Today marks the 97th anniversary of the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. For those of us who have grown up in the decades following the war, the harrowing day has been recreated through the testimony of those who survived, but also significantly through the 1916 film The Battle of the Somme. The images have been recycled and reproduced thousands of times and now represent the futility of the war, a leading component in the cultural memory of the First World War.
Yet this was never the intention. The Battle of the Somme was very much intended as a propaganda film, and presented a sanitised view of the war. In 1914 a new type of war and a new technology combined for the first time in Britain. As the historian Philip Taylor has noted, ‘the locomotive of historical change was set in full flight in 1914 for both warfare and propaganda.’ There were therefore initially considerable teething problems as the relationship between the two was established.
Despite initial censorship that suppressed any news in all media, the War Office recognised the necessity of showing the public actuality footage from the front and to make use of the cinema as a propaganda tool. The concept of frontline footage reached its zenith with the 1916 documentary, The Battle of the Somme. It was shot by two official cinematographers, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell in early July 1916 just behind and at the front.
The War Office newsreel company, Topical Committee, decided to release it as single long film and it premiered in London on 10 August 1916. It was also shown in 34 cinemas in London simultaneously on 21 August 1916 when it was released to the wider public.
The film attracted enormous audiences and had a terrific impact. This was in part due to its graphic depiction of trench warfare, including showing dead and wounded British and German soldiers, as well as the fact that it opened whilst the battle was still very much raging and casualties were being taken.
The film received the highest praise from King George V himself, who said that: ‘The public should see these pictures that they may have some idea of what the army is doing and what it means’ (George V). The press likewise seized upon the film. The Manchester Guardian, previously sceptical of the war, described it as ‘The Real Thing at Last!’
But how effective was the film as propaganda? All films are sources that must be evaluated through the prism of their contemporary context. It was undoubtedly popular, attracting 20 million attendances in first 6 weeks, which was the majority of the domestic British population. It was later distributed in eighteen other countries and was so popular that is was followed shortly by The King Visits His Armies in the Great Advance (Oct 1916), The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (Jan 1917) and The German Retreat and the Battle of Arras (June 1917).
As the audience were told the footage was authentic, showing what conditions were really like, it was believed to be so. This, in combination with the vacuum that had existed before, can directly explain the film’s popularity. Here, at last, was ocular proof of what the war was really like, unlike all the posters, pamphlets and books – or so the British public believed.
But numbers alone can be misleading, and do not necessarily indicate the value of The Battle of the Somme as propaganda. The most enduring propaganda is that which retains its impact across the ages, and that is not limited purely to its contemporary context. In this regard, the film fails. The shapelessness and futility of the battle and terrible suffering of individual soldiers, both British and German, cannot be ignored. In critical terms, the images of the dead and wounded were extremely distressing for domestic viewers, and something that they had never seen before. That the battle was still waging is also self-defeating. How could it ever be presented as a glorious victory if the result still wasn’t decided? That the film was not replicated for subsequent campaigns speaks volumes of its effectiveness.
It is also a film were very little actually happens. The only real combat footage, the famous scene where troops go over the top and advance across No-Man’s Land, is faked. In addition, even as a documentary it was subjected to a selective editing and shooting process. It is not an impartial record of events, and should never be treated as such.
What then are we to say about The Battle of the Somme? It endures in cultural memory, but as an example of the futility of World War I. This is directly counter to its intended contemporary purpose. It retains value as a historical source, but one that reveals early cinematic techniques, and an indicator of how the War Office wanted to present the First World War to a civilian audience that had no independent way of uncovering the truth.