Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Battle of Vimy Ridge

April 1917

This is a big month in US history: the month that the United States of America entered the First World War. It had been coming for some time, and the German decision to re-initiate unrestricted submarine warfare in February clinched it, but now Americans were faced with the reality of troops being sent to fight and die in France. A large percent of the population was ready for war, although there would be anti-conscription demonstrations in several large cities. More upsettingly, there was a wave of anti-immigrant paranoia targeting German Americans – including many of Jewish extraction – which resulted in verbal abuse and violence in some areas.

The headlines for this month, a century ago include:

Woodrow Wilson speaks before Congress on the breaking of diplomatic ties with Germany.

World War I

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson asks the United States Congress for a declaration of war on Germany on April 2. War is formally declared April 6.

WWI: Canadian troops win the Battle of Vimy Ridge April 9-12.

The Nivelle Offensive commences April 16.

The Egyptian Expeditionary Force begins the Second Battle of Gaza April 17. This unsuccessful frontal attack on strong Ottoman defences along with the first battle, resulted in 10,000 casualties, the dismissal of the force commander General Archibald Murray and the beginning of the Stalemate in Southern Palestine.

Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne between France, Italy and the United Kingdom to settle interests in the Middle Eastern signed April 26. This is one of many arrangements by the allied powers that will be in contradiction to Wilson’s Fourteen Points at the end of the war, and hence a sticking point in negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles.

The locomotive that returned Lenin to Russia in April 1917.

Russian Revolution

In Petrograd on April 8, 40,000 ethnic Estonians demand national autonomy within Russia.

On April 12, The Autonomous Governorate of Estonia is formed within Russia from the Governorate of Estonia and the northern part of the Governorate of Livonia.

Vladimir Lenin arrives at the Finland Station in Petrograd on April 16, having been given clearance to ride in a “sealed boxcar” by the German High Command, who are gambling that escalation of the Revolution will knock Russia out of the war and free troops from the Eastern Front for combat in France.

Vladimir Lenin’s April Theses are published on April 17. They become very influential in the following July Days and Bolshevik Revolution.

Pacifism

In St. Louis on April 7, the Socialist Party of America resolves to resist conscription and the war effort. The IWW will also oppose the war, gaining many members from the AFL, whose leader, Samuel Gompers, chooses to support the war.

American WWI propaganda poster.

Propaganda

The Committee on Public Information is founded on April 14, to promote the war effort in the United States.

Disasters

An ammunition factory explosion on April 10 in Chester, Pennsylvania kills 133.

Diplomacy

WWI: Brazil severs diplomatic relations with Germany on April 11.

Journalism

The Times and the Daily Mail (London newspapers both owned by Lord Northcliffe) print atrocity propaganda of the supposed existence of a German Corpse Factory.

Film

Several film studios, including Universal, Paramount, and the Balboa Amusement Company, responded to war news by setting up recruitment drives or actually training actors for military service.

Thomas Lincoln Tally, in a meeting in New York, co-founds the First National Exhibitors Circuit.

Teddy at the Throttle, starring Gloria Swanson, released April 15.

The Cure, starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin, released April 16

The Butcher Boy, directed by and starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle with Buster Keaton in his first screen appearance, released April 23.

Births

Valerie Hobson, actress (in “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Kind Hearts and Coronets”) born April 14.

Celeste Holm, actress (in “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “All About Eve”) born April 29.

Maya Deren, director (made “Meshes of the Afternoon” and “Ritual in Transfigured Time”) born April 29.

Canadian Official War Films (1917)

Comparable to the British documentary, “The Battle of the Somme,” this film shows the conditions of Canadian troops at the front during a critical battle in France. Taken together, these two films demonstrate a new sophistication in documentary technique, and in the appreciation their governments had for the importance of domestic propaganda in wartime.

canadian-official-war-filmsThe film is subtitled “In Action with Our Canadian Troops,” although the information provided by Library & Archives Canada suggests that there is a second part, “Footage on Ypres, 1914-1917,” which I was unable to find separately – I think some of that footage has been edited in to this. The movie begins by showing us some troops on parade with the flag presented by Princess Patricia of Connaught, the daughter of the Governor General of Canada. We see various march-bys. Many of these troops appear sullen or uninterested in the camera, though there are a few smiles and glances. Soon, we get to the main feature of the narrative, which follows the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a three-day battle in northern France which involved four divisions of Canadian troops. There is an animated map which shows the progress of the battle, connecting the footage on screen with events known from the newspapers in the audience’s mind. In fact, it is likely that some of the footage was staged or taken at some time other than April 9-12 (the duration of the battle). We don’t see any real combat, which would probably have been much too dangerous with the cameras of the time, although there are images of artillery firing and explosions far off across the battlefield. A lot of the footage is men walking through waterlogged trenches or marching and/or digging in the mud. The conditions look extremely uncomfortable and probably unhygienic. One pan across a group of men crouching in the cover of some trees shows them all duck suddenly; the Intertitles tell us that shrapnel exploded overhead at that moment. I suspect this was staged, but it does help to establish the sense of imminent danger on the frontlines. The film takes us through the successful advance of the Canadians and “digging in” their new defensive line. We see some of the “trophies” (captured artillery) taken, one of which has a lengthy sign explaining that it has been requested by the unit that took it as a trophy. The movie ends with an apparently unrelated image of a tank rolling through a field, probably on experimental maneuvers.

canadian-official-war-films1There are some interesting differences between this movie and “The Battle of the Somme.” I mentioned above that the troops seemed unexcited about being filmed – in “Battle of the Somme” the men frequently waved to the camera and all seemed very hopeful that they would be seen and recognized. One had the sense that the troops shown here were veterans, inured to the dullness of military service, and more interested in their next meal or rest period than in the camera. However, unlike the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a pretty clear Allied victory, in which the stated objectives were achieved successfully in a few days, rather than a months-long stalemate and meat grinder. We see less of headquarters and officers in general, focusing on foot soldiers and artillerymen at work. We also see no Germans, even as prisoners, and no dead bodies. While this is a somewhat bleak portrayal of the conditions of war, it avoids anything shocking, perhaps due to responses in England to “The Battle of the Somme” the previous year. I found the inclusion of the animated maps very useful in giving an interpretation of the mostly pretty ordinary military footage, and I liked how they cannon fire was shown to flash across the screen as the little triangles and dots representing the armed units advanced.

canadian-official-war-films2There is a tendency to overlook the important contributions of Dominion forces in both the World Wars, reflected by the ease with which people will speak of “England” or “Britain” (or worse, “one tiny island”) as being at war with “Germany.” Soldiers came from nearly all points of the world to participate in the confict, and understandably wanted to be remembered and represented for their sacrifices. This movie at least preserves a part of that heritage for Canada, a country which was involved in the First World War from the outset, and their men had been at the front for almost three years by the time any soldiers from the USA arrived on the scene. This movie helps us a hundred years later to appreciate that the second-largest nation in the world made its own contribution to a struggle that may have centered in Europe, but was truly global in reach and implications.

O Canada Banner

This has been my contribution to the “Oh Canada!” blogathon, being hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. If you liked this post, take the time to check out some of the other entries!

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Anonymous Canadian soldiers

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music). Thanks to Library & Archives Canada for making it available to everyone!