To mark the centenary of the First World War, IWM (Imperial War Museums) has newly released the digitally restored The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks on Blu-ray and DVD, with archival extras, features and information about the restoration of this important 1917 war film. The Battle of the Ancre was digitally restored in 2011 by IWM in a collaborative project with the Discovery Channel, and previously green-lit by Sheffield Doc/Fest's CEO Liz McIntyre, whose essay about the birth of war documentary – shared here – is published as part of IWM’s accompanying booklet.

The Battle of The Ancre and Advance of the Tanks: the birth of the war documentary

In 2010, I was a commissioner for the Discovery Channel, with a lifelong passion for archive films. One day, in conversation with the Imperial War Museum’s Paul Sargent and Dr Toby Haggith, they shared their ambition to digitally re-master The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks. I was captivated as they outlined plans to bring this remarkable celluloid film back to life, upholding the vision of the original 1919 IWM archivists of not just holding and preserving film, but restoring it for the appreciation of later generations. I volunteered how honoured the Discovery Channel would be to mark this restoration with a special documentary, in due course commissioning historian Dan Snow’s Battle of the Somme (2012) and the accompanying short How Did They Do It?, about the technical aspects of the restoration.

Being involved with the ‘Ancre project’ was a privilege. It is one of the earliest war documentaries, at the forefront of a new form of storytelling that would change the way we see and experience conflict forever. I vividly recall how I felt seeing scenes carefully stripped of scratches, dust and dirt for the first time – the impact was immediate and profound. An intimate intrusion into a hellish world, revealing fascinating details that had been hidden for over a hundred years, and which significantly add to our understanding of the battle.

I was equally struck by the style, themes and preoccupations of the film, and how these compare and contrast with contemporary war documentaries: propaganda and reality; military prowess and daily trench life; battle and casualty; allies and their relationship with the enemy. The handling of the track of war. 

The 65 minute Battle of the Ancre covers the latter half of the Battle of the Somme and documents two attempts to break through the German line. Resembling a five act play, this silent documentary has a five part, five reel structure, with inter-titles the sole narrative intervention. Unlike a five act play, however, there is little story. Images filmed weeks apart are jumbled for maximum effect rather than chronological accuracy, broadly covering preparations, displays of modern weaponry and equipment, attack, aftermath with the captured and wounded, and scenes to show the fight will go on. 

The surviving shots sheets held at IWM, and many press accounts of the time, attribute all the filming to Lieutenant Geoffrey H. Malins. Although probably responsible for much of it, Malins could not have covered all the action filmed over the three months the footage was gathered and so it is believed that at least some of the filming was also done by Lieutenant John Benjamin McDowell and the Canadian official cameraman Lieutenant Frederick Oscar Bovill.


Lieutenant Geoffrey H. Malins © Imperial War Museums (HU 64119)

The film opens with a frenzy of activity: preparations for battle. Geoffrey Malins’ top shots present an epic display of the vast operations.  We see bountiful supplies arriving from Britain. During restoration, 90 seconds of reel one was rediscovered by the Library of Congress:  the lost scene shows men moving bales of hay for the horses.

Malins’ film treats, with equal respect, all manner and ranks of men that are collectively responsible for the efficient operations of the Army; the dignity he affords his subjects (including the enemy) is notable and key to the film’s power. I am mesmerised by the fin de siècle appearance of some men sporting enormous moustaches, others clean-shaven and looking uncannily like our modern day brothers and sons. Malins seems keen to highlight this time as one of transition, ensuring he juxtaposes horses with motor vehicles, outgoing pipes with incoming cigarettes.

British troops in a film still from Part 2 of Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917). © Imperial War Museums.

We see troops joking, smoking, posing – our heroes. It’s an army like none before: Britain’s professional army had been largely wiped out by 1915. With no conscription until 1916, what we see is an army largely created by volunteers. ‘The Demand for troops is unlimited’, explains a later inter-title. We see the men raise their helmets to the camera. Waving to their families and friends, they are excited by this new form of moving image communication. In the cinemas and theatres back home, wives and sisters no doubt yearned to spot their husbands and brothers amongst the faces.  

The British Army included regiments from all over the Empire, signing up for the noble act of fighting for ‘King and Country’. We sense their optimism and pride. Restoration allows us to pick out new details: the ‘slouch-hatted’ Australians; the maple leaf badges of the Canadians. Soldiers from the Caribbean serving on the Western Front, however, were left deeply humiliated by being permitted only to carry out menial work, assigned shovels rather than guns. In Part 2 of Battle of the Ancre men of the British West Indies Regiment are seen rolling howitzer shells up to the guns. A further humiliation is that this recording of their contribution went unrecognised, as their unit is not identified in the inter-titles. During the Somme campaign, the demand for the labour of the West Indian volunteers grew and brought great dangers as they worked just behind the front line, vulnerable to snipers and shell fire.

Malins and his assistant, cameraman John McDowell, introduce the film’s new military star early on: the “Tank”, complete with inverted commas on the intertitle. A spectacular new creation and the new use of a noun that stuck (adopted for military secrecy) following a throwaway remark suggesting that the steel structure resembled a water tank. One of the ancestors of the tank was a caterpillar-tracked snow vehicle that had been developed in 1908 by engineer Reginald Skelton for Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, which we can see in Herbert Ponting’s documentary film, The Great White Silence (1924).

Malins is clearly aware of the tank’s propaganda value. The camera pans slowly to reveal it in all its glory. In another scene, it dramatically appears from under a covering. What a sight for those back home. Some considered it comical; a clumsy, rhomboid monstrosity to be laughed at just as much as revered. But all knew it was capable of bridging trenches and riding over barbed wire: the contemporary music cue sheet recommended the glorious ‘Entry of the Gladiators, March of Triumph’ for the audiences’ first close-up encounter with the ‘hush hush’ weapon.

A tank in a film still from Part 3 of Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917). © Imperial War Museums.

With the war came new forms of concealment and deception: camouflage – the painting of disruptive patterns to hide outline and form.  Film restoration of Battle of the Ancre reveals early attempts at tank camouflage – the first military vehicles to be painted this way – and also the tank’s name ‘Oh I Say!’ after a stage show. Camouflage was later abandoned on tanks, when mud from the trenches swiftly covered the paintwork.

Contemporary audiences watching Battle of the Ancre would be experiencing some of their first moving images of modern warfare. In contrast to the men showing off their weapons, the cameramen also filmed remarkable scenes of daily life in and around the trenches, testament to the high levels of trust they built with the men. We see a cooker, expertly dug into the side of a trench, for vital cups of tea. We see a soldier using his helmet as a basin for washing and shaving. We see an Australian gunner attempting to serenade his fellow soldiers, who stifle his performance with a scarf. We see a black cat mascot. I find these scenes unsettlingly intimate and poignant. Malins will no doubt have known the impact of showing the very ordinary in extraordinary circumstances.

Malins often takes his camera down into the trench, to film at look-out level, for many of these intimate scenes. He also stays back, observing from a distance: the camera pans along the once peaceful, rural banks of the river Ancre, now a mass of shelters with men busying themselves with domestic duties: we see the smoke of the fires and cooking pots in their makeshift homes from homes.

The principal camera operated by Malins and the other official cameramen was the Moy and Bastie, using 35mm black and white film held in a 400ft cartridge. There was a single hand focusable lens and a separate viewfinder. The cameras were hand-cranked. This required hard concentration in dangerous situations, in order to avoid a potential speeding up when the action became fast paced. The camera and its wooden tripod stood over 1.5 metres high; the two men, also with highly inflammable nitrate film strapped to their chests, had to be careful when to risk leaving the safety of the trenches.



Moy & Bastie 35mm cine camera (1914-1918) © Imperial War Museums (PHO 178)

On 15 September 1916, the day of the Battle of Martinpuch, Malins was there to record the action. He filmed the jittery Scottish troops making nervous adjustments to their helmets, described as ‘eagerly awaiting the signal’ to go over the top. We see ‘Another “Tank” well away to the enemy’s lines.’ and then ‘The attack commences - ’: the Scottish troops ‘leap forward’. With his camera positioned in no man’s land, Malins filmed the men running towards and past the camera. He held his nerve and shot with devastating effect. Waves of men poured into German positions. When this film reel was restored in 2011, we experienced a new depth of field to this scene and could see for the first time just how many lines of men kept coming, seemingly emerging from nowhere. 

This battle scene is the centrepiece of the film. Malins’ and McDowell’s prequel, Battle of the Somme, has its own over the top scene, now considered staged. By contrast, the equivalent over the top moment in Battle of the Ancre is a far more convincing record of the action, as the Scottish troops gathering in a trench are kitted-out for combat and the trench is clearly in the battle zone. The continuation of this scene is a stunning, authentic record of battle: filming from above ground, the camera follows the Highland troops as they leave the trenches and advance into a misty and forbidding no man’s land during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.

News from the frontline was good: the first waves of men had reached their targets. The Germans gave up without a fight, shocked by the pace of the British advance. Malins turned his attention to the first batch of prisoners arriving over no man’s land: he positioned his camera boldly, with the prisoners walking directly into shot. We find ourselves scanning faces for clues to their emotions. We see the prisoners searched for valuable information. The film was commissioned by the War Office and so Malins and the other official cameramen take care to show the Allies doing the right thing – any items not needed for intelligence are carefully returned to the Germans. Unlike Hollywood blockbusters of later years, no attempt was made to demonise the enemy. Instead, there seems to be an emphasis on the common bond between the men: ‘Tommy jokes with Fritz’, hat-swapping and laughing – Malins’ keen eye capturing these human exchanges. 

Taking so many prisoners was also a clear signal to the enemy and the audiences at home, that the British were overcoming German defences. We are treated to images of the new anti–aircraft guns and triumphant troops wearing the Hun’s helmets, ‘Troops going back to rest, loaded with mud, trophies and glory.’

Malins’ handling of battle casualties is careful and builds gradually. At first, he filmed from a respectful distance, the camera peeping over a mound of earth, perhaps to play down the horrors of war. As we move to Part Four, Malins crept in, just enough to film a ‘walking wounded’ Scotsman, supported by fellow soldiers. Then, Malins positioned himself squarely amongst the stretchers laid out at the roadside, for a visceral, first-hand experience. Men with shaved heads. Some hairstyles still foppish. We can imagine the clatter and stench amongst the injured in the rare sunshine.

Towards the end of the documentary, exhausted troops return to base. We see the ruined villages of Martinpuich and Beaumont Hamel after their occupation by the British. Having started to edit the film back in London, it is interesting that Malins then returned to France to film the aftermath. He included an image of a soldier walking away into the destroyed landscape, giving a sense of the scale of destruction and perhaps the pity of war.

Distributors often suggested the pieces of music that should be played for the live accompaniment to a film. Remarkably, a cue sheet for Battle of the Ancre still exists. In the closing moments of the film, a scene of soldiers silently mouthing the song ‘Keep the Home fires Burning’ appears and the audience is invited to join in, the lyrics displayed on screen. We can imagine the heightened emotions of contemporary audiences as the musicians played this rousing concluding song. This mood is sustained as the documentary ends with the powerful silhouettes of men, wagons and horsemen carrying on the fight as night falls.  

Battle of the Ancre was seen by large audiences: a quarter of a million viewed it within three days of its release. The immediacy and power of the images – witnessed as war on the Western Front still raged – secured its place in the early history of war films. In the ensuing 100 years, there has been an explosion of points of view, preoccupations and styles in the telling of armed conflict. Experimental anti-war films like Norman McLaren and Helen Biggar’s 1936 Hell Unlimited mixed real-life footage with animation; which ironically incorporated official images of the First World War taken by military cameramen. Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (2003) created a gripping analysis of modern warfare. War in Afghanistan resulted in ground breaking material, as those in battle sought ways to express their experiences of war from their own perspectives: soldiers started to post online their personal battle stories made from helmet camera footage, the inspiration behind BBC3’s 2011 Our War.

The development of camera technology since the pioneering work of Malins and his colleagues, has led to a democratisation of battle coverage as small, portable cameras producing high quality images mean that the many, rather than the few, can record war stories. This type of user-generated ‘film’ means any suggestion of journalistic independence is suspended, as we adopt the point of view of the soldiers on one side. In Janus Metz’s Armadillo (2010) and Danfung Dennis’ Hell and Back Again (2011), we become immersed through following remarkable characters, with the complex politics of being an embedded journalist playing out on screen.  

While in The Battle of the Ancre the perspective of those at home is only assumed and imagined, today this theme has become an important one in films about war. The effects on those left behind preoccupies Peter Beard in his 2011 My Son the Jihadi, a dignified and compelling portrait of a mother faced with her son’s al-Shabaab radicalisation. In a further turn of the dial, we are confronted with the most lawless of conflict films with no rules of engagement: the posting online of brutal acts carried out in the name of extreme causes, cited in Jim: The James Foley Story (2016), directed by Brian Oakes, the childhood friend of the murdered journalist James Foley.  

The increasing ease to make and show – on phones, digital platforms, through social media and cinema screenings in festivals like Sheffield Doc/Fest – has resulted in a compelling and diverse range of factual storytellers and stories, including documentaries about conflict. Each film inspires vital debate, reflection and action on how we continue to see and make sense of war.

For further information about the newly released ‘The Battle of Ancre and Advance of the Tanks' DVD, click here, or for the Blu-ray, click here.