Wednesday, July 25, 2018

German War Films at the National Archives

While researching Wilbur H. Durborough's World War I feature film On the Firing Line with the Germans (1915) we came across an interesting collection of contemporary German war films at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Among the scenes not only was lost footage from Durborough's movie but a lot more historical film on the First World War.

German film squad at the Western Front, June 1917. Photo from the Imperial War Museum

The Durborough film scenes were found in a five-reel Signal Corps collection which seems to have been assembled during the Great War. The U.S. Signal Corps apparently considered these films valuable enough to add to its archives, if only for military intelligence purposes. As a result, we were able to retrieve quite a number of pictures from Durborough's World War I film, notably scenes showing the Imperial German family, the American reporters at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, prisoners of war at a POW camp in Doeberitz, Germany, and a substantial number of scenes that were shot by Durborough and his camera assistant Ries on the invasion of East Prussia by the Russian army.


Here is a synopsis of this Signal Corps film:

Reel 1, Crown Prince William reviews Army units. Gen. von Hindenburg poses. Cavalry, artillery, and wagon trains move through Berlin; troops entrain. Heavy artillery pounds Antwerp. Infantrymen don packs. Reel 2, supply trains enter an East Prussian town. Soldiers load refugees into wagons. Shows a German railroad gun. German trenches at Somme, France, are shelled. Fort Conde, near Soissons, is entered; cavalry units pursue the fleeing French. Reel 3 shows machine guns firing. Belgians surrender cows to German troops. An airplane is loaded with bombs, flies over trenches and Verdun, bombs a British G.H.Q., battles Allied planes, and lands at its base. Reel 4, German troops pass and the Kaiser inspects captured British tanks near Cambrai. Italian prisoners are captured in the Tyrol sector. Reel 5, French prisoners are taken to the rear. Prisoners march, bale hay, and dig rocks in a prison camp. Turkish troops place their wounded on camels. Camels and horses are watered in Turkey.

We have uploaded these German war films on our YouTube channel.


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The War Diary of Albert K. Dawson (1915)

In 2011, authors Ron van Dopperen and Cooper C. Graham published an article for Film History journal on cameraman Albert K. Dawson. The paper examines Dawson's experiences during World War I based on excerpts from his published diary and other documentary sources, as well as portions of his films recently discovered in the Library of Congress's John E. Allen collection.

Albert K. Dawson in camp before Przemyśl, May 1915. Photo reproduced from the collection of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. 

Extraordinary Research Opportunity

Our discovery of Dawson's war diary was an extraordinary opportunity. We knew he kept a notebook on his film adventures during World War I. And just when we thought we would never find it, parts of his diary were located in the magazine Deutsch-Amerika. In a series of five weekly articles the magazine ran a feature story on Dawson's experiences as a cameraman, following the trail of the German and Austro-Hungarian army in the summer of 1915. The decision by the editor to publish parts of his war diary is something to be grateful for because it provides us with a unique source for World War I film history. It also gives us the opportunity to witness a major military campaign on the Eastern Front, as seen through the lens of an American camera correspondent.

Dawson when he was a Captain in the U.S. Signal Corps laboratory in Washington, D.C. (November 1917)

The historical significance of Dawson's war diary is confirmed by Oswald Denkmayr in his study Kurbelmann in Kriegsdienst (2012) on the Austrian World War I cinematographers of the KuK Kriegspressequartier. According to Denkmayr, Dawson's notebook is the only first-hand account that he could find and that has survived of a World War I film cameraman who accompanied the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War. Denkmayr's study was written while we were researching Dawson and has a number of references to our article for Film History journal.

Here is a download link to Denkmayr's excellent thesis for the University of Vienna in 2012. 

Albert Dawson inspecting the battlefields around Przemyśl, June 1915

Dawson at the Eastern front with Austrian artillery battery (1915)

Press photograph, private collection Ron van Dopperen

The Road to Ivangorod (1915)

In his diary Dawson describes how he gained access to the frontline in the summer of 1915 and covered the attack on Ivangorod in Russian Poland. All photographs with an asterisk in this magazine were taken by Dawson. His original notes were translated into German for this publication.

Because of its unique and historical value we have scanned and uploaded all five articles by Dawson from his war diary. You are free to read and download his own story here.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The War Photographer - Ernest Brooks

Ernest Brooks, the first official British photographer in World War I, featured in a special episode of the YouTube channel The Great War that was broadcasted in October 2016.

An example of Brooks' iconic World War I pictures: Soldiers of the 8th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, going up the line in the Ypres Salient, 1917

Ernest Brooks' photos from World War I have become icons of the entire war and are even recognized today. But his experience as an official war photographer was not always glorious and especially in the beginning he staged photos instead of showing the real horrors of the war. But as the war dragged on, more and more photos by Brooks captured small moments in this gigantic conflict that showed the humanity behind the numbers.

Episode The Great War

You can watch the episode on Brooks photographic work in World War I here on this weblog. You can subscribe to this interesting YouTube show on the Great War and watch a new video report on the First World War every Monday, Thursday and Saturday.


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Filming the American Attack on Château-Thierry (Western Front, 1918)

In July 1918, Lieutenant Edwin H. Cooper - photographic officer of the 26th "Yankee" Division - filmed the American attack on the German lines near Château-Thierry. For his extraordinary bravery during this offensive Lt. Cooper received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Edwin Cooper with his movie camera during the attack on Château-Thierry, 20 July 1918. Signal Corps photograph from the National Archives. Courtesy Harry B. Kidd

In fact, both Cooper and his movie camera operator Sergeant Eikleberry were awarded with the Distinguished Service Cross. Cooper's report on how his photographic team covered the attack with their cameras is one of the best documented first-hand accounts on World War I battle cinematography. It is extraordinary that after one hundred years Cooper's personal account has never been given proper credits before because his story has all the vivid details and inside information one can hope for. In his memoirs Cooper tells how he set up his photographic work, having arrived in France in October 1917 as one of the first official military cameramen of the U.S. Signal Corps. Two of his cameramen got wounded in July 1918 while covering the attack on Château-Thierry. Lieutenant Cooper himself also risked his life then while assisting in the evacuation of wounded soldiers and taking in a large group of German prisoners.

War Films Found at the National Archives

We were extremely fortunate in having found footage from the National Archives, that was shot by Lieutenant Cooper shortly after he had gone over the top during this attack in the summer of 1918. These pictures fully match his story and illustrate how Cooper against all odds managed to capture the attack on film. His film - partly retrieved also at the Imperial War Museum - as well as numerous pictures of his photographic work with the 26th U.S. Division all make it possible to reconstruct Cooper's story on how he and his fellow cameramen filmed World War I. It is a truly remarkable story that definitely needs to be preserved for history, so we have edited Cooper's account into a video on the making of his war films.

Scene from Lt. Cooper's war films for the U.S. Signal Corps

The Cameraman: Edwin Cooper

Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1881, Edwin Cooper started working as a photographer at an early age. From 1911 he worked with the celebrated photo artist William Rau in Philadelphia and before the outbreak of World War I he had also taken up the movie camera, making travelogues in South America. Cooper was promoted to Captain in September 1918 when he was assigned to the 5th U.S. Army Corps as photographic officer. During the Meuse-Argonne battle he was in charge of pictorial coverage for this corps. Throughout his life he remained active as a photographic reporter and lecturer, producing three color documentaries during World War II. In November 1948, while fishing out on Silver Lake near Harrisville, NH, Cooper fell from his boat and was drowned. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Cooper's report on his film coverage during World War I was originally printed in the American photographic trade magazines. You can read and download an extended version here. 

Reconstructed with still photographs and moving pictures, here is Cooper's personal story on how he and his fellow cameramen filmed the American attack on Château-Thierry.