Battle of the Somme (1916)

The Fleapit Cinema Club, Westerham, Kent

                                                            11 November 2016


Could there really be a more fitting date on which to be watching a screening of the film The Battle of the Somme (1916) than November 11, Armistice Day. Which is what brought us down to Westerham in Kent tonight, to the delightfully named Fleapit Cinema Club. And to complement the screening we also had live musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne

But before the film began, there was an introduction from Dr Toby Haggith, Senior Curator in the Research Department of the Imperial War Museum.  Dr Haggith explained that when the film was screened it rapidly became one of the most well attended films ever released in Britain.  Cinemas were packed, special bus and train services were laid on to get people to screenings and the film was responsible for attracting more middle-class audiences, many of whom had never been to a cinema before.  The film was watched by over 20 million people in the first six weeks of exhibition and subsequently distributed in eighteen other countries.  It was also one of the first films over which a conscious decision was taken to preserve it for posterity.

Up until that point in the war British authorities had imposed a virtual embargo on filming at the front. But as the war dragged on there was a growing realisation in some (but not all) quarters that better coverage of the war could be useful, for example in boosting morale or as a means of encouraging other countries to join the war on Britain’s side. Authorities were also stung by the fact that German film of the conflict was beginning to appear in cinemas in London.  As a result, cameramen Geoffrey Malins (image far right) and John McDowell (image right) were allowed (under close military supervision) to film preparations for and first two weeks or so of the battle of the Somme. Their 8,000 feet of film was then edited down in consultation with the military into a feature length documentary of around 75 minutes.  There was an initial screening on 10 August for press and senior officials and the film went on general release on 21 August 1916.       

The Battle of the Somme is divided into five titled segments.  This had the benefit of enabling the screening to take place either in one go or over a number of consecutive nights.  The first part shows preparations for the battle with troops moving up to the line, munitions being stockpiled, senior officers addressing the troops and religious services as well as some initial bombardment of German positions.  Part two features the more immediate lead up to the battle with troops having a last meal the evening before, moving up to positions in the trenches, preparing equipment such as wire cutters.  There are scenes of the heavy artillery bombardment which preceded the battle, the detonation of an enormous mine under the German trenches (image above left) and some early casualties in the form of horses killed by German artillery.  Part three focuses on the start of the battle with infantrymen going ‘over the top’ and advancing on German lines, the occupation of captured trenches, British soldiers rescuing a wounded comrade under fire, the transport of both British and German wounded and their treatment at a forward aid station. Part four shows British soldiers giving drinks and cigarettes to German prisoners, more British wounded being treated (image left), soldiers receiving mail after the battle and shots of many German dead.  Part 5 highlights the physical effect of battle, destroyed trenches and dug-outs, shell holes, pulverized landscape and post-battle repair work.  There are shots of the destroyed French village of Mametz as well as captured German equipment followed by scenes of soldiers resting, assembling for roll-call and preparing for the next stage of the battle. 

On its initial release The Battle of the Somme was a revelation to audiences.  Up until then those on the home front had had little experience of what life at the front was like other than through somewhat anodyne newspaper reporting, letters (probably censored) from relatives serving there and the ever growing newspaper casualty lists.  But this film revolutionised the representation of warfare.  Although many of the worst horrors of the conflict were excised it did at least give a taste of what the war was like.  There were pictures of the wounded and even some of the dead, footage gave a sense of the scale of destruction, the pulverized landscape and destroyed villages.  There were many particularly poignant moments, the soldier carrying his wounded comrade on his back (image right, who, the film reveals, later died), the dead soldier sitting almost lifelike in a trench, the company mascot dog killed with his handler and shots of dead British horses (of which almost half a million were killed in the war, one for every two British soldiers). 

But as well as giving a representation of the conflict, the film also presented a powerful propaganda message (as it was intended to do, with the inter-titles authored by the War Office).  Military units shown in action in the film were all identified in the inter-titles, giving something tangible that the audience could relate to rather than just being anonymous groups of men in uniform.  A lot of time was spent showing equipment and munitions, seemingly in exaltation to munitions workers back home to ‘give us the tools so we can do the job’.  As well as this educative role, Dr Haggith also speculated that it might also have been intended to prick the conscience of those men who had so far resisted answering their conscription notifications (with at least 95,000 married men refusing at this point). 

Looking at this film today, in an era when we have become almost blasé about images of violence and death on TV news, The Battle of the Somme still has the power to shock.  The scenes of horse drawn artillery manoeuvring in a field strewn with dead British infantrymen remain disturbing.  Shots of French women farm workers tending crops just a couple of hundred yards behind the trench lines, almost oblivious of the conflict, were remarkable.   The film also serves to re-emphasise the scale of the battle, the men and resources committed and the level of destruction.  This is particularly striking today when conflict is increasingly characterised (not always accurately) as a surgical strike rather than a sledge-hammer blow. The film also brings home the sheer physicality of conflict in 1916, not just in the actual fighting but with soldiers literally manhandling weapons which had grown to behemoth scale as the war became a battle of industrial might rather than just military finesse.  And yet the film must have been even more shocking to watch on first release in 1916 because it covered just two weeks of what turned out to be an almost five month battle.  Even by the time the film was released in August it is likely that many of the soldiers shown in it would have been killed or injured. 

The other perennial question concerning the film is the extent to which some of the footage is staged.  It is now generally believed that one of the film’s apparently most shocking moments, when soldiers are filmed in close up going ‘over the top’ and several fall, seemingly killed or wounded (images left and below) , was in fact staged, filmed either on a training exercise before the battle or re-enacted afterwards. But Dr Haggith estimates that barely 70 seconds of the film was reliant on such staged shots.  And yet while not necessarily staged, other shots did have a very forced feel to them, for example, the troops receiving mail after the battle.  It may be that this simply reflected the soldiers’ discomfort in front of the camera but begs the question of whether the mail delivery, including a surprisingly large number of sizeable parcels, was something of an artificiality, intended more as a message to the folks back home that all was well and the mail was getting through.  Similarly, to what extent was the focus on rapid medical treatment for the wounded a reflection of fact or as a means of reassuring relatives back home that their boys were getting the best treatment.  There are also shots of British soldiers somewhat awkwardly sharing water and cigarettes with German prisoners, scenes which apparently aroused cheers and clapping amongst the audience in 1916 at the display of English chivalry, yet in another shot a British soldier roughly shoves aside a German prisoner who stands too close to him.  But quite possibly both scenes accurately reflect the full range of attitudes prevalent towards captured Germans.  And scenes showing German prisoners as relieved, perhaps even happy to be captured certainly appear genuine which, if conditions on the German front were similar to our own, is perhaps not surprising, with the prospect of ending the war in a prisoner of war camp surely preferable to remaining under fire in a mud filled trench. 

Finally, a word on the musical accompaniment.  Most screenings of The Battle of the Somme in this its centenary year are being accompanied by a highly acclaimed orchestral score composed by Laura Rossi.   But for this evening’s screening musicians Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne have gone back to the original guidance issued on the film’s initial release as compiled by J. Morton Hutcheson, a renowned cinema accompanist of the time and comprising a medley of well known classical extracts along with popular songs of the time.  Although at times this gave the soundtrack a heavily propagandist, almost jingoistic feel it was particularly interesting to hear how the film would have been accompanied on its original release.  Stephen Horn on keyboard, accordion and flute and Martin Pyne on percussion provided a superb rendition of this highly varied and challenging score while Martin  added in the  backdrop of thunderous artillery and gunfire so effectively that you could almost smell the cordite. 

My only quibble in an otherwise excellent evening was the number of people in the audience talking during the screening.  Whilst at another silent screening some time ago where there were a number of silent film new-bies present, one of them asked if it was OK to talk during a silent film.  The correct answer that came back was that it was NEVER alright to talk during a silent film!!  

( NB  The Battle of the Somme is available on DVD through the Imperial War Museum in a version which features both the Laura Rossi orchestral score and the version we heard tonight played by Stephen Horne.  It can also be watched on line although in an unrestored poor quality version…so go and buy the DVD instead!)