Friday, May 4, 2018

Filming the German Attack on Novo Georgievsk (1915)

While preparing a TV presentation on Wilbur H. Durborough's World War I film On the Firing Line with the Germans for C-SPAN's "Reel America" we came across an interesting newspaper story by American war correspondent Walter Niebuhr. In this report Niebuhr described how he and Durborough witnessed the German attack on the Russian forts of Novo Georgievsk at the Eastern Front.

Walter Niebuhr (1890-1946). Copied from Motion Picture News, 16 August 1919

Producing America's First Propaganda Films

Walter Niebuhr featured before in a previous weblog. He started his career in journalism for the Illinois Courier Herald and in 1915 Niebuhr was invited by the Chicago Tribune and the Western Newspaper Union to cover the Great War from the German side. As described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, Niebuhr was of special assistance to Durborough and his camera operator Ries while they were shooting film with the German army. Niebuhr spoke German fluently and often accompanied them, translating conversations with the Germans and helping them find their way through the country. When America entered the First World War, Niebuhr became Associate Director of the C.P.I. Film Division. He was responsible for producing the first official American propaganda films, such as Pershing's Crusaders (1918).

In August 1915, Niebuhr, Durborough and Ries left Warsaw that had just been conquered by the Germans in order to cover the siege of the Russian forts around Novo Georgievsk. The German army led by General Hans von Beseler approached Novo Georgievsk with 80,000 men including part of the powerful siege train used to capture Antwerp in 1914. The forts were surrounded on August 10 and the bombardment began a few days later. After a heavy battering the Germans attacked three of the forts and captured two of them. The Russians were forced to the inner defenses north of the river Vistula. With no prospects of being relieved and with their inner defenses vulnerable to bombardment the Russians surrendered at the dawn of August 20, 1915.

Durborough (left) and Niebuhr (right) watching German soldiers storming the forts of Novo Georgievsk. Scene from On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915)

Turning Point in World War I History

The fall of Novo Georgievsk was a humiliating defeat for the Russian army that had to retreat east. Poland from then on would be under German rule. The capture of these Russian forts was an important turning point in World War I and the American correspondents were on the spot to film this historic event. Here are segments from Niebuhr's report that was published in the Fort Wayne Sentinel on September 30, 1915:

Movie Scene On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915)

On the Firing Line with the Germans has a scene showing both Durborough and Niebuhr watching a German infantry attack near Novo Georgievsk. Troops are charging across an open field while in the background shells are exploding. Niebuhr can be seen in this scene to the right of Durborough. We were able to recognize Walter Niebuhr because of the white cap on his head. Niebuhr appeared in several scenes of Durborough's war film, and most of the time he was wearing this peculiar cap. These shots close to the German firing line must have been taken by Durborough's camera operator Ries and have a full match with the newspaper report that was written by Niebuhr.

For more information here is a link to an updated article on Durborough and the making of his World War I feature film. 

Here is this scene showing the attack on the forts of Novo Georgievsk with comments by authors Cooper Graham and Jim Castellan.


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