Anzac Sights & Sounds

The story of film in Australia and New Zealand is inextricably linked. The travelling magicians and showmen that first brought the magic of film to the awed public, viewed the colonies as one market to be exploited in travelling shows that moved from town to town staying as long as the audience filled the hall, moving back and forth across the Tasman Sea.

Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. c May 1915. Brigadier General Sir H. B. Walker (standing, left, with stick), Lieutenant General Sir William Riddell Birdwood (sitting), Major General Wagstaff (far right, bare headed), along with Colonel Carruthers and General White conferring on the path up to Plugge's Plateau just above the beach.

Entrepreneurs such as T J West, the MacMahon brothers, J D Williams and Cosens Spencer toured and later established circuits and theatres, shooting local film for local audiences in both countries. Joseph Perry of the Salvation Army’s Limelight Brigade spent 17 years touring Australia and New Zealand, building his organisation into the largest film producer in Australasia taking local film to draw in the audience to the Salvation Army halls. His cameramen filmed the major events in both Australia and New Zealand at the beginning of the 20th Century and they are a priceless historical record.

In the years after the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902), both countries reorganised their military forces to provide a potential expeditionary force to the British Empire if required. Parades and annual camps were part and parcel of local film fare.

From the early twentieth century Britain engaged in a naval arms race with the German Empire. In a bold gesture of support, New Zealand paid for the Indefatigable-class battlecruiser,  HMS New Zealand, whose visit to New Zealand in 1913 saw one third of the population tread its decks. Australia established the Royal Australian Navy with an impressive fleet, led by HMAS Australia, a similar class battlecruiser to HMS New Zealand, as well as the modern cruisers HMAS Sydney and Melbourne, together with locally manufactured destroyers to protect the fleet.

In August 1914, Australia and New Zealand found ourselves at war, when Britain declared war on behalf of the Empire. Going to the films once or twice a week was already part of the routine of family life and now picture theatres filled with audiences keen to see the faces of our boys who volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF).

Otago Expeditionary Force, 1914 (framegrab)

Henry Gore’s film of the  Otago Contingent in Dunedin captures the cheerfulness of the men in strong contrast to the apprehension on the faces of both the men and women who are sending them away. We see the same mix of apprehension and excitement in the marvellous scenes of Australian farewell.

Every reinforcement departure was reported in detail with photos in the illustrated papers and films in local theatres of the official farewell, the march through the streets, embarkation and shipside farewell.

The film of shipboard life and the joint convoy of Australian and New Zealand ships leaving King George’s Sound featured in picture theatres in Australia and New Zealand in early 1915. The public in both countries were hungry for news. Every departure was filmed and featured in the local theatres, but the films ceased once the transports sailed.  The papers were full of events from the Western front and every picture theatre vied to get scenic film of Egypt to show where our boys were training.  On 28 April 1915 the Wellington Evening Post advertised at The King’s Theatre:  ‘Our Boys in Egypt – A Grand Parade of New Zealand Forces in Cairo before Major General Godley. General Birdwood and Mr T Mackenzie. Infantry, Mounted Ambulance, Transport, etc, all New Zealand’s sons are in it, also the Australian Boys.’

Similar films screened throughout Australia in the same week that news arrived of the landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The papers had been full of expectation of the forcing of the Straits of the Dardanelles with reports of the bombardment of the outer forts in January-February 1915 and the failure of the naval attempt to force the Straits on 18 March. The positioning of the 3rd Australian Brigade on Lemnos and the formation of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force under General Sir Ian Hamilton led to vigorous media debate on the difficulty of an army landing on Turkish soil with much conjecture on possible roles for the soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC).

Evening Post, 28 April 1915.

These films from Egypt were the last views of our boys before they landed on Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915. Because there was no film from Gallipoli shown that year, these became the substitute. The films of the troop ship departures, the voyage out and the parade scenes both of the New Zealanders and the Australians at Mena, was edited and re-edited; titled and re-titled; and released over and over again throughout the year of the Gallipoli campaign. The public wanted more but despite advertisements that promised ‘GENUINE PRESENT DAY WAR PICTURES – not Spectacular Parade and Review pictures taken years ago’, all that was available was just that, the same pictures seen before. Despite this, the promise of the chance to recognise ‘relatives and friends who are fighting for our liberty’ usually worked, and the crowds came, because there was nothing else to see.

Film from the battlefield were rare in 1915-16 and what there was, concentrated more of the doings of the British and French armies on the Western Front. Film-making on the battlefield was also limited by the technological restrictions imposed by the tripod-mounted camera, and the difficulty of filming war as it had become. Usually there was nothing to see. To stand up in the trenches on Gallipoli or in France was to risk a sniper’s bullet, and if one filmed further back then there was an empty battlefield devoid of movement or where specks indicated men and brief puffs of smoke indicated bursting shell. A cameraman risked his life standing above the parapet to film scenes that resulted in little more than a blurred glimpse of landscape. However the major impediment was the strict censorship imposed by military authorities on the Western Front. General Sir Ian Hamilton on the Gallipoli front was more relaxed about censorship rules. Photography was forbidden but everyone had a camera and took photographs until the film ran out. The public had to be content with films of men in training, the departures and then, from mid-1915 on, films of the wounded returning.

Official reporters, including Ellis Ashmead Bartlett from England, C E W Bean with the AIF, were attached to the contingents, and it was their reports of the landings that captured the imagination of the Empire and overshadowed the landings of the British and French forces at Cape Helles. Ashmead Bartlett’s despatches created an image of Anzacs as natural soldiers that the Australian and New Zealand public wanted to believe and his role as an official British correspondent gave it a validity that no Australian or New Zealand reporter would have earned. This was matched by C E W Bean’s reports, but a New Zealand voice was missing. This was belatedly supplied by Malcolm Ross, Official Correspondent for the NZEF, who did not get to Gallipoli until June 1915.

Heroes of Gallipoli, 1915 (framegrab)

Ashmead-Bartlett filmed scenes of Gallipoli with an Aeroscope camera, assisted by Ernest Brook, the Royal Navy official photographer from July to September 1915. It was an unofficial private venture bankrolled by Alfred Butt, a London theatre impresario.  Ashmead-Bartlett’s film is of priceless historical importance because it is our only glimpse of British Empire soldiers in the firing line at Gallipoli. It is the first film taken of Australians and New Zealanders in action in a war zone in the First World War.

War Office censorship delayed the release of With the Dardanelles Expedition until after the evacuation of the Peninsula in January 1916. It was sold to Fraser Films in Australia who released it throughout Australia and New Zealand in April 1916. The title With the Dardanelles Expedition was changed by local theatre managers. In New Zealand it was advertised under the title, Ashmead Bartlett’s Authentic Pictures of the Dardanelles Expedition.

In Australia Fraser’s Films advertised it as Ashmead Bartlett’s Pictures of the Dardanelles. Its advertised title was changed by local theatre managers in Australia into variations of the following: Australia’s Field of Glory – with the Anzacs at the front (Sydney, Theatre Royal); The Battlefields of Gallipoli – being authentic pictures of Australia’s Field of Glory (Melbourne, Paramount Theatre); Ashmead Bartlett’s Motion Pictures of Gallipoli and Anzac – Australia’s Field of Glory (Brisbane, Strand Theatre); and, Ashmead Bartlett’s Battlefields of Gallipoli –Australia’s Field of Glory (Adelaide, Wondergraph Theatre).

The titles capitalized on Ashmead-Bartlett’s presence on a speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand for the J & N Tait organization. His contract specified that no film was to be shown, but Fraser Film used his presence to best effect in promoting the film.

The film was a series of Gallipoli scenes. It is evident that each scene was interpreted to suit the local audience and everyone in the trenches was naturally ‘our boys’. For the first time we had images from the battlefront.

We have Ashmead-Bartlett on film and while he was less than complimentary about both countries in his diary, he also noted. ‘There are innumerable Theatres, Music Halls and Cinema Shows which always seem to be packed…. The people are mad about the Cinema and will take a pleasure in any rubbish shown them.’

The Anzacs evacuated Gallipoli in December 1915. Returning to Egypt the AIF grew to a force of five divisions and the New Zealand Division was formed. In April-May 1916 the Anzac Corps moved to France to fight on the Western Front. There were no official Australian or New Zealand cameramen until 1917. In 1916 both countries had to rely on film taken by the major news film organisation such as Pathe in England, and by occasional film from the front taken by British official cameramen.

However the first anniversary of the landings on Gallipoli was commemorated with a service in Westminster Abbey and a parade through the streets of London all of which was seen on film by audiences in Australia and New Zealand.

Written by Dr Christopher Pugsley. A former New Zealand Infantry officer, Dr Pugsley is an authority on New Zealanders at war and has written extensively on the First World War.