Prologue

Prologue

Some General Comments on Great War-Era Films

Major Michael R. McNorgan
Author and Historian

Colonel John Marteinson
Instructor, Royal Military College, Kingston

The first feature of a Great War-era movie to strike the modern viewer is the jerkiness of people's movements, which stems from the low number of frames per second of the film of that time. The second feature is the fact that the camera is usually stationary while activities take place around it. Although the camera can pan across a scene, it does not itself move. Connected to this is a lack of changes in focus. If action is taking place in the foreground, for example, the camera stays there; if in the middle ground, it stays there and so on.

All of these features are a product of the technology of the time. The camera, along with its tripod and film stock, weighed over 44 kg. It was not easily moved about or easy to hide from view. In one extended scene depicting a front line bombardment, the sandbags used by the cameraman to help camouflage his equipment can be seen in the bottom of the frame. To change focus from close-up to medium distance to far distance required a change of lens, a procedure that took time and, of course, interrupted the filming process.

The British first employed cameras on the battlefield in the spring of 1916. Once in the field, cameramen found that they needed clear daylight to get the best shots. When they did film on cloudy days, they tried to compensate for the lack of light by leaving the film in the developer for longer periods, but the films usually came out very dark in tone and difficult to see. Filming at night was impossible.

For all the above reasons, most filming took place behind the lines. There are some, very rare, shots taken in the frontline trenches, the most famous of which are the scenes of soldiers 'going over the bags' on July 1, 1916, during the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Although considered by many experts to be genuine, this film has attracted controversy with some informed commentators maintaining that it was actually shot behind the lines.

Another famous frontline shot (there being no controversy about its authenticity) is the explosion of the huge mine in front of the village of Beaumont-Hamel, also on July 1, 1916. The explosion of this mine marked the beginning of the action in which the Newfoundland Regiment was all but wiped out, with 710 casualties in a unit of 800 men.

Propaganda guidelines

As well as technical difficulties, cameramen also had to deal with official propaganda guidelines. Scenes of badly wounded or dead British or Allied soldiers were not to be shown. Fraternization between British and German troops was not to be shown. German prisoners should only be depicted in agricultural work. Chinese labourers, who were employed by the British on the Western Front in large numbers, should not be shown in work that might appear to their countrymen as military. It is remarkable how often these strictures were ignored; nevertheless, such scenes are fairly rare.

The cameramen too had an agenda. They wanted their work to be accepted by the general public as legitimate depictions of the war. During the South African War (1899-1902) faked war scenes shown in public cinemas had caused something of a scandal and the credibility of the filmmakers had suffered. Therefore, cameramen were not open to suggestions that war scenes be faked. The scenes of German prisoners of war loading stretcher cases onto a light railway are a case in point. We are seeing Allied wounded, albeit the wounds are covered and patients are ambulatory, and we are seeing prisoners used in work that is definitely not agricultural. The Canadians used a light rail system at Vimy Ridge to bring up supplies and evacuate casualties, and these scenes, which are definitely of Canadians (the divisional shoulder badges are visible), are probably taken at the Vimy rail line.

As time progressed, the cameramen gained experience in this novel business of wartime filming, and their product grew in quality and sophistication.

Helmets and other headgear

The wearing of steel helmets generally implies the nearness to the front lines of the scene being shown. The British steel helmet was introduced in the summer of 1916. It was uncomfortable to wear, because it was heavy and its solid rubber grommets would press into the skull. Furthermore, the lack of ventilation caused sweat to flow freely into the wearer's eyes, particularly during the summer. Nevertheless, it drastically reduced the number of head injuries and its use was not difficult to impose on frontline troops; but whenever possible troops would replace it with the soft peaked field cap. Thus, if a scene shows everyone in steel helmets, we are likely close to the front. If there is a mixture of the two types of headgear, then we are back of the lines, and if everyone is wearing field caps, we are definitely in a rear area. Soldiers did remove their headgear during strenuous work in the rear areas, but they were seldom depicted bareheaded: it was considered unsoldierly for an officer or man to be without a cap or helmet - for one thing, they could not salute without headgear.

Mounted troops (cavalry, horse artillery, cyclists) can be differentiated from dismounted ones (infantry, field artillery) by their wear of the cross-belt. This was a leather belt filled with .303-service ammunition that was worn by the men—but not by officers—over their right shoulder. Each clip of five rounds was in a separate pouch with a snap-down cover over it. Any man with a mounted role was issued with this particular item.

Officers can generally be differentiated from the men by their Sam Browne belts. These were leather belts worn around the waist with a cross strap worn over the right shoulder. Mounted officers usually wore high boots rather than puttees. (Puttees are a long cloth strip wore wrapped around the lower leg.) The fact that officers dressed differently made their identification easier in the field. This cut both ways, however, for the enemy could also more easily identify the officers and make them their priority targets. Some officers, primarily in infantry units, took to wearing the same uniforms as their men and to carrying rifles, instead of the officers' more usual revolver, when in action. Cavalry and artillery officers did not have this problem since one mounted man looked much like another when viewed from the enemy's perspective.

In front line units, a sleeveless leather jerkin was issued for winter, and many scenes depict these. Less commonly seen but also present are cap badges painted onto the steel helmets. Many units adopted this idea but it was not universally popular since, unless a cloth sacking or daub of mud covered it, it made the wearer more visible to the enemy, giving the enemy sharpshooter a target.

Several sequences depict tumpliners. These were soldiers from the front line units sent to the rear area to pick up rations, ammunition and trench stores for delivery to their unit, which normally took place at night. The boxes of supplies were carried by a tumpline, which was strong cloth slung from the carrier’s forehead, the load being balanced on his back. This left the bearers’ arms free to feel his way in the dark. This method of carriage was most commonly used by the Canadians and was a legacy of the early fur traders who learned this method of transport from the native Indians.

Major Michael R. McNorgan
Author and Historian

Michael R. McNorganMichael R. McNorgan served for 39 years in the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps, in both regular and reserve regiments, retiring as a major. He is the author of The Gallant Hussars, A History of the First Hussars Regiment 1856 – 2004: An Illustrated History (2004). He is also co-author, with John Marteinson, of The Royal Canadian Armoured Corps: An Illustrated History (2000) and a contributor to Fighting for Canada (2000) and More Fighting for Canada (2004). He lives in Ottawa.

 

 

Colonel John Marteinson
Instructor, Royal Military College, Kingston

John MarteinsonColonel (ret’d) John Marteinson is the founding editor of Canadian Military Journal, a post from which he retired in the autumn of 2004. He teaches 20th century Canadian military history and Canadian defence policy at Royal Military College. He is a graduate of the University of Manitoba and York University, and did MA studies in military history at the University of New Brunswick. He is also a graduate of the NATO Defence College in Rome. He served for 30 years in the Regular Force in tanks and armoured reconnaissance, including tours as a helicopter pilot. As a nuclear policy specialist he served at Central Army Group Headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany. He was a member of the Directing Staff and Chief of Staff at the Canadian Forces Command and Staff College, and also served with the Plans and Policy Division of the International Military Staff at NATO Headquarters, where he was involved in East-West conventional arms control negotiations. He was editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly from 1987 to 1995, and senior vice-president of the Atlantic Council of Canada from 1990 to 1996.