The Battle of the Somme (1916)

22 May

It would be fair to say that this film — first released in August of 1916 and just over an hour in length — permanently changed how the British people understood three different subjects: the Great War, the role of the war correspondent, and cinema itself.  You can check out the Imperial War Museum’s restored version of it in full here.

The film was shot by the accomplished team of Malins and McDowell, two of the Committee for War Films’ rising stars.  Its format was simple even if its execution was frequently nightmarishly hard: over the course of a couple of dozen short “chapters” arranged into five sections the viewer is introduced to the preparations, commencement, and ongoing contours of the then-still-in-progress campaign on the Somme (July – November, 1916).  This campaign has now not entirely justly become a byword for catastrophic waste and failure, but at the time the popular conception of it was of a hard-going but imminent success.

I said that production of the thing was difficult.  The crew shot most of the film’s material on location as the battle itself unfolded — it includes, for example, the only surviving footage of the detonation of the enormous mine at Hawthorn Ridge at 0720 on July 1, 1916, which signaled the opening of the attack.  It was necessary to shoot inserts to simulate one “going over the top” segment and some artillery fire (this was done at a training camp), due to the danger involved, but both men nevertheless remained in the thick of it as the attack unfolded over the first couple of days.  Footage of wounded soldiers being recovered, German prisoners being taken, and even captured German trench works being explored is all quite genuine — as is the occasional shot of the dead.

The film created a sensation upon its release, though it was initially slow to build.  By the time the actual Somme campaign concluded the film had sold some twenty million tickets to British cinema-goers — at its height it played on over two thousand screens, which is comparable to a wide-release film even today.  This is remarkable to consider when we acknowledge that the medium was in its infancy and that The Somme‘s five reels were considered by many to be extravagant in their length.

The impact of this, as I suggested above, was threefold.

For many cinema-goers, this was the first — and indeed, the only — visual exposure to the lived realities of the war in the field that they would receive.  The awfulness and difficulty of much of it had not always been apparent before, thanks to a reticent press and an image-conscious government, and the film put a face to much of what they’d previously heard in a way that mere anecdotes, passed along through letters or by word of mouth, could not.  All of the many carefully produced postcards and illustrations and “official photos” could not convey an ounce of the pathos, pain and determination of a frame like this (which has subsequently become quite a famous one).  The dawning reality that the Somme campaign had not been the rousing success it was intended to be coincided with the first-ever public availability of footage of it in action, and the images contained in The Battle of the Somme became an indelible element of how the public understood the war from then on out.

The widespread interest in the film naturally led to an interest in the men who made it, and in why it was that men working in this new medium were able to convey the realities of the war so much more powerfully than those who were working in print.  The War Office had only grudgingly allowed print war correspondents to visit the Front in the first place — there were only five, at the start, and unauthorized correspondents like the American Richard Harding Davis often found themselves arrested as spies (though typically released) — and their copy was rigorously inspected before being released to the papers.  While the footage obtained by Malins and McDowell was similarly scrutinized and artfully chosen from amongst the much more that they doubtless possessed, the immediacy of the images was very hard to blunt when compared to the euphemism and cant that was typical in print.

Many members of the public looked upon this and wondered.  If it was now quite possible for everyone to examine “the truth” of the war with their own eyes as it unfolded, why should they have to settle for the evasions and bluster of so many of the print correspondents?  Why read another column by Col. Repington, John Buchan or Sir Philip Gibbs when one could see?  In this, too, as in so much else that was a result of the war, the diminishing authority of the English Press took another hit.

While cinema-goers were no strangers to “documentary footage” — indeed, many of the most popular early films were of things like trains arriving, horses running around, people executing various exercises — The Battle of the Somme introduced them to a sort of immediacy that had not hitherto been the norm.  Here was footage of events as they unfolded, from right within the field of fire itself!  The implications of this were considerable on a cultural level; for the first time, audiences could watch live-action footage of *violent death*.  It occasioned exactly the sort of outrage you might imagine, with many religious and women’s groups denouncing the barbarity of putting such things on screen for all to see.  Actual soldiers seem to have quite liked the film (while regretting its lack of sound), and the ticket sales I noted above (which I obtained from Stevenson’s Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, 2004) should suggest its popularity generally.

Anyway, the “war film” had arrived in earnest, and its marriage of authentic footage and convincing re-enactments left audiences increasingly dissatisfied with anything else.  It is not for nothing that the films about the war produced in the years after its conclusion place a heavy emphasis on the use of stock footage in addition to their own re-enactments.  In an ironic note (if it is ironic — I’m not entirely sure), the re-enactments in those films (like in Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Pabst’s Westfront 1918) now look so much more convincing than the actual footage that the re-enactments from such films are now routinely used in documentaries about the war in lieu of the footage itself.

All of this sets the stage for the huge shift in attitude towards the war that would follow.  With the general public being confronted dually by authentic war footage and the reality of crowds of young men returning bearing severe scars (both real and abstract), it was easy to marry the two in the mind and consequently engender a pronounced aversion to war and martial matters that had not typically followed previous national conflicts (such as the Boer Wars, the Afghan Wars, the war in the Sudan, etc.).  This aversion led to the popularization of anti-war war novels like Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (1916) at the expense of more conventional works, and to the success of meditative, regretful texts like C.E. Montague’s hugely popular Disenchantment (1922) rather than conventional histories and memoirs that sought to paint the war in a necessary and justifiable light.

By the time the infantry veterans themselves felt prepared to address their experience in writing in 1927-33 the tone had shifted almost entirely into a minor key, with works like Goodbye to All That, The Patriot’s Progress, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Generals Die in Bed commanding considerable public attention.  David Williams, in his remarkably interesting Media, Memory and the First World War (2009), makes the case for the intensely cinematic nature of the “memory” at work in works such as those above, and implicates The Battle of the Somme (and subsequent films like The Battle of the Ancre) in the contours and sometimes origins of that memory, or at least of that way of remembering.

Those interested in The Battle of the Somme or in the film culture of the Great War more generally should consult Hammond and Williams’ British Silent Cinema and the Great War (2011).  There’s also a good chapter on the film in Ian W. Beckett’s The Making of the First World War (2012).


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