Thompson returned to Dixmude. While dining with General Boehm and some of his officers here, a British shell hit the house in which they ate. Two inhabitants died instantly and another later succumbed to his wounds. Wooden splinters pierced Thompson’s back and nose while other flying debris bruised his body. He awoke in a field hospital alongside wounded Germans, then returned to Antwerp in an ammunition cart. He thought he had lost his nose because he could not feel it, but it remained. He went to London to recuperate, then returned to America in mid-November, arriving in Topeka in January 1915. Here he showed about 1,000 feet of his film at the Novelty Theater.
He received an invitation from Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune as well as one of its war correspondents, to cover the Russian front after its government invited him to do so. McCormick also owned the New York Daily News and Washington Times-Herald, but of these papers, the Tribune, started in 1847, did the best. It reached a circulation of 410,000 in 1918, an impressive feat considering McCormick did not get into the newspaper business until 1910 when he and partner, Joseph Medill Patterson, took it over rather than allow a rival to buy it out. McCormick and Thompson headed for Russia in February 1915.
One of the fiercest battles these two men covered was at the Austro-Hungarian fortress city of Przemysl. It was located in the province of the largely unindustrialized Galicia, an area that had once belonged to the kingdom of Poland before it ceased to exist after Russia, Prussia, and the Austrian Empire carved that nation up for themselves between 1772 and 1795. The Russians had to take Przemysl if they wanted to successfully invade Austria-Hungary, and to that end attacked it on September 26, 1914. Capturing it on October 10, they abandoned it several weeks later. Undaunted, they returned and began a siege at the beginning of November.
This city of 50,000, founded in the eighth century and inhabited mainly by ethnic Poles, stood along the river San and served as the seats for both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox bishops. On November 4, the Austro-Hungarian army garrison ejected the city’s civilian population, although many returned for lack of anywhere else to go, leaving the city with about 18,000 civilians and 127,000 soldiers. The Russians laid siege for six months, attacking from all sides and shooting down any planes attempting to bring in supplies. Not an animal save for the horses that belonged to army officers remained in sight.
The Austrians reluctantly surrendered on March 22, 1915, only doing so when their garrison threatened to mutiny because its men had grown tired of starving and suffering from disease. The Russians offered generous terms: officers received parole, enlisted men would not be sent to Siberia, the wounded could return to Austria, and civilians could either stay or go as they pleased. Some footage of this struggle later appeared in Thompson’s Tribune-produced 1915 movie With the Russians at the Front.
After his tour of Russia, during which he met the notorious Rasputin, Thompson headed to Bucharest. The next day—May 23, 1915—neutral Italy joined the Allies in exchange for a promise of new territories carved out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thompson moved on to Bulgaria where he was arrested and jailed for a week for reasons he claimed to never understand. It ejected him into Serbia, where he purportedly filmed Austro-Hungarian atrocities against the Serbs, although whether he saw these firsthand or just heard about them remains questionable. Certainly such atrocities did occur. George Macaulay Trevelyan, an American historian, visited Serbia in the opening days of the war. He reported that in the middle of August 1914 near the city of Sabac, the Austro-Hungarian army killed about 3,000 civilians, including burning some to death, and forced millions more into flight.
Next Thompson headed to Istanbul (then called Constantinople Westerners) where he visited the nearby Gallipoli front, a peninsula at the entrance of the narrow Dardanelles Strait along which Ottoman fortifications prevented both British and Russian navies from passing, blocking access to the Black Sea. After attempts to destroy its fortifications from sea failed, Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, concocted a plan for an amphibious landing on the beaches of Gallipoli that would take possession of the entire Strait and from there Istanbul itself. Begun on April 25, 1915, the operation failed spectacularly despite an influx of reinforcements in August. The Allies began withdrawing from this disaster in December.58
In 1916, Thompson went to France as an official cinematographer of that government and there filmed the first Battle of the Somme, an area in which virtually no fighting had occurred since 1914. This lack of activity had given the Germans time to dig advanced trenches complete with well-placed machine guns and other implements of death. General Douglas Haig of the British army came up with the idea of bombarding German positions with a weeklong artillery barrage of over a million shells that would, he believed, kill all the Germans, allowing the British army to move into the open country beyond.59
In mid-May German airplanes flying overhead saw Haig’s preparations for a massive offensive, and although the German General Staff had no idea when it would begin, it nonetheless began preparing. When the Allies began setting up large artillery pieces on June 22, the Germans knew the attack would come soon. Before sending their troops “over the top” into no man’s land, the Allies fired off a barrage of poison gas. Neither this nor the weeklong bombardment did any good. Of the 100,000 men on the Allied side who attacked that first day, 20,000 died and another 40,000 returned wounded. The Allies managed to take some front line trenches and forced the Germans to pull back from a few French villages, but beyond that no other gains occurred. Thompson became a casualty of the battle as well: he received a cracked skull.
He included some the footage he had taken in his 1916 documentary War As It Really Is, which can be seen in full here. Its title is deceptive considering it showed nothing very little real combat, possibly because the French supposedly censored about 70 percent of what he had filmed. It also included parts of the 1914 Battle of Yser in Belgium. For most of it, one sees little but troop movements, shots of generals, and a spectacular view of the battlefield from 10,000 feet above in an airplane. The sixth and seventh reels show actual fighting, although the shots of the dead at the film’s end are strictly stills. Despite being a sanitized version of events, it was a box office hit.
It showed abandoned German trenches, an attack from enemy artillery while in a trench at night, and, most interesting, sappers in Yser mining underground to reach the German trenches. Although the trenches of both sides zigzagged to make it harder for shells or grenades to easily penetrate them from above, this did not lessen their vulnerability to miners digging beneath where they placed massive amounts of explosives.
Thompson’s adventures in the war did not end here. In 1917 he went to Petrograd (St. Petersburg), then the capital of tsarist Russia, where he witnessed the February Revolution that deposed Tsar Nicolas II. This was the precursor of the October Revolution later that year during which the Bolsheviks took over the country via a military coup. This you can read about in Chapter 4 of Americans in Splintering Europe: Refugees, Missionaries and Journalists in World War I (McFarland), available here. And if you decide you would like to read it but are not inclined to purchase itself yourself, please ask you local library to do so.