Sunday, 11 November 2012

Anthem for Doomed Youth… The Battle of the Somme (1916)

"Crowded audiences...were interested and thrilled to have the realities of war brought so vividly before them…" The Times, August 22, 1916

This film was intended to form a bridge between the Western Front and the Home Front. The War Office had only lifted a ban on filming the war in late 1915 and what started off as disparate reporting of the battle ended up as an attempt to create a more coherent narrative.

Whilst some of this was “reconstructed” (the famous “over the top” sequence was in fact the only such fiction) and otherwise moulded to fit with scenes moved around chronologically, there is no doubt that the results are still haunting to this day. How could they fail to be?

British soldiers charge across No Mans' Land
At one point the filming picks up the chaos of the actual charge as soldiers run across no mans land, it’s difficult to make out the pattern initially but then you see the direction they are headed and you start to make out the falling bodies… These were amongst the first casualties on the most calamitous day in British military history: the 1st July 1916, when 19,240 men died and a further 38,230 were injured.

In an age when the filming of conflict at close quarters is almost taken for granted it is hard to imagine the impact of The Battle of the Somme on contemporary audiences. The Great War was two years into its bloody course and the main source of information would have been the written reports in newspapers. Here suddenly, were images of huge explosions, muddy trenches and the flesh and bone of men giving their all for the country. Here was what was actually happening to the husbands, sons and brothers of those left at home.

Geoffrey Malins (left on camera), John McDowell (right)
This was a calculated risk on behalf of the War Office, the film was intended to have huge propaganda value and so it proved with millions queuing to watch it on record runs as it became the most successful British film of the era with over 20 million tickets sold…almost half the country watched it.

Historians may argue over the authenticity of some of the shots and, of course, the film was “censored”… this was Great Britain at war in 1916. With the casualties mounting and no clear end in sight, the War Office needed a demonstration of the courage and superiority of the British army… the folks back home needed to know that the war was being won and they needed to see how their friends and relatives were fighting and dying…

Whatever the intent and the restrictions placed upon them, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell’s film is an incredible slice of authentic history. The two men showed a lot of courage as well as technical ingenuity starting at opposite ends of the 16 mile long front and ended up in the south where the allied push had been most successful.

The film starts with the build up as soldiers and munitions are moved into position. The men are shown marching happily to the front, waving at the camera pleased to be given a possible connection to home. How heart-breaking it must have been to grieving audiences back home who watched in hope of seeing a loved one.

The action then shifts to show the intense artillery bombardment that presaged the battle over the last week of June. Bigger and bigger guns are shown culminating in a mighty 16 inch Howitzer. The workings of these infernal machines is shown in some detail, the ground shaking as round after round is despatched to the German lines.

The huge Hawthorne Ridge mine explosion was filmed by Malin and later footage showing the 40 foot deep crater left by the Lochnagar mine showed how destructive these weapons could be. The latter crater remains unfilled on the battlefield to this day.

Hawthorne Ridge mine
The preparation of the soldiers becomes more intense as we see the trenches at an area termed “White City” (the Brits neutralising fearsome foreign soil by using familiar terms), then follows Malin’s genuinely chilling footage as the soldiers engage. There was much debate at the time over the validity of showing the actual combat and loss of life but if seeing the reality doesn’t shake us from any complacent view of war then what will? This was not the intent of the time, but they wanted to show what the men were actually experiencing in the name of God and country.

The staged sequence in which a few dozen men clamber over a low trench and run across the barbed-wire field showed closer up what was actually happening all over the battle field.

The remainder of the film shows the aftermath of the initial push with the injured being patched up – one man with entry and exit wounds clearly visible on his arm  and again on his right shoulder: a lucky survivor. Captured German soldiers are also shown in their hundreds most just glad to be alive.

But the film makers also paused to show the bodies of the dead and there are some surprisingly lingering shots of solders, frozen where they fell. This was one element which the authorities might have miscalculated and future propaganda was more guarded.

At the end, the soldiers are shown to re-group and prepare to re-enter the fray - an upbeat conclusion (mostly using footage from before the battle) for what was only the first week or so of a battle that raged for months well into the autumn. The prisoners of war are shipped off in trains: they were the lucky ones.

There’s an extraordinary shot (McDowell?) showing the devastation around Mametz, as the camera pans almost 360 degrees to show buildings reduced to rubble. It looks like a vision of Hell, as does much of the film.

By the end of the battle in November, the allies had gained about six miles at a cost of 623,907 casualties against 465,000 for Germany…over 300,000 lives were lost from both sides. How many of the smiling soldiers seen in this film made it though?

The Royal Fusiliers after the first day
Hostilities resumed the following year once the weather and ground improved.

The Battle of the Somme could only give a flavour of the scale of this loss and it succeeded in showing the humanity, providing the template for future reporting. It was inscribed into the UNESCO “Memory of the World” register in 2005. A second film, The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, was released in 1917 showing the latter stages of the Battle - a war within a war.

The sunken road... 20 minutes later a German shell landed on this spot
I watched the Imperial War Museum’s DVD which features a restored print and specially written orchestral score from Laura Rossi. This was used for the restoration premier on the Southbank and does a splendid job of connecting the film with modern sensibilities.

There’s also a fascinating alternative score from an ensemble led by Stephen Horne which features a medley of contemporary music as recommended at the time. As close as it’s possible to get to a restored “soundtrack” for a silent film, this gives a moving insight into the mood the film distributors wanted to create.

Both musicians are interviewed and the extras also include a commentary and interview with Roger Smither, Keeper of the IWM’s Film and Photograph Archive, as well as missing scenes and a 36 page booklet. It’s available from the Imperial War Museum direct or through all good online retailers.
Lochnagar crater and memorial


  1. A great review, I Thank You, and you're spot on about the distant scenes showing the real fighting. Death which is instant and not acted is truly horrifying. Hard to imagine deaths on this score being accepted today - but then again, even the relatively small war in Afghanistan is unsupported and ignored at home and, unlike in 1916, the idea of king and country is little consolation to men and women far away.

    1. Thank you Sir Gawain - it's hard to imagine modern reportage showing the dead quite as clearly as this film. Conflict often gets depicted like a computer game with the consequences only rarely shown...