Forgotten Soldiers of Empire

I’ve just finished watching the first episode of the “Forgotten Soldiers” – the BBC’s new documentary series examining the stories of non-europeans who fought and died in the Great war.

I’m from a family that includes West Indians, my Wife is South African and my soon to be born son will be mixed race. Therefore I am always keen to learn more about the part played by non-white soldiers in the first and second world wars.

This episode opened in west Africa with a beautifully shot sequence of the Presenter, David Olusoga, explaining that the first shots fired by the British during the war were by Alhaji Grunshi an NCO of the Gold Coast Regiment.

Alhaji Grunshi who fired the first British shots of WW! Source - Wikipedia

Alhaji Grunshi who fired the first British shots of WW! Source – Wikipedia

I would have liked to have heard more about this incident but quickly the narrative moved on to the Indian Corps arriving in Europe. A hefty chunk of the programme was dedicated to the battle of Neuve Chapel and an explanation of the “Martial races” theory which explained how the Indian army was recruited and why certain ethnic groups were favoured over others. Interestingly it seems that this theory still effects the modern Indian army –

What I hadn’t realised was that the French had a similar set of theories regarding their West African troops. Olusoga travelled to Verdun and explained how France’s black colonies were heavily leant upon for manpower. In the same way that the British relied on the Punjabis and Pathans the French military focused on recruiting from the Wolof tribe of Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. What disturbed me to learn was that many of these soldiers were recruited by local middlemen who had quotas to meet and would often raid villages and force men to join the army, bringing them for training in chains.

In conclusion I was pleasantly surprised by the depth, detail and nuance explored by David and the production team. Olusoga is a remarkably good presenter who clearly knows his stuff (not bad for a guy who is a producer by profession). I would highly recommend the programme to both the first world war specialist and the casual viewer with an eye for a well told tale.

Then and now: British army kit in 1914 and today

British army kit in now and in 1914

British army kit in now and in 1914

Last week I reported to Sir John Moore Barracks in Winchester for a fascinating assignment. Along with colleague Robert Hall we were tasked with putting together a film showing the type of kit a soldier would have marched to war in in 1914 and comparing it with todays infantrymen.

The Army were incredibly welcoming, a couple of willing “volunteers” were found from amongst the NCO’s and with the help of historian Andy Robertshaw we got to play dress-up.

The two films we made can be watched on the link below:

What struck me was that despite all the tech developments essentially the type of kit an infantryman carries hasn’t fundamentally changed that much: ammunition, water, food, entrenching tool, spare clothes and a personal weapon. As the first world war developed soldiers were issued with steel helmets and gas masks that made them even more similar to their modern day equivalents.

Me with our volunteers

Me with our volunteers

This assignment was one of my most enjoyable and I hope that you find our films informative and fun.

The women of world war one

The Abbey of Royaumont is a charming, peaceful and beautiful thirteenth century building thirty kilometers north of Paris. Now it serves as a museum, a hotel and a cultural centre but during the first world war it was transformed into a hospital for wounded soldiers.

Royaumont abbey, north of Paris

Royaumont abbey, north of Paris

I came here to film a story about the women of world war 1 and whether their services and sacrifices helped or hindered them in the post war years. What makes the story of the hospital here particularly interesting is that it was staffed entirely by women.

At the start of the war the Scottish women’s hospital had offered their services to the British war office but had been turned down. Undaunted they made the same offer to the French who accepted. After taking over the Abbey they found it to be filthy, bitterly cold and short of every amenity. Through sheer hard work the women eventually got it up and running.

A sense of the difficulty they experienced can be gained from this description of conditions by Dr I. Hutton:

“It was bitterly cold. The patients who were not in a raging fever shivered and tried vainly to adjust their tattered uniforms to gain a little warmth. Their clothing crawled with maggots and bugs and their bodies with lice. Dying men lay huddled so closely together on the floor that they touched each other. Others sat up gasping and blue in the throes of pneumonia. Blood and pus oozed from the wounds. A few of the patients feebly extended their hands but most of them were too ill to care what happened. Seventy-odd soldiers, in the last stages of dysentery lay crouched along the walls, emaciated, dying. They crawled outside from time to time. There were no sanitary arrangements and the grass plot was foul.”

Travelling with the team and I to the abbey was the great great niece of Frances Ivens, one of the surgeons. Evelyn Benson, herself a nurse, said of her relative: “She wanted to use her skills to help the war effort as well as using her personality and that force to push women to the front and show that they had an important role to play.”

Etaples military cemetery, France.

Etaples military cemetery, France.

After filming at the abbey we visited Etaples military cemetery. It is a vast place that contains 10,771 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, the earliest dating from May 1915. 35 of these burials are unidentified. There are also a number of women. Like Betty Stevenson – Betty was killed by an air raid and was given a military funeral she was also posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme by General Petain, for courage and devotion to duty. The personal inscription on her headstone reads simply, ‘The Happy Warrior’.

This trip was eye opening for me. I had been vaguely aware that some women had served as nurses in the first world war but I had underestimated the tough conditions they experienced and the sacrifices that they had made. I hope our film helps to tell their tales and bring to life the story of women on the western front.

Follow this link to watch our film on the BBC website

Sarajevo: The shot that echoed around the world

The next four years promise to be very exciting. For those of us fascinated, dare I say obsessed, with the first world war there should be a plethora of films, documentaries and news reports to fuel our passion.

As a BBC journalist and cameraman I am lucky enough to be at the forefront of the coverage. My first assignment of the centenary was to travel to Sarajevo. It was here that a young Serbian called Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863 – 1914) and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg (1868 – 1914).

The spot where the assasination took place in Sarajevo

The spot where the assasination took place in Sarajevo

The spot where it happened is on the corner of Appel quay and Franz Josef Street next to the Miljacka river which runs through the heart of the city. What struck me is how little the site has changed over the decades. It is still possible to stand exactly where Princip would have stood. The only difference is the bullet holes that pock mark the buildings near by – a legacy of another, later war.

The team (Allan Little, Jim Bucahanan, Ruth Levis) and I had two tasks. Firstly we had to shoot a series of Pieces to camera in a such a way that they felt like breaking news – To make it appear that the Archduke was visiting Sarajevo and his assassination was happening now, in our time. It was a great way of trying to make history feel fresh and to bring it to life. As Jim says in his BBC Editor blog:

“BBC News is used to reporting breaking news around the world. It’s what we do, part of the reason for our very existence. So if there were to be an assassination of a prominent European leader today, we would want to be there, reporting live. And audiences expect to consume breaking news in a live blog environment which is why we wanted to experiment with revealing history in this way. This was the idea behind 1914 Live as the BBC’s First World War season reaches the first significant anniversary. We would use all the techniques of breaking news in 2014 to report on events from Sarajevo 100 years ago, particularly the BBC’s Live format used to great effect during the World Cup and Queen’s Baton Relay. And we would do it by using BBC correspondents in their familiar role.”

If you want to watch the clips we shot and see them in context then follow this link – - you can also watch the trailer at the top of this page to get a sense of what we did.

Secondly we wanted to examine how modern Bosnia has been shaped by the event and how Princip’s legacy is remembered very differently depending on a person’s ethnicity. To the Serbs he is a hero who was doing his patriotic duty, to the Bosnian Muslims he was a terrorist guilty of plunging the world into war. The film we made is below. . .

It was fascinating for me to make this film and to try and understand a little of the history of Sarajevo. A place that is still haunted and shaped by its past.

Sarajevo: A city still scarred by its recent past

Sarajevo: A city still scarred by its recent past

Camera confidential: My new book has been published

My book packed with advice about working as a cameraman and video journalist is finally out and available to buy via the Rory Peck Trust website. All proceeds are going to them to help freelancers with training in sub-saharan Africa.

I’ve written Camera confidential to help people who shoot. It’s the book I wish somebody had handed me as a fresh faced twenty five year old jumping on a plane for my first foreign assignment. Sections include: Breaking into the industry, how to pack your kit, fill out customs paperwork, what to carry in a warzone, how to operate in extreme weather, how to shoot interviews and pieces to camera and advice on writing scripts and story-telling. It’s the accumulated knowledge of my years on the road as well as the product of numerous interviews with the likes of four times Royal Television Society cameraman of the year Darren “DC” Conway, well known filmmaker Phillip Bloom, numerous freelance cameramen from around the world, experienced reporters and security advisors.

The cover of my new book Camera confidential

The cover of my new book Camera confidential

For those who don’t know, my own background is as a cameraman, editor and video-journalist for the BBC. I started out as a trainee at ITN news and then joined the Beeb twelve years ago. I’ve covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Libya, DRC and Gaza. I spent four years with the BBC Africa bureau and have been lucky enough to work with some of the best correspondents and producers in the world.

I wanted this book to do some good. I never set out to make any money from it and so I jumped at the chance to publish it in partnership with the Rory Peck trust. I am full time staff with the BBC and often see freelancers producing amazing work, but also taking massive risks. Therefore I think it is more important than ever for the Rory Peck Trust to be able to help with training bursaries and to offer grants and support to freelancers in crisis or who have been injured. All proceeds of this book will be going to the trust.

Follow this link to purchase your copy for £4.99

Normandy revisited: Returning to the beaches for the 70th anniversary

June 6th 2014 marked 70 years since the allied landings in Normandy. It’s a campaign about which I know very little, therefore you can imagine my excitement when I was called upon to be one of the cameramen covering the event for BBC News.

with Tony Colgan of the 9th  DLI

with Tony Colgan of the 9th DLI

I was tasked with making a number of films with veterans recalling their experiences and revealing their emotions about returning. The news films that I made were short, too short. Two minutes isn’t enough time for a piece to really capture the stories and feelings that these ageing warriors had. Therefore I decided to make longer versions of the films utilising unused footage and lots of extra interview clips. I’ve posted them below and I hope you think that they were worth the extra effort.

Tony Colgan was with the 9th Durham Light Infantry and drove a Bren gun carrier ashore with the second wave on D-Day. He’s now ninety years old but still sharp and good company. He was accompanied to the commemorations by his grandson and the two shared some wonderful stories.

After filming with Tony, my team and I crossed the channel and joined up with two more veterans making the journey across to the beaches on HMS Bulwark, the flagship of the British navy. They were Admiral O’Brien and Bill Bryant of the Royal Marines who had been a Coxswain on a landing craft ferrying men and material to the beaches.

Having joined the Royal Marines in 1943, he underwent his seamanship training in Wales before joining Landing Craft Mechanised Flotilla 609 in 1944.