Monday, October 31, 2011

Haunted Homefront: A Seance with the Spiritualists (Part I)

As it is Halloween today, I wanted to offer a couple of images that, for a few years now, have been deeply important to my dissertation. Be forewarned: they are odd and perhaps alarming, but nonetheless vital documents in the history of the British Great War experience. They are spirit photographs, taken by the medium Ada Emma Deane. Deane set up her camera and took the photographs during the two minutes of silence observed on Armistice Day in London. When the photographs came to light, they created a sensation, for they appeared to depict ghostly fallen soldiers hovering over the crowd standing solemnly by the Whitehall Cenotaph. The images elicited both gratitude and outrage among the British populace. Although her work instigated invasive press inquiries and expos├ęs, Deane  never disclosed her methods of creating the images and maintained that they were real. She continued to take spirit photos on Armistice Day throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. To this day, she remains a figure of controversy in British photography, spirituality, and cultural history.

Ada Emma Deane. Armistice Day Spirit Photograph, 1922. Barlow Collection, British Library.

Ada Emma Deane. Armistice Day Spirit Photograph, 1923. Barlow Collection, British Library.

While we in academic circles don't typically wade too deep into the world of the occult, or at least talk about our private excursions therein, I have made it my project to bring the work of Ada Emma Deane, Sir Oliver Lodge, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, into dialog with their modernist counterparts. My wish is not to dull the edges of the Spiritualists' very provocative images and texts by dragging them through the sands of scholarly criticism. Rather, I believe that in order to understand any work of literature or art, we must plunge ourselves fully and enthusiastically--might I even add, recklessly?--into the world in which that work first lived. And, lucky for me, given my proclivity for wholehearted intellectual plunges, the world of Great War-era Britain happens to include the amazing Spiritualists.

Today I place Ada Deane's incredible spirit photos of the Armistice Day observances in the little virtual scrapbook that is "Ghosts of 1914." There is much more to say about these haunting and haunted images and related artifacts from literature and art (and I will do so). Deane's photos did not and do not affect everyone in the same way--what some perceived as a welcome and moving message from the dead was for others a scandalous and offensive trick. Here, I'd simply like to grant them space and recognition as artifacts of the immensely multifaceted experiences of the British populace during and after the war, and as examples of the equally multitudinous artistic response to the war.

© Fiona Robinson

Sources and further reading:

Deane images at "Spiritualism Link":

"The Mediumship of Ada Emma Deane"

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Case for Spirit Photography. London: Hutchinson, 1920.

Jolly, Martyn. Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography. London: Mark Batty, 2006.

Kaplan, Louis. The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer. U of MN Press: 2008.

Wikipedia: "Armistice Day":

Wikipedia: "The Cenotaph, Whitehall":

Wikipedia: "Oliver Lodge":

Wikipedia: "Arthur Conan Doyle: Spiritualism":

Sunday, October 30, 2011

India in Flanders Field: Colonial Experience in WWI (Part I)

My last post about tea, which concluded with a promise for more about tea, war, and empire, got me  thinking about Indian colonial subjects whose labor would have supplied the tea served on the front and also about the Indian soldiers in the British Army who served in France, Belgium, and in other fronts during World War One. India's contribution to the Great War, though not insignificant by any measure, does not receive the attention that it ought. While it would be beyond presumptuous for me to attempt to redress this situation in a single post, I can and will cover manageable snippets of the history of India and the Great War as a regular feature of this blog.

Where to begin? Perhaps some basics, to start. The Britain of the Great War era had a massive imperial presence in the world. India was a nation under British imperial rule at this time, as it had been since the nineteenth century (in part as a result of the presence and operations, since the eighteenth century, of the British East India Company).
Indian Troops in Marseilles. Postcard, ca. 1914.
When war broke out in 1914, the British Indian Army had been in existence for several decades, though it had been through a few major transformations. It was formalized as a military body just before turn of the twentieth century. There were British-born and Indian-born troops in the army. When Lord Kitchener became Commander-in-Chief, India, in 1902, he instituted reforms, creating hierarchies and categorizations to organize the forces. The "Army of India" created by Kitchener was thus made up of the "British Army in India" (British troops posted temporarily to India) and the "Indian Army" (Indian-born troops recruited by the British and British officers permanently stationed in India).

Douglas Fox-Pitt. Indian Army Wounded in Hospital in the Dome, Brighton. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 323)

India sent 140,000 troops to the Western battle fronts during the Great War. Troops in the Indian Corps would also be moved to and serve in the Middle East, beginning in 1915. By Armistice Day, there were over 47,000 Indian Army members dead or missing, and over 65,000 injured.

So there you have some introductory factoids about India's presence on the battlefronts of the Great War. By no means is this a small or simple history to relate, but I will be posting more about its particular aspects in future. As the posters that I feature here suggest, there was, clearly, a British Indian homefront (which will be the subject of my next India post) in the Great War. Its identity, resources, and agency were essential to colonial rule, and, more specifically, to British victory in this conflict. How that homefront was defined and how it fit into the larger scheme of the British experience of war will be fascinating to investigate next time at "Ghosts of 1914."

© Fiona Robinson


Sources and further reading:

Lord Kitchener biography:

"For the King-Emperor: The Indian Army During the Edwardian and Georgian Eras, 1901-47"

"Participants from the Indian Subcontinent in the First World War"

British Empire and Commonwealth Museum and their related Images of Empire site:

Wikipedia: British Indian Army

Wikipedia: British East India Company

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Teatime in the Trenches

Nestle's Milk Poster, 1918. Brown University Collections.
It occurred to me, as I was reading Geoffrey Malins's memoir of filming the Great War, that he mentions  teatime quite often. How on earth, I've been wondering, did anyone in the British Army have tea under the conditions of trench warfare? And, more specifically, the avowed milk-taker in me has to ask: did they have milk to put in it?

Tea is a frequent motif for Malins--it is both a comforting brew and a regularizing feature of the military routine. At one moment, he recounts dodging shellfire and mustard gas,  getting "back to H.Q. [headquarters]...just in time for tea" (132), as though settling comfortably into an armchair and accepting a steaming china cup after a busy day at the office. Another time, however, he escapes a bombardment by diving into a dug-out, in his rush "upset[ting] a canteen of tea over a bucket-fire which one of our lads was preparing to drink" (147). Minutes later, after another shelling that has sent "dirt and rubble pour[ing]" over him as he lay flat in the trench, Malins sees that the men "for the loss of whose tea I was responsible" have been killed (147). Tea never to be drunk creates a terrible pathos in this scene, but Malins cannot linger before it and must move to a safer location.
"Tea Tabloids," Burroughs and Wellcome Co., ca. 1900. The Wellcome Library, London.
Back to the more practical side of tea history. Tea was definitely an essential on the front, and soldiers did drink lots of it. Above, I place an image of "tea tabloids," which were small compressed tablets of tea that could be placed in boiling water. A tin of such pellets, whatever their failings, (one can only imagine that their flavor and strength left much to be desired) was compact, could be kept dry, and was easily shipped and carried in a soldier's pack. And soldiers had regular packets of tea too, much like we still use today. For the creative anachronists out there, I might add, Tommy's Pack Fillers offers amazingly convincing reproductions of everything for a Great War soldier's pack, including tea!

She never carried any of the laden trays herself, but she saw to it that no man missed his mug of steaming tea...
 --E.M. Delafield, The War Workers, 1918.

Clare Atwood. Christmas Day in the London Bridge YMCA Canteen, 1920. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3062)

On the homefront, tea was also an essential comfort and tradition. Women war workers ran Red Cross canteens at which vast amounts of tea were served to soldiers on leave. Clare Atwood's painting, above, gives you an idea of the hustle-bustle of a YMCA canteen, where tea was brewed in massive quantities for tired soldiers.

To my relief, the answer to the question of whether there was milk for tea in the trenches is "yes." Condensed milk, evaporated milk, and milk tabloids made it possible for soldiers to have milky tea or cocoa if they could boil water. While it was not always top of mind amid the devastation of the battlefield, tea was a small beacon of comfort, sustenance, warmth, and normalcy for many. That it is mentioned so frequently in Malins's account, for example, indicates its importance as a drink and an institution on the front.

Not to be overlooked is tea's imperial nature and the complications that are created by the fact of its being gathered and processed in the hands of colonial subjects in India to fuel tired British bodies on the front and to sustain a British populace at home. More on tea, war, and empire to come.

I love tea and its history, so you may rest assured that it will be teatime at "Ghosts of 1914" again soon. Until then, I raise a "cuppa" to you and wish you good cheer.

© Fiona Robinson


Sources and further reading:

Malins, Geoffrey. How I Filmed the War. London: Imperial War Museum Department of Printed Books, 1993 (orig. 1920).

Tommy's Pack Fillers: British Great War Period Reproductions
Tea Tabloids, Burroughs and Wellcome Co., ca 1900. Wellcome Library, London.
Delafield, E.M. The War Workers. New York: Knopf, 1918.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

For the Creative Anachronist: What to Wear to War (Part I)

In honor of Halloween's approach, I thought I would write a bit about the look of a Great War soldier or woman volunteer. The possibilities for such a look are almost impossible to contain--there were simply multitudes of uniforms for men and women in the First World War, depending on gender, role, location, peacetime occupation, service corps or military regiment, and rank. I must be brief, however, so I will touch lightly today on a few instances of Great War dress, although I may return to the topic later.

First, some resources. This seems like a useful place to start:

The many regiments within the British Army had their own particular uniforms and identifying marks. For instance, consider the uniform of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders vs. that of the Royal Field Artillery:
Thomas Curr. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 1914. Poster, IWM. ©IWM, Item Art.IWM PST 12148.
Gunner John Phelps Williams.B Battery, 108 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, 1916. IWM, Item HU 93576.

High ranking British Army Officers were a dashing silver-templed lot:

John Singer Sargent. General Officers of World War I. 1922. National Portrait Gallery, London.

The above is a stunning piece that hangs on its very own wall at the NPG in London. A fact, over which I still cannot get, is that it is a composite image (another of my favorite things, to be dealt with later). There was no one occasion on which all of these officers stood before Sargent as they appear in the portrait, but there they are, captured for posterity as though a collective body symbolized visually by the broad line of khaki that stretches from one end of this massive painting to the other.

Now, for a glimpse of women's service uniforms, there is this lovely painting at the Imperial War Museum:
Edmund Dulac. The Sisters, 1917. ©IWM, Item Art.IWM ART 2509.
The three women in Dulac's work represent, according to the IWM's information, a Land Army servicewoman, a nurse, and a munitions worker. Three roles in which women served during the war, whether on the homefront or abroad. These, of course, are not the only womens' jobs and uniforms that existed, nor are all details captured. For example, a nurse's uniform had many specific elements and was quite different depending on her role within the hospital.

This is just a brief dip into the wide pool of possibility for Great War uniforms. Consider it a tiny, manageable, snippet of the broad and sometimes intimidating swath of war-era British sartorial history. There will be other snippets, more bits and bobs, to add to this one, but until then, I bid you happy costuming and a happy Halloween.

© Fiona Robinson


Sources and Further Reading:

At the National Portrait Gallery:

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Great War's Moving Picture Man

Let me begin by saying that I am not a writer, I am just a "movie man," as they called me out there.
                                                                 --Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins, How I Filmed the War, 1920. 

Another incredible figure from the war and cinema files: Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins, who was one of the British War Office's official "Kinematographers." From reading his extraordinary account, How I Filmed the War, which was published in 1920, it became clear to me that Malins felt immense responsibility both to Britons on the front and at home. He describes himself as being obligated to make the war real for those who have no firsthand access to it, and as being similarly charged with recording this cataclysmic experience for posterity. Thus, he had a duty to his country and somehow also to the war as an historical event.

Malins's sense of history unfolding around him is quite evident. He is aware of the role that he and his camera play in creating that history, furthermore, in 'making' the war in cinematic form. Although he rarely waxes deeply theoretical about his work, Malins was dedicated to capturing imagery and incident at all costs. His revelation of the dangers that he faced is striking and unsettling. Reading of his many treacherous ordeals and bitter hardships, it is hard for us to imagine his experience. For Malins too, it was difficult sometimes to maintain a sense of reality. Hearing soldiers singing Christmas carols amid the sound of guns and the hectic light of "star-shells" on Christmas evening, 1915, Malins writes that it  was hard to believe that "we were in the terrible throes of war" (64). And his encounters with "scenes" (unsurprisingly, a favorite term) of devastation seem to press past his ability to describe them in words or images. There are times, furthermore, when Malins's light touch on his drastic conditions make me wonder whether I'm not actually reading a P.G. Wodehouse story about (the incomparable) Jeeves and Wooster instead.

Malins in action amid the action

Malins's filming had to navigate a middle ground between the innocence of those at home who knew nothing of the war's true horror and the almost indescribable destruction and tragedy of the battlefields. The lens of his camera was directed at what lay immediately before him but also at the broader horizons of history, and Malins was under considerable pressure to film the war that the British government wanted the civilian populace to see. While his footage testifies to some of the visual realities of the front,  creating the portrait of a crisis, his memoir reinstates the man behind the movie camera. It allows us to perceive the more individualized emotional and physical experiences of an "Official War Office Kinematographer."

© Fiona Robinson

Sources and Further Reading

Malins's memoir, print version
Malins, Geoffrey H. How I Filmed the War: A Record of the Extraordinary Experiences of the Man Who Filmed the Great Somme Battles, etc. London: Imperial War Museum Department of Printed Books, 1999 (orig. published 1920).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ghost of 1918

A title from "The Life Story of David Lloyd George," 1918.
In tracing the relationship between modernist and popular biography in the war years and after, I've been working a lot on ways in which Britons tried to refashion the life writing genre at this time. New Biographers (British modernists working on life writing) looked to newer media (film, photography, radio) of the day for inspiration, some feeling that a cinematic approach was the most fitting way to depict a subject. But can text successfully emulate other media? Can it borrow the qualities of film, for example? This is a big question in general, but within the scope of my project, I am interested in biographers who imagined ways of writing lives that felt more lifelike or of (re)creating more human subjects. And, in considering film and life narratives of this era, I would be remiss in forgetting Maurice Elvey's "The Life Story of David Lloyd George," an incredible early British biopic (perhaps the first?) that, though filmed in 1918, was lost for decades until a copy--the copy--was found in Wales in 1994. After restoration, it premiered in 1996.

David Lloyd George (1863-1945), Prime Minister of the U.K. from 1916-1922.

Being someone interested in ghosts (more on that later), I can't help but be fascinated by the fact that this film's original, intended, audience, were a company of ghosts by the time the first frames of Elvey's film were at last projected onto a screen, when the figure of young Lloyd George finally flickered into existence in a darkened theater. His cinematic, biographic, "birth" thus took place too late for Britons of 1918 to have lived to see it--how strangely ironic! The film, which I was lucky enough to see at Yale a couple of years ago, is somewhat sentimental, not exactly New Biographical in nature. It takes a propagandist approach to Lloyd George and traces, as many traditional biographies are wont to do, his 'destiny' as a great British leader from earliest childhood. Narrative in these sorts of life stories is regarded as a structure completely sound and coherent, a sealed arc whose endpoint is clearly charted on the day of its beginning. The lack of innovation in this regard, however, is unsurprising, as Lytton Strachey's groundbreaking quartet of biographies, Eminent Victorians, would only make its appearance and begin to revolutionize the textual biographic genre in 1918. Whatever its nature and intentions, the film was suppressed before its release under what the UK's Moving History calls "mysterious" circumstances. Thought to have been destroyed, the film lingered in a state of suspended animation for nearly eighty years.

As an early biopic--perhaps the very earliest--"The Life Story of DLG" remains fascinating and its attempt to capture a life narrative in cinematic form, to map the will-o'-the-wisp aspects of any person's earthbound journey onto the progressing frames of film, as well as this particular film's own death and rebirth, are definitely worth exploring.

© Fiona Robinson

Sources and Further Reading:
"The Life Story of David Lloyd George" title image and film information:
National Library of Wales (where the original film resides):[tt_news]=2185&cHash=63a1e8312e179d37b7af26e5d8d574d9

Image of DLG:

Kenneth O. Morgan, George, David Lloyd, first Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor (1863–1945), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 [, accessed 21 Oct 2011]

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The beginning...

Hello world,
This is the beginning of my new First World War research blog, "Ghosts of 1914." I am a Yale University graduate student completing a Ph.D. dissertation on British life and history writing of the Great War era. This project was born out of a love of the material, textual, and cultural artifacts that I have encountered in my work on the relationship between individual and national narratives of a modern crisis. I am a bookish creature whose native habitat comprises libraries, archives, and museums. My blog is meant to be a cabinet of curiosities and wonders--some possessed of strange beauty, others marked by poignant tragedy. I hope to share with you some of my passion for the history of the Great War and what it can teach us, who live in an era of conflict ourselves, about the experience and costs of combat. It is my hope that studying war will teach us to love and seek peace.

© Fiona Robinson