad around the time when the city was captured and his first newsreel contribution "With the British in Baghdad" appeared in Topical Budget No. 323-2, that was released on November 3, 1917. Varges' newsreel coverage shows that he followed the military campaign quite closely.

Battle of Ramadi

In September 1917, Varges covered the second Battle of Ramadi. With artillery support, British forces advanced up two ridges to the south of Ramadi in the face of Turkish machine gun, rifle and artillery fire. Both were taken by the early afternoon of September 28, 1917. The Turkish surrender came just in time, as a powerful sandstorm began shortly afterwards which reduced visibility to a few metres. Had it struck earlier, the garrison could easily have slipped away. The British were now able to drive the Turks completely out of Mesopotamia. The capture of Ramadi also led to the local Arab tribes switching sides and supporting the British.

British officers interrogating a very young boy soldier in the desert. Photograph by Varges. Courtesy Imperial War Museum

Although a number of remarkable photographs by Varges have survived on this battle the newsreel references available do not mention any movie scenes taken by him at Ramadi. He did cover the Camel Corps during its operations in the Iraqi desert, and filmed French as well as Indian troops in action. The extant footage also has an interesting scene showing a spy who got caught by the British.

Varges spent the final months of the war around Baghdad taking pictures of daily life in the city. A letter from his personal collection that was sold recently on eBay indicates that he was hospitalized in December 1918. This letter was written from the "Officers Hospital" in Baghdad. Apparently Varges became ill with fever while being evacuated from Iraq and was gravely ill for several weeks. In this letter to his mother, Varges describes how he was "shell shocked" during an attack.  In March 1919, Varges returned to the United States and was discharged from the British army. He remained a globetrotting war photographer for the Hearst newsreels until shortly before his retirement around 1952.

Captured camouflaged Turkish guns in action against the enemy. Photograph by Varges, from the collection of the Imperial War Museum

Out of 13 newsreel scenes credited to Varges on the British desert war we were able to identify 4 scenes in the film collection of the Imperial War Museum. Apart from regular newsreel footage, the Imperial War Museum has much more film shot by Varges while he accompanied the British army in Mesopotamia (Iraq). We will return to this subject in another weblog.

The newsreel scenes shot by Varges on the British desert war have been uploaded on our YouTube channel.

Click this link for a complete list of all references to Ariel Varges and his films for the British during World War I.



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