Long before Zoom, British soldiers used technology to stay connected during World War II

Just under 80 years ago, World War II’s so-called Forgotten Army — the British soldiers who fought alongside Allied Forces in India and Myanmar, also known as Burma, at the tail end of the war — turned to new technology for morale and much-needed social connections during the war. Their experiences show us just how valuable screen time can be, even if imperfect.

All of the British Empire became involved in World War II. India was critically important to the British, sending 2.5 million soldiers to fight under British command and supplying billions of pounds in financing. Japan invaded the neighboring British colony of Myanmar in 1942, cutting off a key supply line to China — and making Southeast Asia a major theater of the war. Eventually the Allies’ success restored Myanmar to British rule, although both it and India gained independence in 1947. Britain’s aim in fighting was to reclaim its lost colony (Myanmar) and prevent the Japanese invading an even bigger imperial prize, India.

The British troops faced unique challenges. Malaria and dysentery were rife in Myanmar, and the monsoons and humidity there made for grueling conditions for all sides. Just as difficult was the fact that soldiers were rarely granted leave because of the distance between South Asia and Britain, which meant some soldiers spent up to six years away from their families. This had very real consequences for soldiers’ morale and family relationships.

Relying on letters was dispiriting — each soldier could only send up to eight letters by airmail per month (which took almost three weeks to reach home), while mail sent via ships took around three months.

Maj. Jack Frost, a former BBC radio presenter, struck on a solution to boost morale and a sense of connection across the kilometers: a film format that would be called “Calling Blighty.” The army would film men (or the few women who were army personnel, too) from the same region delivering messages to their loved ones and then get in contact with each of the soldiers’ families at home, inviting them to a local cinema along with the other soldiers’ families to watch the film.

Author Steve Hawley is writing a book on the series and refers to the films as “one-way Skype” and “talking postcards.” He believes their significance can’t be overstated: “They’re an extraordinary confrontation with the past. All of these men have died — nearly all. So there’s a great sense of loss.” While the surviving films mostly boast a range of northern English accents, the complete collection would have featured men from across the whole of the U.K. This means they would have acted as “a kind of Doomsday Book of accents and regional references: People talk about their local football teams or rugby teams or places they love.”

Watching the films, patterns emerge. Army personnel talk about chasing the Japanese out of Myanmar while using the racist pejorative common to the time. Upper lips remain resolutely stiff, soldiers declare, “As you can see, I’m well,” and thank their families for their letters. Many reel their missive off by heart as it might appear on the page: “I am” instead of “I’m,” signing off with “All love, Harry.” Unaccustomed to the alien technology, others choke in front of the camera, stuttering in embarrassment: “Oh, blimey … I’m sorry, I’m a little bit st-stagestruck.”

But on the occasion the speakers rise to the challenge posed by context, the films raise goosebumps.

Flying Officer Timmins in Myanmar uses Lancashire dialect (he uses the word “gradeley,” meaning excellent) and lashings of gallows humor to conjure up the strangeness of the situation: ordinary British soldiers shown in a format usually reserved for Hollywood icons.

“This film comes to you by courtesy of the bully beef, beans and browned-off tea corporation, showing you some of Britain’s bonny boys stationed in Myanmar. Of course folks, you have seen Hedy Lamarr with Charles Boyer, you have seen Dorothy Lamour, in and out of her sarong … but you have seen nothing yet ’til you have seen the stars in the green battle dress. Ee, it’s a real gradely place, a real gradely place for anybody to die in.” At this point, the soldiers beside him laugh.

Tommy Walsh was just 12 when he watched one of the Calling Blighty films in the Regal Twin Cinemas in Manchester in the ‘40s — the soldier Vincent Jeffers had married his oldest sister. He remembers an emotional roller coaster. On watching the film in the packed cinema, his sister’s “excitement couldn’t be contained at seeing her husband. But then when we all went back home, she broke up. Tears flowed then. She was thinking about where her husband was and not being in touch with him.”

Many of these videos were rediscovered in 1983, when builders clearing asbestos from the cellars of Manchester Town Hall stumbled across 23 film cans and got in touch with the North West Film Archive to preserve them and share with surviving family members.

Nobody could deny that these films pack a huge emotional punch. Still, it’s difficult to watch them now without thinking of all the missing faces in these films. The British soldiers were a minority in the army they served in, fighting alongside a majority made up of soldiers from the Commonwealth countries — the bulk of whom hailed from the British Indian Army, one of the largest volunteer armies in the world, along with soldiers from East and West Africa, Myanmar and the West Indies. None of these soldiers were given the same courtesy as the British soldiers: the chance, for 30 seconds at a time, to be a film star and for their messages to be shown in cinemas back home.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a problem limited to wartime. Now, as then, staying in touch via screens is still a question of access and privilege. According to the World Economic Forum, almost half of the world’s population has no access to the Internet. They report that in sub-Saharan Africa, “one gigabit (GB) of data — enough to stream a standard-definition film for one hour — costs nearly 40{b35c63bac5fac9ed648f97d4700fe9ffe9c190bec929f61ce1f7fc4e68d68241} of the average monthly wage.” And this problem isn’t limited to developing countries: The same source also notes that “in Australia, almost a third of less well-off homes have no Internet connection.

Staying in touch via screens isn’t a perfect answer by any stretch of the imagination. All the same, on watching “Calling Blighty,” it’s easy to see that a world without video calls would be an infinitely lonelier, more disconnected one.

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