The Blighty Project
Some Fields and Stones in France
MALINS, McDOWELL AND BROOKS
There is a very astute observation in Ghosts on the Somme—“Ironically the development of moving pictures coincided with the arrival of ‘the empty battlefield’.” Trench warfare was about invisibility (and troglodytism, as Paul Fussell makes apparent). The constraints of the technology of 1916 also compounded this problem—in order to film from a safe (and fixed) distance, troops became indistinguishable in the landscape. Despite these rather obvious drawbacks, Geoffrey Malins and John ‘Mac’ McDowell between them captured events of huge significance in British history, and the film that was cut together from their frequently courageous work is today inscribed as part of UNESCO‘s “Memory of the World” Register. It is an authentic expression of contemporary British culture on many different levels, and is almost always the “go to” footage for stock Great War imagery—despite the fact that clips are commonly shown bereft of any considered context. When the film went on general relase to Britain’s 4,000 cinemas in August of 1916 (and whilst the murderous campaign was still grinding on with no resolution in sight), over half the adult population of Britain went to see it.
Malins and Ernest Brooks, the stills photographer, arrived at the Old Cafe Jourdain, 86th Brigade headquarters in Mailly on 27th June and collected their passes. These two were to concentrate on the northern half of the Somme front, and mainly in 29th Division’s sector. John ‘Mac’ McDowell, the second film cameraman, was positioned down in the southern area of the First of July Frontline, at Mametz and Minden Post.
Top John ‘Mac’ McDowell, second left, and Ernest ‘Baby’ Brooks, third left (Kevin Brownlow)
Above Ernest Brooks, left, and Geoffrey Malins at a Tea Hut somewhere on the Western Front (IWM). By the 3rd of July, Malins was shooting footage around the La Boisselle area whilst McDowell was following the successful 7th Division as they advanced through the captured village of Mametz. He also visited Fricourt and made some long, skillful, hand-cranked pans around the utterly devastated village. The final scenes were filmed on or around the 8th of July, then all the exposed film magazines and canisters were sent back to London in one big parcel—no chance to see any rushes! Back in London, the developing, cutting and editing was carried out by Charles Urban and Malins and the first showing was a private screening at the Scala Theatre, off Tottenham Court Road on 10th August 1916.
OGS Crawford was not a professionally trained photographer. Classically educated, as a very young man at Marlborough he had developed a deep passion for British prehistory, its landscapes and folk culture, which he was to manifest in the new, and burgeoning disciplines of geography and archaeology. Initially enlisting in the London Scottish in September 1914, he went to France and was in and out of the Frontline at Givenchy for several weeks. After contracting malaria and being sent home, he pulled such family strings as he had to get transfer to the nascent Third Army as Maps Officer. In July 1915 he reported back on the Western Front to Major Winterbotham of the Third Army Topographical Section, which had assumed responsibility for the updating and making of new and accurate maps, showing all the current features, earthworks and locations of the German trenches on the Somme. The British were then in the process of taking over the Somme sector from the French and accurate maps were obviously vital components in their defensive and offensive strategy. Crawford’s part in this was to patiently photograph a series of panorama pictures of the entire Somme front, from Maricourt up to Gommecourt, around eighteen miles of the Old Front Line. These can be found reproduced in Somme90 and also displayed on large panels in the Visitor Centre at Thiepval as “then and now” composites, with Michael Stedman providing the modern equivalent pictures.
Above Both Malins and Brooks captured the detonation of the Hawthorn Mine—but so too did OGS Crawford, of Third Army Field Survey Company. Crawford got himself in the support areas close to Auchonvillers, probably off The Bowery, probably the Royal Dublin Fusiliers trenches. Unfortunately his glass negative was partially fogged, though the momentous event can still be made out. Since Crawford’s arrival on the Somme in the summer of 1915, he had been steadily making panorama photographs of the German trench systems along the entire Somme front and getting to grips with aerial photography—both were key means of improving the accuracy of the Army’s maps. He had also begun taking pictures specifically for release to the Press back in Blighty, and was ordered down to Beaumont-Hamel to record this momentous event at the very beginning of the Great Offensive
Left OGS Crawford in later years—he did indeed make a major contribution to the modern understanding of archaeology, especially in his pioneering, revelatory use of aerial photography in archaeology—the connection made, of course, during his time on the Western Front. At the same time, this English visionary railed against the utter inadequacies of consumer culture, the motor-car, and the age of advertising, as these aspects of modern life accelerated their wayward and unfettered development in the postwar Britain of the 1920s and Thirties. He was seduced by Marxism, and became firm friends with HG Wells. Like George Orwell, Crawford was horrified by "the dessication of modern industrial life", and began a lifelong photographic study of “Bloody Old Britain”, cataloguing the everyday ‘crimes’ that he saw being perpetrated on high streets and country lanes, all in the name of modern commerce
The Blighty Project Some Fields and Stones in France
Pictures copyright Duncan Youel and Keith Lillis, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2015 except where indicated
Sources, references and further reading
Somme90, Duncan Youel and David Edgell (M2 Books 2006) battleofthesomme.co.uk; Ghosts on the Somme by Alastair Fraser, Andy Robertshaw and Steve Roberts (P&S); Bloody Old Britain by Kitty Hauser (Granta); The Somme: The Day-by-Day Account by Chris McCarthy (Brockhampton Press, 2002); Battleground Europe: Walking the Somme by Paul Reed (P&S); The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook (Penguin); Official History Trench Map: Somme, First of July 1916; The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell (Oxford)