Introducing… The Battle of the Ancre and advance of the tanks (1917) 

13 September 2018 | Liz Robertson

The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917) is the sequel to The Battle of the Somme (1916) and records the Somme campaign as it ground on into the autumn and winter of 1916.

Dr Toby Haggith, Senior Curator, Department of Second World War and Mid-20th Century Conflict

Lieutenant Geoffrey H Malins was responsible for the majority of the filming for Battle of the Ancre, along with Lieutenant John Benjamin MacDowell (with whom he had filmed Battle of the Somme) and the Canadian Lieutenant Frederick Oscar Bovill. Unlike the filming of the opening of the Somme campaign which had been conducted on a daily basis over 10 to 13 days, coverage of Battle of the Ancre was much more episodic, and the final film is dominated by only two of its battles: Flers-Courcelette, and the related action at Martinpuich, when tanks were first used (15-22 September); and the capture of the fortified village of Beaumont-Hamel, during Battle of the Ancre (13-18 November).  Other scenes were filmed at various times from 13 September to 28 November 1916.

The film was edited by Malins, under the supervision of Captain John Faunthorpe of Military Intelligence (Military Director of Kinematograph Operations). When editing, the filmmakers seem to have had two intentions. Firstly, they aimed to capitalise on the success of the Battle of the Somme, the second objective was to improve on the Battle of the Somme in a cinematic sense. To achieve this (and also to replicate the structure of Battle of the Somme) the editors abandoned the idea of producing an accurate report of the campaign, which they did not have the footage to produce anyway, and instead tried to convey the sense of the fighting on the Western Front by drawing on the best footage shot over three months. As a result, the actual chronology of the campaign is not followed.

Aware of the rumours circulating GHQ that Battle of the Somme had been faked due to the ‘staged’ ‘over the top’ sequence, and anxious to protect Battle of the Ancre from any such negative associations, the military issued a guarantee of authenticity for Battle of the Ancre that was widely published.

NOTE: The British General Headquarters is responsible for the censorship of these films and allows nothing in the nature of a “fake” to be shown. The pictures are authentic and taken on the battlefield.
British MilitaryGuarantee of authenticity for The Battle of the Ancre

The success of Battle of the Somme attracted audiences to Battle of the Ancre, but the tank was an added draw. This was the ‘Hush Hush’ or secret weapon, so it aroused great interest, and the tanks were widely referred to in the headlines and dominated the reviews. Although some photographs had been published, it was argued that it was moving film that conveyed the new weapon most effectively.

On 22 January, Battle of the Ancre was released around the country, and there was also international distribution with eight copies sent to France in March.  Early reports indicate that the film did well, being seen by 250,000 people in three days and earning £35,000 in the first three months of release. Reliable audience figures for the whole run of the film do not exist, but it is believed that Battle of the Ancre was not seen by as many as Battle of the Somme.

The general opinion of Battle of the Ancre was that the new film was even more realistic, giving viewers a powerful sense of being present on the battlefield. Others saw the camera as a kind of anonymous observer, particularly in reference to the extended coverage in Part 3 of the battle in no man’s land. Shot at distance and poorly exposed, this footage is nonetheless a powerful actuality record of battle, showing soldiers hurrying into a misty no man’s land, or clambering out of successive lines of trenches and advancing towards a skyline overshadowed by fracturing clouds of shrapnel shells.