Clip of WWI Battle of Arras restored to what was in cinemas in 1917
Harrowing 1917 film of First World War’s Battle of Arras is restored by the Imperial War Museum to the original version that was shown in cinemas that same year
- Experts at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) restored the footage over five years
- Curators kept the original camera shakes caused by vibration of shelling
The 74-minute film that immerses the audience in the horrors of the Battle of Arras was made by four cameramen who were despatched to northern France by the War Office.
Experts at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) restored the footage over the course of five years.
Senior curator Tony Haggith said: ‘It really looks incredible… It’s a very good film and an important one in terms of raising the profile of what, after all, was a very bloody campaign.’
He spoke of the ethical dilemma that they faced over whether to use modern technology to delete camera shakes from footage shot on the battlefield.
For example, as the troops faced artillery bombardment, the camera shook as the ground reverberated with the vibrations of the shelling.
That was among factors that influenced the decision to keep the shakes and imperfections in returning the film to the state in which it was originally projected.
An historic and harrowing 1917 film of one of the bloodiest campaigns of the First World War has been restored to the original version that was shown in cinemas that same year. Above: A scene from the film, which was titled The German Retreat and Battle of Arras
Experts at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) restored the footage over the course of five years
The pursuit of authenticity meant that even a speck of dust that experts determined had got into the film during the shooting process was kept in.
This month, the IWM will premiere the restored film, titled The German Retreat and Battle of Arras.
The Battle of Arras was a British offensive on German defences around the French city of the same name.
After initial successes – including the Canadian Corps’ capture of Vimy Ridge, which had been considered virtually impregnable – the campaign culminated in a tragic stalemate, with some 300,000 casualties.
Its survivors described it as one of the war’s most savage infantry battles, with more than 4,000 daily casualties.
Yet it has somehow been eclipsed by the Somme and Passchendaele, despite the fact it had higher daily casualty rates than bot of those those battles.
The film depicts the devastation of Arras, including its ruined cathedral, and surrounding villages reduced to rubble, men going into battle and tanks rolling through disrupted landscapes.
The original footage was black and white, but about a quarter of it was tinted and toned. The restoration has restored colour that had faded away
This month, the IWM will premiere the restored film, which was shown in cinemas
Until now, the Battle of Arras film has been largely overshadowed by those earlier films, but the restoration has revealed that it is visually the most interesting of the three
This was the last in a trilogy of official silent films of the British campaign on the Western Front.
It followed The Battle of the Somme, 1916, and Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks, 1917, which have already undergone restoration.
Until now, the Battle of Arras film has been largely overshadowed by those earlier films, but the restoration has revealed that it is visually the most interesting of the three.
Dr Haggith singled out a scene that conveys pure tension as a cameraman ‘waits and waits’ for an imminent trench raid: ‘Suddenly these men appear and make for the German trenches.
‘Some minutes later they return, in the first instance with prisoners, in the second instance without. It’s just so powerful. There’s nothing quite like that in the museum’s collection.’
The original footage was black and white, but about a quarter of it was tinted and toned. The restoration has restored colour that had faded away.
Dr Haggith said that, although this was the dawn of propaganda cinema, the cameramen were working in a documentary idiom and the soldiers’ terror and anxieties can be seen.
Dr Haggith said that, although this was the dawn of propaganda cinema, the cameramen were working in a documentary idiom and the soldiers’ terror and anxieties can be seen
The silent films had prominent captions explaining what was going on in each scene
Allied troops are seen manning gun positions in a scene from the film documenting the Battle of Arras
Troops smile for the camera while bedded down in a trench in another scene from the film
War-weary troops observe those filming them during a break in fighting
Noting that the footage shows only the German dead – unlike the first film, which also included the British dead, prompting a public furore at the time – he added that scenes of the fallen enemy implied the same was happening to British soldiers as well – ‘that, if the Germans were dying, so were the British.’
The film is also an intimate portrayal of the ordinary soldier. It reflects the terrible, freezing conditions and the fact that troops had to bed down in small trenches and dugouts, despite the rain, mud and the snow.
In some scenes, the men are jovial, playing up to the camera and making silly faces, perhaps trying to reassure loved ones that they are fine. But, in others, they were too exhausted to conceal the strain of war.
Dr Haggith said that for British audiences, the film was ‘both heartening and quite upsetting at the same time’: ‘There are legion reports of people sitting in cinemas and saying, “that’s my boyfriend, that’s my brother, that’s my dad…”.
‘Occasionally they would be, but most often they weren’t.’
He hopes that revival of interest in a forgotten film will also lead people to look into the battle itself.
‘Part of the role of the Imperial War Museum is to correct the public memory,’ he added.
The premiere marks the opening on November 10 of the Imperial War Museum’s New Blavatnik Galleries of Art, Film and Photography, the first gallery exclusively dedicated to how artists respond to conflict.
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