Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

AWM Western Front

Paul Byrnes argues that the surviving First World War footage held by the Australian War Memorial of Australians at the Western Front is worthy of more serious regard.

Australia’s films from the Western Front are grainy, degraded by age and limited by the photographic equipment of the time. Many of the images are fuzzy and jerky in the way that silent films usually are when viewed at the wrong speed – commonly seen in archival footage used in television documentaries. The intertitles are sometimes unreliable, and the provenance of some films is uncertain. They contain many mysteries yet to solve, such as what use was made of them during the war. And yet, despite all this, these films are a national treasure, the only record in moving images of our troops during the worst war in our history.

All of the men you see here are now dead. Some of them would have died within days of being photographed in the field. In a few cases, the camera shows us men so badly wounded that they are dying before our eyes. Australia has hundreds of memorials to the Anzacs, in parks and Avenues of Remembrance across the country, but these films are also a kind of memorial, and a brutally honest one. They show us glimpses of what the soldiers went through, before the battlefield clean-up and before the mythologising of ‘sacrifice’ that inevitably followed. They show us the mud and craters along the Menin Road in Belgium in 1917, the shelling of Pozières, one of the huge mine craters at Messines, the devastation of Ypres and Villers-Bretonneux by millions of shells. They show us roads strewn with dead horses, thickets of barbed wire, trenches where exhausted men wait for relief or respite from shelling, the stretcher-bearers struggling back with the wounded and doctors trying desperately to save the broken bodies. In one film, they even show us a funeral – a rare thing.

It is true that there are questions of authenticity about some of these images, but there are none about immediacy. These films were made in 1916, 1917 and 1918 during battles that are now legendary: the Somme in 1916, Menin Road in 1917, Bullecourt and Villers-Bretonneux in 1918.

Wherever the Australian cameraman filmed and whatever these films purport to show, they allow us to see something of the attitudes and demeanour of the Australian soldier in the Great War. In almost all cases, the men were happy to be filmed; they wave at the camera, smile and gaze directly into the lens. Cameras were novel, especially on the battlefield, but they knew that their parents and loved ones at home would be overjoyed to see their faces, once the films reached Australian cinemas. For many of these men, these images would be all that returned to Australia.

In the Australian Imperial Force, now known as the first AIF, 324,000 volunteers served overseas in the First World War. Of these 155,000 suffered wounds and 61,513 were killed, according to the Australian War Memorial figures. That is more than have died in all other conflicts in which Australians have fought, added together. Most of those casualties were on the Western Front, between June 1916 and November 1918, a total of 30 months. There has never been a more bloody period in our history, nor one as well documented. The main reason for that was the extraordinary achievement of one man – CEW (Charles) Bean, the official war correspondent and later the official Australian historian of this war.

Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean is a complex and intriguing figure in Australia’s war history, but there is no doubt that his energy and persistence drove the production of these films. He was behind the collection of all the Australian military records, including the still photographs (often taken by the same photographers), and a huge collection of war relics. After the war, he became the driving force in establishing a home for them, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The AWM now holds more than 6000 pieces of film, and is still adding to its collections.

Bean was with the Australian forces when they landed at Gallipoli in 1915, and still on duty when they celebrated the signing of an Armistice on 9 November 1918. He was too shy and patrician to feel comfortable in their society, but he idolised the ‘true’ Australian character he saw in them – the unruly spirit of resilience, self-reliance and confidence that made them hard to discipline, but easy to inspire. He was sure there were no better soldiers than the Australians when properly led. Like many of his countrymen, he believed they were generally far superior to English conscripted units, because they had chosen to be there.

The AIF was a volunteer force for the whole war, despite the efforts of Prime Minister William Morris Hughes to introduce compulsory conscription. Even the soldiers themselves voted against it in two plebiscites, along with a narrow majority in Australia. Hughes used cartoons as part of his campaign for a yes vote in Australia (see, for example, Cartoons of the Moment – Miss Australasia, c1915, clip 2) – and he gave himself the power to require cinema owners to show whatever propaganda materials he gave them – but none of these official films seems to have been used directly in that acrimonious campaign. This is remarkable, given Hughes’s usual determination to use all available methods to achieve his ends. The simple explanation may be that only one of the films was ready in time to be of any use to him. Indeed, it is hard to find evidence that many of them were actually shown during the war. This begs the question, what were the films for?

Charles Bean’s diaries make clear that he felt they should be used for propaganda purposes initially. Indeed, early in 1918 he complained bitterly to his colleague and fellow correspondent Harry Gullett about the lack of awareness of propaganda at home. ‘One strongly suspects that even when they reach Australia, these films lie mostly in the cellars of the Defence Department … I don’t suppose anyone there has the faintest idea of the importance of propaganda.’

After the war, the films were used for a different sort of propaganda – to build support for the establishment of a war museum. Many of them were retitled by Bean and shown in week-long seasons from 1920 onwards in the capital cities, often with introductions by Bean and some of the Australian generals who took part. Thus, we may say that the films have always occupied an uneasy perch, between historic record and short-term political purposes. In truth, the historic worth has only grown as the propaganda use has faded.

Charles Bean’s public profile was high before the war. His series of articles for The Sydney Morning Herald about sheep farming in western New South Wales had become a popular book in 1910, On the Wool Track. ‘He had grown up more English than Australian and his childhood had been privileged,’ writes Les Carlyon in his book, The Great War (2006, Macmillan, ISBN 9781405037617). His father was born in India and educated in England; his mother was Tasmanian. Charles was born in 1879 and raised in Bathurst, NSW. In 1889, when he was 10, the family moved to England. Bean was educated at Clifton College and Oxford, studying classics and then law. He was 25 when he returned to Australia in 1904, and drawn towards journalism. He believed in the empire and high English ideals of personal morality, but he also had a radical streak by the time he got to war. He thought the English ‘race’ was degraded by class and inequality and in need of ‘revolution’. That is why he loved the athletic, independent Australian soldiers. They were a romantic ideal of manhood to which he could not conform. He was tall, skinny and sounded English. He looked like a bespectacled schoolmaster, which indeed he was for a time, both in England and Australia, but he was far tougher and braver than even he realised. Few men could have endured four years of almost constant war, as he did. He worked close to the front, visiting the trenches almost daily during the heaviest periods of fighting, coming under shellfire often.

Les Carlyon quotes General Sir Cyril Brudenell White, the Australian-born Chief of Staff to General Sir William Birdwood, as saying after the war that Bean faced death more often than any other man in the AIF. Bean was wounded on Gallipoli but refused to be evacuated. He was the only correspondent to stay on the peninsula for the whole campaign, from April to December 1915. He landed in France on 4 April 1916, just behind the first Australian divisions arriving from Egypt.

Bean had been elected by members of the Australian Journalists’ Association in September 1914 as the sole official Australian correspondent, just ahead of Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert Murdoch). Murdoch was by now based in London as managing editor of United Cable Service, which fed news to both the Sydney Sun and the Melbourne Herald newspapers – a position with major influence. His friendship with Bean was to have important consequences. Murdoch had political skills that Bean lacked, and a fierce sense of national pride that he envied. Murdoch was already highly connected, both in London and in Melbourne, the seat of the Australian government. He played a part in ending the Gallipoli campaign before the coming of winter, an amazing story in itself (see With the Dardanelles Expedition, c1915, and Gallipoli on Film). He and Bean would try in 1918 to overturn the appointment of John Monash as the first Australian-born commander of the Australian forces in France, a disastrous and shabby episode in Bean’s otherwise exemplary war career (see The Australians’ Final Campaign in 1918 and Prime Minister Rt Hon. WM Hughes visits Western Front, 1918).

When Bean arrived in France, Australia had no official photographer. A month earlier, the British War Office had sent Ernest Brooks, an experienced newspaper photographer, to provide positive images of the war in Flanders (Belgium). With new British commanders in the field, the blanket ban on photography at the front was relaxed, but not for Charles Bean. He had been allowed to take more than 700 photographs on Gallipoli. In France, he was prohibited from taking any pictures, just as the ordinary soldier was prohibited. Many Australian soldiers threw away their pocket cameras en route to northern France. There were no movie cameras present when they went into action at Fromelles on 19 July 1916, their first major action and their first disaster (still the single worst loss of life in any one day in our history, military or civil).

The prohibition on taking photographs frustrated Bean immensely, as can be seen in his diary entries for the time (available online at the AWM). When Prime Minister Hughes arrived to visit the troops on 1 June 1916, there was no official photographer present. Ernest Brooks, who was then in England, received an urgent request to ‘come back at full speed’ and spend eight or ten days photographing Australian and New Zealand troops, and Mr Hughes’s visit. Brooks and a cine cameraman, Edward G Tong, arrived on 2 June. Their work for that week, and again in the last week of August 1916, constitutes some of what became two films – With the Australians in France 1916, and Australia in France, Part One (c1918). These are the first official records of Australian troops on the Western front, but their history entails the biggest mystery of all these films.

Both of these films deal with the Battle of Pozières, one of the most significant of the war for Australians, and one which moved Charles Bean deeply. He believed that the British commanders did not appreciate the severity of that battle, in which Australia lost 23,000 men killed or wounded in six weeks, in July and August 1916. The films made to document that loss do not mention the casualty numbers. The figures would have been a major disincentive to recruiting.

In January 1917 in London, Bean cut together a film from the footage shot by British cameramen of Australian troops, and wrote a set of titles explaining the images for Australians. He went back to France expecting the film to be completed as he planned and sent to Australia, but that didn’t happen. When he saw the film a year later, he was incensed. The office of Sir William Jury, a prominent film businessman and soon a major figure in British propaganda, appeared to have lost his original film. Bean believed they cobbled together an inferior, nonsensical version of what he intended and sent it to Australia without his knowledge. In January 1918, he attempted to regather the elements of lost film in London, intending to restore it. The Australian War Memorial holds two similar films, using much of the same footage. With the Australians in France 1916 appears to be the botched Jury version; Australia in France, Part One (c1918) is certainly the more accurate version, although we don’t really know if it is a complete reconstruction. The question is significant, because the accuracy of the titles helps us to determine the accuracy of the images. In any case, we know that both films contain real footage of Australians engaged in a battle for Pozières.

That footage is remarkable, but these films must also be defined by what is missing – chiefly, the dead. Some of the places in which they filmed in late August, such as Pozières, were still strewn with corpses. Bean writes in his diaries about seeing them blackened and half-buried, in pieces, or uncovered by German shelling. It would have been difficult at Pozières to find views that did not have the dead on show, yet we do not see them in this or any other official Australian film. All cinema film, news reports and photographs went through military censors close to the front, who generally forbade footage of the dead. The cameramen were often accompanied by junior intelligence officers whose job was to monitor where they went and filmed, but the policy was not uniformly applied. There are dead bodies in The Battle of the Somme (1916), the most famous British film of the war, which was made at the same time. There are also still photographs of Australian dead, taken by the official Australian photographers (E04677).

This absence from the cinema films forces them toward the use of symbols of the dead: a lone cross, such as we see in The Australians at Messines (1917), or the funeral scene in With the Australians in France 1916, but even these are unusual. There are no German dead either, which suggests that this was a matter of public taste, not just strategic censorship, or a concern for morale. Audiences were not used to seeing moving images of war, let alone images of the dead. When The Battle of the Somme premiered in Britain in August 1916, while the battle was still going on, some audience members fainted. A leading churchman denounced the depiction of the battle on film as immoral. It was seen by an estimated 20 million people and hailed as a breakthrough in documentary realism, although it is now acknowledged that its most dramatic scenes, British soldiers going ‘over the top’ into German fire, were in fact faked.

Charles Bean saw the film on one of his infrequent visits to London on leave. He had already begun a campaign to get a photographer solely for the Australian side. He wanted accuracy, and a record of what the Australians had done. He set out to avoid any possibility of fakery. Indeed that was his major concern with the arrival of Ernest Brooks, the official British photographer. He had known Brooks at Gallipoli, where he was the Admiralty’s official photographer. Bean believed that he had faked some of his most successful pictures there (AWM38, 3DRL 606/44/1, 2 June 1916, pp 67-68):

We from Gallipoli have two particular crimes up against Brooks. He faked a picture of a Turkish sniper dressed up in branches like a tree – he got a Turkish prisoner on Imbros with two Australians from the field bakery standing on either side of him with bayonets fixed; the picture has been printed everywhere and is taken as a proof of the wild stories about 'men as trees moving’. It half convinced me when first I saw it. And he faked a second picture of a 'charge of the Royal Naval division at the Dardanelles’, which is the most famous picture taken there.

That picture showed an officer leading men out of a trench up into the Gallipoli hills, but Bean writes that he recognised the hill as not being on Gallipoli, but ‘at the back of the war correspondents’ camp’ on Imbros Island. Having to escort Brooks around the battlefield enraged Bean even more, despite his regard for Brooks’s courage (AWM38, 3DRL 606/44/1, 2 June 1916, pp 69-70):

I have applied to the High Commissioner to be allowed to take photos for record of the actual facts for future Australians to see; the Australian government has asked that I should take photos. The British government or War Office put them off with a lie – that none except the official photographer were allowed. As a matter of fact, Brooks told me that the Canadians had a staff capt, who at Aitken’s request (Lord Beaverbrook) is allowed to photograph and Brooks is teaching him. In spite of that, the War Office put us off (or GHQ does) by sending down their official photographer and asking me to take him around and show him what wants to be photographed.

Bean took Brooks and Tong on their first day to photograph Australian Prime Minister WM (Billy) Hughes with the commander of the Australian Imperial Force, General Sir William Birdwood. Bean found the exercise of spending a week with Brooks and Tong extremely unpleasant, partly because of the politics, and partly because he and Brooks clashed repeatedly over Brooks’s desire to fake photographs. Bean writes in his diary for 3 June 1916 (AWM38, 3DRL 606/45/1):

Tong the cinematographer is not a strong man and we had to carry his apparatus for him, and also helped Brooks to carry his. Brooks had to be watched all the time to prevent him getting up somewhere where he would be sure to be killed and to prevent him from faking. He persuaded one major to get all his men lined up behind the parapet (at imminent risk of their lives if the Germans had seen them) with bayonets fixed looking as if they were going to charge over shoulder to shoulder. I told him afterwards that I would have to speak to the staff about the photo – it is an absurd fake, no-one in his senses would ever get men packed behind a line like that. He said: ‘It’s not a fake – it’s not developed yet. It cannot be a fake until it’s developed’.

Brooks got his position because he was a friend of the King and Queen – their private photographer. And this is the sort of rubbish the home government send us as its 'official’ photographer, who may be trusted, while Ross and I may not be trusted (Malcolm Ross was the official New Zealand war correspondent) … I shall get through my five days with him pleasantly if I can but never again.

The previous day, matters had come to a head between Bean and Brooks (AWM38/3DRL606/45/1, p 23):

Brooks was grumbling this morning at only being allowed to take ‘cushy’ stuff and not the sort of pictures that editors want. 'They won’t print a picture of a sentry looking over a trench,’ he said. Of course they won’t, so long as he supplies them with faked charges and sham battles … this ‘official’ British photographer. I told him straight we won’t have faked pictures – and he objected to that word and there was a row. Since then I have been dragging him round much as you might lead a bad-tempered bull by the nose. I don’t know how long I shall be able to stand it – only two days more.

This exchange gives a vivid illustration of the conflicts inherent in war photography at the time. Bean was himself still writing dispatches for Australian and British newspapers. Brooks was every inch a newspaper photographer, but Bean had already crossed a bridge in his own mind, to think as an historian. He was under friendly fire at the time for his writing. Some Australian newspapers, including the Melbourne Age, refused to carry his reports because they were too ‘dull’, especially in comparison to some of the more sensational correspondents at work, such as Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (see Gallipoli on Film).

Bean was adamant that the real value of what he was doing would be for the future, rather than the present. This would lead him into more conflicts over fakery with one of the most distinguished Australian photographers, Frank Hurley, a year later. By November 1916, Bean had won his battle with the War Office and GHQ. Herbert Baldwin, an experienced war photographer, became the first official Australian photographer – even though he was British.

Baldwin spent the next eight months taking still photographs and cine film under Bean’s direction. According to Dr Shaune Lakin, former senior curator of photographs at the Australian War Memorial, Baldwin’s 540 glass-plate negatives are among the best of the Western Front. Bean’s relationship with Baldwin was harmonious and productive, after the trials of working with Brooks. He and Baldwin remained close even after Baldwin succumbed to illness and nervous exhaustion during the Battle of Messines, in mid-1917. The cause of Baldwin’s illness remains obscure. In the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 (1941), Bean writes that Baldwin drank contaminated water in a canal on the Somme while photographing in No-Man’s-Land for General Birdwood. Lakin, in Contact: Photographs from the Australian War Memorial Collection (2006), says that the illness began while he was photographing in Mesopotamia, before Baldwin even reached the Western Front. Bean’s diaries, where he could perhaps write more openly than in the Official History, make clear that Baldwin’s nerves collapsed around the time of the Battle of Messines.

The problem of nervous collapse was a significant one for the photographers, as well as the combatants and the correspondents. Herbert Baldwin was not just the first Australian official photographer: he was the first Australian photographic casualty. At the end of June 1917, he was repatriated to Britain. He never recovered, dying a few years later. Bean recounts a plaintive story of having dinner with Baldwin in 1918 in London, where the photographer talked about his loss of nerve. He was working as a Fleet Street photographer again, but unable to cope with the stresses. He told Bean he had allowed an official at the Old Bailey to stop him taking a camera into the court – something he would never have stood for before the war.

Different personalities coped in different ways with battle stress. Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins joined Charles Bean in late September 1917, and they were unusual, in that both were physically hardened by the rigours of polar exploration. Hurley had been to Antarctica with Ernest Shackleton, and Wilkins had spent almost three years in the Arctic with Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian explorer. Both men were experienced self-taught photographers, men who had left Australia in search of adventure well before the war. Both had endured extraordinary physical and mental hardship on the ice. Nevertheless, the Western Front seriously tested their nerves. Hurley is frank about 'feeling windy’ after some days at the front. Both men earned the admiration of the troops for their reckless pursuit of good photographs. Indeed, they were known to some as 'the mad photographers’.

Bean was modest about his own courage, noting in his diaries that some of the photographers were far more courageous than he. This must be questioned, given that he was able to operate almost continuously, close to the front, for more than four years. The signs of anxiety are infrequent in the diaries. The style of hand-writing changes from day to day, which might be interpreted as a sign of stress, although it was sometimes the place in which he was writing – in the dark of a trench during shelling, or while watching an offensive unfold in the early hours of the morning. He would often have been cold, wet and exhausted, but it’s hard to tell from the diaries. He seems to have had a remarkable ability to concentrate on the job at hand, rather than his own personal comfort, while ignoring his level of fear. Unlike the soldiers, when the shelling got too much, as it did sometimes at Pozières, he could choose to retire. By 1918, he is actually scornful of people in London, worrying about a small danger from bombs dropped by aeroplanes. No photographer, and very few of the correspondents on the British side, stayed so long on the battlefield.

It may be that Bean’s enthusiasm for moving images was never great, but it was certainly damaged by the experience of trying to make the Pozières film, and his dealings with Sir William Jury. By January 1918, when he discovered what had happened to that film (see Australia in France, Part One, c1918), he writes with a certain resignation – as if he is reluctant to devote energy to a form so subject to interference and base motives, like profit. It may be that events were overtaking the need for propaganda anyway. The end of the war was in sight, and the need for propaganda in support of recruitment was less pressing than during 1916 and 1917. Again, we may ask what the films were for: in Bean’s eyes at least, they were an arm of propaganda first, before they were a tool of history.

Nevertheless, Bean remained engaged with the politics of his task, not just the task itself. He had fought to get the photographers he needed in 1916, he had fought efforts to assert control of them by GHQ, and he fought the very powerful Canadian press baron, Lord Beaverbrook, when he attempted to take control of Frank Hurley, after Hurley and Bean fell out over composites (the combining of elements from more than one negative to make a more exciting picture). It appears that Hurley may have been ready to go to work for Beaverbrook covering the Canadians, but Bean prevented it (see The Australians’ Final Campaign in 1918).

Bean’s clash with Hurley was inevitable. Hurley was a pictorialist, where Bean wanted a documentarist. Hurley would happily combine elements from different negatives to produce a stunning picture that gave an overall sense of the battlefield. His pictures were emotional, like a painter, and Bean understood the motive, but he would not have it ‘at any cost’. Hurley left the Western Front in November 1917 after only two months, to take pictures in Egypt and Palestine, for an exhibition about Australia’s war exploits, planned for early 1918 in London. Bean worked on in France with Wilkins for the rest of the war. Their partnership was extremely close. It produced a remarkable photographic record of the Australian efforts in the last year, 1918 (see The Australians’ Final Campaign in 1918). Wilkins was the photographer that Bean had always wanted – fearless, factual and historically sensitive. Wilkins was almost killed a number of times, and his cameras were destroyed often by shellfire, but he survived the war, and went on to have an extraordinary career as an aviator and polar explorer in his own right.

After the war, the films from the Western Front were used to drum up support for the establishment of the Australian War Memorial. Bean retitled some of the films, although we don’t know exactly which, and they were shown in week-long seasons around the capital cities, mainly between 1920 and 1922, often with appearances by the generals, who were household names by then.

Bean’s legendary concern for accuracy appears to have lessened in this phase, judging from the number of misleading titles – although the lapses may not be his. Over 90 or more years, it’s hard to know when the films lost bits and pieces, or were recut, retitled or combined. There are a number of reasons why these films have been neglected in our film history. It is difficult to know who, where and what they show; their value has become as ‘general footage’ rather than specific depictions of actual events, partly because people who make films about the Great War continue to misuse this material – one battle becomes all battles. The films are worthy of more serious regard.

Citations

  • The Great War (2006)
    Carlyon, Les
    Pan Macmillan ISBN 9781405037617
  • Contact: Photographs from the Australian War Memorial Collection (2006)
    Lakin, Shaune A
    Canberra: Australian War Memorial ISBN 0975190466

Titles in this collection

Australia in France, Part One c1918

One of the Australian War Memorial’s most important films – the most accurate filmed record of the Battle of Pozières in 1916.

The Australian Flying Corps in France, England and Palestine 1919

A silent film depicting pilots and crew of the Australian Flying Corps, precursor to the RAAF, in training and at war in 1918 in France and the Middle East.

The Australians at Messines 1917

Silent footage by Herbert Baldwin, Australia’s first official war photographer, of the Battle of Messines in Belgium, June 1917.

The Australians’ Final Campaign in 1918 c1919

A compilation film covering Australian forces on the Western Front in the final year of the First World War.

Bapaume to Bullecourt 1917

Silent footage of Australian soldiers entering Bapaume, in March 1917, pursuing German troops as they withdraw to the Hindenburg Line.

Fighting in Flanders 1917

Silent footage of Australian troops in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), fighting near the Menin Road in Belgium, in September 1917.

Incidents in Connection with the Funeral of Captain Baron von Richthofen 1918

The funeral of Germany’s greatest air ace in the First World War, conducted with full military honours by a squadron of the Australian Flying Corps, in April 1918.

Prime Minister Rt Hon. WM Hughes visits Western Front 1918

At a time of great controversy, Australian Prime Minister WM (Billy) Hughes consults with his generals on the Western Front.

With the Australians in France 1916 c1917

A silent film of Australian and New Zealand soldiers on the Western Front in France, between June and September 1916, much of it around Pozières.