Curator's Choice: The British Army at Your Service

3rd August 2021

COI 300. Clip is from The British Army at Your Service, 1950 

Film Curator Michelle Kirby highlights a newly-digitised Halas and Batchelor film.

As part of this year’s COI 75 project - a collaboration between the IWM, The National Archives and the British Film Institute (BFI), marking 75 years since the creation of the Central Office of Information (COI) - we have been delving into the vast array of public information films within our archives, watching content that has been digitised for the first time by IWM’s technicians.

One film which stood out in particular was a Technicolor cartoon, The British Army at Your Service, produced in 1950 by the well-known British animation company founded by the husband and wife duo John Halas and Joy Batchelor.

The six-minute film provides a cartoonist’s impression of the British soldier in his most famous campaigns from 1704 to 1945. Sponsored by the War Office and the Central Office of Information, it intends to guide the viewer through an imaginary art gallery, showing an exhibition of paintings charting the British Army’s ‘famous feats of arms. The paintings act as a narrative jumping off point for bursts of animated action, and the result is a mash of different visual styles, lending the animation a fluid and somewhat experimental feel.

A playful tone builds through the orchestral soundtrack, composed by Francis Chagrin and played by the Band of the Royal Military School of Music, whilst incorporating marching songs from the various periods. That sense of marching and movement carries the pace of the film along its many elements. The unstoppable stride of the soldiers' boots is a consistently recurring visual thread throughout; traipsing exhaustedly from victory off the battlefield of Waterloo, then stomping purposefully through the mud of First World War trenches, and finally splashing victoriously ashore on the offensive, at the close of the Second World War.

In this chosen clip from the film, British soldiers march into action in the First World War. The juxtaposition between the cheery, rousing music and the bleak landscape of barbed wire and smashed up trees, betrays that duality of challenge which must have faced Halas and Batchelor; to invoke a sense of patriotism and duty, whilst hinting at the stark reality of war endured by those at the heart of it. Against the ethereal backdrop of a firework-like display of explosions in No Man’s Land, a solitary poppy amid the barbed wire hints at the eventual peace, hard won. Ending with a playful poke in the ribs at the suggested ability of the British to smile their way through adversity, the clip closes with a British soldier standing up to his midriff in water, cheerfully chalking up a captured German trench sign to rename it ‘Piccadilly’. 

This clip, and indeed the whole film, assert that the positive disposition and determination of the British soldier, always marching purposefully on, won the day for the nation, in the end.

COI Public Information Films (1946-2012)

Founded in 1946 as a successor to the wartime Ministry of Information, the COI communicated government messages to the public, devising and delivering a wealth of public service information (and propaganda) including films, photographs, leaflets, posters, newspaper and magazine advertisements and radio broadcasts. 

This film was digitised thanks to Digital Futures, IWM’s mass digitisation programme to digitise 1.8 million vulnerable films, photographs and sound recordings from the Cold War era over the next five years. For priority access to collection items outside of the approved schedule, IWM offers a digitisation on demand service. Contact the licensing team for more information.