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.
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 a sequence showing a tank in no-man’s land.
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.