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Restoring the First World War film The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917)

The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917) is a little known masterpiece of British non-fiction cinema that documents the winter stages of the Somme campaign on the Western Front. The sequel to the famous Battle of the Somme (1916), which covers the opening phase of the campaign, ‘Ancre’ should not be dismissed as Somme II. Although similar to the ‘Somme’, Battle of the Ancre is cinematically the better film  and contains haunting images of trench warfare, notably of the mud that beset the trenches in the winter, the waves of troops advancing into no-man’s land, the use of horses and the first views of the tank – the secret weapon which it was hoped would break the deadlock on the Western Front.

Restoring the film

So it was with the aim of bringing The Battle of the Ancre to a wider public that, in October 2010, the IWM embarked on a project to digitally restore the film, working closely with the film and television post-production company Prime Focus and with sponsorship from the broadcaster Discovery Networks. Curators began by trawling through various film collections, including our own, for footage of better quality or for scenes that were missing from the IWM version of the ‘Ancre’. The hunt in our holdings did not produce any new material, but we found three copies of the ‘Ancre’ in foreign archives, the one from the Library of Congress containing nearly two minutes of footage that was missing from the IWM copy. These new sequences were passed to Prime Focus along with the IWM’s Master copy, five reels of negative that are the descendants of the originals acquired in 1920. These elements were scanned into a computer and then, with great patience, special restoration software was used to remove scratches, dust marks and other imperfections from the digitised film frames. As well as producing a clearer image, digital restoration recovered detail that had been lost in darkened areas of the picture, a consequence of successive duplications to preserve the Master. The impact of this technology was particularly impressive in an extended sequence in Part 3, recording the infantry advancing on the German lines. Now we could clearly see the waves of soldiers emerging from trenches far in the distance and, most menacing, the puffs of shrapnel shells exploding above them.

A pair of stills demonstrating the effect of digital restoration on the sequence of a Tank in no-man’s land.

A pair of stills demonstrating the effect of digital restoration on a sequence showing a tank in no-man’s land.

The Music

In 1916 and 1917, screenings of the ‘Somme’ and ‘Ancre’ were accompanied by musicians playing a selection of stirring, patriotic tunes. The ‘official medleys’ for both films have been revived by the IWM and the one for the ‘Somme’ is a sound-track option on the DVD.  Although the medleys provide insight into the way these battle films were first received, to make the films more accessible to modern audiences, new music was commissioned from Laura Rossi, and it is her intelligent and moving composition that was recorded to accompany the restored version of the ‘Ancre’, and which received its premiere at the 56th BFI London Film Festival.

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6 comments
  1. s whymark says: February 4, 20143:28 pm

    is there anything from cambrai on the northern front?

    • Alys Cundy says: February 24, 20144:14 pm

      Hi,

      We have a considerable amount of material about Cambrai across the IWM collections. You can have a look at what we have using our Collections Search. If you are interested in film specifically you can filter your results using the ‘Category’ section of the menu on the left. Hope that helps.

      All the best,

      Alys

  2. Glenn Wilkinson says: March 12, 20145:36 pm

    Is anyone doing any research of ‘The Battle of Ancre’ film? I understand that this restoration will be available on DVD by the end of the Summer. Hammond’s book, ‘The Big Show’ mentions ‘Ancre’ frequently, but always as an adjunct to ‘The Battle of the Somme’.

    • Alys Cundy says: March 14, 20141:58 pm

      Hi Glenn,

      Thank you for your enquiry. Dr Toby Haggith, Senior Curator in the Research Department, is currently doing some research into ‘The Batte of the Ancre’ film. I have passed your email address on to him and he will be in touch with you directly.

      All the best,

      Alys

  3. Winnifred Evans says: November 11, 20144:09 am

    We kindly request that comments are directly related to the Research Blog and its contributors. Should you wish to ask a question regarding our collections, family history research or visiting hours please use our online enquiry service: https://iwm.altarama.com/reft120.aspx?pmi=MJ3aEKEvz6

    My Grandfather Alfred Edward Naunton was MIA on Jan 11 1917 in the Battle of Ancre. .
    Name: NAUNTON, Alfred E
    Unit: Dorsetshire Regiment
    Rank: Lance Corporal
    Number: 18152
    If you have information about this battle which you could send me I would appreciate that. I am also interested in finding out if any excavations are being done in the “chalk pit “, north of Beaumont Hamel in an effort to find any remains of this Battallion.
    Thank you
    Winnifred Evans

    • Anna Maguire says: November 11, 20148:55 am

      Dear Winnifred,

      Many thanks for your interest. If you click on this link: https://iwm.altarama.com/reft120.aspx?pmi=MJ3aEKEvz6, and re-enter your question there, someone from the Collections Access team will be able to help.

      All the best with your research,

      Anna

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