The Biograph in Battle


A few weeks ago, we reported on the marvellous book digitisation project by the Cinémathèque française, the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma, and said that we would return to the collection to describe some of the highlights (and put them in the Bioscope Library). So we start with one of the truly notable publications of the early cinema period, W.K-L. Dickson’s The Biograph in Battle: Its Story in the South African War (1901). This is both the first account in book form by a motion picture operator describing his work, and the first book about the filming of war. Its subject is the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, often described as the first media war, because film cameras were there to record it.

William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson had already earned his place in motion picture history by being the man who effectively invented motion picture films, when he worked as an engineer in the Edison labs 1883-1895. Dickson left Edison to join the KMCD Syndicate, formed to exploit a 70mm film system used both for screen projection (the Biograph) and for exhibition on a flick-card peepshow (the Mutoscope). The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, as they became, was the major American rival to Edison in the 1890s, and it pushed its product abroad in an ambitious campaign of proto-motion picture globalization which included the formation of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Dickson went over to his homeland in 1897 to serve as chief camera operator, filming news and travel subjects in the main. The most notable adventure he undertook while with Biograph was to film the Anglo-Boer War.

The Anglo-Boer War (more popularly known as the Boer War) was, like most wars, unclear and unnecessary. It was fought between Britain (specifically the forces of the British Empire) and the two independent Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, in southern Africa. The immediate cause of the conflict was the refusal by the Boers (Afrikaners) to grant political rights to a British immigrant workforce, known as Uitlanders, but the real impetus was British imperial ambitions and South African gold and diamonds. The Boers invaded the British colony of Natal on 11 October 1899, and Britain launched an invasion force under Sir Redvers Buller. This force met with several embarassing reverses, and Buller was replaced by Lord Roberts, who took Pretoria on 5 June 1900. Many felt the war was over by this point, but instead it turned into a guerilla campaign for the next two years, characterised by some brutal tactics and the British use of concentration camps to imprison Boer civilians, until victory was gained by Lord Kitchener in May 1902.

The war occured at just the point where the young film industry had the resources, and the eager audience, to make covering the war a most welcome opportunity. Four British companies sent cameramen to the Transvaal: Biograph (Dickson), Paul’s Animatograph Works (Walter Calverley Beevor and Sydney [?] Melsom), the Warwick Trading Company (Joseph Rosenthal, Edgar Hyman, John Benett-Stanford and Sydney Goldman) and Gibbons’ Bio-Tableaux (C. Rider Noble). Goldman and Noble are believed to have filmed the latter stages of the war (post-June 1900), for which no film survivies today. The others filmed the war in its first dramatic months. Other companies, notably Edison, Pathé and Norden Films (Mitchell & Kenyon) fed an audience thirst for images of the war by dramatising heroic actions, but what audiences most wanted to see was war’s actuality.


Dickson’s Mutograph camera at Chieveley filming a naval gun battery. Note the bicycle wheel which drove a suction pump that flattened the unperforated film against the aperture plate. From The Biograph in Battle.

Dickson sailed from Southampton on Buller’s ship the Dunottar Castle on 14 October 1899, accompanied by two assistants William Cox and Jonathan Seward, and equipped with a Mutograph camera. He also wrote a diary, originally for newspaper serialisation (Pearson’s Illustrated War News), and then for publication in book form, illustrated with many images from the films that he and his team took between October and June the following year. He started filming immediately upon arrival in Cape Town on 30 October. He travelled to the combat area in late November, and was present at the battles of Colenso (15 December 1899) and Spion Kop (24 January 1900).

It is not difficult to imagine the trials of trying to film a war with camera equipment that literally weighed a tonne. Aside from the bulky Mutograph itself, the tripod weighed 100 pounds, the four boxes of batteries needed to drive its electric motor weighed 1,200 pounds, and the whole caboodle had to be carried around in a Cape cart pulled by two horses. It was equipment hardly designed for the agile filming of war’s actuality, and it made Dickson a less than welcome presence among the troops because the camera made such a good target. Dickson describes some of the problems he operated under:

Getting back to a safer position, we watched the valiant attack of our men as they gradually pushed on. Had we a light camera these movements could have been secured, and many others of a valuable nature, but the enormous bulk of our apparatus which had to be dragged about in a Cape cart with two horses, prevented our getting to the spot. The difficulties were aggravated by the absence of roads, while the huge gullies we had to cross and the enormous boulders we had to get over made the enterprise almost impractical.

It is important to be aware of the limitations Dickson laboured under. He could not go about filming war in the raw. He was constricted by the technology, army officialdom and his independent status. Though not subject to official censorship as he was not a newspaper journalist, his movements were always under the eye of one officer or another, yet because he was not sanctioned by the War Office he could not benefit from army supplies and had considerable battles simply fending for himself and his team. His films are composed documents which record places and activities rather than the heat of battle. Indeed, owing to the range of the Mauser rifles employed by the Boer, the two armies seldom saw much of one another except for occasional assaults or mad cavalry charges. No film was going to get taken showing the fighting itself (Dickson experimented with telephoto lenses but had little success). So we see troops marching, bridges being repaired, signalmen at work, big guns firing, cavalry at the gallop, encampments. The films document the everyday, while at the same time documenting the step-by-step progress of Buller’s army as it progressed from optimism to disaster in its quest to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith.


The Battle of Spion Kop, a frame still from The Biograph in Battle.

The Biograph in Battle records Dickson’s experiences on a day-by-day basis, particular attention given to films with which audiences were to become familiar back in Britain, where the latest motion pictures dispatches were avidly followed in the music halls and variety theatres. Most notable of these was Battle of Spion Kop: Ambulance Corps Crossing the Tugela River. This remarkable film records the retreat of British troops following the disastrous assault on the heights of Spion Kop, the culmination of Buller’s ill-fated campaign. Dickson’s film (which exists as three separate shots from the same position,one taken with telephoto lens, in the copy held by the BFI National Archive) shows an ambulance train aspart of a long line of troops passing down a winding path, while in the forground troops in an entrenchment give a palpable sense of conflict which some of these 1890s war actualities lack. Dickson describes the filming thus:

We were not long in following with our Cape cart, and after several hours’ severe work for horse and man succeeded in getting a good picture of the Ambulance Corps crossing the Tugela River over a hurriedly spanned pontoon bridge. In the immediate foreground may be seen trenches filled with our men to guard against any sudden attack should the wounded be fired on by the enemy. A little below the Tugela wends its way through great boulders and a rocky bed, over which our sick and wounded must be driven as they make their way down the opposite side across the pontoon bridge and up the embankment where we now are, the worse cases being carried by innumerable volunteer stretcher-bearers, mostly coolies. On the other side, as far as the eye can reach the Red Cross ambulances are seen waiting their turn to make their perilous descent, nearly all of them having been previously emptied of their worst cases of wounded for fear of an upset, the patients being carried over and replaced after arriving at the other side, when comparatively on safe ground. The picture has an additional value that in the background is part of the battlefield where Warren’s men fought so gallantly as they advanced towards and up Spion Kop to the right.

If only Dickson’s lens had been sharper or the film longer than a minute. Somewhere in that scene was a journalist on the cusp of fame, Winston Churchill, and serving as a stretcher-bearer was the future Mahatma Gandhi.

Following the debacle of Spion Kop, the British army withdrew, regrouped, took Colenso, finally crossed the Tugela river, and raised the siege at Ladysmith, Buller making his formal entrance on 3 March. Dickson had had to deal with both of his assistants falling ill during this period, taking them to a sanatorium in Durban, but with a new assistant (name unknown) he was back in time to record the entry into Ladysmith, arriving in the town ahead of Buller himself. Dickson was exhausted by this time, and having journeyed back to Durban he succumbed to a fever. By mid-April he and his original crew had recovered, but filming priorities had changed with the uncertain progress of the war. Dickson’s next major film would be the annexation of Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, which surrended to Lord Roberts on 13 March. The annexation ceremonies took place on 28 May, after which Dickson travelled on to film Roberts’ capture of Pretoria on 5 June. Both films represented the moment of triumph by the raising of a flag in the town square, though Dickson’s film of the latter was a cheeky restaging (he had arrived too late to record the actual event), featuring a larger flag than had been used in the ceremony. This piece of deception was spotted at the time by local audiences and came in for much criticism.


At this point, many believed the war to be over. Dickson (left) and his London employers certainly did so, and he left Cape Town for Southampton on 18 July 1900. His films had been a regular feature at the Palace Theatre (the London showcase for Biograph films) and at theatres around the world equipped for Biograph films. The films generally took three to four weeks to get back to Britain, and did so on such a regular basis that audiences could follow his reportage as a form of news, albeit delayed news. Although attempts had been made to film earlier conflicts (Frederic Villiers was present with a cine camera during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, John Benett-Stanford filmed at Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898, and Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin filmed scenes during the Spanish-American War of 1898 for American Biograph), the films of Dickson and his fellow Anglo-Boer war cameramen – none of whom he mentions in his text, incidentally – were the first successful motion picture records of a war from the battlefront, and the picture that they gave to audiences back at home altered forever what was expected of the motion picture camera, and what audiences could demand to see on their screens.

The Biograph in Battle is an enjoyable, informative read, full of character and sharp-eyed observation. Some of the attitudes expressed, particularly towards the native population, are unfortunately characteristic of their time, but overall this is a remarkably detailed account from the earliest years of motion pictures. In 1894 Dickson had been filming fleeting variety acts for the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow; it is evidence of how rapidly the medium developed in scope and ambition that it could, just five years later, take on the documenting of a war and, incidentally, the demise of an Imperial dream.

There is a catalogue of Anglo-Boer War films held by the BFI National Film Archive, which lists most of the extant films of Dickson and his rivals, which I compiled many moons ago.

The Biograph in Battle is very rare (and very expensive) in its original form. A facsimile publication was produced by Flicks Books in 1995, with a new introduction by Richard Brown. This is now out of print but can be found second-hand. The PDF copy on the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma (49MB in size) comes from the Will Day collection and is inscribed to collector and historian Day by Dickson himself.

The is a new biography of Dickson by Paul Spehr, which covers the Anglo-Boer War period in detail: The Man Who Made Movies: W.K-L. Dickson. Spehr will be giving an illustrated talk on Dickson and film at the Barbican in London on 5 June, and again at the BFI Southbank on 10 June.

(There are no examples of Dickson’s war films online that I can find, except included in television programmes which have been uploaded without the broadcaster’s permission)

7 responses

  1. Luke: Thanks for letting us know about this book. Dickson was a good writer, along with his many other talents. I have to read the book to find out what kinds of problems he had with telephoto lenses. I wonder if it was the quality of the lenses or just figuring out how to focus them. Or did the camera vibrate too much?

    This was also an appropriate posting for your readers in the US; we’re observing Memorial Day this weekend.

    Joe Thompson ;0)

  2. Hi Joe,

    Dickson writes about using the telephoto lens on page 75: “We have made every effort to get a photograph of the Boer position, and the effect of the shots, by means of the telephoto, but we were forced to give it up owing to the haze and indistinctness which made it impossible to focus properly”. There is an advertisement at the back of the book for “Dallmeyer’s Celebrated Telephoto Lenses as used by Mr Dickson in South Africa”.

    The Battle of Spion Kop demonstrates that the telephoto lens did work at times as one of the three shots (taken from the same position) is clearly closer to the action than the others.

    Didn’t know about Memorial Day – happy to have been inadvertently timely.


  3. This was a fun read. I am currently enjoying the Flicker Alley Méliès box and reading Abel’s “The Ciné Goes to Town”, so anything from this period is catching my interest. You mention this is not available online, but it’s a shame that it isn’t on DVD anywhere. (Or if it is, let me know.)

    – The Mysterious Ad) B(e;ta[m.a.x.
    (formerly posting on your site as “Editor A”, please excuse my silly monikers.)

  4. You have some good reading and viewing matter there. I don’t know of any of the Dickson Boer War films being available on DVD. Other Boer War films (chiefly produced by Robert Paul or the Warwick Trading Company) can be found as compilations at

  5. The main Boer War items to see on the British Pathe site are:

    (I get a namecheck on three of those records as I helped identify the individual items, some years ago now)

    British Pathe recently underwent a change of ownership and the site has had some changes (not least the conversion of the videos to Flash, which you can now see automatically instead of having to register beforehand). I’ll be writing a post on this in due course.

  6. I have original glass plate negatives from 1899, one is called “flietende Kafferin” two of Cape Town and some of the boer generals. Several more of the gold mines in the old Transvaal and one of the Peace treaty of Vereeniging.

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