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Tessa Dunlop: 1916 on Film

Tessa Dunlop, historian, journalist, presenter of BBC2’s Coast and Radio 4’s Crossing Continents, and writer of the recently published The Bletchley Girls, guides us through her selection of films from 1916.

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Tessa Dunlop: 1916 on Film

For the Entente (Britain, France and Russia) 1915 had been a year of unrelenting military disappointment. The war was now total and global and the Central Powers’ bullish advances on the Eastern Front ensured the end was nowhere in sight. By 1916 Britain had to dig deep to maintain morale in the face of this unprecedented bloody conflict. Cinemas or rather ‘picture palaces’ were the ideal place to reach the people, with 1916 witnessing a staggering 20 million admissions a week. One long feature film, a shorter one and a short made up the staple programme, with the latter often providing strategically ‘newsworthy’ and affirming visuals. The below selection is a timely example of how these films helped keep Britons engaged and upbeat during the dark days of war.

View Empire Day
Empire Day
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Empire Day 1916

London schoolchildren wave their flags for the first official Empire Day, as soldiers parade in the playground.

1 mins United Kingdom

"Britain’s first Empire Day was a reminder to the nation that the country did not stand alone."

The latter half of the nineteenth century had witnessed a rash of self-consciously imperialist British politicians who were keen to move beyond the more haphazard empire of the past and embrace the ideal of closely united Greater Britain. However that the suggestion of a celebratory Empire day on Queen Victoria’s birthday was taken up more quickly in the colonies underlined the mother country’s residual hubris. 24 May had become an official holiday in Canada by 1901, Australia in 1905 and New Zealand and South Africa in 1910 while Britain prevaricated. It was the demands of World War that delivered a rethink in 1916.

Britain’s first Empire Day was a reminder to the nation that the country did not stand alone. The appearance of delectable little girls trussed up in frocks and bows, flanked by young boys in military uniform gives the film a youthful optimistic tone which complements the defiant imperial message behind the numerous union jacks. That this footage of Britain’s first Empire Day includes presence of wounded Canadian and Australian soldiers, who are recipients of cigars in the film, was testament to the colonies’ sacrifices. In 1915 the Gallipoli campaign alone had cost the lives of thousands of imperial troops who willingly volunteered to fight in Britain’s war. By 1916 the Australians were already commemorating their first Anzac Day, an indication of the tragic and lasting significance this campaign had on their nation’s identity. Britain could no longer afford to take her Empire for granted.

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From Trinidad to Serve the Empire
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From Trinidad to Serve the Empire 1916

Colonial recruits from Trinidad meet the Lord Mayor of London during WWI.

1 mins United Kingdom

"The London Mayor ... cuts an almost comical figure in this footage."

Fully a third of the troops Britain raised during World War One were colonial and while the most celebrated contributions came from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the white Dominions did not dominate the imperial war effort. Thousands of Indian troops were in France by autumn 1914 and the British West Indies Regiment, a handful of whom are featured in this film, was a considerable force of 15600 men recruited from numerous Caribbean colonies including Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St Lucia and the Bahamas.

This film featuring fresh Trinidadian arrivals in London served as an upbeat reminder to the nation of that vital colonial contribution. The subtext is clear: Britain, with it limitless imperial manpower was a force to be reckoned with. However despite loyal service throughout the war there were tensions. The longstanding belief that Britons were the master race – an argument endorsed by 19th century pseudo science – exacerbated the mistreatment of colonial troops. If the London Mayor strutting about in his ceremonial gown and feathers surveying the bemused looking Trinidadian troops, cuts an almost comical figure in this footage, the impact of equivalent British pomposity on the front line did little to endear the mother country to her colonials. The BWIR resented the fact they were invariably engaged in the dogs-body work of carrying munitions, with one Trinidadian sergeant complaining in 1918: ‘We are treated as neither Christians nor British Citizens, but as West Indian ‘Niggers,’ without anybody to be interested in or look after us.’

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London’s May Queen
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London’s May Queen 1916

Excitable children in their Sunday finery gawp at cameras during the parade for London’s May Queen.

United Kingdom

"The viewer can indulge in a bucolic vision of a green and pleasant land."

A new’ romanticism’ had emerged if Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century in response to the modern demands of an increasingly urban industrial way of life. The revival and popularisation of folk culture was a manifestation of this quest to return to a more innocent peaceful past and the nationally triumphant sounding ‘All England May Queen’s festival’ of 1916 was a product of that movement. First established in 1913 by a Dulwich folklore enthusiast, it is no coincidence this filmed celebration has a self-consciously verdant back drop despite is urban location in the capital’s suburbs.

By 1916 the quagmire of war further exacerbated the desire to tap into an escapist idea of ancient mythical England. For a moment the viewer can indulge in a bucolic vision of a green and pleasant land bedecked with garlands, fairy-whites, fiddlers and innocent youth centred around a longstanding English tradition of the May Queen. To remind the audience of this historic innocent England was to remind them of why it was a country worth fighting for.

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Army Economy
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Army Economy 1916

Soldiers show off a fine crop of sprouts, grown at the Army Service Corps depot at Osterley Park in Hounslow.

1 mins United Kingdom

"The Brussels sprout, surely had never looked bigger or better."

From 1915 German submarines wreaked havoc with island Britain’s ability to feed itself; food hoarding, hunger and rising prices were result. The Government had anticipated the problem, establishing a cabinet committee on food supplies in autumn 1914, but by the end of 1916 a more draconian Ministry of Food Control was required. That Britain’s Director of Food Production could write in 1917 food scarcity ‘was the deadliest secret of the war and to the very few of us in the know it was as ceaseless and nerve racking an anxiety as the powers of hell could devise’ is indicative of the scale of the problem.

The Government had a dilemma on its hands. The people must not know the extent to which their edible supply line was in peril but they also had to be encouraged to maximise production. This conundrum explains the Army Economy film – on one hand the message is that of abundance, England’s quintessential vegetable, the Brussels sprout, surely had never looked bigger or better? But there was a subtext: if army boys could find the time to grow them, there was no excuse for the rest of nation not to roll up their sleeves and get gardening. Despite the film’s best efforts during the Christmas of 1916 the humble Brussels sprout doubled in price.

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Shortage of Munitions
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Shortage of Munitions 1916

Was this a lesson in how to shell out on frontline firepower?

2 mins United Kingdom

"The shell crisis of 1915 compounded a dismal year for Britain."

The shell crisis of 1915 compounded a dismal year for Britain. Ignominious failure in the Dardanelles, no breakthrough on the Western front and the addition of Bulgaria into the enemy’s ranks needed little explanation when the headlines were full of accusation and counter-accusation regarding a shameful lack of shells on the frontline. The British public needed to know that 1916 was going to be different; this film with its long panning shot down a never-ending arsenal of firepower reaffirmed that idea. The sheer volume of munitions on display underlined the grim reality of a grid-locked war but that the shells were being readied for war and loaded onto lorries emphasised a new, defiant British attitude. If the well-oiled German war machine had begun the conflict in the ascendency, Britain’s coalition government with Lloyd George as the head of a ministry of munitions was determined to change that.

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Hands Off Baby's Milk
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Hands Off Baby's Milk 1916

High milk prices during WWI drive mother and child onto the street in protest

1 mins United Kingdom

"The deliciously pink and rosy future of Britain must not be compromised."

By 1918 Britain boasted five million working women; this extraordinary revolution in the workplace had a direct impact on the domestic sphere. Inevitably women who were busy producing outside the home were less able to fulfil their reproductive duties inside the home. A spike in early weaning was the result and one that clashed with rising milk prices. The outcry and ensuing protest was especially evocative in a country which had been wracked with concern over the nutritional welfare of the working classes from the turn of the century. With the Board of Trade in control of the nation’s milk supply, the question of rising prices was duly addressed on the floor of the Commons in 1916. An outraged MP demanded to know why cream was siphoned off by top London hotels and milk used for cakes and pastry. That out of the mouths of babes and sucklings the infants’ wails had resonated across the nation is confirmed by the appearance of this newsreel film. The message was clear: the deliciously pink and rosy future of Britain must not be compromised.

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