Queen Mary visits the troops: the ‘overlooked’ reel

E12 of Collected Articles


The 1917 Royal visit to the Western Front

A number of BCMH members are looking at the role of women in war, a recognition both of the significant numbers serving in today’s British armed forces and of their counterparts who have played either civilian or military roles in the past. Well remembered are the contributions made by Queen Elizabeth and Princess Elizabeth in the Second World War; less well known is that of Queen Mary in the First World War. Though this commentary is work in progress towards completing Viewing Guides, it records the photographic evidence of Her Majesty’s visit to the Western Front in 1917 and offers a contribution to the developing study of Clio and war.

Since my article last summer (Bailey, 2006) linked to the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, further researches have unearthed unexpected information.

The ‘overlooked’ reel

Whilst investigating the role of Geoffrey Malins, one of the two kinematographers who filmed the start of the Battle of the Somme, it was found his next film was a solo effort. In his autobiography (1920) he recorded the visit by King George V to France during the August of the battle and recounted how, working without a script, he was able to shoot film throughout the visit.

The Imperial War Museum had already given me the opportunity to examine the five Parts of the “Battle of the Somme” (listed as IWM191) in the film projection suite of their Film and Video Archive. Having wound through them in their original 35mm positive print format, I asked to see the second of his 1916 trilogy, the third being “The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks” (IWM116).

Initial viewing of “The King Visits His Armies in the Great Advance” (IWM192), with its two Parts, was interesting because most of the scenes recorded in Malins’s book were there. I first looked at the 1,380 feet of the Part One reel before looking at the Part Two reel with its 1,017 feet. Meanwhile the IWM archivists at the Duxford repository had found a third reel which appeared to be of both Parts One and Two but of only 645 feet in length (containing 10,333 frames). This was not part of the ‘official’ film as shown in the British and Empire cinemas in 1916 which ran for 40 minutes when projected at silent speed. I found that this reel had a sequence on the Albert-Fricourt road recorded in the book but not seen in the cinema version.

But more remarkable it had sequences not mentioned in the book. On the first of three separate occasions the wife of the King, Queen Mary, is filmed as she leaves the ship that brought them to France. Then the camera records her crossing a lawn whilst talking with General Sir Douglas Haig who is walking beside her, as a Guard of Honour stands to attention. Finally the Queen is filmed coming out of a large house, then talking with Madame Poincare (the King walking behind them with the French President) whilst walking along a path towards and past the camera. Three separate occasions perhaps spread over days because in each she is wearing different clothes. Yet her presence is not recorded in the diaries of General Sir Douglas Haig, nor in his letters to Lady Haig, written in August 1916 and now available to be read in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College London.

The historical omission is resolved

The fact that there were no written records of Queen Mary being present troubled me. Believing that Their Majesties may have kept diaries, as was common practice in those days (the Haig and Rawlinson Diaries are examples), I sought advice. Roger Smither, Keeper of the Film and Video Archive, suggested contacting the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Celia Lee at the BCMH Annual General Meeting on HMS Belfast helped by giving me information about working with the Royal Archives. The response from the Registrar was unexpected. Pamela Clark told me that Queen Mary had not gone to France in August 1916 but between the 3rd and the 14th of July 1917.

Consulting again the Haig Diaries and his letters to his wife, they were especially helpful in identifying the 1917 dates. In his entry for the 7th of July when the Queen came to lunch at Blendecques he makes the charming comment “This is the first lady to have a meal at my H.Q. since war began!” Unfortunately this is offset by his earlier comment to his wife on the 2nd of July when finding his wife would not be accompanying the Queen, “missing nothing through not coming with the Queen as she has declined to go forwards to Albert or any of the areas in which fighting has taken place. She spends her time in the rear areas, at hospitals, etc.” Perhaps he was recalling Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians who had earned the love of her country by visiting the Belgian soldiers in their forward positions and, with scorn, facing shell fire and bullets (McKenzie, 1917).

Reviewing the sequences against documents and ‘stills’ photographs, it was obvious that they had not been spliced together in chronological order, as is now shown.

Frames 0 to 1,210: Tuesday, 3 July 1917;
frames 1,211 to 3,345: Saturday, 12 August 1916;
frames 3,346 to 4,416: Saturday, 7 July 1917;
frames 4,417 to 5,301: Thursday, 10 August 1916;
frames 5,305 to 6,562: Saturday, 7 July 1917;
frames 6,563 to 7,267: Thursday, 10 August 1916;
frames 7,268 to 7,666: Saturday, 12 August 1916;
frames 7,667 to 7,850: Thursday, 10 August 1916;
frames 7,851 to 8,291: Thursday, 5 July 1917;
frames 8,292 to 8,905: Tuesday, 10 July 1917;
frames 8,906 to 19,091: Wednesday,11 July 1917;
frames 10,092 to 10,333: Wednesday, 9 August 1916.

The Registrar at The Royal Archives has helped more accurately date the sequences by consulting Their Majesties’ diaries. Originally she suggested the last sequence might have been filmed on Friday, 13 July 1917. Since she replied a single mention of the King visiting a trench mortar school has been found. But this was for Wednesday, 9 August 1916 after he was taken to the Souchez Valley, near Arras, to view the Vimy Ridge, still held by the Germans. The smokescreen in the sequence may have been to protect the King from German observation and artillery shellfire.

Who made a mish-mash of these sequences?

This mish-mash is made stranger because of the kinematographers who did the filming. Malins was the only kinematographer for the visit by the King in August 1916. But because of his having been wounded and suffering amoebic dysentery, he was forced to take leave in mid April 1917. Though he returned in early June, his now personal difficulties with the British GHQ meant that he was not chosen to film the Royal visit in July 1917. Instead “Mac” McDowell and Harry Raymond were the kinematographers (McDowell having helped Malins with filming the Somme battle in 1916).

Accepting that the strips of film were cut out during the editing of the 1916 spools, why were they kept until after the August 1917 Royal visit? Clearly they were kept, but no explanation is available – McDowell did not write an autobiography. Were they stored in the editing suite between the two visits? Did McDowell and Raymond use the same suite as Malins and McDowell had done the year before? As these two would have been responsible, why were the 1916 and 1917 sequences spliced together regardless of the years they were filmed and the order in which they were filmed?

The latter is less important because the scenes in the ‘Battle of the Somme’ film also are not in chronological order. Or did someone unknown, perhaps a film archivist of the Imperial War Museum in the years after 1917, find these off-cuts in a ‘box’ and simply splice them together at the time when acetate film was re-recording the original nitrate film? If so, it has to be assumed that no effort was made to catalogue what the sequences actually represented and they were given the coding IWM 192/01-02 P2 A35 to closely match the two reels projected in cinemas with the codes IWM 192/01 P1 A35 and IWM 192/02 P2 A35.

After 90 years, these questions are likely to remain unanswerable.

But there is one other question. Does the IWM Repository at Duxford hold the original films from which the 1917 sequences were cut? The film could either be still in its original nitrate form or re-recorded in acetate. If so, it may have been filmed for the ‘War Office Official Topical Budget’, an official weekly newsreel shown in cinemas once the British public lost interest in the full-length films during 1917.

Women in War, 1917 and 2007

The release of Leading Seaman Faye Turney and the deaths of Second Lieutenant Joanna Dyer and Private Eleanor Dlugosz in Iraq in Easter week have re-ignited the debate on women in forward positions where they can be killed or captured. This is not a gender-biased debate, some women commentators wanting them to be kept in the ‘rear areas’, some men having no problems with women soldiers being killed or mutilated. In addition, recent media events have shown Western women being propaganda weapons as so brilliantly exploited by the Iranian leader, President Ahmadinejad. It can be expected that Mars & Clio will become a forum to offer a historical perspective in future debates on what roles women should undertake in war.

Bailey, G.N.A. (2006) The cameraman who filmed the Western Front: reviewing the contribution of Geoffrey Malins 90 years on. BCMH Newsletter 16, Summer issue.
Malins, G.H. (1920) How I filmed the War: a record of the extraordinary experiences of the man who filmed the great Somme battles, etc. Re-published 1993, Imperial War Museum and the Battery Press.
McKenzie, F.A. (1917) Belgium under Two Flags: The Homeland under the German Heel and the Renaissance of the Army on the Yser. The Great War: the standard history of the all-Europe conflict, Volume 8, Chapter CLVI, page 191. Re-published 1999, Trident Press International.

My thanks to:
Pamela Clark at The Royal Archives, Celia and John Lee, and Roger Smither and his team at the IWM.

This article was published in Mars & Clio, the magazine of the British Commission for Military History, in Spring 2007