Met onze jongens aan den Ijzer (With Our Troops on the Yser) Review
The Battle of the Yser took place during the October of 1914, mere months after the outbreak of the First World War. By this point Belgium had been invaded by Germany and her army forced back to the Yser Canal in the south-west of the country. The entire Belgian Army was deployed to the front line, managing to repel the Germans thanks, in part, to their flooding of the canal systems. As a result the Yser was never taken by the attacking forces and would soon become part of the Western Front. The success of the battle also meant that Belgium ultimately never surrendered to the Germans and thus continued to fight for the rest of the Great War.
With Our Troops on the Yser (Met onze jongens aan den Ijzer) is a feature-length documentary film, made up entirely of existing footage captured during the Battle of the Yser and later, that was compiled by Clemens De Landtsheer in 1928. Though he would subsequently become a prolific maker of newsreels during the remainder of the decade and much of thirties, De Landtsheer had little cinematic experience prior to With Our Troops. His introduction to the film world came through his position as head of Yser Pilgrimage Committee, a role he would maintain from 1924 through to his retirement in 1960 (barring a period as a political prisoner). The Yser Pilgrimage is an annual event in which Flemings gather to honour those who died during World War I, one that continues to this day. During De Landtsheer’s involvement he produced propaganda films for the Committee, initially as a means of raising awareness through simple newsreel means (three such short are included on the disc spanning 1929 to 1935), but gradually to include and emphasise their staunchly anti-war message.
It is these sentiments which served as the driving force behind With Our Troops. The opening intertitles refer back to the Great War as “days of blood, mutilation and suffering […] of separation and death” and its an outlook maintained throughout. Indeed, this is a film which is heavily reliant on its intertitles, each one pointing up De Landtsheer’s convictions. At times you could almost describe With Our Troops as an illustrated lecture such is the weight of the words, although this perhaps suggests that the visual element is somehow diminished and, with it, a sign of De Landtsheer’s inexperience in mounting a feature. However, you need only watch a brief passage of the film to understand the impact of its images. Time and again, we are shown the devastation that war can create as Belgian towns lie in ruins or the impact on human life, whether that be through the seemingly countless dead bodies which adorn the screen throughout or the sequence in which those who have lost limbs attempt such simple everyday activities as eating a meal. Interestingly, the shots of the dead bodies are also taken up close meaning they are clear and detailed enough that they could be used to identify the dead; in other words, there is no shirking away from the realities, but rather a simple conviction that this footage must be shown.
Yet if With Our Troops is anti-war then it certainly isn’t anti-soldier. Part of the reason behind the repeated shots of dead bodies is to highlight De Landtsheer’s humanist stance. His intertitles use the phrase “our boys” time and again when referring to both the living and dead, whilst mention is made over and over of their “great courage”, “heroic courage”, etc. There’s no exploitation in his approach, merely an emphasis on how much was (and how many were) lost. Shock tactics, perhaps - especially when an accompanying intertitle reads “Buried alive” or the like - but certainly not exploitation. Furthermore, there was no reason for De Landtsheer to go down this particular route; he was, after all, preaching to the converted - or at the very least those who would be receptive to his message. For With Our Troops was effectively made outside of the mainstream. It received only rare screenings in actual cinemas, instead gaining its audience through the director’s connections with the Yser Pilgrimage Committee. Thus it would be shown at the annual events as well as to small towns and villages as part of a touring show. De Landtsheer would often be in attendance to accompany these screenings alongside a selection of various 78rpm records of his own choosing (which have been recreated for this disc’s soundtrack). According to the notes on the digipack, With Our Troops was screened over 400 times under such circumstances during the interwar years.
All of which should cause enough curiosity to prompt interest in this release. Moreover, it’s wonderful to see the Royal Belgian Film Archive getting films such as With Our Troops out there and onto disc. But with that said, it should also be mentioned that, outside of its starkly anti-war message and comparatively rare method of production and distribution, this is also a film which provides a wealth of actuality footage, largely unseen, from the Great War. In this respect With Our Troops is a documentary to place alongside equivalent British productions such as The Battle of the Somme (1916) and The Battle of Ypres (1925). The opening intertitle states that “everything you see will be an original war document”, although it is clear - and De Landtsheer himself would have known - that some staged sequences are present, as indeed they were in the Somme and Ypres films to differing degrees. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the footage is utterly fascinating; as well as the scores of dead bodies and the scenes of the wounded already mentioned we’re also able to see just how stark and unforgiving this landscape was, plagued by bad weather and incredibly barren save for the wounds inflicted on it during combat. Much like the films of Somme and Ypres campaigns there’s a great deal to be said for this first-hand footage. Whilst the historical facts may be (vaguely) familiar through school lessons, written accounts or television documentaries, none can match the power of seeing this brutality - and the results of this brutality - from such an immediate standpoint.
With Our Troops on the Yser was issued onto DVD by Cinematek in 2008. (This is the first in series of reviews of their discs past and present which will be appearing on the Digital Fix over the coming weeks.) Presented in a digipack, containing tri-lingual notes in English, French and Dutch, the disc itself is dual-layered, encoded for Region 0 PAL and comes packed with contextualising extras. The film itself was restored by the Royal Belgian Film Archive in 1991 using the tinted version prepared by De Landtsheer in 1933. The quality of the restoration is very good, though of course given the age of the footage - and the fact that With Our Troops itself was derived from even older existing footage - there are still signs of dirt and degradation which were no doubt too much to correct. Furthermore, the variety of film speeds of De Landtsheer’s assembled materials can complicate matter a little and as a result a handful of sequences suffer from intermittent judder. Nevertheless, the various qualities do shine through and the expected levels of clarity and contrast are all present and correct - indeed at times it’s striking how much detail we are able to see despite the images having been captured almost a century ago. The soundtrack, having been based on De Landtsheer’s original choices for accompaniment, understandably fares better. Presented in two-channel Dolby Digital it offers up the various classical selections without any discernible flaws. Optional subtitles are available in English, French and Dutch.
As for extras, here we find a commentary written in collaboration by Roel Vande Winkel, Daniël Biltereyst and Erik Martens and delivered by a single speaker. Given that it wasn’t recorded ‘live’, as it were, this piece therefore balances out its various points and discussions over the running time without prompting huge pauses for silence. And it’s certainly worth a listen too, allowing for a greater historical context than De Landtsheer was able to provide with his intertitles whilst also filling out some of the background of the film’s production and its maker too. De Landtsheer is also the focus of a 25-minute biographical featurette, taking in his work both before and after With Our Troops, although predominantly the latter and specifically with relation to his production company Flandria Film and their newsreel outputs. As a final welcome addition we also find three examples of Flandria’s productions: Xth Yser Pilgrimage from 1929 (which runs for 12 minutes), Winter Has Come - Ice Festivals at Temse (1933-4, 5 minutes) and Jules Van Hevel Tribute (1935, 9 minutes). As with the main feature, they share a fascination that is once cultural, historical and cinematic.
Optional subtitles are available in English, French and Dutch for all special features, including the commentary.
'With Our Troops on the Yser' can be purchased via the Cinematek website here.
Last updated: 07/05/2018 11:07:49