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.

Turkey’s hidden truths

Towards the end of last year I was lucky enough to work on a documentary about the state of press freedom in Turkey. It was a fascinating shoot that took me around Turkey and gave me a real glimpse of the problems faced by Journalists in that country. I wanted to post the film for you to have a look at. Before you watch it you may wish to get more context from this online piece by the reporter, Selin Girit.

The battle of Nimy, August 1914

Men of the 4th Royal Fusileers in the town of Mons the day before the battle

Men of the 4th Royal Fusileers in the town of Mons the day before the battle (Source- Wikipedia)

The august sun began to rise, slowly burning off the early morning mist and drizzle that had had plagued the British troops. The 4th Battalion Royal Fusileers had spent most of the night trying to dig in, scraping shallow trenches along the banks of the Conde Canal, outside the small Belgium village of Nimy. It was the 23rd August 1914 and the British Expeditionary Force was about to fight it’s first major engagement of the First World War.

The 4th RF (9th Brigade, 3rd Division) were commanded by Lt. Colonel McMahon and consisted of twenty-six officers and nine hundred and eighty three other ranks, of these seven hundred and thirty four were reservists, recalled from civilian life in the last few weeks. These were the “Old contemptibles”who despite their small numbers had a level of training and cohesion that other armies envied. There motto was, “We’ll do it, what is it?”

They had been given a tough assignment. The battalion was to defend the “loop” position which is where the canal curved northwards and then back again, creating a salient that would make life difficult for the defenders. There were two bridges in their sector, a road bridge (which was a swing bridge) and a metal railway bridge to it’s left, that dominated the battlefield. The canal was sixty foot wide, covered in black slime and reeking of chemicals. Smoking black slag heaps dotted the landscape, too hot and dangerous to use as observation posts.

Map showing disposition of troops at the battle of Mons. Approximate scale 2 miles to an inch. (Source: THE FIRST SEVEN DIVISIONS - McCLELLAND, GOODCHILD & STEWART, Ltd.)

Map showing disposition of troops at the battle of Mons. Approximate scale 2 miles to an inch. (Source: THE FIRST SEVEN DIVISIONS – McCLELLAND, GOODCHILD & STEWART, Ltd.)

At nine am the first German shells began to land amongst the British defenders. They pounded the canal for an hour with no reply from the british artillery which had handicapped itself with a poor choice of firing position. As the bombardment ceased the grey clad ranks of six German infantry battalions emerged from cover (lead by the 84th Regt.), advancing slowly. The British used their Short Magazine Lee Enfield Rifle’s and their excellent marksmanship and rapid firing ability to decimate the German ranks, forcing them to fall back. At the time the German’s believed that the British defenders had many Machine-gun’s, in fact they had just two water-cooled Vickers, which were dug in around the Railway bridge under the command of Lieutenant Maurice James Dease.

As the morning wore on the incoming artillery and machine-gun fire from the German’s began to take a terrible toll amongst the defenders. The civilian villagers who had stayed behind in Nimy now began to run for their lives, escaping with the few possessions they could carry. It was clearly only a matter of time before the thin British line was broken.

By 13.00 the 4th RF were in a desperate situation. C (also known as Y) Company had suffered almost eighty casualties and both machine-guns had ceased firing. Lt. Dease, who had already been wounded twice (including a round in the neck) crawled forward to discover nobody alive to operate the right hand Vickers. In spite of his severe injuries he began to fire the weapon himself keeping the German’s at bay. He quickly attracted a murderous amount of gunfire until eventually he was hit again. Lieutenant Steele ran forward and carried him back to the rear but he died from his wounds around 15.30 (he was subsequently awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the first of the war). Dease lies in St Symphorien cemetery outside Mons, along with many men of his comrades.

The sun was now high and blisteringly hot. At 13.40 Lt.Colonel McMahon received the order to withdraw his battalion. Utilising years of training and parade ground discipline the troops began to retire as best they could.

Sidney Godley VC, source: Wikipedia

Sidney Godley VC, source: Wikipedia

On the Railways bridge Private Sidney Frank Godley took over the Machine-gun that Dease had been firing. He was also wounded but managed to single-handedly keep the German’s at bay for two hours while the rest of the battalion got away. Eventually, after running out of ammunition he dismantled the Vickers and tossed the pieces into the canal. Struggling to walk, he crawled back to the main road and was helped to hospital by two Belgian civilians. Soon after he arrived it was taken over by the German’s and he was taken prisoner. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross and received the good news from the senior German Officer at his POW camp at Doberitz.

The battle of Nimy was over but it marked the start of a gruelling retreat that saw the Old contemptibles battered and virtually wiped out over the following weeks. The British had suffered a defeat, but had inflicted a bloody nose on the Germans and done themselves proud against a vast, determined and well trained foe.

For a concise overview of the battle of Mons then you may wish to follow this link

If you have enjoyed this article then you may also enjoy a short story I wrote about the battle featuring Harry Blake and the fictional Royal North Leicestershire Regiment – click here to read.


VCs of the First World War: 1914
by Gerald Gliddon (Budding Books)

1914 : The Days of Hope
by Lyn Macdonald (Penguin)

Mons: 1914
by Jack Horsfall and Nigel Cave (Leo Cooper)

The Guns of August
by Barbara Tuchman (Dell)