Monday, March 24, 2014

Springtime Tidbits

Hello Readers!

Some interesting WWI tidbits from around the ether:

Is it true that all ten brothers in the Calpin family of York went to war AND returned alive? It's not the most reliable source, but the Daily Mail has been featuring some intriguing stories of WWI lately and this one really caught my eye. Might warrant some further research:

"Band of TEN Brothers: When the Call Came to Serve..."

Then, on my local public radio station, there were the following excellent programs and series (the first two of which explore counter-factual histories (an interesting genre)) about WWI:

Enjoy and stay tuned for more!


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Love and Filmic Ephemera

"Forget Me Not" WWI decorated needlepoint token. Image from: Needleprint, May 2010.

Happy Valentine's Day to you, dear readers!

I wish you a day on which you feel assured or simply hopeful about love's presence and power in your own life and in a global sense too.

In honor of this holiday, I might direct you to past posts about chocolate and Valentine's postcards or sweetheart brooches.

Today, I'll add to this little collection of sweet treasures a couple of film snippets found in the IWM's online collections. They capture a few moments of WWI-era weddings, whether that of a Canadian officer at St. James's church, Picadilly or that of the 1916 wedding of Field Marshal French's son. I can't seem to upload thumbnails of the videos here, but click on the links and watch, and then come back!

In the first film's case, the bride and groom emerge on the church steps after their ceremony. It is fascinating to notice that, in this early era of "moving pictures," the happy couple and their wedding party are at first quite static, posing for photographs. Then, perhaps prompted by the man behind the movie camera, they launch into (somewhat self-conscious looking) motion, talking and interacting with the flower girls and bridesmaids who hold giant baskets of posies. Clearly, these pleasantries are staged, with darting glances at the cameras indicating the couples' awareness of being on film.

The second wedding is a portion of WWI-era newsreel, only the opening act in a set of footage that includes military operations and geographical documentary. The couple in question, the Honorable John R. L. French and his wife, Olivia, whisk past the cameras in the first few seconds of the reel. He wears his uniform and she is clothed in a veritable cloud of white, veils and dress sailing across the frame and into their car. Lest we feel denied more of an onlooker's pleasure in the happy occasion, we are next presented with a sequence filmed at the groom's family home. We see the newlyweds strolling in the garden with John's mother. While Mr. French looks rather serious and tends to avert his gaze, the new Mrs. French smiles blithely and moves with quite impressive ease in front of the mechanical eye of the camera. Ultimately, they play with pets and walk confidently towards us down a beautiful tree-lined path, as though the stars of a feature film marching right up to the celluloid boundary that separates the viewer's world and theirs.

"We're off to see the Wizard!" © Warner Brothers, image from "I Heart the Talkies."
If the last seconds of the wedding film remind us of something like the above famous film scenes, it is only because of our post-1939 perspective, of course. And yet, by the 1910s, film acting was its own art, and viewers understood a range of tropes as conveyed in this medium (such a topic deserves its own post). Suffice it to say that the happy couple in the French wedding footage, as they walk down that path along with the elder Mrs. French, appear confident, energetic, and perhaps relieved that their time on film is coming to a close.

Weddings on film, as the two WWI-era examples show us, were the modern way to publicize society marriages, something which, in one form or another, was nothing new. And yet, the dynamic sight of a bride sweeping down the church steps all in white or a happy couple together, enjoying the greenery and simple pleasures of a garden, was no doubt a thrill and an encouragement to this particular era's viewers. Other war footage was not far behind (and in fact was joined to the French wedding scenes as part of a larger news program). Thus, these fleeting glimpses of post-ceremony smiles or the swish of veils and skirts would have linked an often tense and unpredictable wartime moment with farther-reaching eras, traditions, and celebrations. Life did go on, and weddings and wartime were not mutually exclusive.

Donald and Flossie Tutt. © The Centre for Kentish Studies
I realize that this post has taken a somewhat serious tack, though Valentine's Day is not usually the most serious holiday in the calendar. But amid all of the candy, cards, gifts, phone calls, joys, and disappointments that this day can bring in all its many forms, these bits of filmic ephemera show us that love conquers all.

© Fiona Robinson

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Happy Burns-/ Birth- day!

Burns' Birthday Celebration poster, 1914. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 10951)

Greetings and a happy new year to you, Readers!

I've just returned from a birthday trip to Los Angeles and am here to share with you this timely and amusing poster marking a "Burns' Birthday" celebration held at London's Royal Albert Hall on January 23, 1915.

Today's treasure (from the IWM's archives) promises a "Grand Scotch Festival and Patriotic Concert" to support the Belgian Relief fund. It is interesting to note that the 18th century Scottish poet's honorary festival was linked in such a fashion to the modern conflict, still new in early 1915. That the event was held in one of the most recognizable of London's Victorian landmarks bridges the space in between, making the concert a connector of three centuries.

Traditionally, Burns's birthday (January 25th) is celebrated with a supper. It begins, according to Wikipedia, with the saying of the "Selkirk Grace," a 17th century prayer that goes like this:

Some have food and cannot eat,
And some would eat that lack it,
But we have food and we can eat,
So let God be thanked. 
This prayer, if said at the 1915 occasion, would have been particularly apt, considering the event's goal of raising money for the Belgian Relief Fund. In 1915, rationing had not yet begun in the United Kingdom (it would not start until 1917), so we might assume that most attendees would not be noticing food shortages. The international Commission for Relief in Belgium, however, was focused on severe food shortages that hit the Belgian populace after the German invasion of 1914. Based in London, it was headed by future U.S. President Herbert Hoover. Financial support from donors enabled the complicated political, diplomatic, and logistical work of the CRB. Ultimately, the commission was able to organize shipments of millions of pounds of food to Belgium over the war years. 

Part of the food items shipped to the starving nation consisted of flour. The sacks in which the precious grain product were sent became both a practical and emotional resource. They were often used for clothing, but many grateful citizens embellished them to express thankfulness and devotion to the nations who had helped them. Here is an example in the Hoover presidential archive:

"Thank you to the American Commission",
Embellished flour sack, 1915 © Hoover Presidential Archives, Item  64.2.202.

The Hoover archive holds an extraordinary collection of these flour sacks, with useful information on this unusual aspect of WWI material culture.

Heading back to the Burns' day festivities at the Royal Albert Hall in 1915, it seems a remarkable affair, with as much pomp and circumstance as could be mustered to honor the Scottish poet and to support Belgian citizens. Though traditional Burns day activities are rather light-hearted, including dancing and the toasting of a haggis with Burns's poem, "Address to a Haggis", the levity of this particular day's music and other aspects would have been tempered with the gravity of purpose and patriotism.

I don't have more information on the performers and groups listed on the poster. I'd like to poke around in the archives and elsewhere online to find out more and, if successful, will post the results!

And with that, we'll sign off and wish you a happy new year and a happy Burns day, should you be celebrating!

© Fiona Robinson

Monday, December 23, 2013

Gearing Up for Christmas

Start of the Officers' Race, 26th Div. Train, ASC on Christmas Day, 1915, Salonika. © IWM Q 31577. 

Greetings, dear Readers! 
Christmas is almost here! I don't know about you, but the above photo of officers springing into action for a holiday race on Christmas day, 1915, evokes many of the feelings this particular modern civilian has about the seasonal rush this year! In honor of Christmas's swift approach, here are some wonderful images from the IWM's Ministry of Information Official Photography Collection

Our ghosts of 1914 are seen enjoying various aspects of the holiday...

from biking camp-ward with the Christmas pudding safely in tow:

An R.E. Motor-cyclist with a Christmas Pudding, Hesdin-St.Pol Road, 17 December 1917. © IWM, Q 8339

to opening the holiday mail bag in hopes of presents and letters from home:
Artillery Officers with their Christmas mail bag. December 1917, © IWM Q 8346

and on the slightly less traditional side, a holiday camel race:
Leisure and entertainment at the Front: The camel race in progress at the Aden Field Force Christmas Sports,
Christmas 1917. © IWM, Item Q 13070.

and back to traditional activities, carving a Christmas turkey 

(doesn't the carver look serious about his important task?):
Carving the turkey in an A.S.C. (26th Division) Officers' mess at Salonika on Christmas Day, 1915. © IWM  Q 31571

Even if you're off to the races at the shops, still filling your Christmas goody bags, or sweating out preparing a sumptuous feast, I hope you're having at least a little bit of holiday fun and enjoying the company of loved ones. 

May you have a merry Christmas and a very happy new year!!


Previous Christmas Posts:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

What to Wear to War: Steel-Helmeted and Teddy Bear-Coated

"Steel-Helmeted and "Teddy Bear"- Coated  British Officers: Ready for the Germans and for Winter
Illustrated War News, 17 Nov 1915.

Greetings, Readers!

A small holiday treat for you today: it doesn't get much better than this assemblage of rather tough-looking officers in their teddy-beariest, right? Though the winter weather in the trenches was a very serious threat, the writers of the Illustrated War News article in which this photo appeared seem not to have been able to resist a little chuckle at the stern faces matched with so much fluffiness. I'm sure it was all in good fun. As is this post.

Happy Holidays!

Monday, November 11, 2013

With Thanks

"Thank you" is our message here at "Ghosts of 1914," on this Veteran's Day, 2013.

Thank you to veterans and to their families. Thanks also to those who help in various ways to acknowledge, support, rehabilitate, and connect to service members past and present.

I asked, in my last post, where the war is. In truth, it (whether you mean a particular past war or just the concept or phenomenon of war) is always with us--it is here. The needs, fears, and hopes of service people a century ago were not so different from those of their contemporaries today. In this way, there is always a connection to the ghosts of 1914. And this connection is a call to thought and action, not just on this day, but all year round.

If you are considering supporting veterans with a donation of time or funds this year, I salute you. If you would like to contribute and are looking for ideas, I can suggest (without formal affiliation to any of the following):

The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, a wonderful organization whose efforts to support soldiers recovering from serious physical and mental injuries are supported by 100% of donations given. Here is their website:

They have a new initiative this year, called "Make it Visible":

This is a project to make the less outwardly apparent traumas of war visible and to focus on the rehabilitation of veterans and service people suffering from traumatic brain injury and/or post-traumatic stress.

As someone whose research has pondered how or where a war manifests in a population, how a society strives alternately to make visible and invisible the wounds of war, I find "Make it Visible" to be a particularly compelling project.

I will close here, with a repeated "Thanks" to service people and to their loved ones. And to the rest of us, remember, remember, the 11th of November...


Links to past 11th November and Remembrance themed posts:


© Fiona Robinson

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Where is the war?

Historical map American Expeditionary Force 1918, by Ezra C. Stiles, cartographer, and Paul C. Bowman, historian, published 1932 by Herbick & Held Printing Co., Pittsburgh PA.
 © Library of Congress , reblogged from "Maps of WWI"

And so I emerge from a long non-blogging phase, dear Readers...

This business of becoming a computer scientist presents formidable challenges and claims upon one's time! My focus is almost constantly on coaxing words and wires, zeroes and ones, into the proper channels these days. Shepherding one's mind through such wholly new fields is a major endeavor.

As a budding programmer, I've come to enjoy the performative nature of coding. The power to make something an instantaneous reality is quite thrilling for someone who, up until recently, had only been the other kind of writer, who carefully tends and marries words and phrases, planting the seeds of what one hopes is, fruitfully, effective prose.

And now here I am I've been asking myself lately...where is the (Great) War? 

A question with what would seem an obvious answer, perhaps. It's back "there," in history, in 1914, '15, '16, '17, '18. But it's before that too, brewing over a course of years and/or decades, and it's most certainly after as well. 

And I'm not only interested in where the war is, in a chronological sense. Where is it, intellectually? Emotionally? Where does its memory exist? What form or forms does it take today? Where are we, in relation to it? 

These are the same questions that prompted me to begin this blog, to "find" the war, in photographs, in trinkets, in medals and ribbons, in uniforms and poetry, in songs, in novels and memoirs. They have also driven my other WWI research projects over the last ten years.

And I find that these queries still occupy my mind, though now perhaps with a different spin, given my recent technological excursions.

In summary, the focus of this blog is still to locate the war, but, perhaps now more programmatically, I want to think about mapping this historical event that, though now past us in a pragmatic temporal sense, now in that great expanse of "nowhere" known as the past (because it is not present), lingers on. Though I may not be the first to say it, the past is ghostly--it haunts the present in the form of objects, memories, texts that we may find in museums, archives, libraries, attics, and in the far reaches of our own or others' minds. It is there.

My slightly revamped focus, thus, is to visualize, to materialize the war, for you and for myself, and to generate maps of this event--whether geographical, political, or other--as it exists today. To that end, I will be coming up with some broad categories of war maps to be used here. And as for the term map, we can think of it as a form of data visualization, with specific points (in the form of objects, individual  accounts of the war, photographs, etc.) plotted in some sort of space that reflects back to us a bigger picture of where this particular set of years and these particular events with which we are concerned here at "Ghosts of 1914", have gone.

If this all sounds like so much academic whimsy to you, your instincts may not be so wrong. Let me assure you, though, that the blog will continue in generally the same format as it has. But I'm going to be focusing additionally on developing a bigger picture, or pictures, and on offering those maps back to you, based on the points that I have plotted. This side of things is somewhat experimental, but it will be a data visualization endeavor undertaken before your eyes, with a goal of weaving into a 21st century web a vast assortment of otherwise (potentially) disconnected objects, people, and memories. It is an effort against "lostness," which, some might argue, is the very point of a blog to begin with!

Anyway, here we are! More to follow.

With thanks for reading,

©Fiona Robinson