Writing History on the Page and Screen: Mediating Conflict through Britain’s First World War Ambulance Trains

Harrison, Rebecca (2015). Writing History on the Page and Screen: Mediating Conflict through Britain’s First World War Ambulance Trains. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 35(4) pp. 559–578.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01439685.2015.1096661

Abstract

This article examines how different forms of writing mediate the past. In doing so, I focus on two ostensibly distinct types of authorship: the light that writing projected on-screen, and the life-writings found in letters and diaries. Between 1914 and 1919 in Britain, cinema and personal testimonies intervened in historiography in apparent opposition to one another. It is easy for us now to assume that state- censored, propagandistic movies narrated the state’s version of the First World War, while secret, illegal accounts written by personnel on the Western Front line described actuality (while letter writing was permitted – subject to censorship – all serving personnel were banned from keeping diaries) However, a study of British ambulance trains reveals that films and life-writings have a shared vocabulary, which complicates the two media’s connections to history and to one another. I argue that by interrogating the motifs congruent on the screen and the page, and by reading films and testimonies in tandem, we can rediscover effaced narratives about wartime conditions and marginalised peoples.

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