Excerpt from Callie’s Revolution: The horror of WW1
On their first day, Griffith ordered the troupe to Victoria and Waterloo stations, where the soldiers departed for France. They watched the long goodbyes, the last waves and the shattered look of those left behind, as they left the station without their loved ones. Callie felt the wrenching emotion, the collective shock of a nation suddenly forced to give up its youth to war.
The Gish sisters were aghast at the stream of casualties arriving from the front-mangled bodies, amputees, paraplegics. But Griffith was adamant: “You want to be actresses, but you’ve never lived. You don’t know what life is all about. I hope you may never again have such an opportunity. But since it’s here, I don’t want you to miss it.”
The actors stood in the shadows studying the dramas unfolding around them, observing mannerisms and gestures that would serve them well in the upcoming film.
The ladies were just finishing breakfast the next morning when a hotel manager informed them that anti-aircraft gun practice was to commence at eleven a.m. and not to be alarmed when they heard gunfire from the roof of the building next door. Just as he said this, the guns begin firing.
“That’s odd,” he said. “They’ve started early.”
Griffith suddenly materialized at their table. “It’s a German air raid!” He was beside himself with excitement. Everyone rushed to a large window in a corridor just as a formation of German Fokkers roared up over the Thames. The 75mm antiaircraft guns opened up on them and filled the sky with shell bursts and trailing tracers that illuminated their trajectory.
Instead of attacking the Houses of Parliament, the planes disappeared in the clouds but bombing could be heard in the distance.
“They’ve hit somewhere,” said Griffith. “Let’s follow them.”
He managed to bribe a taxi to Whitechapel. Callie had grabbed her notebook and piled into the taxi with everyone. She felt the same adrenaline rush that she had experienced in Mexico with the hunt for Villa, but this was London and the bombs were massive.
They got out at a large slum which had taken direct hits and came upon a destroyed building, the smoke still rising from the rubble. People were sobbing and desperate men were trying to uncover buried victims. They inquired about the building and a tearful old man grabbed Lillian’s hands and broke down. It was a school, the kindergarten. “They’ve murdered our little ones. The devils!”
Griffith had removed his hat and was in tears. “This is what war is. Not the parades and conference tables, but children killed, lives destroyed.” He walked back to the cab, shaking his head.
Callie stared wide-eyed at the desperate men clawing the rubble for their children, feeling their grief, recalling the little plaza back in Mexico littered with bodies. But here the scale of destruction was so much worse.
“Callie, we must get back to the hotel,” called Griffith from the idling cab.
A few days later Callie sat in front of a mirror in her nightgown, brushing her hair, saddened that she no longer had her golden desert tan. London was blacked out and it was eerily quiet.
A terrible concussion shook the building and the lights went out. She rushed to the window. The Germans had bombed the Thames embankment, just below her. She could see everything in the moonlight and distinctly hear the cries of the injured. She grabbed a coat and went out into the hall. A woman from the room next door became hysterical and Callie led her downstairs to a safer area.
Everyone gathered in a large dining room where guests were still eating. Another bomb fell, not far away. Callie grabbed a glass of wine someone had left on a table and downed it. It was all too close to her harrowing night in Columbus, but much worse, for death came out of the sky, without any warning, utterly impersonal.
The sisters found Callie huddled in a corner. Dorothy knelt down. “Callie, what‘s the matter?”
Callie stared straight ahead. “I hate this mechanized warfare. It’s so awfully big, like a monstrous machine that no one can escape. It’s much worse than the revolution. I had no idea it was like this.”