Saturday, June 28, 2014

The first Ghosts of 1914...

Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie leave Sarajevo City Hall on June 28, 1914.
© JU Muzej Sarajevo/Washington Post/Reuters

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 28 1914, in Sarajevo. This was the day, a century ago, when the world began hurtling towards the Great War. Though the conflict would not begin officially until August, we might say that the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, were the first Ghosts of 1914.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, has held a fantastic Twitter reenactment of the assassination today, related from the perspective of a journalist who was there at the time. You can review their posts from today here:

The Archduke and Sophie shortly before the assassination, June 28, 1914
© IWM (Q 79761)

There are many other resources for those seeking more about what happened on this dreaded day, one hundred years ago. A selected few, for those new to this history and for seasoned sleuths:

There is also news of the centenary observations, some of which have provoked serious controversy due to the persistent instability that WWI brought to Eastern Europe.

And for those of us who wonder what might have been, had this day's ancestor (June 28, 1914) been no more remarkable to us today than any other, several writers have written or explored alternate histories. These are just a few:

There is something so compelling about asking what our world would be like if, at the conclusion of that day in Sarajevo, the car bearing the Archduke and his party had simply returned to the train station in Sarajevo and nothing more of deep significance had been recorded. We'd like to think that the millions of Great War casualties would never have happened, that so many lives cut short or  harmed by the four years of strife and its aftermath could have remained untouched, undisturbed, and that a gentler course of history might have run peacefully through the first decades of the twentieth century. Perhaps this could have happened. But I think the most useful aspect of such dreams of a peaceful 1914-1918 is the waking from them, with eyes open to modern conflict and searching for the way to peace.


© Fiona Robinson

Monday, June 16, 2014

Carrier Pigeons and Tweeting: oh, what a digital war!

Cher Ami, an heroic U.S. Army Signal Corps carrier pigeon.
Washington DC: The Smithsonian Museum

Hello, friends.

I have a feeling that our Ghosts of 1914 would not be so taken aback to find that, as we approach the centennial anniversary of the Great War's start, our relationship to the war can now be (and may be primarily) digitally mediated. We've gone from carrier pigeons, like the brave and beautiful Cher Ami, who risked HER life to save hundreds of soldiers (and whom I saw on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History on a recent jaunt to Washington DC),  to Twitter.

The other day, it struck me that this is probably the first war, and certainly the first major global conflict, whose one hundredth anniversary could become so digital. As 1914-1918's digital renaissance takes on further zeroes and ones, it is fitting, I think, to consider the  novel technological ways in which we can invite the Ghosts of 1914 to become part of our lives--our awareness, our everyday existence. 

On that note, the good folks at an exciting multimedia history education project, hstry, have shared with me that they are having a most interesting event later this month: a reenactment of Franz Ferdinand's 1914 assasination on Twitter. Here are the details:

hstry: Franz Ferdinand's Assasination Relived on Twitter!

What's more, hstry's blog will be featuring stories from a journey through WWI family history. Stay tuned for that!

While I'm delighted and intrigued at hstry's Twitter reenactment, don't be surprised to hear more on our avian Ghost of 1914, Cher Ami, quite soon...


© Fiona Robinson

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Lives of the First World War Project

Had to pause studying for finals to post this exciting news:

The IWM has just launched their incredible Lives of the First World War project!

On the project website, they say:

Imperial War Museums needs you to help piece together the Life Stories of more than 8 million men and women who made a contribution during the First World War.

How could I resist such a call to duty? Looking forward to getting started soon and I hope you'll join the ghosts of 1914 in this exciting endeavor! More of my own posts will arrive here at the blog soon too.


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: