World Day for Audiovisual Heritage: Sights and Sounds of WWI

World War One commemorations have provided the impetus for a number of projects at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. UNESCO’s World Day for Audiovisual Heritage gives us a moment to celebrate this work undertaken to ensure the preservation of, and access to, audiovisual materials relating to New Zealand’s experience of World War One.

In this blog post, the second in our World Day for Audiovisual Heritage series, the archive’s Audience department reflects on Sights and Sounds of the Great War. This is a project undertaken with funding from the WWI Lottery Grants fund to repatriate, research, preserve, digitize and make accessible material that relates to New Zealand’s experience of World War I.

Read the first part in the series here.

Prior to the start of the WW100 commemorative period, the Film Archive (now Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision) held 60 films shot during the first world war, and countless documentaries, shorts and TV programmes made since. The films came to the archive from a number of different sources: some were part of the National Film Library collection, others have come from private depositors, and we also received copies from archives in Australia and the UK. Over the years these have been preserved to film or telecined, with access copies made available on VHS, DVD or more recently as digital files.

Inspection of the New Zealand and Australian Division in Egypt (March 1915).
Inspection of the New Zealand and Australian Division in Egypt (March 1915).

The films in the WWI collection are all silent and black and white. They show troop departures, training and fundraising at home, through to NZEF soldiers serving overseas at Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Middle East. These films were made by cameramen connected to local cinemas, or Official Government or NZEF cinematographers. There is no footage of action or fighting per se, which is what people often ask us for; the camera technology of the time was big and bulky and to aim a camera above a trench was an invitation to a sniper for a free shot. However, we do see trench conditions and scenes of no man’s land, and lots of troop inspections, drill and marching. While much of the action is staged, the shattered landscape isn’t fake, nor are the often exhausted soldiers — though it’s remarkable how they almost always perk up when a camera is nearby. From the late 1980s the archive has worked with the military historian Dr Christopher Pugsley to identify and closely catalogue this collection.

The Sights and Sounds of the Great War, project was planned in five phases: repatriation, research, preservation, digitization and access. Not only would we work with the collection outlined above, we would also work with archives overseas to repatriate material to Aotearoa.

The project commenced in 2013. At that time we had a good idea of what we had in the collection and what films were missing or lost. However, there was another, third, group of films: those featuring New Zealand or New Zealanders that survived in archives overseas. Christopher Pugsley has again been responsible for much of the detective work, tracking down films in archives such as the Imperial War Museum, as have other staff members at the Film Archive and Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision over the past couple of decades. And of course online databases have made the job much easier recently. It’s this group of films that make up the repatriation side of the project.

So why are so many films held in archives elsewhere? In part it’s reflective of film as a form of mass media, and the way film moved throughout the world via various distribution networks and circuits. But it’s also the result of some particular historical circumstances. One is that all the films shot by the NZEF cameramen during the war were censored by the War Office Cinematograph Committee; the material which survived was later deposited at the Imperial War Museum.

However, most of the films were found at British Pathé, because of the New Zealand Government’s long standing relationship with Pathé Frères, which was one of the largest newsreel companies in the first half of the twentieth century. This dated back to prior to the war when Pathé filmed and distributed scenic material promoting New Zealand as a tourist destination. This relationship continued through the war and in 1916 Pathé cameraman were contracted to the NZEF as Official War Cinematographers and still photographers (the photos they took make up the H-Series collection at the National Library). In return for providing cameraman, Pathé were allowed to use the films in their newsreels, which were shown around the world. Because of this most, but not all, of the films that survive there are short stories or excerpts from newsreels.

Over 100 films were identified in commercial and non-commercial, government archives in Australia, the United Kingdom, USA and Europe and the process of repatriation, or bringing them back to New Zealand, shows how things have changed in film archiving in the past decade. In years past repatriation would’ve involved the transfer of a physical object- either the nitrate original, or a 16/35mm copy. The repatriation project has almost entirely been based on exchanging digital files. We have negotiated the purchase or transfer of films from 8 archives: the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia; Australian War Memorial; the British Film Institute; Imperial War Museum; Gaumont Pathe; British Pathe; ECPAD, the French Military audio-visual archive and Critical Past, a US based stock footage outfit.

In all 97 new films have been acquired, and they have tremendously enhanced our WWI collection. Amongst them are films shot at Gallipoli, in Europe, the Middle East and occupied Germany. They show troops at play on the rugby field, and some lighter moments of rest and recuperation. The films also show soldiers leaving England, including some with new wives and babies.

Heroes of Gallipoli (1915)
Heroes of Gallipoli (1915). From the Australian War Memorial.

The extra good news is that the licenses we negotiated with the commercial archives allows us to distribute these films to non-commercial clients, particularly GLAMS, for use in NZ, instead of institutions having to pay fairly hefty commercial rates. Once the acquisition project is wrapped up (in early December) we will have more details about this on our website.

We’ve also done quite a lot of digital preservation work on the nitrate films that were already in the collection. This involved making new 2K scans on our Arriscan, and the results are remarkable. Here’s one example, a before and after clip of the visit of the Battleship HMS New Zealand in 1913.

The funding application also specified the creation of a website in partnership with our colleagues at the Australian National Film & Sound Archive.

The site,, showcases the sights and sounds of Australia & New Zealand’s experience of World War One was launched in April this year.  We worked with Boost New Media to build the site and from the outset began refining the project, we went from imagining a very wordy site, to one that really foregrounds the audiovisual, this translates as full screen video, sound players and small amounts of text. We’ve also added “Further information” in a more traditional style and as much as possible point users to other websites for further reference. The site was launched in Wellington in April and again in Sydney during the FIAF Congress. Traffic to the site took off with a hiss and a roar – in particular a video of the First Maori Contingent performing a haka was watched over 5,000 times within a few days of launch.

Inspection of the New Zealand and Australian Division in Egypt (March 1915).


Listen to an oral history account by Victoria Cross recipient Cyril Bassett.

We will continue to update the site with new content twice a year over the course of the WWI commemoration period, bringing in more footage of NZEF soldiers at war; we’ll also talk about cinemagoing in general in an update that is coming next month and highlight the preservation work and audiovisual archiving both organisations do; there’s the Anzac updates in the Aftermath theme (with great films of parades and services from 1920-1970s); and we’ll also begin to bring in more contemporary short films, TV programmes and documentaries to examine the way the war has been remembered and represented over the past 100 years in Australia and New Zealand. Please take a moment to explore

– By the Audience department, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

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