The Battle of the Somme—the movie

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Above: An advertisement for and a still from the documentary film The Battle of the Somme. (IWM)

Above: An advertisement for and a still from the documentary film The Battle of the Somme. (IWM)

Within weeks of the famously bloody first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, audiences in the UK were crowding into cinemas to see the reality of combat for themselves.The feature-length film The Battle of the Somme,shot by official cinematographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, opened in August 1916. It showed the preparations for the British attack, a large explosion from a mine filled with 45,000 pounds of ammonal detonated near Beaumont Hamel on the morning of 1 July, scenes apparently shot during the attack, the return of the wounded and prisoners after the battle and the burial of the dead. The film was endorsed by no lesser personages than Lloyd George and the king. George V, after seeing the film at Windsor on 2 September, stated that ‘the public should see these pictures that they may have some idea of what the Army is doing, and what war means’. The film, whilst appearing graphic and realistic, was also a very effective piece of patriotic propaganda, aimed at galvanising people into getting behind the war effort. Twenty million people in the UK went to see the film in the six weeks after its release.

The impression of reality given by the film was, however, partial at best. Scenes of attack were in fact reconstructed in a training area, including soldiers feigning being killed. A number of the most harrowing scenes, moreover, were omitted for some screenings. This was a reality both dramatised and sanitised, but one which millions of Britons viewed out of a desire to witness as directly as possible the experience of soldiers at the front.

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