Monday, September 5, 2016

Shooting War - The U.S. Signal Corps in France

In April 1917, the U.S. Army Signal Corps was designated as the sole official agency responsible for obtaining photographic coverage of America's participation in the Great War. The stated purpose of still and motion-picture film documentation was for use in propaganda and in scientific and military reconnaissance, but it was principally for the production of a pictorial history of the conflict.

Lt. Edwin F. Weigle (left), Photographic Officer U.S. Signal Corps, with the 35th Division in France, 1918/1919. Photo courtesy Cooper C. Graham

As described in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, the expansion of the Signal Corps into the official pictorial coverage of the First World War was slow and painful. The army's main interest in motion pictures was for training and observation. The idea of making suitable pictures at the western front to boost morale in the USA was of secondary interest. Lacking cameramen and the proper equipment it took almost a year before the first motion pictures from France were ready for exhibition in the United States.

Signal Corps film (1919) from the CBS Collection at the National Archives

By the end of July 1917, a laboratory was secured by the Signal Corps in Paris for developing and printing both motion and still pictures. This laboratory served until February 1918, when photographic operations were transferred to a larger location in Vincennes near Paris. Starting with 25 men, the Photographic Section grew in strength to 92 officers and 498 enlisted men by the time of the Armistice in November 1918. An operational photographic unit consisted of one motion-picture cameraman and one still-picture photographer, with an appropriate number of assistants. One photographic unit was assigned to each of the American divisions in France.


Overall, U.S. Signal Corps cameramen during World War I shot roughly 590,000 feet of film. Phillip Steward for his book Battlefilm did an extensive inventory of these official films which are now at the National Archives in Washington, DC. He listed 993 reels and 488 film titles. In 1936-1937 these films had been culled and re-edited by the Army to combine them into a single subject basis series. The result was the "Historical" series of World War I Signal Corps films with catalog numbers between H-1100 and H-1558. Steward recently added more World War I Signal Corps film to this inventory. In April 2018, he published an article on these films, celebrating the World War I "movie men". His article was printed in the U.S. National Archives' "Prologue" magazine. Here is a download link.

Despite the enormous amount of film footage in the Signal Corps collection, there is little film showing the actual photographic work by the Signal Corps in World War I. The authors however did find two reels which are of special interest. Printed on 35 mm and running 1333 feet, the footage shows Signal Corps cameramen at work, the operations at the Signal Corps photographic laboratory as well as various inspections, parades and close ups of the men behind these war pictures.

In February 1919, the Signal Corps decided to produce an historical record of their own photographic work in France. For this reason a motion picture cameraman and a still photographer were assigned to record these scenes.

Here are the production notes of this film that we found at the National Archives, including a description of all scenes. 

A selection of scenes from these films, as well as the corresponding still photographs, has been uploaded on our YouTube channel. We added contemporary World War I music to this clip.


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