School student Ella Wyett is working with us again this summer. Ella here writes about our Moy-Bastie camera and the story it tells about the filming of The Battle of the Somme.

During the First World War, the medium of film took on many, oftentimes contradictory, roles in documenting the conflict. From propaganda boasting heroism, to expository documentaries revealing tragedy, film functioned to tell a variety of different narratives that shaped public perception of the front lines. One of the most enduring, however, is British propaganda documentary The Battle of the Somme, filmed by war cinematographers J.B McDowell and Geoffrey Malins.

The museum is in possession of a number of items relating to the two cinematographers, though the item that is certainly of the greatest interest is the Moy-Bastie camera that is likely to have been the one used by McDowell to film his portions of The Battle of the Somme (EXEBD 69023). Commended for their craftsmanship and reliability, the Moy-Bastie was the camera of choice for many years, and both Malins and McDowell used them to record their footage. The one held by the museum was bought by Bill Douglas and Peter Jewell at an auction just to be an example of a crank-handled camera for the collection. However when they took it home, Peter discovered that the magazine was signed by J.B McDowell. Although the date 1928 appears alongside the signature, the Moy_Bastie was long obsolete by then so this may refer to the date McDowell sold it or gave it away. The camera had black paint on the metal panel on the front of the camera - Bill had just strated to clean this off when Peter found the signature and shouted at him to stop.  As it turns out, what Bill had started to clean was in fact camouflage paint used on the front panel of the camera,further  evidence pointing to this being the camera that McDowell had taken to the Somme with him.

Signature of J.B McDowell in magazine of Moy-Bastie camera EXEBD 69023

Established cameraman and head of the British and Colonial Film Company, McDowell was assigned his role as war correspondent as a replacement for one of Malins' contemporaries who had been suddenly unable to go to the front. Subsequently, McDowell took his place filming at the south end of the line, while Malins was stationed at the north end. As such, the footage they collected is quite different from one another; where Malins location allowed for him to capture the bloodier and more brutal side to trench warfare, McDowell evidenced the capture of villages and the British advance into German held territory. McDowell was later decorated for the bravery he displayed whilst filming on the front lines.


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Geoffrey Malins, too, can be found in the collection here at the museum. His autobiography How I Filmed the War (EXEBD 10352) written in 1919, which they have been kind enough to let me read, details his experience of the front lines at the time he was filming the Somme, aided by the inclusion of a number of photographs from the various locations to which he was appointed. He spent most of his time at Beaumont Hamel, a village located behind the German line that provided the first objective for those fighting on the first day of the Somme. At this time, unlike McDowell, Malins had been commissioned as a Lieutenant, and so was technically serving in the British Army, stationed with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.


Pages from Malins' How I Filmed the War (EXEBD 10352)

Upon returning with their footage, what was originally to be a newsreel series became a feature-length film. After this decision was made on 12th July 1916, the film came to fruition remarkably soon afterwards, with general release on the 21st August of the same year (having passed the numerous checks the film was required to go through, courtesy of the army censors).The documentary was met with an incredibly good reception, gathering 20 million viewers within its first six weeks of release. Eventually, it was shown in 18 countries and continued to attract interest around the country to the extent that it was being shown in town halls months later. The public, it seemed, was desperate for a semblance of understanding about what was really occurring on the front lines. However, the documentary was being used as propaganda, and as a result there were moments, such as a scene where soldiers go ‘over the top’, that were staged. Instead of being genuine footage of a trench, it was actually a trench-mortar battery school, which aptly illustrates a couple of the issues that are liable to occur with many war documentaries - the issue of subjectivity and the issue of reliability in terms of source material.

Despite this, the documentary remains incredibly significant, both in relation to the history of documentary making and the history of film as a medium for propaganda. The Battle of the Somme is widely considered to be one of the first examples of film propaganda using real combat footage, and its impact was certainly felt by those at home unable to experience the front lines. Fundamental to this was the work of J.B McDowell and Geoffrey Malins.

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