It is almost eerie to watch the silent black-and-white footage, panning over the rubble remaining from small villages of France and Belgium, seeing cannons fire, and watching a zeppelin drop bombs on London rooftops, all without a sound. These are just some of the haunting images captured on the reels of recently digitized footage of World War I.
The National Archives houses the largest repository of World War I documents in the United States, and it encompasses not just paper records but also still pictures, microfilm, and motion pictures related to the conflict.
Many of us undoubtedly associate the harrowing feats of the World War II with footage of the action we’ve seen in 1940s-era films and documentaries, but most people do not associate World War I with moving pictures.
One may be surprised to learn, however, that we hold more than 1,600 reels of documentary film regarding World War I. Now more than 75 years since the footage arrived here, staff in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab are working hard to preserve and digitize the moving pictures.
Once the footage is properly mended, it will be scanned in high definition and made available on the National Archives’ YouTube channel, where the public will be free to access it.
It has been more than 100 years now since the United States entered World War I in April 1917. We have come quite a way technologically from a time in which horses were used for warfare and films did not yet capture sound. Now anyone can view the American infantry training grounds at Camp Meade or the trenches of France on their smartphone from half a world away in just a few seconds.
As the water steamed around you, you were lost in your thoughts. Your maidservant, Lona, was busy scrubbing at your arms, and when the sound of your husband’s latest treasure began to scream, the sponge fell into the water.