‘Digitizing The War Illustrated’ Progress Day Roundup

Our Progress Day gave previous participants the chance to extend their research, as well as a few newcomers the opportunity to explore the archive of The War Illustrated.

TWI cover 8th February 1919

An entirely new topic explored was a popular myth.  Very early in the war, in August of 1914, the Battle of Mons occurred.  While British troops were outnumbered by German soldiers at Mons, the British managed to briefly hold them back, before being forced to retreat. The following month, writer Arthur Machen’s fictional short story, ‘The Bowmen’, was published in a London newspaper. This brought into public imagination the notion that phantom bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt joined the British to fight the Germans, especially as some believed the story to be true. The myth continued into the next year with the beings now envisioned as angels. We searched The War Illustrated for terms relating to this area in the 1914 and 1915 sections. These included ‘Machen’, ‘bowmen’, ‘Mons’ and ‘angel’.  These did not seem to return any relevant results, though further searching for additional terms, like ‘vision’ or ‘spirit’, and in later sections, may be fruitful. However, it may be significant that an article in the 16th of January 1915 issue credited to Arthur Conan Doyle only reports the battle factually. Doyle was a well-known spiritualist, who we might think is likely to have taken the opportunity of advancing the myth. The implication that right is on the side of the British due to these mythical beings is returned to after the war, with the cover of the 8th of February 1919. This places the angel-like winged Victory centrally as she stands on a plinth, surrounded by soldiers representing Britain and its allies.

TWI 6th January 1917

New aspects of previously researched areas, such as weaponry, nationalities, and the cinema, were uncovered. Some in the group had previously researched the roles zeppelins and horses played in the war: https://www.normmanetwork.com/second-digitizing-the-war-illustrated-workshop-roundup/ On the Progress Day, tanks were explored. While these are more often associated with World War II, the first were used by British and French forces during the battle of the Somme in November 1916.  A vivid illustration of a tank with soldiers scrambling over it appears in the 6th of January 1917 issue of The War Illustrated. The novelty of the weaponry is conveyed by the fact that the caption places “tank” in inverted commas. It also tells the story of 500 previously captured German soldiers escaping from the tank (which incidentally seems too small to house such an incredible number).  But the main emphasis is not on the Germans’ achievement, but on the tank’s ability to withstand attack by rifle-butts and bombs. The Germans’ assault is said have had little effect – like ‘Tickling a Rhinoceros’ – and after littering the ground with 300 German corpses, the tank ‘heaved itself up and lumbered on once more’. Like the supposed capacity of the tank, the claim that the tank itself killed 300 of those attempting to escape, seems doubtful. This affords it an almost mythic power we could compare in some way to Machen’s Bowmen at the Battle of Mons.

Depictions of the Irish were also researched. The War Illustrated’s coverage of countries which were Britain’s Allies has previously been seen to be supportive if patronising – those from Belgium, Montenegro, as well as Wales, were ‘plucky’. Likes Wales, Ireland was part of Britain, but the situation was far more complex. Irish Republicans’ call for an end to British Rule in Ireland culminated in the Easter Rising of April 1916. Over this 6-day period, nearly 500 people died in violent clashes between Irish Republicans and the British Army.  The matter of Irish Independence was not returned to until 1918. It is certainly the case that had Ireland gained Independence during World War I this would have had severe implications for British troops. There is also the matter of how this would have been perceived.  The War Illustrated disseminated propaganda to readers in Britain. As so often with the magazine, what was not reported was often as significant as what was published.

TWI Editorial 28th September 1918

The timing of particular features was also commented on. One participant’s project on nursing was augmented by the more recent access to issues from 1918 and 1919. Because The War Illustrated ran from just after the beginning to a few months beyond the war, there were significant changes in the depiction of these women. At the start, the magazine was trying to encourage women, albeit patronisingly, to ‘do their bit’ as this would also equip them with skills useful to wives and mothers. By the close of the war, the magazine had become more appreciative of women taking on nursing as a profession. There was also a series of 4 articles by VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse Olive Dent about her work. These began on the 28th of September 1918 and appeared fortnightly until the 9th of November. The 28th of September column is advertised with a photograph of a uniformed Dent in the Editorial. Interestingly the text comments directly on the contrast between the magazine’s many female readers, and its few female correspondents. It nonetheless opines that writing about the war will remain a task for men, and sees Dent as an exception whose articles will appeal to men and women alike. The first article in the series, perhaps because it is the first, focuses very much on Dent’s response to the outbreak of war, as well as the type of women involved. Dent’s later articles may have looked to the future of the VAD and nursing more generally. But it is perhaps significant at a time when the end of the war was possibly in sight, that while the contribution of women was being acknowledged, it was not necessarily being encouraged further. Women would soon be expected to return to their previous roles.

Given some scholars’ background in Film Studies, cinema was again a topic of interest. Some English film stars who later found success in Hollywood (Ronald Colman, Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, and Herbert Marshall) served with the London Private Regiment. Unfortunately, searching for their names did not return any results in The War Illustrated archive. This led to further exploration of these stars on the very useful Imperial War Museum’s Lives of The First World War website: https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/  This project, which ran from 2014 to 2019,  gathered information from more than 160,000 contributors about those who served on the front line and the home front. This included over 7.7 million life stories, just under 3.2 million facts, and  8000 communities (the linking of individuals to one another for various reasons such as regiment, family, war memorials). The website’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) are especially helpful in describing the project’s methodology. The first step was providing evidence (official sources such as military and family history records, other websites and publications) and then facts (the information contained within the evidence). The website also gives helpful advice about tracing family history:  https://www.iwm.org.uk/research/tracing-your-family-history Briefly, this suggests consulting: service records, casualty  information, medal records, unit and operational histories and social and local history (church records, local newspapers, school and workplace registers). (It notes that some of these records are only available by subscription, though the National Archives and companies as ancestry.co.uk and findmypast.co.uk). It also recommends asking family members for any documents they may have. You can visit its specific guides for different branches of the services: the Army, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy, as well as researching Prisoners of War. In addition, there are links to the IWM War Memorials Register.

Returning to our search for film stars, the Lives of the First World War page on Herbert Marshall includes a link under the Evidence tab to a blog by James Cronan on the National Archives website. Cronan notes that the four men served with the same , 14th,  Battalion of the Private London Regiment, but at different times: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/hollywood-battalion-part-two/  From the information provided there, it seems that Colman was with the regiment in 1914, Rathbone 1915-1916 (https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/hollywood-battalion/), and Rains and Marshall both 1916-17. The Claude Rains page links to several useful communities. The first provides links to 11 stage and screen stars who served in WWI: https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/community/2483  

See also British Actors and Theatrical personnel community: https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/community/5493

and Oscar Winners and Nominees : https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/community/4305

(Very interestingly, the latter includes the less usual mention of a woman – Mary Louisa Whitty, later Dame May Whitty, who was involved in Empire Force Fundraising.)

This inspired us to look at some further context for Noel Whittles, who was a key subject of investigation in our third workshop: https://www.normmanetwork.com/third-digitizing-the-war-illustrated-workshop-roundup/  We looked up Noel’s page on the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War website: https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/lifestory/4725764  Like other entries, Noel’s provided information in the categories of Timeline (Birth, Theatres of War in which Noel served, Awards, Death), Details (Name, Gender, Military Service – ranks and units, Awards), Media (some of Noel’s drawings), Communities (this is blank), Evidence (Medal Index Card), Stories (Noel’s location at particular times – similar to that provided in the Blackadder Goes Forth booklet).

We decided to search for Noel in The London Gazette archive: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/ The newspaper, which subtitles itself ‘The Official Public Record’,  has been published for more than 350 years. For our purposes is of particular interest because it is the ‘bearer of official War Office and Ministry of Defence events, including those ‘mentioned in Dispatches’.  A relevant result was a reference published on the 22nd of June 1915.  This listed Noel and other members of the 19th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers (3rd Salford) who were recently promoted to temporary Second Lieutenants at the same time. (This contrasts to the film stars who were not thought to have actually served together, and helps us gain a wider picture of more than an individual.) The other men were James Goodson Whitehead, Charles Alexander Stiebel, and Carl Cheetham Cressy. We found Charles Alexander Steibel on the IWM’s Lives of the First World War website, possibilities for James Whitehead, though no obvious result for Carl Cheetham Cressy. Once more this shows just how many men fought in the First World War. The fact that, like Noel, his comrades did not appear in the archive of The War Illustrated reinforces this point and the magazine’s purpose – any personal stories are told to illustrate its propagandistic points.

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