World War I: Now in HD

Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office. Visit the National Archives website for a full list of events and activities related to the 100th anniversary of World War I. 

It is almost eerie to watch the silent black-and-white footage, panning over the rubble remaining from small villages of France and Belgium, seeing cannons fire, and watching a zeppelin drop bombs on London rooftops, all without a sound. These are just some of the haunting images captured on the reels of recently digitized footage of World War I.

Digitized World War I footage, National Archives

The National Archives houses the largest repository of World War I documents in the United States, and it encompasses not just paper records but also still pictures, microfilm, and motion pictures related to the conflict.

Many of us undoubtedly associate the harrowing feats of the World War II with footage of the action we’ve seen in 1940s-era films and documentaries, but most people do not associate World War I with moving pictures.

One may be surprised to learn, however, that we hold more than 1,600 reels of documentary film regarding World War I. The film is spread out over a number of record groups, but there are four larger collections.

Two of the record groups, the U.S. Army Signal Corps Historical Collection and the CBS World War I Collection, focused on documenting the activities of the Great War, including soldier training, daily camp life, and combat.

The Ford Film Collection documents similar aspects of the war, as well as some home front activities such as raw materials rationing, Liberty Loan drives to help fund the war, and footage of the eventual Armistice celebrations.

The final record group, the Durborough War Pictures, contains original footage taken by American press photographer Wilbur H. Durborough, who documented what he saw as he traveled Europe in the midst of the fighting.

Chemical Warfare Training, 1918–19, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives

To take just one example of how so much footage wound up at the National Archives, consider the case of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Historical Collection.

From 1917 until 1939, when the footage would eventually be transferred to the National Archives, the War Department invested heavily in creating and later editing and storing the footage.

The total cost amassed to make and maintain the footage was between $2 million and $3 million (that’s $36.5 million to $54.8 million today!). It was only in 1939, with the world on the brink of yet another international crisis, that the footage produced by the Signal Corps made its way to the National Archives.

According to John G. Bradley, then Chief of Motion Pictures at the Archives, the Department of War ultimately chose to transfer the footage to NARA after more than 20 years in its own care thanks to “present international unrest [and] the Department of War has indicated that it wants to be relieved of further custodial responsibility for this film and has asked that The National Archives take it over and perpetuate it.”

Now more than 75 years since the footage arrived here, staff in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab are working hard to preserve and digitize the moving pictures.

An endeavor to conserve and repair the U.S. Army Signal Corps Historical Collection began in 2014. Some of the footage will see a full restoration, which can involve a variety of efforts including dirt and scratch removal, gamma correction, and return to original frame rates, according to Criss Kovac, the head of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab at the National Archives.

Once the footage is properly mended, it will be scanned in high definition and made available on the National Archives’ YouTube channel, where the public will be free to access it.

Aviation Training in the United States, 1917–19, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives

It has been more than 100 years now since the United States entered World War I in April 1917. We have come quite a way technologically from a time in which horses were used for warfare and films did not yet capture sound. Now anyone can view the American infantry training grounds at Camp Meade or the trenches of France on their smartphone from half a world away in just a few seconds.

This summer the National Archives is exhibiting some of its newly restored and digitized World War I footage from July 27 to September 27, 2017. Several recently digitized World War I and World War II films are also available to view in a playlist on the National Archives YouTube channel.

Learn more about the project in Criss Kovac’s Fall 2014 Prologue article, “Saving Moving Images of World War.”

Read an overview and highlights of the motion picture holdings in Phillip W. Stewart’s Summer 2008 Prologue article, “BATTLEFILM: Motion Pictures of the Great War.”

And learn more about happenings related to the WWI anniversary by visiting the United States World War I Centennial Commission

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