‘THE FORGOTTEN CAMERAMAN OF WW1’
Born in Plumstead in December 1877, John Benjamin McDowell was initiated into Freemasonry in 1902 in ‘Rye Lodge No 2272’, which then met in High Holborn. In 1912, he was a founder member of ‘Woolwich Polytechnic Lodge No 3578’ and, in 1915, he was a joining member of ‘Duchy of Cornwall Lodge No 3038’ which then met at the Café Monico in Shaftesbury Avenue. He served as Worshipful Master in all three Lodges, being the youngest ever WM of Rye Lodge in 1913, and remained a member of all three Lodges throughout WW1 and the following years, earning his first London Rank in 1927. In around 1920, he was also a founder member of ‘Outre Manche – Across the Channel Lodge No 14’ in Calais.
At the age of 15, John was an engineering apprentice at Woolwich Arsenal, involved with the manufacture of munitions, but by 1898 he was working as a cameraman, projectionist and electrician for ‘The British Mutoscope and Biograph Syndicate’, often showing Biograph films of the Boer War at the Palace Theatre in London. In early 1908, after short spells with film-makers, ‘Warwick Trading’ and ‘Walturdaw’, John went into partnership with a former colleague and formed the ‘British and Colonial Kinematograph Company’ (B & C) producing news, documentaries and short comedies – the first comic film he directed was ‘A Breach of Promise Case ’ in June 1908 which starred two pet dogs!
‘B & C’ became a limited company in 1911 and began producing longer dramas along with its short comedies, news and documentary items. By 1913, John was in sole charge of the company and produced what has been hailed as ‘the first British epic film’ – an 86 minute spectacular depiction of the Battle of Waterloo employing hundreds of extras and horses. A squadron of the 12th Lancers cavalry regiment was loaned to the production and the regimental historian recorded “the facts that Napoleon could not ride a horse and that a sergeant in the regiment appropriated Wellington’s boots nearly prevented the film being made”! Nevertheless, the film was finished – in only 5 days – and was a great success when released in the summer of 1913. John later commented that “everyone made money out of it….and went home happy”.
The film’s director was Charles Weston who is believed to have been the older brother of writer/director, Harold Weston, who also worked on several British and Colonial productions. Harold was introduced to Freemasonry by W Bro John and was initiated in Duchy of Cornwall Lodge No 3038 in October 1915.
Tragically, Charles Weston jumped to his death from an open window on the 18th floor of a building on West 42nd Street in New York City in 1919. He left behind a hypodermic syringe and needle in an envelope on which he had written: “This is man’s greatest curse”. He also left a 500-word suicide note headed “How One Feels Just Before Death by Jumping From the Eighteenth Floor of a Building“ and continues “Five minutes from now I will know what death is like, but I have no fear of hell. I cannot suffer more than I have…….. I feel just like a man waiting to meet his boss when there is something wrong”.
B&C’s next major production, in 1914, was ’Loves and Adventures in the Life of Shakespeare’ on which W Bro John worked as Director. He had married Emily Ada White in 1900, but now fell in love with Emilie Olympia Rudolphine Martinek, who was cast to portray Queen Elizabeth in the film using the name ‘Aimee Martinek’. She also used the names ‘Olympia Sumner’ and ‘Sophia Sumner’ in other productions. Her brother Oceano and her sister-in-law, Ivy Martinek, also worked on ‘British and Colonial’ films.
Emilie was born into a touring circus family in Germany in 1878 and came to England in around 1908 with her parents and family which included her daughter from an earlier marriage. She and John had a long-lasting relationship and their daughter, Adrienne Aimee Franklin McDowell, was born in February 1915 – ‘Franklin’ was the maiden name of John’s mother. It was less than a month before John joined The Duchy of Cornwall Lodge No 3038 that Adrienne was born – maybe he was having sleepless nights and went to Lodge meetings to snatch forty winks!
After war broke out in August 1914, John joined the Volunteer Training Corps and was also involved in negotiating for the rights to film the war – he was the signatory for ‘B & C’ in the final agreement with the War Office. He eventually got his chance in June 1916 when one of the two ‘Official War Office Kinematographers’ who had been authorised to film the allied armies in action in France was invalided home. John volunteered to replace him and within days, still a civilian, he was at the Western Front working with the other official cameraman, Geoffrey H Malins, in the battlefields of the Somme. The officer in charge noted that, during the filming, “Mr McDowell ran considerable risks. I have seen him have very narrow escapes, notably from machine gun-bullets…when trying to cross no man’s land…and several times from shells….he has also been gassed”.
The finished film, ‘The Battle of the Somme’, was released in August 1916 – while the battle itself was still raging – and, although many of the bloodiest scenes were cut as the War Office wanted images that would raise morale, it still contains some of the most iconic images of the horrors of war. On 28 August, the Yorkshire Evening Post printed the comment, attributed to Lloyd George, “If the exhibition of this Picture all over the world does not end War, God help civilisation”. It was a tremendous success and, during the first six weeks of its release, it was seen by twenty million people in Britain – that’s almost half the population – and was also shown in eighteen other countries. So many people bought tickets for the film that it held the UK Box Office record until Star Wars was released in 1977.
The ‘Evening Star’ reported that “The Somme pictures have stirred London more passionately than anything has stirred it since the war began. Everybody is talking about them. Everybody is discussing them. Everybody is debating the question whether they are too painful for public exhibition.”
You can watch the film yourself here: https://youtu.be/xQ_OZfaiUlc?t=14s
Some readers will know that Mike Neville, one of the co-authors of this ‘fragment of history’, was the originator and DCI in charge of the Met’s ‘Super Recognisers’ team at Scotland Yard.In a bizarre twist to this tale, one of Mike’s team in the Met was asked by ‘The Times’ in 2014 to help identify the man carrying a comrade who is shown in the above still from the film – many people had claimed him as a relative. Mike had no idea at the time that one of the film-makers, W. Bro John, had been a member of the same Lodge as Mike a hundred years earlier! The Times article is not available online, but this link is to the Daily Mail’s take on the 2014 story: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2604230/Police-super-recogniser-sheds-new-light-hero-WWI-propaganda.html
W. Bro John went on to work on more productions for the War Office including newsreels and the major films, ‘The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks’ and ‘The German Retreat and The Battle of Arras’. In April 1918, although still a civilian, he was put in charge of the movements of all the cameramen on the Western Front. In June 1918, both he and Malins were awarded the ‘Medal of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ (known as the ‘BEM’ from 1922) for ‘courage and devotion to duty’ and John was eventually commissioned as a Lieutenant in July 1918 when he was also awarded the ‘Military Cross’ for ‘courage under fire’.
After the war, John returned to less hazardous work as a freelance cameraman and filmed, amongst other newsworthy events, the wedding of Princess Mary in 1922. In the same year, he founded ‘McDowell’s Commercial Films’ which failed after a couple of years and was voluntarily wound up. From 1926 onwards, he first worked for Agfa in their cinema film department and then for a company in Welwyn Garden City ‘dealing with American negative stock’. In 1939 he was recorded as living with Emilie and Adrienne and working as a ‘travelling salesman for …(illegible) …for jointings for engineers’ and in 1949 he was reported in the trade press as having “retired from films…..but making a second fortune in engineering”
Emilie died in 1950 and W Bro John himself died in 1954 in Pitsea, Essex, at the home of his daughter, Adrienne, to whom he left estate valued at under £500.
In 1920, Geoffrey H Malins published his best-selling book ‘How I Filmed the War’ in which he down-played W Bro John’s role to such an extent that the book never even mentioned his name – hence the subtitle, ‘THE FORGOTTEN CAMERAMAN OF WW1’.
Many thanks to Sally Freytag (nee Martinek), Chip and Yvonne Thompson (nee McDowell) and Valerie Brown (nee Sanders) for their assistance in supplying photographs and biographical detail.
Peter Reeve and Mike Neville, September 2017.