Canadian Expeditionary Force Film Records
The production and, to a large extent, the survival of the motion pictures documenting the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great War are due to the leadership and organization of William Maxwell Aitken. Born in Ontario in 1879 and raised in New Brunswick, Aitken was a self-made millionaire by the age of 28. He moved to London in 1910, entered politics, built a newspaper empire and acquired a peerage as 1st Baron Beaverbrook in 1917.1 At the outbreak of the war in 1914, Beaverbrook was asked by the Canadian government to coordinate information on the Canadian participation; he quickly determined that moving images were going to be an important means of publicizing Canada’s role, both to the public at home in Canada and around the world.
Government-sponsored production of motion pictures to document the Canadian military began in January 1915, when D.J. Dwyer, an American cinematographer living in Victoria, British Columbia, was hired by Sir Richard McBride, premier of B.C., to film the training of the 30th Battalion and to accompany them to England. Dwyer returned to Canada in October 1915, edited his films and began presenting them to the public in January 1916, with live commentary by Sgt. Fred Wells, who had lost an arm serving with the Canadian forces in France.
When Dwyer returned to London in 1916, he was recruited by the Canadian War Records Office. The CWRO had been established by Beaverbrook in July 1916 to coordinate print journalism, photographic and motion picture reports from the field to ensure that the Canadian contribution to the war effort was fully documented. Staffed with servicemen unfit for active duty, the CWRO had offices in London and Rouen and 23 staff by 1917 when Beaverbrook added a historical section.
At the beginning of WWI, cameramen were not allowed anywhere near the front lines for fear that the images of dead bodies would shock the civilian population. It was not until July 1915 that cameramen were permitted on the Western Front. Film production was in private hands, but the War Office restricted what could be covered and heavily censored the footage. In response, the newsreel companies organized the British Topical Committee for War Films in October 1915 and negotiated an agreement for limited access to the front lines, in exchange for contributions to war charities.
The value of selected footage of front-line action to maintain support for the war at home and to stimulate recruitment was soon recognized by the War Office, but they were unhappy with the sporadic and unreliable coverage. Early in 1916, the War Office Cinema Committee (WOCC) was established with Beaverbrook as chairman. His first task was to designate approved cameramen as official cinematographers. They were to cover training in England and battlefield operations in Belgium and France. The WOCC supervised the film editing and organized distribution in the UK and in all the allied countries. At first, distribution was contracted to the Topical Film Company, but the WOCC became dissatisfied with their efforts, and in 1917 the War Office bought the company and took direct control of the newsreels, which were called the War Office Official Topical Budget.
Beaverbrook continued to manage the CWRO with a firm hand. When D.J. Dwyer wanted to return to Canada with film that he had shot in 1916, Beaverbrook refused to authorize what he called “exploitation” and fired Dwyer, claiming the footage was the property of the CWRO. Dwyer disputed the claim and returned to the United States to present his war pictures. Beaverbrook also insisted that the Canadian contribution be adequately represented in the newsreels. When Beaverbrook described the films of Lt. Oscar Bovill, the first official cinematographer that the CWRO dispatched to the Western Front, as “absolutely worthless,” it was probably because they did not provide sufficient coverage of the Canadians in action.2 The Canadian Government had established a Minister of Militia for Overseas with an office in London in October 1916 to develop an autonomous Canadian presence in the direction of the war, and Beaverbrook was determined that the CWRO play its part.
The Official Topical Budget newsreels, issued twice a week to all cinemas in the UK and to all allied and neutral countries, were the main channel for reaching the public until footage of the Somme offensive was edited into a full-length documentary, The Battle of the Somme (five reels, 79 minutes, 1916). The film became a popular and commercial success, opening another avenue for war propaganda. It was followed by such films as The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, The German Retreat and the Battle of Arras, and Sons of Empire.
All the productions of the WOCC were expected to earn a return at the box office. Beaverbrook firmly believed that propaganda was only effective if it was popular: “Its effectiveness as propaganda is guaranteed by its popularity, for what people are ready to pay for they are ready to absorb”.3 The films showed a substantial profit. In fact, the entire film propaganda enterprise showed a profit, due in large part to Beaverbrook’s management. In February 1919 the Topical Film Company was sold off for more than the War Office had paid for it. The war films, however, remained in control of the War Office and the Government of Canada was offered all the films in which they had an interest. The rest of the films were eventually deposited in the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London.
By the end of the war the CWRO held 35 mm prints and negatives on nitrocellulose stock (the standard of the industry until 1950) of almost all the official films that showed Canadians in action. These were shipped to Canada in 1919 and deposited by the Department of the Militia in the Public Archives (now Library and Archives Canada) in 1926.4 The films were extensively used in the production of Lest We Forget, a major compilation film on the Canadian participation in the Great War produced by the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau (the agency replaced by the NFB in 1939) that was released to great acclaim in 1935. Many of Dwyer’s films were acquired for this production, and then all the material was transferred to the National Film Board for storage in 1951. The 35 mm nitrate original negatives for all the films sent to Canada were destroyed in a fire in July 1967, but not before they had all been transferred to safety fine-grain positives.
The IWM catalogue, The First World War Archive,
is the most definitive list of the total production of all the agencies
and newsreel companies.5 The documentation available
for research on the films sent to Canada includes the list of titles prepared
by the CWRO in 1919 (with shot lists from the camera operators in some
cases), the list prepared by the Minister of Militia in 1926, and the
inventory prepared in 1933 by Capt. William Douglas for Lest
We Forget. Douglas listed 685 items and assigned titles to
all of them, but there is substantial duplication in the list, with sequences
from films appearing many times under different titles, and parts of films
listed as separate titles. Without the original negatives we will never
know precisely what was lost from the films sent to Canada. My inventory
of the surviving films6 lists 117,235 feet of film
and tape recording, or 33 hours of moving images based on 60 feet per
minute at silent speed projection. Of that total, 69,515 feet are in Canada
at the NFB and Library and Archives Canada (LAC).
Given the unstable nature of the film stock in use at the time, and the exigencies of wartime production and distribution, it is remarkable that any motion picture records of that conflict have survived. The limitations of the lenses and the film stock should also be considered in evaluating the accomplishments of the cameramen of the day. Even with these caveats, the films still provide a unique and fascinating look at the realities of trench warfare and foster an even greater appreciation for the sacrifices of so many in a war in which Canada as a country came of age.
1Lord Beaverbrook: A Life, by Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993) contains a full account of his activities during WW1. Beaverbrook, by A.J.P. Taylor (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972) is a biography by an accomplished historian who knew the man.
2Luke McKernan. Topical Budget: The Great British News Film. London: BFI Publishing, 1992.
3Lord Beaverbrook, First Report of the War Office Cinema Committee, September, 1918. NAC RG-9-III, vol.100.
4NAC, Series RG-24, vol.1745.
5Roger Smither, ed. Imperial War Museum Catalogue, Volume 1, The First World War Archive. (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994).
6Sam Kula. World War I Project: Preservation Plan for the Surviving Moving Image Records of the Canadian Participation in World War I. Report prepared for Library and Archives Canada, Canadian War Museum and National Film Board of Canada, December 2002.
Sam Kula has been a moving image archivist for forty years in London,
Washington and Ottawa. From 1973 to 1989 he directed the audiovisual archives
at Library and Archives Canada. In 2002 he completed a world-wide inventory
and preservation plan for all the surviving moving images related to the
Canadian participation in WW1. He is past president of the Association
for Moving Image Archivists and the author of Appraising Moving
Images (Scarecrow Press, 2003). He is now an archival consultant
and lives in Ottawa and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org