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first world war - Imperial War Museum

FIRST WORLD WAR

Silhouette image by

Ernest Brooks, Battle

of Passchedaele,

5 September 1917.

IWM Q 003014

Theblack dotsAs we

approach the 90th anniversary

of the end of the First World War,

the documentary film producer and

historian Malcolm Brown writes

about his lifelong interest in that

now distant but unforgettable conflict

If we go back in imagination to the last

weeks of 1917, what do we find? It was

the year of the four month long

slaughter generally known as the Battle

of Passchendaele and of the German U-

Boat campaign against shipping that

almost brought Britain to her knees. It

was a year that prompted many people to

ask as it approached its conclusion:

‘When is this nightmare to end?’ Meanwhile

the Western Front, a short distance

across the Channel, still demanded a

steady influx of new men.

For me 1917 has a particular significance.

In December of that year a young

lady made what must have been a very

emotional journey from her home city of

Cardiff to Blackpool to visit her fiancé,

who was about to be despatched to

France as a member of the 2/59th (North

Midlands) Division. Thankfully the young

man in question, a private in the Medical

Corps, not a combatant, would return

home physically and mentally unscathed.

I am writing, of course, about my

mother and father. Thus as the son of a

soldier who had served in the First World

War I was inevitably brought up under

its shadow. I can still clearly remember

the Armistice Days in the late 1930s,

standing by my desk in my school classroom

during the two minutes silence

with a swirl of images – based on sepia

photographs seen in books belonging to

my parents – revolving through my mind

like a film sequence with trenches, guns

and barbed wire and men carrying the

implements of battle. Those two minutes

seemed almost unbearably long but the

mood that it instilled is permanently

lodged in my memory.

Had I been sufficiently aware, of

course, I might have seen this experience

as a warning because it wasn’t long

before the start of the next round, the

Second World War, which would last

even longer than the first and would kill

more people. I am often amazed when I

consider how close the two wars were,

that there were fewer years between the

end of the 1914-1918 war and the onset

of the 1939-1945 war than there are between

the Falklands Conflict of 1982 and

today.

This might help to explain why, when

I was asked to contribute an introduction

to the accompanying book to the

Museum’s 90th anniversary exhibition

‘In Memoriam’, my instinct was not to

look just at the First World War, but at

the whole long period of war and cold

war which marked the last century virtually

from its start to its conclusion. Most

importantly of all, I saw this period of

disturbance not as a struggle of competing

nations and ideologies, but in terms

of the people, the individuals of whatever

age or nationality who were caught

up in it. I quote from this introduction

with the kind permission of the Museum

and the book’s publishers, Ebury Press.

‘Thinking back over the last ninety and


10 ■ Despatches Winter 2008

Winter 2008 Despatches ■ 11


FIRST WORLD WAR

Left: Massed Tommies gathered on

the eastern bank of the St Quentin

Canal to celebrate the canal’s

capture, 29 September 1918;

photograph by Donald McClellan.

Below: Four sculptured figures

signifying mourning: the German

military cemetery at Langemarck,

near Ypres, Belgium; photograph

by Malcolm Brown.


more years, so much of it spent in conflict

or coping with the consequences of conflict,

and seeking for some meaningful

metaphor, or even straw, to clutch at, I find

my memory jogged by not a fact, but a fiction,

a film which had an immense impact

on people of my generation. The Third

Man, made in the late 1940s, was set in a

bleak, bomb-shattered Cold War Vienna,

with as its central character a profiteercum-gangster

named Harry Lime, charismatically

played by the late great Orson

Welles. As he and his pre-war school friend

Holly Martins soar above the city’s seedy

Prater area in the cabin of a giant Ferris

wheel, the people on the ground below

become a pattern of slowly swirling black

dots. Looking down on them contemptuously,

Harry Lime puts to his friend the serious,

searching question: “Would you

really feel any pity if one of those dots

stopped moving for ever?” From that

viewpoint, you see exactly what he meant

– what difference would it make if one of

those dots was ‘taken out’, ‘liquidated’,

suddenly ceased to exist? Yet each one of

those insignificant dots represented a

living, breathing human being.’

The black dots: when I look back on the

films I made as a documentary producer

at the BBC and the books I have both written

and co-written, many with a wartime

slant, it is clear that it was on the experience

of individuals that I essentially focused.

Indeed the main aim of virtually all

my books has been to record key moments

of our common history not as seen by the

great and the famous but by the rank and

file.

Presuming to stay a little longer in the

territory of the ‘In Memoriam’ volume, I

include here a number of what I see as

‘black dot’ images. The first is the silhouette

photograph on pages 10-11 by the

British photographer Ernest Brooks. It depicts

soldiers picking their way through

shell craters in the Ypres Salient in September

1917, halfway through the Passchendaele

battle. They appear as abstract

shapes against the sky, a straggle of ‘Tommies’

with rifle and pack, but we are aware

that each shape is a man, with his hopes

and fears and vulnerability to the hazards

of shot and shell.

The second photograph (right) was taken

in autumn 1918 by the Canadian war photographer

David McClellan. On 29 September

troops of the 46th (North Midland)

Division captured the St Quentin Canal – a

vital point in the formidable skein of

German defences known as the Hindenburg

Line – in a dawn attack. A massed

crowd was assembled close to the canal

bridge at Riqueval to receive the congratulations

of their Brigadier General. The

General can clearly be seen on the bridge

to the left. I find this image particularly

striking because, although we are looking

at a gathering of several hundred men, the

clarity of the photograph makes us aware

of the individuals of whom the vast crowd

is composed – we can almost see the

whites of their eyes. I suspect that more

men were focused on McClellan and his

camera than were looking at or listening to

the General. An early case of the media

being more important than the message.

The third image (see page opposite) is a

photograph I took myself, of a sculpture of

four German soldiers at the Soldatenfriedhof,

the German military cemetery at

Langemarck, Belgium, on the edge of the

former Ypres Salient. With their helmets

removed, deliberately created as black silhouettes,

it seems as though the soldiers

were about to walk forward into the cemetery

from the surrounding farmland but

stopped and stood stock-still at the

thought of 44,000 of their fellow soldiers

buried there and of the 24,917 unknowns

gathered in a communal grave.

I find this image of four symbolic figures

mourning their mass of dead comrades especially

moving. Studying it I am reminded

of a comment by a French soldier

written in late 1916 about the horrific

battle of Verdun, in which attackers and

attacked suffered in equal numbers. ‘Everyone

was cursing the war… Some were

saying ‘Frenchmen or Germans, they are

IWM Q 009534

men like ourselves.... Do not they, too,

dream of the homecoming?’

All this suggests to me that whatever attitude

we might take, ninety years on, to

that now distant war, there should be no

occasion for anger, blame or recrimination.

The same thought should apply to the

Second World War, now also many

decades behind us. We might recall the

powerful conclusion of Wilfred Owen’s

1918 poem ‘Strange Meeting’, which predicates

a conversation between two enemies

who have just fatally clashed in the heat of

the battle. Meeting in the after-world they

recognise each other, with one making the

moving statement:

‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now….’

‘Let us sleep now.’ Sadly this will always

be an impossible hope for there are so

many other wars in so many parts of the

world, and therefore so many more black

dots, too many of which will suffer the

same tragic fate as envisaged from the

Vienna Ferris wheel by Harry Lime, and

stop moving for ever.

■ ‘In Memoriam: Remembering the Great

War’, opened on 30 September 2008 and

runs until 6 September 2009 at the Imperial

War Museum, Lambeth Road, London

SE1 6HZ. Open daily (except 24, 25, 26 December)

10.00am-6.00pm. For more information

call 020 7416 5320.

The accompanying book ‘In

Memoriam: Remembering

the Great War’, by Robin

Cross, with an Introduction

by Malcolm Brown is

available in the Museum

shops and online shop

priced £20.00.

■ The Imperial War Museum has also

launched a new website www.iwm.org.

uk/90 to commemorate the 90th anniversary

of the end of the First World War featuring

personal stories and highlights from

the Museum’s unique collections.

12 ■ Despatches Winter 2008

Winter 2008 Despatches ■ 13

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