The policeman’s placard

British Fact and German Fiction

Thanks to Frank Herrera for pointing me to British Fact and German Fiction. It's a British propaganda film just under fifteen minutes long, made in 1917 by the Thanhouser Company for the Department of Information. Since it has Portuguese Spanish intertitles (luckily with more recent English subtitles), it was obviously shown overseas, though from the comments in Nicholas Reeves' Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War (1986) it does seem it was intended for domestic consumption. I can't embed the film here but you can watch it at the appropriately named Europa Film Treasures website.

The 'German fiction' referred to was a letter supposedly published in a German newspaper claiming to be an eyewitness account of serious damage caused to various London icons -- the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge, Hyde Park, Piccadilly Circus, Charing Cross Station, the Bank of England, Trafalgar Square, St Paul's Cathedral, Liverpool Street Station, Buckingham Palace -- by German air raids in July, August and September. I say supposedly because as the Imperial War Museum notes (IWM 443), the newspaper is hard to identify based on the English title given, the Westphalia Daily News. But if the German press did claim this, it was an own goal because this film shows that the locations were still all intact, at least as of 25 and 26 September when the film was supposedly shot. Again, I say supposedly, because this is established by a policeman holding a placard showing the date in many of the scenes, but we have to take this on trust.1 In this case, however, there's no reason I can see for the DOI to fake the date, as it was quite true that the damage done was vastly exaggerated by the letter-writer, and in fact simply made up. There is also footage of some of the places German bombs did hit: working class homes, small businesses, the road in front of a hotel. The text sarcastically says these are the Germans' idea of 'munition factories', though the British (like everyone else who ever dropped bombs in anger) were just as prone to claiming they only bombed military targets.

British Fact and German Fiction

The resulting film is a fascinating document of London at war. Although it must be said that for the most part it doesn't look much different to London at peace: the streets are full of traffic, people are out doing their shopping, commuters are running to catch their buses (as in the above -- that's Piccadilly Circus, with the base of Eros on the left). There are perhaps a few more men in uniform than usual, including a crowd of Australian soldiers sightseeing in St Paul's.

British Fact and German Fiction

This is a New Zealand medic who gave first aid to civilians wounded by a bomb dropped outside the Bedford Hotel on Southampton Row (off Russell Square) on the night of 25 September, despite his own head wound. His name isn't given; I like the way he is standing in the shadows, as though uncomfortable with the attention. Thirteen people were killed in this incident (eleven according to the film) after ignoring official instructions to take cover, as the text archly notes.

British Fact and German Fiction

A 14 year old boy was killed inside this dairy in King's Cross Road when it was hit on the night of 24 September. This period marked the start of the 'harvest moon' raids, when the Gothas and (for the first time) Giants attacked London nearly every night for a week, until 1 October. This led to some interesting reactions, which unfortunately British Fact and German Fiction doesn't show: shops starting closing early to let employees get home before dark, people gathered in parks to watch the show, and others bedded down in the Tube stations. In psychological terms, the harvest moon raids were perhaps more significant than the daylight Gotha raids of June and July, even though they killed fewer people.

While it does implicitly point out the immorality of the German raids, the film ends with some statistics emphasising how tiny the human cost was in statistical terms: for the first nine months of 1917, there were only 940 casualties (191 dead, 749 wounded) in London due to air raids, which amounted to 27 dead per million given the city's population of 7 million. For the same period the number of dead and wounded due to road accidents (probably for Britain as a whole) was 14591. So nothing to worry about, then. If only the British had believed their own propaganda ... I would have had to find a different topic!

Bonus airminded footage: Wilbur Wright and his Flying Machine, a French film shot in Italy on 24 April 1909. With Wilbur Wright flying his Flyer. And. Flying. With. The. Camera. On. Board! Astounding. I think it must be worth following the Europa Film Treasures blog for their latest gems.

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  1. There's also a shot of the front page of the Evening Standard, though the date is not visible. The headline -- 'Zeps and Gothas raid together' -- does pretty much tie it down to 26 September. []

9 thoughts on “The policeman’s placard

  1. Urban Garlic

    Not to diminish your main post, but that Wright footage really is spectacular. I know there are aeronautical engineers out there who are interested in how the Wright Flyer handled, something like this would presumably allow them to back out a lot of trajectory data from photogrammetry. It certainly seemed to me, as an interested non-expert, that the take-off was quite abrupt, and there were lots of pitch excursions and oscillations.

  2. Neil Datson

    Very interesting film, Brett.

    I think we can take it that the date of the filming wasn't faked. Firstly, what would be the point? Secondly, it surely wouldn't have been very easy. The policeman's placard would have attracted a great deal of the wrong sort of attention. The notice he and the film unit attract seems entirely natural.

    In 1917 such a hoax would have required far more effort than it would have been worth. Unlike today.

  3. Post author


    Yes, when I saw it I nearly wrote about it instead! That's an interesting idea about photogrammetry; hopefully somebody has done or is doing that. The pitch instability is very obvious; it was even worse in the earlier versions of the Flyer. You can see why other aircraft designs at the time placed such an emphasis on stability.


    I don't doubt the date is correct, but if we're going to doubt the existence of the German newspaper we may as well be thorough!

  4. ahah, no insult Brett, they are all latin languages :) Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romenian (gesh, hope I didn't leave any behind)

  5. Post author


    Yes, a classic of the genre!


    I realise I've lost all credibility as a scholar of Romance languages, but you'd probably have to put Catalan in ahead of Romansh, in terms of number of speakers. Wikipedia has a neat relationship map of all of them and there are a lot!

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