Can forensic techniques be used to identify Will Onda’s films?

There are 10 surviving films from the 1914 – 1918 period made by Will Onda and his company Preston Film Service Limited.

5 of these films are called ‘Roll of Honour’ films which are topical films featuring a selection of recent images of soldiers serving on the front, who had been recently killed or injured.

One of the films however – the 10th Series – is very different – and very special.

Once the title page ends you are presented with a moving piece of footage showing soldiers departing on a train with families saying their farewells on the platform.

Newspaper adverts for the Princes Theatre in Preston show that Will Onda screened two films of the departure of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment in 1914. The first was the 4th Battalion, the Second film was of the 7th Battalion – known as the Preston Pals. Did these films include scenes at Preston Station?

I believe that the 10th series ROH could be an extract of one of those films, which are now lost. But which one? The 4th Loyals suffered terrible losses at the Battle of Festubert on the 15 June 1915 and the days that followed led Onda to make his first Roll of Honour film. Men from the 4th continue to appear in the standard Roll of Honour films but the Pals also went into action in 1915 suffering their first loses at the Battle of Loos.

One of the speakers at the recent Finding Identities Conference in Preston was the Director of the National Army Museum, the historian and WWI expert Andy Robertshaw. He discussed in great detail his work on the film The Battle of the Somme which includes a considerable amount of footage of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Robertshaw and his research team used facial recognition and lipreading to discover more about the film and those in it. His book Ghosts on the Somme documents the in depth research of this film, which resulted in a programme for ITV – The Somme – The True Story, shown in 2006.

Is this possible? Could I use these techniques to identify with certainty the men in the 10th Series Roll of Honour film? Only time will tell.

Off to buy Andy’s book today.

The research and digitisation of Will Onda’s First World War films has been kindly supported by the BFI National Archive who hold the collection and the Preston Remembers Project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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About Emma Heslewood

I am a historian and museum curator with broad interests including early topical films, social and industrial history, numismatics, archaeology and WW1. I am an expert on the life and work of the Victorian acrobat and topical film maker - Will Onda.
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