Moving picture – An Irishman’s Diary about the original film version of the Battle of the Somme

A frame from ‘The Battle of the Somme’ showing a soldier carrying a wounded comrade.

A frame from ‘The Battle of the Somme’ showing a soldier carrying a wounded comrade.

 

The Battle of the Somme was an almost unmitigated disaster from a British military point of view, but if it achieved nothing else, it made a piece of cinematic history.  

Footage shot during its opening weeks became the first ever feature-length documentary about a war. This was being screened back home within a month, and in the autumn of 1916 won audiences of which Hollywood could only dream.  

Twenty million people went to see it, almost half the then population of Britain and Ireland.

The film had been born from the same misguided optimism as the battle. Designed to take pressure off the French at Verdun, the Somme offensive was supposed to overwhelm the Germans first with artillery fire, then infantry. The documentary would relay this victory to a mass audience, in the process encouraging more soldiers to enlist.

But most of the artillery was too light to be effective. And – surprise, surprise – German defences were much better designed than allied plans envisaged. By the time the film was screened, the battle was dragging grimly on towards winter, and not even the best propagandists could pretend it was a triumph.  

While still putting on a brave face (and identifiable faces were a big part of the film’s appeal), the film’s message changed to one of sacrifice.  

Look what these men are enduring for their country, it said – they now need you to help or replace them.

In the first years of the conflict, such a thing would not have been considered. The Kerry-born war secretary, Earl Kitchener, had banned photography from the front until late 1915. But by the summer of 1916, Kitchener was dead and tactics needed changing.  

The Gallipoli debacle had already slowed recruitment in Ireland, even before the events of Easter. In Britain, where conscription was now in force, tens of thousands had failed to respond to call-ups. So in confidence of the Somme becoming a good-news story, two cameramen, Geoffrey Malins and JB McDowell, were given restricted access to the front.  

They were “embedded”, as we would say now, accompanied at all times by an officer and subject to military censorship. But they were also at the same risk of their lives as those around them. The hand-cranked cameras were heavy, could take only a few hundred feet of film at a time, and had to be close to the action to capture anything. Except for about a minute of the total, which was staged, this was cinéma vérité.

The most famous scenes include the massive mine explosion at Beaumont Hamel and a soldier carrying a wounded comrade on his shoulders through the trenches. In general, troops are shown to be well-fed and clothed, and to treat German prisoners in a chivalrous manner.

On the other hand, the film also included the spectacle of many dead soldiers, and even of communal graves. Such scenes comprise 13 per cent of the total, and must have been shocking to audiences in 1916, some of whom may even have recognised victims. There were criticisms of voyeurism and disrespect.

But whatever its propaganda value – and the Germans were sufficiently impressed to shoot their own version of the battle – the film set a new standard in cinematic realism.  

It also helped make the medium respectable among middle-class audiences, who had hitherto considered it beneath them. And although the original negative was lost to cellulose nitrate decomposition by the 1920s, the restored and preserved version – based on master copies made in 1931 – is now listed in Unesco’s “Memory of the World” register.

Four and a half months after it began, the Battle of the Somme ended 100 years ago today. Tomorrow night, as part of a world tour, the digitally-restored film will be screened in the National Concert Hall, accompanied, as in 1916, by live music.  

There was no original score, so back then, cinemas used existing tunes to complement the action. But since 2006, the work has had a dedicated soundtrack, commissioned by the UK’s Imperial War Museum and written by Laura Rossi. This will be performed tomorrow by the Sinfonua and Camerata Ireland orchestras. 

The event will be further enlivened by interventions from three-dimensional actors, courtesy of Anu Productions, recreating the experiences of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. There will also be readings by Dermot Bolger of his favourite war poems. And if all that is not enough, the show will be preceded by a History Ireland Hedge School discussion.  

More details are at historyireland.com and nch.ie.