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"In Front of the Cinematograph" An anecdote from the Anglo-Boer War

Some studies have recently been published on the cinematograph and the Boer War. Here is an anecdote which may add to our understanding of this then-new phenomenon which was to become increasingly popular in the years to follow. The story was written by a French journalist, Maurice Normand, for the popular magazine L'Illustration, published on 24 February 1900 (issue no. 2974). It shows the beginning of the cinema industry, and also depicts the way French public opinion supported the Boers and loathed the mighty British army. Finally it gives an in-depth look at the mentalities of the time, the reactions of people to things which were so new to them and are so common to us, and a delicate flavour of what life in Paris may have been like during the Great Exhibition. The title of the article is 'Devant le Cinématographe' (In Front of the Cinematograph). It is translated from French:

'Delia Flaherty, a pretty Irish girl hired as a maid during the Great Exhibition by a grand Parisian hotel, had received from Jerry Kilcourse, her lover, sergeant in the 3rd Royal Irish Fusiliers, a letter which said.

"... We have landed this morning in Durban. As we got out on the pontoon, there was a photographer with a big camera which worked without stopping. It was said that this photographer was taking the portrait of all of us, while we were landing. Lieutenant Burns told me these portraits would be exhibited in music halls in London and paris, and that all our movements will be reproduced in front of ht the as if we were on stage. It seems to me that nobody will be interested in such a vulgar thing, except for our wives and friends we have left in Europe.

As they got in front of the photographer, the soldiers enjoyed making funny poses or comic expressions. Some waved, others were pushing each other and a lot were making comic faces, all were laughing. If you see in Paris, my dear Delia, these living portraits of the battalion, you will hardly recognise my friend Patrick Mahooney. As for Denis O'Harra, he thought funny to cock his snook.

As for myself, as I had been warned by the Lieutenant, I though you might be able to see this landing of the Harwarden Castle, and that it would please you to see me with an expression that shows I still think about you. As I got in front of the photographer I stopped a second so as my photograph to be better. And I sent a kiss for you.

Be careful. When O'Harra has cocked his snook, I came third after him. The kiss I have sent before touching African ground is for your my darling. It is said that the photographer is going to come with us all the way to Pretoria and that he will photograph us even during battles. I will try to get in front of him again..."

This is why Delia Flaherty, who had her evening off, had come to the Alhambra on the Boulevard Haussmann, although it was not a proper place for a young, nice and distinguished Irish Lady's maid, engaged to a sergeant of the Queen.

On the poster of the Alhambra, she had read these words: War in the Transvaal, and below Episodes reproduced from reality in the cinematograph. A list of the episodes followed among which: Landing of Irish Soldiers in Natal.

Hence Delia had taken a seat near the stage and paid five francs to be in the front row. The first part of the show had been very long for her. Then at eleven thirty, the electric lights are turned off. A tightly stretched white cloth curtain falls down in front of the stage. A man in a black suit comes forward and announces "It is going to be our privilege to let you see the most interesting scenes of the Transvaal War, we shall start with 'A Boer Commando on the move'"

And while the spectators frantically cheer, the Boer riders, the butts of their rifles resting on their thighs, each wearing a slouched hat and a cartridge belt slung across the shoulder, with a pipe in the mouth, parade on the cloth.

Then the announce starts again: "departure from Portsmouth of a transport ship with English soldiers bound for South Africa."

This time hisses and boos welcome the appearance of the moving picture.

Without understanding these reactions, without even hearing them, Delia remembers the departure she witnessed in Southampton nearly three months ago. It was the same crowd on the pier. Small boats crowded with people sliding along the sides of the transport ships. On the deck the same cramming in of soldiers, the same farewells, the same waving of handkerchiefs.

After a "President Kruger paying an official visit", which was loudly cheered by the public, the man in black clothes says, "Irish soldiers landing in Natal."

Delia's heart started beating faster: what if she was to see the landing of other soldiers than the Royal Irish Fusiliers? Surely a lot of identical photographs were probably taken in Durban ... but suddenly the black and white picture appeared. In the foreground there were a lot of soldiers rushing on the deck to get down on land. Immediately the Irish girl recognised Jerry's battalion. Yet the Khaki uniform had standardised the appearance of all the Queen's soldiers, whether they be Irish, Scottish, Welsh or form an English county. But Delia cannot be wrong. She can see a lot of familiar faces: she saw them on parade, or in Southampton on the day of the departure. She can not put a name on these faces, but they undoubtedly belong to the 3rd Royal Irish Fusiliers.

As Jerry had written, most soldiers make a face and consequently seem to poke fun at the spectators who react violently by booing and hissing. Delia does not pay any attention to them, she looks attentively at the screen. Here comes Dennis O'Harra cocking his snook. Two more to go ... one, two... the third one is Jerry. What a good idea he had to stop! Everybody can see him. He brings his hand to his mouth staring right in front of him. Than his right hand goes forward, his fingers are rounded. It is his own way to send a kiss.

Delia is breathless. The others have pushed him and suddenly he disappears from the lit rectangle. Delia shuts here eyes so as to keep the vivid picture in mind. A woman's voice behind her says "at last a handsome boy." Delia would like to turn around and say, "that's my Jerry"

She starts dreaming, thinking she would come back in the following evening. She wonders whether she could find another cinematograph in Paris which would show Jerry Kilcourse perhaps fighting the Boers.

Suddenly some applause brings her attention back to the lit screen. Around a cannon some men are fighting. Dalia Flaherty remembers Jerry's sentence about the photographer: "It is said he will come with us and will photograph us even in battle..." She sees the cannon shooting although there is no noise, and then disappears. What will the next picture be? The announcer answers... "A Boer battery attacked by British troops who die to the last."

Up a hill, the spot where a battery stands is marked by a rudimentary blockhouse. Some soldiers sprint from the bottom of the hill and start climbing the slope. To Delia they appear to be Irishmen. But how can one be sure with these khaki clothes? One of the attackers has Jerry's looks and size. He even walks like him. He seems to be looking towards where the photographer stands which is what Jerry had said he would do. Is it Jerry? Another looks like Dennis O'Harra...

Suddenly small clouds of smoke come up from behind the rocks. Some of the soldiers open their arms and fall. Others seem to hesitate, aim, but seeing nothing, stop aiming and start forward again. Delia still follows the one that looks like Jerry. She is more and more convinced that it is him. Is she going to see his face? No, he is too far away.

... What is the matter with him? He hesitates, drops his gun and sits down. The big rock up there is once again crowned with a little bit of smoke. The Boers have fired again while hiding - such a bunch of cowards! - And a bullet silent and invisible, has hit the soldier who looks like Sergeant Jerry Kilcourse. He is lying on the ground. He doesn't move anymore. He is just a black spot on the side of the hill, on top of which the bearded Boers appear and down all the remaining British soldiers.

Delia has another vision of what a war was. The word battle evoked to her some kind of scrum identical to that you find in a football match. She had never through it could be so quiet and treacherous. She was shattered by the scene she had just witnessed. As long as this is the way a battle is fought, Jerry hasn't got many chances not to get wounded or killed than any other soldier.

And she thinks that he has just been mortally wounded in front of her eyes.

The screen turns blank again, the nightmare vanishes "I must be mad thought Delia; it couldn't have been him." Yet she was disturbed. She would like to see the scene again.

"We shall end tonight", said the strong voice of the announcer, with "After a battle, an English ambulance"

In front of a big tent, above which there is a flag with a cross on it, some women dressed in white are taking care of wounded British soldiers. Delia Flaherty is becoming more and more anxious. She thinks herself over in Natal, in the valleys where the war goes on. She imagines herself taking care of the wounded. She would help them and perhaps would see Jerry coming towards her, held by two friends like the one on the screen who desperately tries to walk by himself but can't. He is visibly suffering. His head is leaning on the side like that of Christ. And now Delia thinks she recognises the soldiers she looks for Jerry. He must have been picked up on top of the hill. But as Delia is carefully trying to see if it is Jerry everything vanishes and the curtain goes down. "No, No," she cries. She puts her hand in front of her face and bursts into tears while the orchestra plays a military march.

Her neighbours surround her with attention. Everybody rushes to see what the matter is.

- What is going on?
- A young woman is ill
- A nervous breakdown?
- No, she is a married woman who came to keep a close eye on her husband and who saw him leaving with a girl...

Everyone is talking. Delia is questioned but would not answer. She finally says a few words: "Jerry, Jerry, who will me if it is truly yourself?" The sentence in English, even for those who do not understand it is a revelation. In a second the news spreads in the theatre that an English woman has recognised her brother, her husband, her lover among the wounded soldiers that the cinematograph has just shown.

- Are you sure?
- It's atrocious
- I would have jumped on the stage.
- What an amazing invention indeed.

These are the consequences one never thinks about when such things are cinematographed.

Believe me sir all the governments are alike. They don't bother to let us decently learn the death of those they have sent to get killed. They expect the cinematograph will give us the terrible news.

It's a shame

- How could she recognise him, we couldn't even see their faces?
- Well done! says a spectator with an ironical tone. This little comedy is well prepared! If after the public is not convinced that the cinematograph of the Alhambra has not been to the Transvaal, it means he really is not a fool.

No one can obviously doubt the sincerity of Delia's tears. The sceptical spectator becomes aware of it.

- Madame, he asks, are these tears caused by the show you have just seen?

She said yes.

- Then Madame, you must stop crying immediately. Don't you realise the soldiers you saw were mere actors? These scenes were not cinematographed in Africa. It was a bad pantomime played in Paris itself, at the Buttes-Chaumont. I can show you the place. Do you really think that photographers would take pictures under hails of bullets and cannon balls? A complete battle does not take place on such a small scale. Think a while and stop crying because an actor who happens to have your husband's or your brother's features, has pretended to be dead.

Delia looks incredulously at the man.

- Thank you very much sir, you are so kind. But I do know these pictures come from Natal. My fiancé himself wrote to me that his battalion was cinematographed while landing. He told a way which would enable me to recognise him and I did.

- Well perhaps for the landing .. it is possible. But I assure you that for the rest ...

Suddenly the manager of the Alhambra appeared. He was a middle-aged man. He asks what the matter is and politely but firmly asks Delia Flaherty to leave. But then people tell him what has been revealed about the fake battle and ask for confirmation or denial.

The manager hesitates a second and, conscious of his duty, he says: "Even to prevent a person form suffering, I cannot lie. The proof that what has been shown in stage is, unfortunately, this lady's misfortune."

Then while everybody leaves, commenting the event, he takes Delia out by an emergency door, calls a cab for her, helps her in and asks what address she must be taken to.

- Hotel de Cambridge et de Heidelberg, answers the maid.

The following day, Delia received a long letter from Jerry in which he stated that he got ill a week after having landed, and had been sent on a hospital-ship. He was now well, but had not fought and would not as he was to be shipped back home soon.

On the same day, all the newspapers in Paris told the story of the poor English lady who had witnessed the death in South Africa of someone she knew. They said it was not surprising as the cinematographed scenes at the Alhambra was genuine. It was a tragic coincidence.

It is difficult to know whether Maurice Norman reported an actual event, or if it was just a made up story meant to lampoon people who took for granted what they were shown in the new 'Seventh Art'. We have not been able to trace any other mentions of this story elsewhere in the French press, thus leaving the question to further enquiries. Yet, whether true or not, this story underlines the fact that made-up war films were produced during the Boer war and perhaps were the very first 'propaganda films' used as a war effort. The National Film Archives treasure some of these films. A few were shot in South Africa: soldiers would make a mock attack on the Kopje for the camera such as 'A Skirmish with the Boers near Kimberley'. Most often it was easier for the cameraman to stage the battle in England itself as for instance on Hampstead Heath. The 'feeling' was clearly anti-Boer as such films depicted a traitorous Boer killing a Tommy in the back although he had just given water to a wounded enemy ('Boers attack a Red Cross Hospital' and 'The Despatch Bearer'). The music halls were the centres of popular entertainment at the turn of the century, and obviously some people had already realised that the cinema industry was a good way of pandering to the war effort.

Sources

L'Illustration
The South African War, the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 ed. Peter Warwick, Longman, 1980
To the Bitter End, a photographic history of the Boer War 1899-1902, Emanuel Lee, Viking, 1985

Reproduced from 'Soldiers of the Queen', issue 82

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