Tag Archives: Battle of the Somme

South Africans on the Somme

 

100 years ago, the Battle of Delville Wood was being fought. It was one of the many engagements that made up the Battle of the Somme, and part of the wider Battle of Bazentin Ridge.

The battle saw the debut of the South African Overseas Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. They took Delville Wood on the 15th of July 1916, and they held on grimly during numerous German counterattacks, until they were relieved.

The South Africans held the wood until 19 July, at a cost in casualties similar to those of many British brigades on 1 July. They lost 2,536 men in the attacks, counter-attacks, and defence in this small stretch of the front.

Delville Wood is now the site of the South African National Memorial, which was opened in 1926. There’s some great original footage here of the unveiling of the memorial – and you can really see the destruction of the wood as there are virtually no trees standing.

The memorial building itself is near the centre of the wood, with this rather moving inscription in English and Afrikaans:

Their ideal is our legacy.
Their Sacrifice our Inspiration.

The memorial commemorates not only the actions of the South Africans at Delville Wood, but also all those who fought and died in the battles of the First World War, both in Europe and elsewhere in the world. But it was only recently that the names of 1100 black and coloured troops from the South African Native Labour Corps who served as stretcher bearers and trench diggers were added to a remembrance wall.

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There is also a small museum designed to look like the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. Disappointingly, on my last two visits (even on 2 July 2016) the museum has been closed. I hope it is now open to tell the story of the South Africans at war.

Of the wood itself, while it looks full only one tree is an “original” hornbeam that survived the fighting. It is marked by a small plaque and shows battle damage. The rest of the hornbeam and beech trees were destroyed, and those there now are oak and birch trees planted by the South African government.

The wood is enormously peaceful, but it’s easy to see the scars of the war here. The trenches are still visible in the trees, and little memorials are still dotted around, such as pointing out where the South African HQ was.

Across the road is the Delville Wood Cemetery. It is the third largest British cemetery on the Somme, with 5,523 graves, and was created after the Armistice by concentrating a number of smaller cemeteries from the area, as well as those recovered from the battlefields. As a testament to the level of fighting here and in the immediate surrounds, two thirds of these are unidentified.

Delville Wood does not hold the same resonance for South Africans as Vimy Ridge for the Canadians, or Villers-Bretonneux or Gallipoli do for Australians. I think that is due to the contested and divided nature of South African 20th century history. Commemoration of these times remains difficult as it remains a painful issue about what is remembered – though it was good to see President Jacob Zuma lay a wreath at the memorial.

Delville Wood is an important site that helps people remember those who went before and fought for their country, and to my mind one of the most remarkable sites on the Western Front. I certainly recommend you visit it.

 

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New Battle of the Bulge Museum in Bastogne

Last year I walked part of the Battle of the Bulge battlefield, with a particular emphasis on Easy Company. I visited the Mardasson Memorial, just outside of the town of Bastogne, and noticed that a brand new museum to the battle was being constructed.

It seems that the museum is now up and running, and offers a highly-interactive experience – as you can see from the trailer below.

One to see on my next visit!

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The BBC’s World War One Centenary Programming: Five Highlights

Now that the BBC’s Centenary programming has kicked off with Paxman’s much-discussed Britain’s Great War, I thought I would cast my eye over what else is planned for the next four years, and what I am looking forward to. More detailed programme information can be found here on the BBC’s website, but these are the five TV and radio programmes I’m most looking forward to:

 

I Was There: The Great War Interviews (BBC Two)

As a big supporter of oral history, and of learning directly about an event from the perspective of those who lived through it, this programme looks particualrly interesting. These interviews were originally filmed for the BBC’s The Great War, broadcast over 50 years ago, but the programme is slated to include many exerpts of the 250 recordings that were not broadcast in the original series.

 

Voices of the Great War (Radio 4)

In much the same vein as above, this Radio 4 programme will broadcast extracts from the vast resources of the retrospective interviews held in the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive. Whilst I doubt there will be much analysis, it is always interesting to hear the accounts.

 

The World’s War (BBC Two)

We know the First World War was a global war, but beyond the Western Front what do we really know about the Empire’s involvement in the conflict? The historian David Olusoga explores this by telling the story of the war from the perspective of hundreds of thousands of Indian, African and Asian troops and ancillaries who fought and died alongside Europeans, both in Europe and in lesser known theatres such as Mesopotamia.

 

Hidden Histories: WW1’s Forgotten Photographs (BBC Four)

This documentary explores the pictures taken by British and German soldiers at the front, very personal snapshots showing a microcosm of the conflict. These aren’t the official War Office pictures that we’re familiar with, but private photo albums, taken with personal cameras that were actually banned at various stages throughout the war. I also declare a slight conflict of interest here as I worked on the programme and I’m eager to see how it has turned out and how it is received!

 

Our World War (BBC Three)

Based on the very successful Our War, and utilising the same format of POV helmet camera footage, surveillance images and night vision, Our World War is a factual drama series that attempts to show what the war would have been like for those who endured it. Over three episodes, different events from across the war will be shown to audiences, from 1914, through to the Somme, and the Hundred Days. I’m wary of how it will all pan out, and whether dramatic license or modern perceptions of “what it must have been like” over-ride historical evidence, but at the same time if it comes off it could be great.

 

So that’s what I’m looking forward to. Let me know if anything else in the schedule has caught your eye!

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‘The Battle of the Somme’ (1916) as Propaganda

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.

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