from the book ‘Golden Lads’ by Arthur Gleason 1916
'Stories of the War Photographers'
"Was It Real ?"

Filming Street Fighting in Alost September 1914

from Arthur Gleason's book - a feigned street-battle

 

The man was an old-time friend. In the days of our youth, we had often worked together. He was small and nervous, with a quick eye. He always wore me down after a few hours, because he was restless and untiring. He was named Romeyn Rossiter - one of those well-born names. We had met in times before the advent of the telescopic lens, and he used a box camera, tuned to a fiftieth of a second. Together we snapped polo ponies, coming at full tilt after the ball, riding each other off, while he would stand between the goal-posts, as they zigzagged down on him. I had to shove him out of the way, at the last tick, when the hoofs were loud. I often wondered if those ponies didn't look suddenly large and imminent on the little glass rectangle into which he was peering. That was the kind of person he was. He was glued to his work. He was a curious man, because that nerve of fear, which is well developed in most of us, was left out of his make-up. No credit to him. It merely wasn't there. He was color-blind to danger. He had spent his life everywhere by bits, so he had the languages. I used to admire that in him, the way he could career along with a Frenchman, and exchange talk with a German waiter: high speed, and a kind of racy quality.

I used to write the text around his pictures, captions underneath them, and then words spilled out over the white paper between his six by tens. We published in the country life magazines. They gave generous big display pages. In those days people used to read what I wrote, because they wanted to find out about the pictures, and the pictures were fine. You must have seen Rossiter's work - caribou, beavers, Walter Travis coming through with a stroke, and Holcombe Ward giving a twist delivery. We had the field to ourselves for two or three years, before the other fellows caught the idea, and broke our partnership. I turned to literature, and he began drifting around the world for long shots. He 'd be gone six months, and then turn up with big game night pictures out of Africa - a lion drinking under a tropical moon. Two more years, and I had lost him entirely. But I knew we should meet. He was one of those chaps that, once in your life, is like the motif in an opera, or like the high-class story, which starts with an insignificant loose brick on a coping and ends with that brick smiting the hero's head.

It was London where I ran into him at last.

"Happy days?" I said, with a rising inflection.

"So, so," he answered.

He was doing the free-lance game. He had drifted over to England with his $750 moving-picture machine to see what he could harvest with a quiet eye, and they had rung in the war on him. He wasn't going to be happy till he could get the boys in action. Would I go to Belgium with him? I would.

Next day, we took the Channel ferry from Dover to Ostend, went by train to Ghent, and trudged out on foot to the battle of Alost.

Those were the early days of the war when you could go anywhere, if you did it nicely. The Belgians are a friendly people. They can't bear to say No, and if they saw a hard-working man come along with his eye on his job, they didn't like to turn him back, even if he was mussing up an infantry formation or exposing a trench. They 'd rather share the risk, as long as it brought him in returns.

When we footed it out that morning, we didn't know we were in for one of the Famous Days of history. You never can tell in this war. Sometimes you'll trot out to the front, all keyed up, and then sit around among the "Set-Sanks" for a month playing pinochle, and watching the flies chase each other across the marmalade. And then a sultry dull day will suddenly show you things. . . .

Out from the Grand Place of Alost radiate narrow little streets that run down to the canal, like spokes of a wheel. Each little street had its earthworks and group of defenders. Out over the canal stretched footbridges, and these were thickly sown with barbed wire.

"Great luck," said Rossiter. "They 're making an old-time barricade. It's as good as the days of the Commune. Do you remember your street-fighting in Les MisÚrables?"

"I surely do," I replied. "Breast high earthworks, and the 'citizens' crouched behind under the rattle of bullets."

"This is going to be good," he went on in high enthusiasm. The soldiers were rolling heavy barrels to the gutter, and knocking off the heads. The barrels were packed with fish, about six inches long, with scales that went blue and white in the fresh morning light. The fish slithered over the cobbles, and the soldiers stumbled on their slippery bodies. They set the barrels on end, side by side, and heaped the cracks between and the face with sods of earth, thick-packed clods, with grass growing. The grass was bright green, unwilted. A couple of peasant hand-carts were tilted on end, and the flooring sodded like the barrels.

"Look who 's coming," pointed Rossiter, swiveling his lens sharply around.

Steaming gently into our narrow street from the Grand Place came a great Sava mitrailleuse - big steel turret, painted lead blue, three men sitting behind the swinging turret. One of the men, taller by a head than his fellows, had a white rag bound round his head, where a bullet had clipped off a piece of his forehead the week before. His face was set and pale. Sitting on high, in the grim machine, with his bandage worn as a plume, he looked like the presiding spirit of the fracas.

"It's worth the trip," muttered Romeyn, grinding away on his crank.

There was something silent and efficient in the look of the big man and the big car, with its slim-waisted, bright brass gun shoving through.

"Here, have a cigarette," said Rossiter, as the powerful thing glided by.

He passed up a box to the three gunners.

"Bonne chance," said the big man, as he puffed out rings and fondled the trim bronze body of his Lady of Death. They let the car slide down the street to the left end of the barricade, where it came to rest.

Over the canal, out from the smoke-misted houses, came a peasant running. In his arms he carried a little girl. Her hair was light as flax, and crested with a knot of very bright red ribbon. Hair and gay ribbon caught the eye, as soon as they were borne out of the doomed houses.

The father carried the little one to the bridge at the foot of our street, and began crossing towards us. The barbed wire looked angry in the morning sun. He had to weave his way patiently, with the child held flat to his shoulder. Any hasty motion would have torn her face on the barbs. Shrapnel was sailing high overhead between the two forces, and there, thirty feet under the crossfire, this man and his child squirmed their way through the barrier. They won through, and were lifted over the barricade. As the father went stumbling past me, I looked into the face of the girl. Her eyes were tightly closed. She nestled contentedly.

"Did you get it man? Did you get it?" I asked Rossiter.

"Too far," he replied, mournfully, "only a dot at that distance."

Now, all the parts had fitted into the pattern, the gay green grass growing out of the stacked barrels and carts, and the sullen, silent, waiting mitrailleuse which can spit death in a wide swathe as it revolves from side to side, like the full stroke of a scythe on nodding daisies. The bark of it is as alarming as its bite - an incredibly rapid rat- tat that makes men fall on their faces when they hear, like worshipers at the bell of the Transubstantiation.

"She talks three hundred words to the minute," said Romeyn to me.

"How are you coming?" I asked.

"Great," he answered, "great stuff. Now, if only something happens."

He had planted his tripod fifty feet back of the barricade, plumb against a red-brick, three-story house, so that the lens raked the street and its defenses diagonally. Thirty minutes we waited, with shell fire far to the right of us, falling into the center of the town with a rumble, like a train of cars heard in the night, when one is half asleep. That was the sense of things to me, as I stood in the street, waiting for hell to blow off its lid. It was a dream world, and I was the dreamer, in the center of the strange unfolding sight, seeing it all out of a muffled consciousness.

Another quarter hour, and Rossiter began to fidget.

"Do you call this a battle?" he asked.

"The liveliest thing in a month," replied the lieutenant.

"We've got to brisk it up," Rossiter said. "Now, I tell you what we'll do. Let's have a battle that looks something like. These real things haven't got speed enough for a five-cent house."

In a moment, all was action. Those amazing Belgians, as responsive as children in a game, fell to furiously to create confusion and swift event out of the trance of peace. The battered giant in the Sava released a cloud of steam from his car. The men aimed their rifles in swift staccato. The lieutenant dashed back and forth from curb to curb, plunging to the barricade, and then to the half dozen boys who were falling back, crouching on one knee, firing, and then retreating. He cheered them with pats on the shoulder, pointed out new unsuspected enemies. Then, man by man, the thirty perspiring fighters began to tumble. They fell forward on their faces, lay stricken on their backs, heaved against the walls of houses, wherever the deadly fire had caught them. The street was littered with Belgian bodies. There stood Rossiter grinding away on his handle, snickering green-clad Belgians lying strewn on the cobbles, a half dozen of them tense and set behind the barricade, leveling rifles at the piles of fish. Every one was laughing, and all of them intent on working out a picture with thrills.

The enemy guns had been growing menacing, but Rossiter and the Belgians were very busy.

"The shells are dropping just back of us," I called to him.

"Good, good," he said, "but I have n't time for them just yet. They must wait. You can't crowd a film."

Ten minutes passed.

"It is immense," began he, wiping his face and lighting a smoke, and turning his handle. "Gentlemen, I thank you."

"Gentlemen, we thank you," I said.

"There 's been nothing like it," he went on. "Those Liege pictures of Wilson's at the Hippodrome were tame."

He 'd got it all in, and was wasting a few feet for good measure. Sometimes you need a fringe in order to bring out the big minute in your action.

Suddenly, we heard the wailing overhead and louder than any of the other shells. Louder meant closer. It lasted a second of time, and then crashed into the second story of the red house, six feet over Rossiter's head. A shower of brown brick dust, and a puff of gray-black smoke settled down over the machine and man, and blotted him out of sight for a couple of seconds. Then we all coughed and spat, and the air cleared. The tripod had careened in the fierce rush of air, but Rossiter had caught it and was righting it. He went on turning. His face was streaked with black, and his clothes were brown with dust.

"Trying to get the smoke," he called, "but I 'm afraid it won't register."

Maybe you want to know how that film took. We hustled it back to London, and it went with a whizz. One hundred and twenty-six picture houses produced "STREET FIGHTING IN ALOST". The daily illustrated papers ran it front page. The only criticism of it that I heard was another movie man, who was sore - a chap named Wilson.

"That picture is faked," he asserted.

"I'll bet you," I retorted, "that picture was taken under shell fire during the bombardment of Alost. That barricade is the straight goods. The fellow that took it was shot full of gas while he was taking it. What's your idea of the real thing?"

"That's all right," he said; "the ruins are good, and the smoke is there. But I've seen that reel three times, and every time the dead man in the gutter laughed."

 

a two-page spread from a British magazine - 'the War Budget'
showing the 'street-fighting' in Alost shot by Romeyn Rossiter.
Here the name of the cinematographer is given as 'Frank Brockliss'

another shot of the 'steeet-fighting film' at Alost

notice in the blow-up how the soldier on the left seems to be lighting a cigarette
and the soldier on the right appears to be lazily reclining on his elbow

 

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