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Research Article

“The Mirror with a Memory”: The Great War through the Lens of Percy Brown, British Correspondent and Photojournalist (1914-1920)

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ABSTRACT

This article examines the “path of crazy paving” of Percy A. Brown, a British working-class carpenter, figure skater, photo correspondent, and magazine journalist, who covered the twentieth century’s first mass media war. Brown—who is not yet a household name in terms of British war correspondents—would go on to become an international reporter, successful author, and Fleet Street personality. His personal history and biography exemplify at once the demands of war correspondents and photographers, and the professional and personal challenges that mediated these experiences. Brown’s story shows how the First World War (1914–1918) affected people’s lives, not just on the battlefields and trenches, but also those covering the conflict. By backtracking this journalist’s nontraditional career, this article focuses on Brown’s coverage of the Western Front, his time in the Ruhleben prison camp, and his work at the Paris Peace Conference. The historical analysis rests on primary sources and Percy Brown’s collection of pictures, news clippings, correspondence, and notes located at the Hoover Institution and Archives at Stanford University. Brown’s journalism and his personal writings all communicate the immediacy with which he wrote, reported, and lived.

“For days there had been rumours. But there had been so many rumours, so many disappointments. Then, definitely, and officially, came the word we had waited for … the enemy had asked for quarter. Our prison world was in dissolution, part of the greater dissolution of the collapsing German state.”Footnote1 That morning in November 1918, a train loaded with rebellious Kiel sailors, waving their guns and red flags, passed the Ruhleben camp. “Brothers, the Revolution is here, we bring you freedom!” they shouted.Footnote2

Percy Brown raced back to his wooden barrack with the mission of filling his haversack with three tins of drippings and some chocolate. “Being a pressman,” he wrote, “it was I who first recovered from the shock of our dream-come-true, and dashed into my bunk to collect some precious passports—tins of drippings—to grease my way through the gates.”Footnote3 The entire camp was in upheaval. Brown bribed three German soldiers with the prized beef fat, then climbed over the fence and escaped. Making his way to town, the journalist hopped on the “rattling old” Spandau streetcar headed to Berlin, the Reich’s capital, which was only a short ride away. “The passengers stared at me stupidly,” Brown wrote, “for I was the only happy creature on that tram.” When he gave the children his milk chocolate, which he had hoarded for months, their faces lit up. “I might have given them gold,” he later remembered.Footnote4

The Great War (1914–1918) propelled Percy Brown’s career as a press photographer and author in the early twentieth century (See ). The conflict was at once a modernizing force for information warfare but also changed how journalists covered the four years of fighting.Footnote5 Reporters became modern eyewitnesses to a war in which news entangled with propaganda, censorship, and infinite control of government. One of these reporters was Percy Brown, whose curious life story has not yet been told. The British photojournalist and entrepreneur became a First World War correspondent via an unusual route. “Here is the middle slice of my story, not in graceful design of fine mosaic, but a track of crazy paving,” wrote Brown in his 1944 autobiography Almost in Camera.Footnote6 By all accounts, Brown was a resourceful man. He started out as a carpenter, morphed into a figure skater, worked as a World War I photo correspondent, then rose to the position of editor, and later became an enigmatic businessman. He was born in 1885 as Percy Arnold Brown into a working-class family in Shrewsbury, a medieval-looking town in England’s West Midlands. During the Great War, Brown provided frontline pictures and news stories from France, Belgium, and Germany to The London Graphic. In 1915, however, he was captured by the Germans—who accused him of being a spy—and locked him up at the infamous Ruhleben prison camp, where Brown continued to take photographs. In November 1918, after Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate, Brown was the first English correspondent in Berlin. Armed with his camera, he took photos of the socialist revolutionaries, interviewed officials, and described scenes of uproar. His unique collection of primary records and stories chronicles the battlefields, soldiers, and artillery at the Western Front, his interactions with British troops, French censors, German military police, his taxing time in war prison, and his coverage of the Paris Peace Conference.

Figure 1. Percy Brown Papers, Box. No. 3, Pre-WWI, Mis. Portraits. Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University. Percy Brown is sitting on the left, looking into the camera

Figure 1. Percy Brown Papers, Box. No. 3, Pre-WWI, Mis. Portraits. Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University. Percy Brown is sitting on the left, looking into the camera

This article offers an interpretation of Brown’s narratives, sacrifices, and lessons of his time as a war photographer and correspondent. As a young, working-class British reporter, Brown was ever the entrepreneur who used his ingenuity, grit, and photography skills to succeed in his career on and off Fleet Street. His reflections, stories, and the negatives of images—which he kept and archived long after the First World War was over—are instructive for anyone seeking to understand the dynamics of wartime journalism, the conditions under which news and images were sourced, and the pressures on the free flow of information during this period. The history of Percy Brown also indicates that World War I war correspondence was not necessarily an exclusive elite affair and career. Brown symbolizes an entrepreneurial spirit and a skilled generalist who zigzagged his way around the Western Front and often took great personal risks to get “scoop.” This account stands in contrast with other British World War I correspondents such as Sir Philip Gibbs, arguably the most well-known and studied British war reporter, who used his access to opinion leaders and officials to leverage his coverage and provide news to audiences back home.Footnote7 When Gibbs was knighted in 1920, he was heavily criticized for having been part of the Ministry of Information’s wartime propaganda.Footnote8 Brown, on the other hand, gained access to events, battle scenes, and human-interest stories by being energetic, tough, and he often challenged authorities.Footnote9 These two journalists knew each other, and on occasion collaborated with each other during and after the war, as Brown recounted.Footnote10

What sets Brown apart from what we already know about World War I journalists, however, is how deeply unimpressed he was by elites and authorities—working with but often around them—to get his stories and exclusive pictures. In addition, Brown’s approach to writing war stories, his pragmatic optimism, and his reflections on the importance of his photographic work, add rich detail to historians’ understanding of how war correspondents sourced information, worked around censors, and even survived in enemy prisons. The theme of “pathfinding” permeates Brown’s legacy and career. “During the last twenty-five years I have taken thousands of photographs, and no two jobs were alike,” reflected Percy Brown in 1944. “Every job was an experiment and an experience. There was always a new angle.”Footnote11

Photojournalism and Wartime Correspondents in World War I

The historiography of First World War photographers is tied to the history of wartime pictures, questions of access, military censorship, and the materiality of portraying human conflict and death.Footnote12 Percy Brown was taking photographs and writing stories at a time when mass media, in particular newspapers and photographs, were the primary means through which people understood the Great War. The British illustrated press relied on war photographers to provide visual images for their news reports.Footnote13 At the onset of the conflict in summer 1914, all British correspondents were banned from the front, and the documentary of events was left to members of the military staff. Information reports were released to the intelligence headquarters in London and, after many censors flexed their pens, eventually passed down to the press. Since newspaper owners and editors almost unanimously supported the war against Germany and Austro-Hungary, however, the British military was pressured to give in and allow coverage of battles and troops. The hope was that this type of visual reporting would increase newspaper sales while also capturing the reality of the war.Footnote14 The British government loosened its restrictions in 1915 and allowed correspondents on the battlefields.

Contrary to the restrictions of access for the British press, American correspondents had covered the conflict from the start of the war, well aware that these stories influenced public opinion.Footnote15 By the end of 1915, more than 500 American correspondents were working in Europe for various news outlets and magazines. The best-known American war correspondent was Richard Harding Davis, who covered every major battle until his death in 1916, including the first weeks of the Great War in 1914.Footnote16 The only African American foreign correspondent accredited by the U.S. government was Ohio newspaper reporter Ralph Waldo Tyler, who primarily wrote about black American soldiers on the Western Front.Footnote17 The famous American photographer W. H. Durborough chronicled the trench warfare in France and Belgium as well as attacks on the Eastern Front.Footnote18 In early 1915, the U.S. government warned the British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey that without constant coverage of the war, Britain and France could lose “the battle for American public opinion.”Footnote19 This exertion of foreign pressure had an impact on the British military, which decided to loosen press censorship in June 1915 in order to accredit a small number of British war correspondents and photographers. Britain’s most famous World War I correspondents, including Philip Gibbs (London Daily Telegraph and Daily Chronicle) and William Beach Thomas (The Daily Mail), have received much scholarly attention.Footnote20 Historians have also studied the exceptional career of British working-class photographer Ernest Brooks—the first official British war photographer during the Great War—and how both amateurs and soldiers carried cameras and became eyewitnesses during this period.Footnote21

Military Censorship, Government Propaganda, and the Press

Journalism scholars widely agree that war correspondents are subject to social contexts, pressures from authorities, and “time, space, and deadlines” that mediate their experiences.Footnote22 In addition, scholarship on the history of military, media, and conflicts has documented governments’ firm censorship efforts and war reporters’ difficulties to providing comprehensive, let alone objective coverage. Michael S. Sweeney’s body of work has shown how the press-military frictions grew during the early twentieth century.Footnote23 The Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), specifically, was a unique precursor to later twenty-century propaganda and information wars. In their goal to shape the narrative and manipulate the truth, Japanese censors delayed and regulated correspondents’ access to news and used a pool system to share official information.Footnote24 Military censorship, as Phillip Knightley has argued, became the “dominating feature of the reporting of the First World War, crushing correspondents into virtual silence.”Footnote25 Routinely, military or local police held back or jailed reporters. Some scholars have also contended that American and British correspondents during World War I served, deliberately, as “virtual extension of the British and American propaganda efforts.”Footnote26 As Percy Brown’s story shows, this was not always the case. Some non-accredited journalists could get their news and images to the public, even while interned in enemy prison. In the first half of the war, Brown worked as a freelancer and covered some frontline battles. His collection shows that he often took pictures after the fighting was over, portraying military and material wastelands, what historian John Taylor has called the “bazaar of death.”Footnote27 The British press used war photographs as government propaganda to visualize stories on patriotism, heroism, and national unity.Footnote28 This visual storytelling had a dialectical function; it moved news from the front to home narratives and back again to the front.Footnote29 Wellington House, which orchestrated British propaganda during the war, was working efficiently but in total secrecy so that even the British parliament was ignorant of the existence of large-scale propaganda units.Footnote30 By trying to spread propaganda through unofficial sources, the British tried to avoid the mass publicity campaigns and hubris, which characterized the German approach.Footnote31 Yet historians of the First World War have also found that official propaganda in the press was often discarded or ignored because audiences, and in particular soldiers, were expecting it.Footnote32

Other scholars have asserted that war journalism epitomizes an ideal of photojournalism as photographs of war supply national symbols of patriotism, solidarity, death, and sacrifices.Footnote33 Although Brown did not comment extensively on propaganda, his personal story shows that freelance journalists and photo correspondents provided crucial information to the British public in the fall of 1914 and early 1915, at a time when no British journalist was officially accredited to cover the Western Front. Some war correspondents produced an over-optimistic depiction of trench warfare, and these frames distorted domestic audiences’ understanding of the war, historical scholarship argues.Footnote34 In the case of Brown, his images and stories from the front and his prison time were raw, honest, and did not idealize the conditions. From a cultural and theoretical perspective, historians of film, photography, and the press have also studied the significance of photography for memory and truth in war.Footnote35

By the start of World War I in August 1914, the global public knew what a war correspondent was.Footnote36 Before 1914, the role of war-photographer was not clearly defined and photographs of previous battles, including battlefields, were subject to censorship and generally not allowed to be published.Footnote37 The Crimean War (1853–1856), the U.S. Civil War (1861–65), and the Russo-Japanese conflict (1904–5) illustrate how mass media increasingly relied on photographs, and that there was a growing recognition for the role of war and photo correspondents. During the American Civil War, for instance, pioneer war photographers Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner took thousands of posed portraits and static images before and after battles, furnishing the evidence for how the nation witnessed the conflict.Footnote38 At the same time, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly, the nation’s two leading illustrated publications, printed war correspondents’ art on their cover pages and helped popularize pictorial news.Footnote39 Scholars have also chronicled the rise of women correspondents during the Great War, the unique challenges of female war correspondents, and their complex relationship to both authorities and audiences.Footnote40 The experiences of Percy Brown fit in with existent scholarship, as he, too, benefitted from the desires of the public and from publishers for pictures, governments’ inept control of press censorship, as well as sheer luck. At the same time, Brown’s account is unique since German military police imprisoned him for several years, and during this time, he continued to write about his experiences as an interned British correspondent. After his release, Brown picked up his camera and continued to cover Berlin’s socialist revolution in November 1918. His career, arguably, really took off during and after this period. Brown’s accounts provide new insights that go beyond what historians already know about World War I press-photography. Research on Brown is historically significant because of his surviving archives and his sobering experience in the German prison camp. Brown’s experience—and his skills—were refined enough so that his editors in London offered him a very good job in journalism after the war. Throughout his career, the Great War remained a turning point for him, and shaped his views on the importance of photo correspondence, “the mirror with a memory,” as he called it.Footnote41

Primary Sources and Method

In order to backtrack the “path of crazy paving” that Percy Brown describes in his memoirs, this study examines his front photographs, dispatches, editorial notes, and other unpublished archival materials that discuss aspects of his work as a photojournalist and his time as a prisoner of war. The Percy Brown papers are located at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University and were acquired by Stanford University in 1988. To date, scholars have not systematically analyzed them. The papers, which include his passports, countless photographs from the war, letters, newspaper clippings that include his Ruhleben incarceration, and memoirs, are an incredible resource. For instance, his archival records include unedited captions of his pictures. In many cases, photos that appeared in the British press did not cite the photographer, let alone any notes or suggestions for captions.Footnote42 Secondary documents, including Brown’s books Almost in Camera, Around the Corner, and Germany in Dissolution, as well as digital newspapers from the weekly newspaper, the London Graphic, were accessed through the British Newspaper Archive and The British Library archives. Historians of the Great War have noted that the patchwork style of biographical writing is an important approach that enriches our knowledge of the war.Footnote43 Moreover, the dialectical relationship between history and memory, what historians call Alltagsgeschichte, has become part of the historian’s toolbox.Footnote44 Historians can gain valuable insight from this collection, even if we consider Brown’s writings and reflections with a degree of skepticism, since he might have had financial motifs or social ambitions when sharing his account with the British public. This study’s two undergirding research questions ask: Who was Percy Brown and how did he provide journalistic overage of the First World War? Secondly, how did his experiences—from covering the Western Front, to being detained as a prisoner of war, to reporting the Paris Peace talks—affect his life and professional outlook on photojournalism? This article highlights three episodes of Brown’s life, including: British Press Photographer in World War I (1914–15); Ruhleben Prison Camp and “Germany in Dissolution” (1915–1918); and Paris Peace Conference (1919–1920).

British Press Photographer in World War I (1914-1915)

Little is known about Brown’s initial reaction to the outbreak of the war. In his writings, Brown did not discuss how, or if, he was assigned to cover the conflict. His records show that Brown arrived on the European continent shortly after the German invasion of Belgium in early August 1914. The 29-year-old novice reporter had traveled from England to northern France, where he worked as a freelance war and press photographer, primarily for the illustrated magazine London Graphic.Footnote45 British authorities did not accredit him. For a few days, he was in Paris, then spent considerable time in Antwerp, stayed in Ostend, and traveled to various battlefields. His records show that the Graphic publications printed his accounts, referring to Brown as “our contributor,” and stressing his formidable and “exclusive” access to news. Brown’s collection of pictures from the war is voluminous, and his photos afford us a vivid picture of the times. In chronicling the demands of modern warfare, Brown moved back and forth between styles. He would sometimes pose his photo subjects, in particular officials, but he really excelled in taking action shots or still pictures of battlefields, war-torn towns, buildings, artillery, military transportation, and the countryside. Through Brown’s lens, we see both aggressors and victims of the war. We see people who are alive, wounded, and dead. He photographed individuals and groups of soldiers, civilians, and bystanders. These photographs and Brown’s notes—which he scribbled on the back of his images—show a man who took on journalism as a trade and developed his skills along the way, often harping on the fact that his style was not very refined and lacked technique.Footnote46

Coming of age at the turn of the century, “Perse,” as his editors and colleagues called him, had no university education and no formal training in writing or photography. He had left his hometown, which is close to the Welsh border, in 1906 to work as a carpenter in San Francisco for two years, helping to rebuild the city after the devastating earthquake.Footnote47 Upon his return to England, at the age of 23, he became an award-winning figure skater and professional roller-skating expert at the Olympia Rollerskate Rink in London. Images of him indicate that Percy Brown, at 5 feet and 10 inches, with his blue eyes, dark-reddish hair, and poignant nose, was a handsome man. He liked to take pictures—and loved pictures of himself. His personal papers and records include several black and white photographs of his London skating days.Footnote48

Photographing the Western Front

Among Brown’s war records is a black and white photo from Belgium in 1914 titled (See ), “German prisoners being brought in by French cavalry.”Footnote49 Published by Central News, the picture shows nine German prisoners of war, flanked on each side by seven French guardsmen on horses, a car, and one motorcycle. Most of the men look directly into Brown’s camera, who was likely perched on the side of the road. The scene and angle of this German prisoner group make this photo—which is in focus and well lit—a first-rate example of war photojournalism. In another striking picture titled “WAR!” Brown chronicled the catastrophic destruction of the French city of Reims by the German army in late September 1914 (). The British correspondent captured a wide street or avenue once lined by magnificent houses but now burned to the ground. Dark smoke amplified the eerie atmosphere. Rubble was everywhere but no person in sight. The photo caption on the back of the portrait included Brown’s instructions for the picture editor: “A Street in Rheims. This can be had darker as it is in the original if necessary. Have left it lighter so that the artist will have something to work on. Foreground should be darker leaving light and faint mist in distance.”Footnote50

Figure 2. Percy Brown Papers, Box. No. 3, Pre- WWI, Mis. portraits. “German prisoners being brought in by French cavalry” Belgium 1914. Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

Figure 2. Percy Brown Papers, Box. No. 3, Pre- WWI, Mis. portraits. “German prisoners being brought in by French cavalry” Belgium 1914. Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

Figure 3. Percy A. Brown, September 1914, “WAR! A STREET IN RHEIMS. This can be had darker as it is in the original if necessary. Have left it lighter so that the artist will have something to work on. foreground should be darker leaving lights and faint mist in distance.” Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

Figure 3. Percy A. Brown, September 1914, “WAR! A STREET IN RHEIMS. This can be had darker as it is in the original if necessary. Have left it lighter so that the artist will have something to work on. foreground should be darker leaving lights and faint mist in distance.” Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

In another front image, titled “British and German wounded on stretchers near Carnoy, August 1915,” Brown photographed four soldiers, two Germans and two British, stretched out on gurneys, smoking, and talking. They all looked directly into Brown’s camera lens (See ).Footnote51 This image suggests, of course, that Brown sought and used his access to create pictures that were newsworthy and interesting. Back in London, in December 1914 the Graphic published Brown’s pictures of a British monitor, a warship that was part of the Royal Navy’s fleet and carried large guns. Brown, in fact, often pictured the British military’s equipment and technologies, including tanks, boats, and battleships. One of his images, taken in Malo-les-Bains—outside of Dunkirk and near the Belgian border—shows a tank, marked RN77, with seven soldiers holding large guns (See ). His caption on the back of the image reads, “First British armored car. From this evolved the tank. The first armored car is on the left and the next stage of development is shown on the right.”Footnote52

Figure 4. Percy Brown Papers, Q. 906. “British and German wounded on stretchers near Carnoy. August 1915.” Imperial War Museum, South Kensington, S.W.7., Box 2, WWI-front lines and trenches, 3.5, Folder 5. Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

Figure 4. Percy Brown Papers, Q. 906. “British and German wounded on stretchers near Carnoy. August 1915.” Imperial War Museum, South Kensington, S.W.7., Box 2, WWI-front lines and trenches, 3.5, Folder 5. Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

Figure 5. Percy Brown Papers, “First British armoured car. From this evolved the tank. Scene at Malo-les-Bains, France near the Belgian border. The first armoured car is on the left and the next stage of development is shown on the right.” WWI-front lines and trenches, 3.5, folder 5. Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

Figure 5. Percy Brown Papers, “First British armoured car. From this evolved the tank. Scene at Malo-les-Bains, France near the Belgian border. The first armoured car is on the left and the next stage of development is shown on the right.” WWI-front lines and trenches, 3.5, folder 5. Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

In October of 1914, Brown reported from Ostend, Belgium’s strategic coastal hub and a popular seaside resort for the wealthy. One of his photos shows a truck, loaded with British civilians, nurses, and military police, as well as wounded soldiers in the back (). Brown’s pencil inscription reads: “Naval Brigade prepares to Defend Ostend. A large number of the Naval men and officers of the Naval Brigade from Antwerp arrived in Ostend and are preparing to defend the city against German attack.”Footnote53 A second photo caption described: “a lorry load of wounded Marine Light Infantry just arrived in Ostend from Antwerp. The pluck and heroism of these men when in Antwerp compelled the admiration of all.” And on the back of this photograph, Brown penciled: “please acknowledge ‘topical’ War Service—expediency delivery?”Footnote54 This note sheds light on how he might have moved his images to his publishers, although it remains unclear how he bypassed the military censors. Then, another picture from the Belgian seaport shows a boat scene, titled: “Last boat to leave Ostend as the Germans came in.” Percy Brown is at the center, wearing a brown cap and dark leggings, and the woman on the left is identified as “Miss Bennett Burley, daughter of famous war correspondent of Times.”Footnote55 Brown later described that he escaped in this rowing boat from Ostend as the Germans occupied the city in October 1914. He also made room for Billy Gore, a British politician who would later be part of the disarmament talks in Versailles, where Brown would meet him again.Footnote56 His bosses and colleagues admired the fact that Brown had escaped from Ostend in this fashion. “I was praised by both office and subject,” Brown later described. “When the pictures appeared, the other cameramen went to the Press bureau to find out who had taken them.”Footnote57 This suggests that although Brown lamented his lack of technique or equipment from time to time, others respected his bold style that led to exceptional photo material.

Figure 6. Percy Brown Papers, “Naval brigade prepares to defend ostend” Box 2, WWI-front lines and trenches, 3.5, Folder 5. Hoover Institution Archives, copyright Stanford University

Figure 6. Percy Brown Papers, “Naval brigade prepares to defend ostend” Box 2, WWI-front lines and trenches, 3.5, Folder 5. Hoover Institution Archives, copyright Stanford University

If access was restricted and there was so much competition, how did Brown get these kinds of pictures? On Dec. 12, 1914, Brown penned a column for the Penny Pictorial, titled “At the Front with a Camera, How I Secured my War Photographs,” in which he explained some of his methods to readers.Footnote58 This article also featured a photo of the Naval Brigade at Ostend, and 12 members in a truck. The newspaper teased its readers that this was “another striking photograph obtained by our contributor, of Belgians shooting at a German monoplane during the bombardment of Antwerp.”Footnote59 From a small French seaport, where he made a makeshift headquarter, Brown reflected on the adversary relationship with censors, who tried to restrict his access to battlefields. “The gendarmes are down on one at the first sight of a camera,” Brown wrote, “and the police station is far from comfortable—I know it well.” He also described his reporting tactics. Lying, as he wrote, was one of them: “I have lied my way from Oostende to Antwerp, out beyond the Nete [river] and to Ypres and back again.” In terms of dealing with the authorities at the front, Brown described that he had used the seal of an ordinary English envelope, or his inability to speak French to say: “What time is it, monsieur?” until French authorities were tired of him and would let him pass through or release him from their local prisons.Footnote60 These stories illustrate some of Brown’s unorthodox ways to get his pictures and news, but other records show that Brown helped fellow Britons escape and had a jovial relationship with other journalists. Brown’s personal outlook often influenced his photo subjects. “Only a happy camera-man can make happy pictures,” he argued. “Note the faces in any picture papers, and, gay or gloomy, those faces reflect the mood of the photographer.”Footnote61 In Almost in Camera, Brown later explained that all British soldiers, which he called “Tommies,” wanted photographs to send home, and most of them liked to see their pictures in the paper. While being an eyesore to military authorities, he was “popular enough” with the British soldiers and troops to get his job done, he wrote. War photography, as Brown later reflected, was a matter of accessing the reality while the stakes were high. “A man may describe what he has not seen, he cannot photograph it: to get good pictures he must go right into things. When he has reached the firing line, the photographic correspondent must bear in mind that if anyone sees his camera, he will be under arrest before he knows where he is. That danger avoided, there still remain shells and stray bullets to guard against.”Footnote62

Challenges, Competition and Fellowship among Correspondents

In his news stories and columns, Brown often reflected on his job’s unique challenges. “Press photographers have been so hardly dealt with during this war that to secure photographs at all has been something of a feat.”Footnote63 Specifically, Brown discussed the hurdles of photo correspondents when moving along the frontlines: “The gendarmerie hounds him down, the military authorities would like him swept from the face of the earth,” he wrote, “the Censor suppresses him rigidly—he is the most unpopular man in the world.”Footnote64 He also noted that the British public complained that there were too many pictures of refugees, wounded soldiers, German prisoners, and not enough “real” front news. To him, the thrill of the profession was unparalleled, Brown wrote. Being a photo correspondent meant to be “where things are happening” and to get pictures, “no one else has achieved.”Footnote65 Percy Brown was well aware of the explicit dangers of war photographers. “To take a photography under fire is not quite so easy as some people imagine—the camera is apt to break. I know mine did when I snapped a shell exploding between the German and Belgian lines outside Antwerp, and again when I took a house struck by a shell in Boom.”Footnote66 Still, the presence of his camera gave Brown confidence when covering battles: “When I see or hear shell-bursts near me I duck and run. Fortified by my camera I stay and get the pictures.”Footnote67 This exemplary wartime account, perhaps, sheds light on Brown’s determination to take photographs:

When working a camera, I was close to life all the time, for a camera-man must be right on the spot. If you miss the incident, it has gone forever as far as you are concerned. A reporter can be late and still get his stories … The best cameramen were not fashion-plates. But they were tough. Their first quality is reliability. They get their pictures even if they have to fight for it. You had to take snubs from the snobs and a battering from the police.”Footnote68

On the issue of competition between correspondents, Brown remarked, “Naturally there is plenty of rivalry among Pressmen: everyone wants to make a ‘scoop’ to get the one and only picture or piece of news. But there is much good-fellowship too. Among some correspondents a regular system of exchange-and-mart obtains; they will always give a “quo” for your “quid,” usually a fair one.”Footnote69 At the same time, the journalist acknowledged that he owed many war pictures to the “kindness of naval officers” and to good Belgian friends, which may help to grasp Brown’s character and social skills. On occasion, Brown would go to great lengths to reconstruct news. For instance, he once missed Belgian King Albert I reviewing the troops in the marketplace of Furnes. In order to get a picture of the scene, Brown bicycled from Dunkirk to Furnes in West Flanders and bought the negatives from the actual photographer. It took him “four hours talk to persuade the brother,” he wrote. Then, Brown stayed in the same hotel, laid in the King’s bed, and wrote a story about that experience, which was published back in England. “That is the only one of my pictures,” the journalist noted, “which I did not take myself, but I think more of it than any of the others.”Footnote70

Ruhleben Prison Camp and “Germany in Dissolution” (1915-1918)

In the fall of 1915, the reporter traveled to the Swiss-German border to document a prisoner exchange. After some “hazardous adventures,” Brown wrote, German troops captured him for crossing enemy lines, and a German counter-intelligence unit jailed him. In a twist of fate, Brown had been wanting to take pictures of prisoners—but became arrested himself. Accused of being a British spy, Brown was transported across the Reich and spent a few months at the central Berlin Stadtvogtei prison. “The Germans said I had been sent by Captain Spencer, head of the British Secret Service,” Brown wrote. During these “dreary months” in the Stadtvogtei prison, he read leftist editor and publisher Maximilian Harden’s Die Zukunft for the first time.Footnote71 Brown, impressed by this journalist’s anti-authoritarian reporting and progressive stance, continued to follow Harden, who was called Germany’s enfant terrible by the Entente press.Footnote72 Eventually, Brown was moved to Ruhleben, a civilian prison camp (Kriegsgefangenenlager), outside of the German capital.Footnote73 Ruhleben, located 15 km west of the city and close to the industrial suburb of Spandau, was an odd place. While the Germans called this place “the Gentlemen Camp” and Ruhleben, indeed, offered many amenities to the 4,000 British civilians who were captured when the war broke out, it was no utopia.Footnote74 The German newspaper Die Woche reported in its November 1914 issues that all British citizens between 17 and 55 years, either traveling or living in Germany, were enemy aliens (Feindstaatenangehörige) and would be arrested and detained.Footnote75 Estimates suggest that during the war, several thousand Britons were imprisoned in Ruhleben.Footnote76

Ruhleben had originally been a racetrack (Trabrennbahn) and thus all prisoners were housed in stables or wooden barracks, which Brown remembered as “cold” and “rat-infested.”Footnote77 All prisoners dreamt of being home, but “morning brought cruel awakenings,” he wrote.Footnote78 Behind the barbed wire fence was a road, then a railway track, and the industrial Spree River.Footnote79 Prisoners often stood behind the fence to watch trains headed to the Reich’s capital go by. Opposite of the camp was a Prussian ammunition factory that worked “day and night,” Brown recorded. Astonishingly, Brown was able to keep his camera and notebook while at Ruhleben. He continued to report for the Graphic, for instance in 1917 under his own byline, underscored by the information “Percy A. Brown. An Interned Correspondent.”Footnote80 His notes and pictures provide an invaluable eyewitness account of the people and conditions in the internment camp. In Ruhleben, there was a black market for “everything,” Brown told his readers. Sometimes even leftist literature, including Harden’s work, was smuggled in. Brown, who learned “camp German,” remembered that he and others devoured these newspapers and information on the war. Inside the camp, the recreational choices, as Brown’s pictures and reports show, included a hairdresser (open daily from 1–2 p.m.), a daily paper (The Ruhleben News) a coffee shop where prisoners queued up for a hot cuppa, the Ruhleben literary and debating society, and concert parties.Footnote81 These classical concerts and entertainment, as Brown described, suggest that prisoners had access to precious musical instruments. Ruhleben also had a drama club, which performed Shakespeare.Footnote82 There were educational programs, arts, and religion, sports, a horticultural association, and even a cricket club.Footnote83 Indeed, the Grand Stand at Ruhleben—where Prussia’s upper class had watched horse races until August 1914—became prisoners’ favorite place for “friendly gossip.” Over the course of his three years at Ruhleben, Brown took pictures of boxing matches and orchestra performances, which were published in the British press.Footnote84 It is unclear if Brown ever contributed to the prison magazines or newspaper, or at least not under his byline.Footnote85 Another question that remains is: how was he able to send his reports and pictures back to his London editors?

In contrast to other German war prisons, the British captives at Ruhleben were not forced to work. In fact, guards allowed the prisoners to organize themselves. Historians have argued that this rare form of self-governance fostered a sense of community among the prisoners and created solidarity across social, race, and class markers.Footnote86 German propaganda did its part to publicize a positive Ruhleben image: “British subjects in Germany, with very few exceptions, are being treated with every polite consideration, and enjoy comparatively great freedom,” reported the Berliner Tageblatt on Nov. 4, 1914.Footnote87 This type of propaganda was common, as all belligerent states spread images and news via the press to show that captives were treated well.Footnote88

Israel Cohen, a fellow Englishman, British journalist, and internee, characterized Ruhleben as a place of “rules, regimen and rumours.”Footnote89 His 1917 account, which he published soon after he was released and back in England, provides insights into how Cohen was detained, transported to Ruhleben, prison pictures and maps, and stories of how he had access to the German press. Cohen was interned for nineteen months and his personal account shows that he, too, was allowed to keep and use his camera.Footnote90 In addition to Cohen’s report, Brown’s pictures and stories illustrate the prison’s diverse social makeup, “a mixed lot of prisoners in German hand,” as he called it.Footnote91 The demographics among Ruhleben captives included seafarers 34.5%, businessmen 24%, professional 18%, workmen 16.5%, and miscellaneous 7%.Footnote92 Another Ruhleben peculiarity was that streets and intersections were named after British landmarks, such as “Trafalgar Square” or “Bond Street,” which created the effect of a miniature Empire. That Empire, however, also included racial segregation, as Brown’s observations show. For instance, he took a picture titled “Caught in the White Men’s War,” in which the correspondent portrayed the barracks of black internees—but he also revealed his own prejudices.Footnote93 In his article, Brown highlighted blacks’ passion for music and that these internees were very “peaceable” and the “happiest” and “cleanest” men in the camp. Many of these “unfortunate prisoners,” as Brown wrote, had no idea why there were even incarcerated. Was he suggesting that white prisoners had more or better information?Footnote94 Records suggest that between 1914 and 1918, fewer than 60 inmates died in Ruhleben, most of them from natural causes. This is a remarkable figure considering that during the Great War, 16 million people were killed and 20 million were wounded. Overall, 8 to 9 million men were taken prisoner during the war and at least 750,000 died in war prisons.Footnote95

Working in Enemy Prison as Generalist-Journalist

Inside the Ruhleben camp, Brown put his diverse skills to use. He worked on carpentry projects and did odd jobs for other prisoners, albeit “not always with admiration,” as he remembered. His records give us a glimpse into how the German and British governments dealt with the civilian internees. “The British civilian prisoners at Ruhleben were forgotten neither by their Government, nor by their relations who, even when the food shortage at home was acute, always found plenty for the parcels,” the correspondent described. “It is to the credit of the Germans that, though the parcels went through the hands of many hungry men, they arrived intact.”Footnote96 The British government, relief organizations, and prisoners’ relatives continued to send food and utensils to Ruhleben. “We were the best-fed prisoners,” Brown wrote, jokingly. “No matter how many ships were sunk, we got our parcels.”Footnote97 The British government installed bakeries in Holland from which they sent long loaves of white bread to Ruhleben, Brown reported. However, meager rations in the camp were a constant reminder of the British naval and economic blockades. After 1916, the German Empire could not provide enough food for its citizens, let alone feed its prisoners. The memory of going hungry during his Ruhleben days had a lasting impact on Brown. After the war, for instance, he wrote that he “took any opportunity on the side to make money,” from working weddings to serial writing and publicity because, “having starved once or twice in my life, the experience made me enjoy my food when I got it.”Footnote98

Among Brown’s records are several images of himself and of other Ruhleben prisoners. One picture, in particular, shows the fall 1915 conditions in the camp.Footnote99 Percy Brown is in the picture, looking well fed, shaved, with blankets, and laying in straw. Next to him is a smoking prisoner with a dark hat (see ).Footnote100 “My first night in prison, really a stable. With me are an American movie man named Wilson, center, Cusden, and English cameraman. I am on the left feeling even worse than I look in the picture.”Footnote101 In another photo, dated summer 1917, Brown and four other prisoners of war are pictured sitting in reclining seats and enjoying the warm sun. “Lovely, lazy deck-chair days in Ruhleben. Percy Brown wearing cap. Note barbed wire behind. Gerry is next to me with book on legs,” he noted.Footnote102 The photo caption read: “First World War, 1917. After Mr. Gerard, American Ambassador, had visited the internment camp tipping us off that war was turning in our favor, the German authorities became less strict, so we bought deck chairs and took life easier.”Footnote103 As mentioned earlier, it seems surprising that Brown was allowed to keep his camera and successfully published work during his stay in prison. The Graphic ran his story, headlining it “The Luck of Ruhleben Camp” on Dec. 15, 1917.Footnote104 In that edition, Brown shared pictures of prisoners, their orchestra, as well as camp “celebrities,” including a man who had been a lion and bear tamer outside of the prison walls.Footnote105 For this work, the Graphic Publications paid him two hundred pounds after the war, which he put aside “for a special purpose,” Brown recalled.Footnote106

Figure 7. Percy A. Brown, 1915 “My first night in prison, really a stable. With me are an American movie man named Wilson, center, Cusden, an English cameraman. I am on the left feeling even worse than I look in picture.” Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

Figure 7. Percy A. Brown, 1915 “My first night in prison, really a stable. With me are an American movie man named Wilson, center, Cusden, an English cameraman. I am on the left feeling even worse than I look in picture.” Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

These anecdotes and observations help us see how this journalist—over time and by being practical—made sense of the new surroundings. “I remained the onion, but a happy onion,” Brown later wrote as he talked about the diverse skillset he put to use in Ruhleben.Footnote107 He was not idle but in search of a purpose even though he was confined and did not know if, when, or how the war would end. More broadly, Brown’s lived experiences show how civilians were affected in World War I. His mother, too, inquired about her son’s whereabouts and wrote to the British government in the fall of 1915.Footnote108 The time as a prisoner had both sociological and psychological impacts on Brown. In 1944, he described “the bitterness” toward Germans and for the years “enduring their wretched prison.”Footnote109 In his writings and memoirs, Brown discussed the hardships of his imprisonment, including the impacts on his health. When Brown returned to his mother’s home in Shrewsbury after the war, he described the agony—what others called the “barbed-wire disease”—the nightmares about his time in the camp, and his “curious complaint,” the fear of going asleep. “No matter how I tired myself, I slipped back into dreadful nightmares,” he wrote. “I was either back behind barbed wire or in prison. I woke up sweating, the raucous shouts of the soldier warders still in my ears.” His doctor said these prison experiences had taken Brown to the “the borderlands of madness.”Footnote110 In Paris 1919, Brown also described that his eyes were weak after the German prison experiences. Since he could no longer focus—but needed excellent vision as a press photographer—the journalist came up with a new string method, tying “knots at a yard’s interval” to take sharp portraits of officials at Versailles.

Armistice and Reporting from Revolutionary Berlin, 1918

When the war ended in early November 1918, Brown was lucky and escaped from Ruhleben a few days before the Armistice, as recounted earlier. “The first authentic news we had was in a smuggled newspaper, telling us that the German Navy had mutinied at Kiel,” he wrote.Footnote111 In his records and stories, Brown reported on the final days of the war from Berlin, which he called an “exhilarating experience.”Footnote112 A black-and-white portrait showed the correspondent right after the war, “just after being released,” as the caption read (See ).Footnote113 Having arrived in Berlin, Brown was looking for a place to eat and went to the famous Adlon hotel, where the staff welcomed this haggardly looking “Englishman” warmly, now that the war was almost over.Footnote114 When he ventured into the city with his camera, he was stunned: “At first glance nothing seemed amiss in Berlin; just groups of gossipers at street corners. I caught up with a procession of soldiers and civilians singing the Marseillaise, and joined in.” As Brown observed the revolutionary chaos, he noted, “No window was without its red flag, the new emblem. There were thousands of all sizes.”Footnote115 Brown even claimed that he was the first British photographer in Berlin after the end of the war. And while this is hard to substantiate, he captured images of the revolutionaries, including Karl Liebknecht, but also scenes of Berlin streets and civilian barricades.

Figure 8. Portrait of Percy A. Brown (Following his release from the Ruhleben prison camp in the fall of 1918). Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

Figure 8. Portrait of Percy A. Brown (Following his release from the Ruhleben prison camp in the fall of 1918). Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University

After the Armistice had been struck on Nov. 11, 1918, Brown’s career in journalism took off. Brown wrote stories and took pictures of the socialist revolutionaries, their marches, and their red flags. His records include a picture of him riding on an armored truck headed for the Reichstag. Brown reported on how he had jumped on this truck and photographed the rioters. He described them as Spartacists, who were in conflict with the provisional government and called for a revolution.Footnote116 One of his collections’ most notable photograph is a close-up image of Karl Liebknecht—the leading German socialist politician—talking to a large funeral crowd and honoring seventeen killed revolutionaries at the Friedrichsfelde cemetery.Footnote117 In December 1918, Brown was still in Germany and back in full swing as he reported for the Graphic on the turmoil of Germany’s port cities.Footnote118 In one story from Dec. 21, 1918, titled “The Collapse in Kiel,” Brown produced a picture essay that showed how German submarines were being dismantled. He also captured many pictures of German and British seamen on the docks.Footnote119 During these weeks, as Brown reflected after the war, he had lived through the lens of his camera. “I could not drop my camera. I was the mechanic and liked using my hands to make something. The same came after the carpenter’s tools. With it, I could turn out a finished job of pictures—something complete and quick.”Footnote120

Paris Peace Conference: “A Story of Words without Action” (1919-1920)

In the aftermath of the Great War, “there was plenty of material for pictures and articles,” Brown observed. He was especially interested in unique topics and current events coverage and not the “rough and tumble routine work” of ordinary photographers. First, the correspondent finally traveled home to his mother in late 1918. Back in England and in his mid-thirties, Brown was unsure what to do next. In one chapter of his autobiography, he asked himself whether he should go “back to the bench or on to Fleet Street?” Although he had covered the war, revolutionary Germany, and the country’s transition after the collapse of the military rule, he had serious concerns that his style might not fit in with Fleet Street papers and editors. In his records, he noted that, surely, there would be no opening now that the real pressmen were back from the war. “Fancy trying to compete with their technique, accuracy of distance, judgment to a split-second exposure! I regarded Press-photography as a mystery craft the secrets of which are rarely divulged. I must be content with my run of luck, now ended, in being able to bluff my way, with war-luck, into a game I did not understand.”Footnote121 He discussed his career options with his mother while staying at her home in Shrewsbury. Brown felt that his mother had been alone for too long, and the emotional toll of his imprisonment weighed heavily on her. At the same time, “funds were low” and a small business was “out of the question,” he noted in his memoirs. Luck, once more, would be on his side.

One afternoon, Brown received a telegram from the director of The Graphic publications, Mr. William Will, who proposed a meeting in London in early January 1919. Will’s magazine, he wrote, had already published some revolution pictures and stories that Brown had brought back from Germany. He wanted to talk to Brown about employment. Yet Brown was hesitant. “I still felt I could not bluff past friends into the real Fleet Street: too much technique necessary,” he pondered.Footnote122 Brown, encouraged by his mother, took advantage of this opportunity and only a few days later traveled to London to meet with Will. Brown described the dialogue with his editors over a lunch of steak and red wine as: “The Paris Peace Conference was about to begin. Would I like to cover it? I said I would, having no idea how to go about this colossal subject.”Footnote123 The Graphic editors also stressed that, “new ideas were wanted by newspapers,” and that they wanted to “save” Brown from competition with the experienced photographers. Therefore, Brown was hired as a staff correspondent for the magazine. “If ever I thrilled about anything it happened when I was given a job on the staff of Graphic Publications, which included the London Graphic, the Daily Graphic, and the Bystander. To be with such a team was like sailing under the flag of a very happy ship,” he wrote, excitedly.Footnote124 Brown also noted that the editorial staff at Tallis House, home to the Graphic offices, knew about his work and that afternoon received him as if he had “won the war, instead of having photographed only a bit of it.”Footnote125 He then met with the firm’s chief photographer, Alfred Abrahams, who laughed aloud when he saw Brown’s rusty camera and equipment.

His next assignment, alas, was to report the Paris Peace Conference. Brown knew that this would be a prestigious but challenging task.Footnote126 He was asked to providing copy, including interviews, and photographs. The conference, where the Allied Powers discussed the peace terms and reparations for Germany, began on Jan. 18, 1919, and took over a year. “So I went to Paris—a nice quiet job, the Peace Conference, which wrote the script for the World’s greatest drama, now showing,” Brown wrote in his memoirs.Footnote127 Brown’s notes detail that he attended the opening sessions, during one of which he watched Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary during the war, “sleep like a baby through one of Wilson’s speeches.”Footnote128 Covering the Paris Peace Conference was like “producing a film, colossal edifices of plaster which went into dissolution when the show was over—for that was all it was,” Brown wrote, sarcastically. “A few are still alive who made peace, and still criticizing their own handiwork, knowing that the public has a short memory.” His reflections from this time are often marked by a critical—and cynical—stance toward authorities and their propaganda. Yet he was part of the international press corps to report on the Paris conference, this “theatrical production.”Footnote129 Press historian Joseph Hayden has argued that the American press, in particular, gained new power in covering presidential policy and shaping diplomacy at the 1919–1920 peace talks.Footnote130 Brown reported that the “colossal preparations” behind the scenes were often more interesting than the official program. Much of his enterprise work focused on the wrangling of statesmanship, British politicians, and, of course, getting their pictures.Footnote131 Covering the peace talks at Versailles was a baffling job, Brown remembered, a job that was “a story of words without action.”Footnote132 For instance, in 1919 Brown wired a note to his editor that the long speeches, the tedious meetings of delegates who had already forgotten what they had been sent for, the swank and snobbery, and “the complete lack of goodwill and co-operation” made it very hard to write about, let alone photograph the events.

Turning down Intelligence Work and Professional Reflections

Remarkably, in 1919, Brown’s records show that he was approached by the head of British Military Intelligence to work as a special agent “under the screen of the Press,” which meant getting information out of postwar Germany to England. Brown was invited to travel from Paris to London, where he had a secret meeting in Whitehall about this mission. A “generous cheque” paid for all expenses. While he was not opposed to doing intelligence work on behalf of the government per se, as “I was prepared to take on a special job where I might do some good,” Brown consulted with his Graphic editor, and eventually decided against doing espionage.Footnote133 “On the way over I was struck by the irony of the offer. I had spent three years in German prisons and stables because the Germans said I had been sent by ‘Captain Spencer,’ head of the British Secret Service, and now I was to meet him!”Footnote134 He was shaken by this experience, fully aware that other pressmen would not pass up this opportunity. “When I got outside the wonderful-looking building I breathed with relief, as my mind imagined hundreds of busy little spies hatching out traps for the future enemy,” Brown noted. “I have often wondered if I took the wrong turning.”Footnote135

Back on the Continent and this time rightfully employed by the Graphic, Brown kept publishing about Germany’s “dissolution,” and worked on a long feature article “Why Germany lost the war: Ludendorff’s Apologia,” which would be published in the Graphic magazine on Oct. 18, 1919. This piece, as Brown wrote, included “exclusive pictures of the German general, who published his war memoirs “My War Memories 1914–1918.”Footnote136 His reporting of the immediate aftermath of the war continued to be featured in the British press.Footnote137 As part of his coverage of the Treaty of Versailles, Brown also interviewed Dr. Wilhelm Solf, the propaganda director at the German Colonial Office, about Germany’s war reparations. The interview took place at Solf’s office, located on Berlin’s elegant Wilhelmstraße, the center of power, a couple of blocks from the Reichstag building.Footnote138 In 1920, Brown snuck aboard the icebreaker Skiatook as an international correspondent for The Daily Graphic en route to rescue the icebound Soviet ship Solovei. In April 1923, Brown visited the Krupps factory in Essen and wrote how the Germans were, in fact, not vigorously disarming.Footnote139 During this time, Brown remembered, he was eager to “plunge into the Press game and learn it properly.” He described his enormous flexibility and ability to cover subjects from war, revolution, to conducting interviews with statesmen. His colleagues, comically, called him “the onion” since he was so versatile and had several layers that revealed new ideas, approaches, and perspectives. He eventually adopted this nickname for himself. Reflecting on the importance of having supportive editors, Brown stated, “When you have the confidence of the firm you can do no wrong; you get your pictures how you like, but you get them, and nothing matters. If anyone comes to the office complaining of the behavior of a cameraman, the boss assumes the complainer has tried to obstruct his man.”Footnote140 In describing the postwar years, Brown wrote, “Those were very full days, but I never tired, for I was invited to the parties. The rich were good to the Press now that the ration card was abolished and treated us to wonderful food and wine.”Footnote141 After doing a stellar job in Paris, in the early 1920s, he was hired as art editor of Current Affairs, Ltd. “I have been dodging an office job for years,” Brown commented, “but it has caught up with me at last.” During the next years, he shared many professional observations about the news industry, in particular, “the amount of money and trouble editors devoted to getting exclusive pictures.”Footnote142 His pictures and records give us a good insight into the material aspects of his work. “Journalism gave me a free front seat everywhere … for everything on the road there is nothing to pay if you work on a newspaper. And the wage is a thousand a year.”Footnote143 From 1922–1930, he worked as a photojournalist and editor for The Daily Sketch on London’s Fleet Street.

Conclusion

In 1967, the British magazine NEWS summarized the memory function of photographers: “Either you let a fast-clicking camera do the seeing for you, or you use your camera as a very personal optical instrument to record the memory of your own discriminating vision. Either way the press camera is for recording history. Which way is a matter of debate.”Footnote144 This study followed the lived experiences of Percy Brown, who used his journalism skills to be resourceful and resilient during war, even when he was covering the Western Front or facing pressure from authorities. And, even when he was detained as a prisoner of war. Percy Brown was a photojournalist during World War I, but he was also a carpenter, figure skater, a witness to destruction and death, a prisoner of war, an international correspondent, editor, and later hotelier and insurance agent (see ).Footnote145 While the period between 1914–1920 is only a small slice out of his life, the experiences shaped much of Brown’s personal and professional paths. In his writings, repeatedly, Percy Brown focused on the unique truth-value of pictures that cuts through any metaphors or interpretive frames.Footnote146 Brown humanized the war for his audiences. He captured images of British troops and soldiers, images of German prisoners of war, their endless artillery and ammunition, and images of public figures visiting the front. Through the grit of his life and reporting style, his genuine writing and photography, and perhaps sheer “war-luck,” as he described it, he was able to become a well-respected photographer, successful journalist, and later a Fleet Street editor.Footnote147 A book review for his autobiography, Almost in Camera, described Brown’s personality as “buoyant” and “ebullient” and that it “triumphs over all setbacks.”Footnote148

Figure 9. Percy A. Brown (left, undated, Photograph by F.A. Bailey, 16 Tookes Court, Furnival St., E. C.). Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University. Brown is pictured on the left, holding the camera

Figure 9. Percy A. Brown (left, undated, Photograph by F.A. Bailey, 16 Tookes Court, Furnival St., E. C.). Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University. Brown is pictured on the left, holding the camera

By seeing these war experiences through the eyes—and lenses—of individual journalists, scholars can draw larger lessons and comparisons.Footnote149 Brown’s photography, coupled with his reflections, provide new insights into the roles and pressures on World War I journalists. Brown’s life story, as a singular anecdote, adds valuable perspectives to press historians’ understanding of working conditions during this period. The results of this study open up new avenues for transnational or international comparisons on World War I correspondents or freelancers who covered the war—enthralled by the adventure and enticed by the demand for news—but perhaps because they were not traditional journalists, have not yet received much attention.

Brown’s experiences also illustrate the suffering he endured in the Ruhleben internment camp. While he may have received better treatment than most war prisoners did, he was detained for three years and faced grim costs: emotionally, physically, and psychologically. This episode of his life shows the sacrifice that journalists make during wars and when covering conflicts. While historians have often argued the press during World War I was a mere tool—fooled or threatened by government censors—Percy Brown’s eyewitness account and his unique perspectives add nuance to this interpretation. Almost half a century after the end of World War I, Brown’s biography and his actions were framed as instructive for younger photographers. Calling him “the complete photographer,” a British magazine commented in 1967 that Brown’s journalistic work and his professionalism served as a model to others.Footnote150 “There is a man I don’t suppose any of you have ever heard of—a photographer called Percy Brown. He is about 88 now and living in San Francisco, and Percy Brown was a press photographer and a photojournalist,” the article read. “Give him a day’s assignments and he would look at them and say, ‘Right, that’s my day’s work’ and off he went and completed it.” Brown’s work taught others “that you can be a good press photographer, or better still a good photo-journalist, but that best of all you can be either as the occasion demands.”Footnote151

Disclosure Statement

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Additional information

Notes on contributors

Elisabeth Fondren

Elisabeth Fondren, an assistant professor of journalism at St. John’s University in New York, holds a Ph.D. in media and public affairs from Louisiana State University. Her research explores the history of international journalism, government propaganda, military and media relations, and freedom of speech during wartime.

Notes

1 Percy Brown, “I Saw Berlin Collapse in the Last War,” Feb. 11, 1945; Percy Brown papers, Box 1, Folder 1.2, Hoover Institution and Archives, copyright Stanford University. (Hereinafter Percy Brown papers, Hoover Archives).

2 Percy Brown, “When Germany Cracked,” The Daily Graphic, 1918, 7; Percy Brown papers, Box 1. Folder 1.2, Hoover Archives.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 For an overview of World War I photojournalists, see: Michael Griffin, “The Great War Photographs: Constructing Myths of History and Photojournalism,” in Picturing the Past: Media, History, and Photography, eds. Bonnie Brennen and Hanno Hardt (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 122–57; Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and John Taylor, War Photography: Realism in the British Press (London, UK: Routledge, 1991).

6 Percy Brown, Almost in Camera (London, UK: Hollis and Carter, 1944).

7 See the biography on Gibbs: Martin C. Kerby, Sir Philip Gibbs and English Journalism in War and Peace (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

8 During World War I, military and government agencies censored, selected and filtered photographs according to their propaganda value.

9 Percy Brown papers, Box 2, WWI-Front Lines and Trenches, 3.5, Folder 5. Hoover Archives. In this photo Percy Brown is standing next to five older men, whom he identified as Members of Parliament. Brown, wearing a dark hat and suit, is holding his camera and jotting down the names of the politicians on a piece of paper attached to his camera screen while standing in the middle of a street.

10 Brown, Almost in Camera, 2–3. Brown remembered that after the war Gibbs put in a good word for him and this prized reference helped Brown get a temporary job.

11 Ibid., 3.

12 Tim Luckhurst, “War Correspondents,” in 1914–1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, eds. Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson (Berlin, Germany: issued by Freie Universität Berlin, 2016).

13 Thierry Gervais, “Witness to War: The Uses of Photography in the Illustrated Press, 1855–1904,” Journal of Visual Culture 9, no. 3 (2010): 370–84. The author points to the Crimean War (1853–1856) and the Russo-Japanese conflict (1904–1905) during which mass media increasingly relied on photographs.

14 Martin J. Manning and Clarence R. Wyatt, eds. Encyclopaedia of Media and Propaganda in Wartime America, vol. 1. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011).

15 This figure is cited in Clarence R. Wyatt, “Correspondents (World War I),” in Encyclopedia of Media and Propaganda, 258.

16 Rodney Stephens, “Shattered Windows, German Spies, and Zigzag Trenches: World War I through the Eyes of Richard Harding Davis,” The Historian 65, no. 1 (2002): 43–73; and Philip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

17 Alfred Lawrence Lorenz, “Ralph W. Tyler,” Journalism History 31, no. 1 (2005): 2–12.

18 Cooper C. Graham, “The Kaiser and the Cameraman: W.H. Durborough on the Eastern Front, 1915,” Film History: An International Journal 22, no. 1 (2010): 22–40.

19 Wyatt, “Correspondents,” 457.

20 Ibid.

21 See: Jane Carmichael, First World War Photographers (London, UK: Routledge, 2018); Hilary Roberts, “Photography in 1914–1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, eds. Daniel et al., issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin; and Taylor, War Photography: Realism in the British Press, 20–24, 42–51. Also see: Griffin, “The Great War Photographs,” 123.

22 Kerby, Sir Philip Gibbs and English Journalism in War and Peace, XIV.

23 Michael S. Sweeney, The Military and the Press: An Uneasy Truce (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006).

24 Michael S. Sweeney and Natascha Toft Roelsgaard, Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War: The End of the Golden Age of Combat Correspondence (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019); and Michael S. Sweeney, “‘Delays and Vexation’: Jack London and the Russo-Japanese War,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 75, no. 3 (1998): 548–59.

25 Knightley, The First Casualty, 16.

26 Wyatt, “Correspondents,” 459.

27 Percy Brown papers, Box 2, WWI-Front Lines and Trenches, 3.5, Folder 5. Hoover Archives.

28 John Taylor, War Photography, 165. Also see: Philip M. Taylor, “The Foreign Office and British Propaganda during the First World War,” Historical Journal 23, no. 4 (1980): 897.

29 Ibid., 24. John Taylor has argued that World War I, World War II, the Falkland conflict and the uprising in Northern Ireland have been examples of how photographs and the British press became part of the government’s official narrative that emphasize patriotic duty and national unity.

30 Michael L. Sanders, “British Propaganda and Wellington House during WWI,” The Historical Journal 18, no. 1 (1975): 119–46.

31 Elisabeth Fondren, “Publicizing Tragedy: The Sinking of the Lusitania as an International News Story,” Southeastern Review of Journalism History 1, no. 2 (2019): 1–20.

32 Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1992).

33 Griffin, “The Great War Photographs,” 122.

34 Luckhurst, “War Correspondents.”

35 For pertinent scholarship on photography during wartime, see: Jason Lee Guthrie, “Ill-Protected Portraits: Mathew Brady and Photographic Copyright,” Journalism History 45, no. 2 (2019): 135–56; Thierry Gervais, “Witness to War: The Uses of Photography in the Illustrated Press, 1855–1904,” Journal of Visual Culture 9, no. 3 (2010); Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York, NY: Noonday Press, 1989); Gerald L. Fetner, “Modern Foreign Correspondents after World War I: The New York Evening Post’s David Lawrence and Simeon Strunsky,” American Journalism 34, no. 3 (2017): 313–32; and Justin Court, “Picturing History, Remembering Soldiers: World War I Photography between the Public and the Private,” History and Memory 29, no. 1 (2017): 72–103.

36 War correspondents had previously covered geo-political conflicts in Turkey, Crimea, and the U.S. Civil War.

37 Robert Pearce, “The Results of the Crimean War,” History Review 70 (2011): 27.

38 Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs: Images as History-Mathew Brady to Walker Evans (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1990); and Robert Wilson, Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2013).

39 Jennifer E. Moore, “The Artist as Reporter: Drawing National Identity during the U.S. Civil War,” Journalism History 44, no. 1 (2018): 2–11.

40 Carolyn M. Edy, The Woman War Correspondent, the US Military, and the Press: 1846–1947 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016); Stephanie Seul, “A Female War Correspondent on the Italian Front, 1915–17: The Austrian Travel Journalist and Photographer Alice Schalek,” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 21, no. 2 (2016): 220–51; and Brooke Kroeger, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (New York, NY: Times Book/Random House, 1994).

41 Brown, Almost in Camera, 173. Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to photojournalism as a “mirror with a memory” in his magazine article “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Atlantic Monthly 3, no. 1 (1859): 4.

42 The British photojournalist Lieutenant Ernest Brooks, the son of farm laborers, had a working-class background like Percy Brown and became a highly successful photographer. See: Jane Carmichael, First World War Photographers (London, UK: Routledge, 2018); and Hilary Roberts, “Photography in 1914–1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, eds. Daniel et al. (Berlin, Germany: issued by Freie Universität Berlin).

43 See: Alf Lüdtke, “Alltagsgeschichte–ein Bericht Von Unterwegs,” Historische Anthropologie 11, no. 2 (2003): 287, quoted in Court, “Picturing History, Remembering Soldiers,” History & Memory 29, no. 1 (2017): 78.

44 Ibid.

45 While Brown’s work was commissioned by the weekly newspaper The Graphic, the same publishing company, Illustrated London News Group, also published an illustrated morning newspaper Daily Graphic, with had a circulation figure of 60,000 copies just before the war in 1914. For detailed figures and a discussion, see: John M. McEwen, “The National Press during the First World War: Ownership and Circulation,” Journal of Contemporary History 17, no. 3 (1982): 468.

46 Almost in Camera, 1.

47 Brown was a carpenter’s apprentice at Treasure & Sons in Shrewsbury.

48 Percy Brown papers, Box. 3, Pre-WWI, Mis. Portraits. Hoover Archives. As a figure skater, Brown won a gold medal and was honored by the National Skating Association. Brown wrote a skating manual in 1953, titled “Roller Skating, Practical and Theoretical, Origins, Development and Possibilities.”

49 Percy Brown, “German Prisoners Being Brought in by French Cavalry” Belgium 1914. Percy Brown papers, Box. 3, Pre-WWI, Mis. Portraits. Hoover Archives.

50 Ibid.

51 Percy Brown papers, Q. 906. “British and German Wounded on Stretchers Near Carnoy. August 1915.” Imperial War Museum, South Kensington, S.W.7., Box 2, WWI-Front Lines and Trenches, 3.5, Folder 5. Hoover Archives.

52 Ibid.

53 Percy Brown papers, “Naval Brigade Prepares to Defend Ostend” Box 2, WWI-Front Lines and Trenches, 3.5, Folder 5. Hoover Archives.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid.

56 Almost in Camera, 6.

57 Ibid.

58 Percy Brown, “At the Front with a Camera. How I Secured My War Photographs,” Penny Pictorial, Dec. 12, 1914, 87–89. Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945. Hoover Archives.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid.

61 Almost in Camera, 39.

62 Ibid., 88.

63 Percy Brown, “At the Front with a Camera. How I Secured My War Photographs,” Penny Pictorial.

64 Ibid.

65 Almost in Camera, 87.

66 Percy Brown, “The Luck of Ruhleben Camp,” Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945. Hoover Archives.

67 Ibid.

68 Almost in Camera, 4.

69 Ibid.

70 Almost in Camera, 89.

71 Almost in Camera, 225.

72 German Foreign Office, Political Archive, R 121893, AA, Nov. 24, 1915. Harden’s magazine Die Zukunft was read internationally and in 1915, the German military decided not to censor his work because this would only increase more interest.

73 Almost in Camera, 2.

74 Johannes Habermehl, “Die ‘Stacheldrahtkrankheit’ trieb viele in den Tod,” Die Welt, Oct. 23, 2018.

75 Die Woche, Nr. 46, Berlin, Nov. 14, 1914, 1857.

76 The Ruhleben inmate population was 4,273 in February 1915 and 2,300 in November 1918. This figure is cited in Matthew Stibbe, British Civilian Internees in Germany: The Ruhleben camp, 1914–18 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2008).

77 Percy Brown, “My Three Years in Rat-Infested Ruhleben,” 203. Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945. Hoover Archives.

78 Lewis Foreman, “In Ruhleben Camp,” First World War Studies 2, no. 1 (2011): 27–40.

79 Alexandra Ludewig, “Visualising a Community in Incarceration: Images from Civilian Internees on Rottnest Island and in Ruhleben during the First World War,” War & Society 35, no. 1 (2016): 54–74.

80 Percy Brown, “The Luck of Ruhleben Camp,” The Graphic, Dec. 15, 1917. Percy Brown papers, Box 2, Ruhleben POW Camp, 3.6. Hoover Archives.

81 Percy Brown, “My Three Years in Rat-Infested Ruhleben,” 203. Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945. Hoover Archives.

82 Ton Hoenselaars, “In Exile with Shakespeare: British Civilian Internee Theatre at Ruhleben Camp, 1914–1918,” Shakespeare in Southern Africa 23, no. 1 (2011): 1–10.

83 “The prisoners of Ruhleben,” BBC, Aug. 35, 2014.

84 Percy Brown, “My Three Years in Rat-Infested Ruhleben.” Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945. Hoover Archives.

85 On World War I prisoner of war newspapers, see: Rainer Pöppinghege, Im Lager Unbesiegt: Deutsche, Englische und Französische Kriegsgefangenen-Zeitungen im Ersten Weltkrieg (Essen, Germany: Klartext, 2006).

86 John D. Ketchum, Ruhleben, a Prison Camp Society (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1965).

87 Berliner Tageblatt, morning edition, Nov. 4, 1914, 3.

88 Heather Jones, “Prisoners of War,” The British Library, Jan. 29, 2014.

89 Israel Cohen, The Ruhleben Prison Camp: A Record of Nineteen Months’ Internment (London, UK: Methuen, 1917), 29.

90 Cohen, The Ruhleben Prison Camp. In this book, Cohen included more than twenty-six pictures and illustrated maps of the camp.

91 Percy Brown, “The Luck of Ruhleben Camp,” 786. Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945. Hoover Archives.

92 Ketchum, Ruhleben, a Prison Camp Society, 22–23.

93 Percy Brown, “The Luck of Ruhleben Camp,” 786. Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945. Hoover Archives.

94 Percy Brown, “My Three Years in Rat-Infested Ruhleben,” 6. Percy Brown papers, Hoover Archives.

95 Heather Jones, “Prisoners of War,” in 1914–1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, eds. Daniel et al. (Berlin, Germany: issued by Freie Universität Berlin); and Corydon Ireland, “Home Rule within Enemy Lines: Capturing Life in a WWI Internment Camp,” Harvard Law Today, Nov. 24, 2014.

96 Percy Brown, “My Three Years in Rat-Infested Ruhleben,” Percy Brown papers, Hoover Archives.

97 Ibid.

98 Almost in Camera, 3.

99 Percy Brown papers, Box 2, Ruhleben POW Camp, 3.6. Images from Ruhleben Prison Camp. Hoover Archives.

100 Ibid.

101 Ibid.

102 Ibid.

103 Ibid.

104 Percy Brown, “The Luck of Ruhleben Camp,” Percy Brown papers, Box 2, Hoover Archives.

105 Ibid.

106 Almost in Camera, 40.

107 Ibid., 39.

108 The National Archives in London holds a document FO383/27 about Percy Brown. A 1915 letter of inquiry was written by Muriel Edgcumbe Martin of Derby on behalf of Brown’s mother.

109 Almost in Camera, 224.

110 Ibid., ivv.

111 Percy Brown, “I Saw Berlin Collapse in the Last War” The Graphic, Feb. 11, 1943. Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945, Hoover Archives.

112 Percy Brown, “When Germany ‘Cracked”, The Daily Graphic, 1918, 7, Percy Brown papers, Box 1., Folder 1.2, Hoover Archives.

113 Percy Brown papers, Box 2, Ruhleben POW Camp, 3.6. Hoover Archives.

114 Ibid.

115 Ibid.

116 Ibid.

117 Percy Brown, “I Saw Berlin Collapse in the Last War” The Graphic, Feb. 11, 1943. Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945, Hoover Archives.

118 In early November 1918, rebellious sailors of the North Sea fleet in Kiel, the major Baltic Sea port, refused orders from the German Admiralty to continue to fight the Royal Navy. See: Edgar Joseph Feuchtwanger, From Weimar to Hitler: Germany, 1918–33 (New York, NY: Springer, 1993).

119 Percy Brown, “The Collapse in Kiel,” The Graphic, Dec. 21, 1918. Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945, Hoover Archives.

120 Almost in Camera, 11.

121 Ibid., 1.

122 Ibid., 2.

123 Ibid., 3.

124 Ibid., 3.

125 Ibid.

126 Ibid.

127 Almost in Camera, 5.

128 Ibid., 9.

129 Margaret MacMillan, Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War (London, UK: John Murray Publishers, 2001), 71.

130 Joseph R. Hayden, Negotiating in the Press: American Journalism and Diplomacy, 1918–1919 (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2010).

131 Almost in Camera, 10.

132 Ibid., 11.

133 Ibid., 9–11.

134 Ibid.; Brown wrote: “Looking back on the experience, I don’t believe there ever was a Captain Spencer. More likely our authorities built up the myth to fool the enemy and did it very successfully. But the Germans almost put me against the wall for knowing him!”

135 Almost in Camera, 11.

136 Percy Brown, The Graphic, Oct. 18. 1919. Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945. Hoover Archives.

137 Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945. Hoover Archives. These articles included: “My Three Years in Rat-Infested Ruhleben”, by Percy Brown (The Great War … I Was There! Undying Memories of 1914–1918) and “Unrepentant Germany: Daily Graphic” Correspondent on Berlin and Peace Conference, Dec. 21, 1918.

138 The office address was: Wilhelmstraße 62. See: Eberhard von Vietsch, Wilhelm Solf. Botschafter zwischen den Zeiten (Tübingen, Germany: Wunderlich, 1961).

139 Percy Brown papers, Box 1, World War I, Newspaper Articles 1914–1945. Hoover Archives.

140 Ibid., 5.

141 Almost in Camera, 11.

142 Ibid.

143 Ibid., 2.

144 Percy Brown Papers, Box 2, 200 “Press Photographs and Photo-Journalists,” NEWS, July 1967. Hoover Archives.

145 Ibid. Brown’s autobiography, “An Adventurous Life” was reviewed in The Times on Nov. 20, 1934 (“An Adventurous Life,” p. 19, Col. D). “He was in Belgium before the fall of Antwerp, doing a good business for newspapers in the adventurous capacity of unofficial photographer. Then, for once, he suffered from his inexperience: he allowed himself to be enticed into Germany by German agents who took him for a spy: and he passed the rest of the war in Ruhleben.”

146 On truth in photography, see: Barbie Zelizer, “When War Is Reduced to a Photograph,” in Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime, eds. Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer (London, UK: Routledge, 2004), 125–45.

147 Percy Brown papers, Box 2, Properties 1937–1944. Hoover Institution and Archives. Brown’s papers suggest that during that period, at age 52, he was still working as a journalist but not eager to plunge into the reporting of World War II. Later in life, Brown did not only cover wars, diplomacy and political news but also British society and their luxurious summers at the French Riviera. In July 1948, The World Press newspaper announced that Percy Brown, “for many years one of Kemsley’s ace photographers leaves on a freelance world tour.”

148 Ibid.

149 Court refers to this as the dynamic between “the public and the private” in: Court, “Picturing History, Remembering Soldiers.”

150 Percy Brown papers, Box 2, 200 NEWS, July 1967, “Press Photographs and Photo-Journalists.” Hoover Archives.

151 Ibid. In the early 1930s, Brown became a hotelier but continued his foreign correspondence and international assignments. A 1948 press card issued by the International Organization of Journalists listed “illustrating journalist” as his occupation and Kemsley and World Press News as his employers. That year Brown and his wife left England for San Francisco, California, where he became a successful life-insurance agent. When he was 88, he was living at 2310 Chestnut, Apt. 4, off of Lombard Street near the San Francisco Bay.

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