War Illustrated

Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old is technically astonishing, but some things about it worry me. One of these is its use of pictures from the magazine War Illustrated, published weekly between September 1914 and February 1919.

I bought some 1916 issues on Ebay recently, and they have made interesting reading.

Each issue contains a summary of the week’s war news, presented positively. This August 1916 issue is typical in its description of progress on the Somme, where the Germans ‘have failed to keep our men back’:

The capture of Delville Wood by our forces and the consequent occupation of a commanding position over the Valley of the Somme towards Bapaume has given us great advantage which we are using to the full.

There is much talk of German ‘frightfulness’:

The Germans hope, by heaping horror on horror and slaughter on slaughter, to sicken us of the war. Every week now their position grows worse.

Inside the magazine a long article describes the fighting near Bazentin, and a background piece explains how the simple faith of the Russian soldier will carry him to victory.

But the main attraction of the magazine, as its name implies, is in the illustrations. These are of two kinds. There are photographs from various fronts, showing soldiers preparing for war or coming back from it. We see them in camp, and heading for battle, whether on foot, on bicycle or on horseback. Belgian soldiers stand by their guns; British soldiers man a Lewis gun in captured German trenches; the Black Watch play their pipes. Two interesting photos show soldiers behaving well to German prisoners. Gordon Highlanders take a German on a stretcher towards medical attention; and a British sergeant supervises a rather staged-looking photo of prisoners being served tea.

These photos give the aura of authenticity (and for us today are a useful documentary source for seeing what the war actually looked like ) – but I suspect that they were not the illustrations that most attracted readers.

There is another kind of picture, of the kind featured on the magazine’s cover, and at intervals throughout the paper.

These are monochrome pictures, lithographs, I think, depicting vividly imagined war-scenes, usually scenes of considerable violence.

The cover picture is typical. It shows a valiant Briton in mid-action, scattering the enemy in Delville Wood. It is drawn with considerable technical skill; the figures are convincingly drawn in dramatic attitudes, with a very skilful use of highlighting and foreshortening to enhance the drama. It is a moment in battle, a snapshot of action, but a picture of the type that cameras of the time (with their long exposures) could never take. It is a picture that imagines the action that war photographers would never get close to.

I don’t know who drew this actual cover, but War Illustrated’s most notable artist was Stanley L. Wood (1867-1928). After a rackety childhood, Wood became a successful book illustrator in the 1890s, and several of his paintings were chosen for exhibition at the Royal Academy. He specialised in scenes of action and war; his Surrender Under Protest: An Incident in the Matabele War was in the Academy exhibition in 1897. He produced many striking images of colonial war (for The Boy’s Own Paper and Chums and such, but for the Illustrated London News too, I think, and was particularly brilliant at showing horses in action.

In the Great War he used his talents to show things that the camera could not (including things that did not happen, or did not happen in quite that way…)

He was unashamedly propagandist. In that same issue, with the photos of German prisoners being treated well, there is this emotive full-page image, of a British officer being deliberately set up in the line of fire by laughing Germans:

Once again, it is a very skilful image. The angle of view puts our eyes in line with the British officer’s, sharing his peril and sense of exposure, while the grinning Germans seem like malicious dwarves. The picture recalls a crucifixion, not only in the officer’s bowed, accepting head, but in the barbed wire that suggests the crown of thorns, and the bit of plank that seems ready to serve as a notice like the INRI that was attached to Jesus.

Whichever War Illustrated artist drew this picture, I doubt that he was being deliberately dishonest. This kind of atrocity story was widely believed at the time, and the artist doubtless believed the story as he gave it life and form. These are pictures that confirm and reassure. The remind us of what everyone in Britain knew during the War, that British troops were righteous, that the enemy was despicable, and that the cause was just.

They are excellent evidence for the student of British wartime attitudes. But they are not good evidence for what the war was actually like.

So why is it the sensational images from this Jingoistic magazine that Peter Jackson uses in They Shall Not Grow Old? It’s because he faced the same problem as the publishers of the magazine. The war films that he used and so lovingly restored were like the photographs that appeared in War Illustrated. Excellent documentary evidence for everything about the war – except for the actual experience of battle. Cameraman Geoffrey Malins and his associates did capture some actual footage of battle – but from a distance, rather obscurely. This would not be satisfactory for an audience brought up on Lord of the Rings films and Marvel.

So he goes to War Illustrated and gives us, in dramatic montage, the war as it was in the melodramatic imagination of Stanley L. Wood and his colleagues. This does the job of showing that the fighting was bloody and vicious. It is inaccurate, though, in suggesting that most of it was hand-to-hand combat. Wood and his colleagues needed to get a whole story into a one-page panel, so combatants are always close together. Rifle and bayonet are the preferred death-dealing weapons (whereas in actuality heavy artillery accounted for most casualties).

So for all the wonder of Jackson’s film (and the moment when old movie stock comes alive in colour is one of the most beautiful effects in modern cinema) I can’t help but feel that he underestimated his audience – thinking that they needed century-old sensationalism to pad out the dignified documentary. Couldn’t there have been another way?


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted June 3, 2020 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    This is absolutely fascinating, George. It’s measured, informative, thoughtful, educational and so clearly written. Thank you!

  2. Steve Paradis
    Posted June 5, 2020 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I felt much the same way. It might have been better to use the accounts of the soldiers with creative use of existing photographs, the way Ken and Ric Burns did in their documentary series “The Civil War”. Or just acknowledge the fact that some things can’t be portrayed accurately.

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