WWI Troops head to the docks, Sydney

WWI Troops head to the docks, Sydney
Access fees

On a damp Sydney morning, during the First World War, lines of Australian cavalry and infantry march down to the docks while others arrive by tram. The bustling crowds – umbrellas in hand – are shown waiting around and walking past the camera. The camera then cuts to a shot of the troops on board and the ship departing the harbour. Summary by Poppy De Souza.

As in this example, early actuality footage often contains a visual record of significant cultural or historical events, places or people, and even with patchy information as to the origins, the images themselves stand up to the tests of time. Parts of the footage indicate that it may have been used in a newsreel context, but this is not clear.

This archival footage is part of the Pearson Collection held at the NFSA. James (Jim) Pearson was a director working in the 1930s and 1940s who was also an avid film collector. Pearson himself worked as a laboratory technician, director, editor, camera operator and producer for Movietone, and later the British Ministry of Information’s Far Eastern Bureau. This footage is just one of many cans of film Pearson deposited with the National Film and Sound Archive and contains a vivid portrait of Australian troops around the beginning of the First World War.

With many archival titles deposited with, or donated to, the National Film and Sound Archive (especially from the earlier part of last century), there is often little or no information available as to the material’s provenance, origins, or context in which it was screened. Sometimes the little information there is relates to how the footage came into the National Collection, and this also forms part of the material’s history.

Notes by Poppy De Souza


Education Notes

This silent black-and-white film clip shows newly recruited troops from the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) embarking from Sydney for service overseas during the First World War. Lines of troops with packs and rifles are shown marching down to the docks, while others arrive by tram. Horses can be seen briefly, and crowds of family members and other civilians walking alongside soldiers. The clip concludes with a shot of troops waving from onboard ship and footage of a battleship and passenger liners carrying the troops steaming out of Sydney Harbour.

Educational value points

  • In Australia in 1914 matters of foreign affairs and declarations of war and peace were within the exclusive province of the British Imperial Government. Therefore, Australia entered the First World War after Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 following German aggression against Belgium, as Britain had a treaty binding it to Belgium’s defence. Enthusiasm for the War was initially widespread as many Australians saw it as a means for the fledgling nation to prove itself and to demonstrate an ongoing allegiance to the 'mother country’.
  • These AIF troops shown leaving Sydney may have been reinforcements on their way to Gallipoli where Australians fought alongside New Zealand, British and French troops throughout 1915. Australian forces also served on the Western Front in France and Belgium and in Egypt and Palestine. 'From a population of fewer than 5 million, 300,000 men enlisted, of which more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner’ (www.awm.gov.au). This high casualty rate meant that reinforcements were continually required.
  • Buglers accompanied each military regiment and were responsible for sounding bugle calls to mark phases of the day. The Reveille marked the start of the day, while the Last Post, which is also used in funeral and memorial services, was sounded at the end of the day. Drummers often accompanied the bugler when the First Post was sounded at night to alert soldiers at their 'posts’ to return to their quarters prior to concluding the tattoo with the Last Post. Traditionally buglers and drummers also 'beat the retreat’ on the battlefield to indicate the end of hostilities for the day.
  • The uniform worn by soldiers in the AIF during the First World War was khaki coloured and comprised baggy woollen trousers and jacket with metal buttons, lace-up ankle-length boots, and puttees, which were strips of cloth wrapped from the ankle to the knee to prevent water and mud leaking into boots and breeches. Soldiers wore soft caps or felt slouch hats with one side turned up and a khaki hatband bearing a Commonwealth (Rising Sun) badge, which became a distinctive emblem of the Australian Army.
  • Before 1929 films were silent and black and white, and because of the size and weight of the camera there was a tendency to use long static shots such as those in this clip, with few close-ups. This footage may be part of a film made to promote the work of the Australian Red Cross Society, which during the War provided humanitarian relief for troops, including 'care’ parcels for sick and wounded soldiers serving overseas, and helped fund hospital services.
  • The footage may have served two purposes, to promote the Red Cross and to encourage civilian men to enlist. Enlistment for service overseas was voluntary, but as the War progressed recruitment began to wane with the rise in casualties and by 1917 urgent appeals to enlist were met with some apathy. Images of men volunteering to serve their country overseas may have been designed to appeal to the audience’s sense of patriotism and duty, particularly as most Australians had a family member who was serving.
  • When this clip was filmed, Sydney, like Melbourne today, had a tram system. Sydney’s first tram was horse-drawn and began operations in 1861 along Pitt Street in the city. In 1879 a steam-powered tramway was introduced, which was converted to electricity in 1898, and by 1933 Sydney had the largest tramway system in Australia, covering some 290 km. Between 1939 and 1961 the tramway was progressively closed down and replaced by buses, since they were considered more cost efficient.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia