Multimedia countdown: 100-days to the 100th anniversary of the WWI armistice

Wednesday, September 26, 2018-

Capturing the War- World War I marked the first time photography was an assigned official function of the U.S military. The men of the U.S. Army Signal Corps who performed the task were documenting history as they often risked their own lives in doing so.

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This photo, from the Signal Corps series, shows a combined unit of American and French cameramen. The man on the left is a motion picture cameraman for the U.S. Marine Corps, and the man in front is a still photographer and U.S. Marine. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

In July 1917 the U.S. Army Signal Corps established a Photographic Section responsible for ground and aerial photography at home and abroad. Signalmen began documenting the war aboard the Baltic ocean liner, taking still and motion pictures of American Expeditionary Forces Commander John J. Pershing and his command staff as they sailed from America to France.

SIGNAL CORPS PHOTOGRAPHER OPERATES A CAMOUFLAGED CAMERA IN FRANCE
SIGNAL CORPS PHOTOGRAPHER OPERATES A CAMOUFLAGED CAMERA IN FRANCE Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

The Army controlled all combat photography. Civilian photographers were not permitted to operate within the zone of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. A photographic unit served with each division and consisted of one motion-picture operator, one still photographer, and their assistants. Each army and corps headquarters had a photo unit of one officer and six men.

Photographic units also served with such private agencies as the American Red Cross and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to document their activities.

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Explaining the mechanical construction of Akeley camera. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

Photographic technology had progressed considerably since the first days of the medium in the late 1800’s. A combat photographer in World War I could develop a picture in fifteen minutes using a portable darkroom.

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Beginning with 25 men in August 1917, the Photographic Section attached to the AEF [American Expeditionary Forces] reached a strength of 92 officers and 498 men in November 1918. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
By November of 1918, the Signal Corps had taken approximately 30,000 still pictures and 750,000 feet of motion pictures that were used for training, propaganda, and historical purposes. Wartime censorship kept the public from seeing the most graphic images of war. The Signal Corps’ invaluable photographic collection resides today with the National Archives and Records Administration.

(Sources: National Archives and Records Administration, U.S. Army Center of Military History) 

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