New Zealand's final attack of WWI was filmed, what happened to the footage?

A photograph taken during NZ's final attack of WWI near Le Quesnoy in France.
A photograph taken during NZ's final attack of WWI near Le Quesnoy in France. Photo credit: Alexander Turnbull Library

New Zealand's huge participation in the Great War of 1914-18 was the most-filmed event in our history up until that time.

As 10 percent of our entire population donned khaki uniforms, marched onto troopships and sailed halfway around the world to fight and die for the British Empire, motion picture cameras were on hand to film a good portion of that experience.

New Zealand soldiers were first filmed in the trenches at Gallipoli in 1915 (where they were mistakenly called Australian in the inter-titles) by British amateur filmmaker Ellis Ashmead Bartlett, but it wasn't until 1917, when experienced filmmaker and editor Henry Armytage Sanders was appointed as New Zealand's official filmographer and photographer on the so-called Western Front in France and Belgium.

Official NZEF photographer Henry Sanders and his assistant near Messines in 1917. Note the silver fern on their truck.
Official NZEF photographer Henry Sanders and his assistant near Messines in 1917. Note the silver fern on their truck. Photo credit: Alexander Turnbull Library

Sanders was a Londoner who'd never visited New Zealand, but for two years, he filmed and photographed thousands of Kiwis troops behind the lines, and attempted to film them in action during the bloody battles of Messines and Passchendaele in 1917, and the 100 Days Offensive in 1918.

"We know, from his photographs, he was forward," historian Chris Pugsley told Newshub.

"He tried to take moving pictures, but the conditions, the artillery fire, the danger of simply having a heavy box camera mounted on a tripod and which you turn by a handle crank, made filming very awkward indeed."

The New Zealand soldiers quickly came up with a nickname for their divisional photographer - they called him 'Movie'.

Curious Kiwi soldiers inspect one of Sanders' cameras at Etaples training camp.
Curious Kiwi soldiers inspect one of Sanders' cameras at Etaples training camp. Photo credit: Alexander Turnbull Library

Much of Sanders' film footage has been lost or destroyed, but his photographs - the iconic 'H-Series' - are the most detailed visual record we have of New Zealand's Word War I experience.

More than 1000 of Sanders' photographs are available to view on the WW100 website.

 

Could the missing battle film footage still exist?

"Look, anything is possible and one dreams of that," Dr Pugsley says.

"It was only last year that a piece of film found in a tin and handed in by a family to what was then the film archives, now Ngā Taonga, was identified as New Zealand's second oldest film."

Dr Pugsley has spent two decades researching New Zealand's early film history for his new book The Camera in the Crowd and says Sanders definitely filmed New Zealand's final attack of the war, at Le Quesnoy in November 1918.

New Zealand officers plan the advance on Le Quesnoy on November 4, 1918. Note the dead horse.
New Zealand officers plan the advance on Le Quesnoy on November 4, 1918. Note the dead horse. Photo credit: Alexander Turnbull Library

There is even an account from a New Zealand officer at Le Quesnoy - Lawrence 'Curly' Blyth (who was the last Kiwi WWI veteran to die, aged 105, in 2001) - of Sanders filming, while under fire in the frontline trenches.

"My company had taken the railway line and I was doing a little reconnaissance. While I was there, I came under a certain amount of fire from the Germans in the town and I got down in a small trench to take cover. 

"In two seconds' time, I found on my left-hand side was a photographer, busy turning on the handle, taking snaps of the whole proceedings. I remember asking him how come he should be right up in the front line like this and he said it was part of his job, and he proceeded on his way to keep turning the handle, while we both took a certain amount of cover."

While the motion picture footage Sanders filmed of the battle remains missing, his photographs from Le Quesnoy have survived - you can even see the railway line Blyth's company had taken from the Germans that day.

Men of  the New Zealand Rifle Brigade just after having taken the railway line west of Le Quesnoy.
Men of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade just after having taken the railway line west of Le Quesnoy. Photo credit: Alexander Turnbull Library

Using Google Maps and New Zealand's existing war maps of the Le Quesnoy operation, we can trace exactly where Sanders took his famous pictures on November 4.

The location of photograph H1133 today.
The location of photograph H1133 today. Photo credit: Google Maps

Sanders took hundreds of photos of the New Zealand advance on Le Quesnoy. Photograph H1122 is infamous for actually showing the dead body of a Kiwi soldier (bottom left), which escaped the usual critical eye of the censors.

Sanders' H1122 photograph taken before the advance on the railway line. It is a rare official image that shows a dead New Zealander from the war.
Sanders' H1122 photograph taken before the advance on the railway line. It is a rare official image that shows a dead New Zealander from the war. Photo credit: Alexander Turnbull Library

Dr Pugsley wonders why the film footage Sanders filmed at Le Quesnoy has been lost to history.

"I would have thought, it being the end of the war, that that film should have survived, but for some reason - and we don't know why - it didn't," Dr Pugsley says.

There's every chance Sanders' battle footage from Le Quesnoy made its way back to New Zealand via England, but has since been lost.

Dr Pugsley isn't ruling out that the Le Quesnoy film might one day be discovered.

"As we're finding with photo albums and the letters and diaries that have flooded in over the commemoration, photos are being found - a roll of film could be found."

So, next time you're visiting your parents or grandparents, have a rummage through their old collections of war-time memorabilia in their attic or garage. If you find an old tin film can labelled 'Le Quesnoy', you may have hit the Kiwi history jackpot.

Nineteen early New Zealand films that Dr Pugsley analyses in The Camera in the Crowd can be viewed here at Ngā Taonga.

What footage, filmed by Sanders during the war, still exists?

"We have approximately 10 films that tell the story of the medical services, the story of the artillery," Dr Pugsley says.

"We've also got a whole series of visit films."

Those visit films include one by the man whom the New Zealanders were told they were fighting and dying for - King George V (who was actually born into a German family, the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which changed its name to Windsor in 1917).

The NZ Prime Minister ensured footage of him visiting the troops survived

Another of Sanders' visit films is one by New Zealand Prime Minister William 'Bill' Massey.

Dr Pugsley says there is a reason why this film footage made it back to New Zealand audiences relatively quickly.

"The politicians were keen that New Zealand saw, very quickly, what they were doing with the boys at the front and the visits that they were making, and they were the ones that were shown in New Zealand during the war. The later ones didn't come out until late in the war."

Men from the Pioneer Māori Battalion perform a haka for NZ Prime Minister William Massey.
Men from the Pioneer Māori Battalion perform a haka for NZ Prime Minister William Massey. Photo credit: Alexander Turnbull Library

Sanders made sure key NZ events in Europe were filmed after the war

Following the war's end in November 1918, Sanders became senior editor of Pathé News, based in London, but he still felt a strong affinity to the New Zealanders he had filmed and photographed in the trenches.

"When there was a New Zealand memorial being opened, such as on the Somme at Longueval, Sanders made sure there was a film crew there to film it," Dr Pugsley says.

"And what's more, it's obvious from the language of the titling on the inter-titles that whoever did the editing knew about the New Zealand experience, so Sanders continued to honour the New Zealand connection.

"We've got this amazing film of the opening of the memorials on the Somme, at Messines and at Gravenstafel at Passchendaele, so I'm sure, if it hadn't been for Sanders, we wouldn't have that record."

The Camera in the Crowd: Filming New Zealand in Peace and War, 1895–1920 by Christopher Pugsley, is published by Oratia Books.

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