The Battle of the Somme (1916)
British Topical Committee for War Films
The Battle of the Somme, fought in the summer and autumn of 1916, was one of the largest battles of the First World War. With more than one million casualties, it was also one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The Allied forces attempted to break through the German lines along a 25-mile (40 km) front north and south of the River Somme in northern France. One purpose of the battle was to draw German forces away from the Battle of Verdun; however, by its end the losses on the Somme had exceeded those at Verdun.
The Battle of the Somme is a 1916 British documentary and propaganda film. Shot by two official cinematographers, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, the film depicts the British Army's preparations for, and the early stages of, the battle of the Somme. Premiered in London on 10 August 1916 and released generally on 21 August, while the battle continued in France, the film gave a very graphic depiction of trench warfare, showing dead and wounded British and German soldiers. The film was a massive success, selling some twenty million tickets in its first six weeks of release in Britain. It was later distributed in eighteen other countries.
Preserved in the film archive of the Imperial War Museum since 1922, the film was inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register in 2005. The film has since been digitally restored and released on DVD in 2008. The Battle of the Somme remains significant today as an early example of film propaganda technique, as an historical record of the battle, and as a frequent source of footage illustrating the First World War.
Malins and McDowell shot the film before and during the Battle of the Somme, which started on 1 July 1916. They staged some of the scenes of troops going "over the top" before the battle started, but Malins captured many of the most famous scenes on the first day of the battle, when stationed near the front at Beaumont Hamel. From this position he filmed iconic images of the detonation of the massive mine beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt as well as of the preparations and advance of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers of the British 29th Division. (This same battalion had won six VCs at W Beach during the landing at Cape Helles, Gallipoli on April 25, 1915.)
Malins and McDowell did not set out to make a feature film, but once the volume and quality of their footage had been seen in London, the British Topical Committee for War Films decided to compile a feature-length film. William F. Jury produced the work, and it was edited by Malins and Charles Urban.
The completed film spanned five reels and lasted 62 minutes and 50 seconds. Its first screening took place to an invited audience at the Scala Theatre on 10 August 1916, while the battle still raged. On 21 August the film began showing simultaneously in 34 London cinemas, opening in provincial cities the following week. The Royal Family received a private screening at Windsor Castle in September. The film was eventually shown in 18 countries.
Reception and Impact
British soldiers at rest in France also saw the film: here it provided new recruits with some idea of what they might soon face. The soldiers' main complaint was the failure of the film to capture the sound of battle. However, for a silent film, the titles could be remarkably forthright, describing images of injury and death.
British authorities showed the film to the public as a morale-booster and in general it met with a favourable reception. The Times reported on August 22 1916 that "Crowded audiences...were interested and thrilled to have the realities of war brought so vividly before them, and if women had sometimes to shut their eyes to escape for a moment from the tragedy of the toll of battle which the film presents, opinion seems to be general that it was wise that the people at home should have this glimpse of what our soldiers are doing and daring and suffering in Picardy".
By contrast others considered it immoral to broadcast scenes of violence, the Dean of Durham protesting "against an entertainment which wounds the heart and violates the very sanctity of bereavement". Others complained that such a serious film shared the cinema programme with comedy films. The British public responded to the film massively, purchasing an estimated 20 million tickets in two months. On this basis, The Battle of the Somme remains one of the most successful British films ever made.
However, historians believe that a lot of the available footage was censored from the final version shown to the public, as the War Office wanted the film to contain footage that would support the war effort and raise morale, which it did very successfully.
The film was shown in New Zealand and on October 16, 1916 Wellington's The Evening Post ran a review of it on page 3. It had been advertised in the paper four days earlier as "The extraordinary films of 'the big push' which were taken by the British War Office". It was also billed as "an awe-inspiring, glorious presentation of what our heroes are accomplishing today." The lengthy review concluded with the following: "These pictures of the Battle of the Somme are a real and valuable contribution to the nation's knowledge and a powerful spur to a national effort."
Restoration and DVD release
In 2005 The Battle of the Somme was inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register for the preservation of global documentary heritage. In November 2008, following a lengthy restoration process led by the Imperial War Museum, a digitally remastered version of Battle of the Somme was released on DVD by Network to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice. It included two new musical soundtracks by Laura Rossi and Stephen Horne, as well as an audio commentary by Roger Smither, keeper of the IWM’s Film and Photograph Archives, interviews with Smither, Rossi, Horne and Dr Toby Haggith, missing scenes and fragments linked to their originally intended position in the film, and a booklet with information on the film, its restoration and musical accompaniments. Tied to the release, the Imperial War Museum launched a minisite featuring viewing notes, further reading and teaching resources.