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A Question of Authenticity:
'Faking Death in no-man's land'
A version of this article first appeared in  Caffeine  newspaper.
There is a stock image that seems to summarise the brutalised method of fighting on the Western Front in the Great War of 1914 - 1918. Used widely by television news programmes at appropriate anniversaries it is a segment of footage from the 1916 official film known as The Battle of the Somme. It depicts a dozen infantrymen in a trench, one man bearing a cane moves from the rear and then leads them over a low earth parapet; two immediately fall back, and, as the scene changes to a low camera shot of a misty, barren landscape strewn with barbed wire, some 15 men move away at a steady pace, two of them fall suddenly to the ground, as the others recede into the murky distance.

Eighty years on its impact is still impressive. On the film's release in late summer 1916 this sequence caused a storm: 'Oh God ! They're dead', cried a woman in the audience, 'I beg leave respectfully to enter a protest against an entertainment which wounds the heart and violates the very sanctity of bereavement' wrote the Dean of Durham rather more long-windedly. The piece of film is, however, undoubtably a fake. In 1922 the film was screened to a panel of experts who expressed their suspicion of the attack sequence; its origin was linked to a film shoot convened before the battle by one of the two front-line cameraman on the Somme battlefield, Geoffrey Malins. He appears to have organised a phoney attack at a Trench Mortar School well behind the lines, and one film historian later unearthed a soldier who confessed to having taken part in the staged event and had 'died' for Malins.

The faked few minutes of film have done too much to divert attention to some of the authentic footage in the film. Seconds after the 'attack' there is a panoramic shot of soldiers moving at walking pace across the shallow slopes of a ridge as they head towards the German line and straight into enemy fire, this 'action' footage is followed by a long shot of a badly wounded soldier being carried off the battlefield and hauled down a narrow trench. It is an extremely arresting image - the deadweight of the wounded soldier, the agony of the rescuer, the poignancy of the event and its conclusion, hammered home by a suprisingly frank inter-title caption: 'British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire (This man died 30 minutes after reaching the trenches).'

Authenticity was of little importance during the war. As the first ever feature length British battle documentary The Battle of the Somme was intended as a piece of propaganda, and succeeded beyond all expectations. Edited and released before the battle even came to an end in November 1916, the film was showing simultaneously in 30 London cinemas in autumn of that year. Its very structure lent credence and shape to what was often a formless experience - the first half of the war shows preparations for the attack, troops marching in column strength, ammunitions piled high, soldiers at rest and being addressed by senior commanders, then the attack (located at the fulcrum of the film), followed, in the second half, by troops and guns occupying captured ground, wounded Allied soldiers being taken to the rear, German prisoners under armed escort, footage of the desolation of the battleground, and some glimpses of captured German booty. The film concludes optimistically with a sequence of cheering British troops marching once more to the front - a piece of film that was actually shot 3 days before the battle but, like many elements in the film, tacked on to lend meaningful narrative to a dislocated historical moment.

A similar pressure lay on the official stills photographers and some of the official war artists who were required to record the war. Weighed down by large and awkward large format plate cameras and wooden tripods the few official photographers on the Western Front were hampered both technically and beaurocratically. Photographers were under specific instructions to produce images 'for publication-exhibition in neutral and allied countries for propagandist purposes' and their work, once rushed back to London had to run the gauntlet of the military censors in Intelligence before publication. Technical difficulties and censorship aside, many photographers also found the static conditions on the battle front hugely non-photogenic.

Frank Hurley, official cameraman with the Australian forces had a large reputation as a photographer on Shackleton's ill-fated second expedition in the Antarctic, but he found the Western Front even more barren:
    'Everything is on such a wide scale. Figures scattered, atmosphere dense with haze and smoke - shells that would simply not burst when required. All the elements of a picture were there, could they but be brough together and condensed.'
The diffuse character of the war, its lack of focal points, its vastness and its anonymity were the antithesis of the photographic mode which, even with the inadequate techniques of the day, was primed to capture events and character. Hurley chose the unthinkable. In the darkroom he combined negatives, piecing together a composite version of the reality of trench warfare. It was a mistake. The official Australian historian, Charles Bean, admonished Hurley alleging that he had transgressed the boundaries of fact and in collaging an 'event' had broken a soverign rule of documentary reportage. Much the same argument would emerge in the wake of the Bosnian conflict when the official artist Peter Howsen was accused of departing from his brief with his painting of a rape - an event only known to the artist by hearsay and not seen with his own eyes. For the official picture retinal (or lens-based) veracity has always been prioritised over interpretative or synthetic experience.

Hurley's indescretion was not unique. The Canadian photographer Ivor Castle was suspected of staging fake action pictures on the Western Front. By judicious cropping he could transform an innocent image into something more aggressive, and, like Hurley, he superimposed shrapnel clouds and bomb-bursts into otherwise clear skies; the Flanders landscape having proved a conveniently flat and uncomplicated setting for his staged 'combats'.

The trench war has remained ripe for media manipulation. During the making of the epic 1960's TV series The Great War film footage was indiscriminately reversed where necessary to give the impression that the Germans advanced right-to-left across the screen while the Allies always appeared in the left hand side. Such 'regrettably cavalier' use of raw material led to the Imperial War Museum asking for a disclaimer to be used at the start of each episode, it also explains the proliferation of left-handed infantrymen. One might argue that the social memory of the war is still being distorted in such works as Blackadder goes forth with its onus on befuddled generals and sadistic chateaux-officers; fortunately much recent historical analysis has contested the received wisdom of these caricatures.

Of all the art forms comissioned for propaganda, painting would seem to be the most difficult to monitor. In the Great War all official artists had to submit their work to the military censor, Major A.N.Lee, whose signature appears frequently alongside the artists on their drawings and sketches. War artists laboured under the same restrictions as the photographers: their work had to mirror events seen but not fabricated. Many of the younger artists, with some front-line experience behind them, took extraordinary risks to witness the dangers. Christopher Nevinson gained a reputation for visiting dangerous front-line positions and much of his work gains from such gritty experiences. Although the ruling on eye-witness accounts seems severe the government agencies had to draw the line to prevent London based 'war' artists dictating the visual iconography of the war. Fleet Street had hordes of studio artists who produced 'battle' pictures for the illustrated press.

Though skilful and wonderfully picturesque their front-line imagery is a travesty of the actualities. The tradition of the 'special artist' roaming the front in the lee of advancing British Empire troops had run aground by the turn of the century when the host of 'specials' and journalists had been tightly controlled by the Japanese during the Japanese-Russo War, and these restrictions became even more extreme after 1914. Refused entry to the war zones the few 'specials' of the First World War - Frederic Villiers, Fortunino Matania - took to contriving anecdotal sketches that verge on the surreal: portable trenches, glass bottles suspended on strings to provide guide ways across No Man's Land, a soldier kissing farewell to his wounded horse. Like their academic counterparts, whose vast canvases of battles, graced the Royal Academy of Arts in the war period, a lexicon of heroism and noble stature quickly evolved: the raised arm, the forehead swathed in bandages, the jutting chin and stoic expression, immaculate uniforms and neat trenches perpetuated a lie that was parodied by some of the younger war artists (Nevinson refused to paint such 'castrated Lancelots' ) but, significantly, dictated the visual terms of corporate grief. Most figurative war memorials erected in the 1920s and 30s were taken from a strict code of heroic posture. And although they can imply the loss of an ideal, they tell us little about the violence and wretchedness of wars. To do so, such monuments would be fragmentary and disjunctive, not whole and unified.

PAUL GOUGH

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