Studio Symphony Orchestra

About the Film

Shot and screened in 1916, The Battle of the Somme was the first feature length documentary about war. In the first three months of its release the film was seen by around 20 million people in Britain and Ireland, informing and challenging the public with its images of warfare, and changing the way both cinema and film was perceived.

The film was shot by just two cameramen; Geoffrey Malins and J B McDowell. Filming took place between 25 June and 9 July 1916, covering the build-up and opening stages of the Battle of the Somme. The film is definitely a propaganda film, though it is filmed and presented in the style of a documentary, and was made in response to a real desire from the British public for news of and images from the battlefront. It was created to rally civilian support, particularly for the production of munitions, and British soldiers are portrayed as well-fed, respectful to prisoners and well-looked after.

The structure of the film is simple; the first two reels cover the preparations for the infantry attack, the third reel covers the attack on the 1 July 1916 and the next two, the aftermath of the battle. Anticipating the desire of the audience to spot their loved ones, the cameramen captured as many faces as possible, often encouraging the men to turn and acknowledge the camera. The inter-titles, written by the War Office, are a crucial element of the film. They provide commentary, point out important details, guide the audience to an appropriate response, reinforce propaganda messages, and reassure the viewer. Some scenes such as the ‘over the top’ sequence are now understood to have been staged. However, historians estimate that overall only 90 seconds of the film was staged. An estimated 13% of the film depicts images of wounded or dead soldiers including some distressing images of communal graves. The depiction of British dead is unique to this film in the history of British non-fiction cinema. Despite the depiction of death and injury throughout the film, the overall feeling remains that the Battle of the Somme was a military success.

The film was first privately shown to David Lloyd George on the 2 August 1916 and the first major screening took place on 10 August at the Scala Theatre, Soho, London. The Battle of the Somme continued to be distributed for at least five months afterwards. By October 1916, the film had received around 20 million admissions – the UK population at the time was 43 million.

The Battle of the Somme was filmed on the front line at great personal danger to the cameramen, and offered audiences a unique, almost tangible link to their family members on the battlefront. Contemporary reactions to the film varied greatly; some members of the public thought the scenes of the dead were disrespectful or voyeuristic. There was debate in the newspapers and at least one cinema manager refused to show it. But most people believed it was their duty to see the film and experience the ‘reality’ of warfare. The popularity of the film helped raise the status of film from a trashy form of mass-entertainment to a more serious and poignant form of communication. The Imperial War Museum took ownership of the film in 1920, and in 2002 undertook digital restoration of the surviving elements. A new orchestral score was commissioned from Laura Rossi in 2005 and the film was listed on UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ register – one of the first films, and the first British document of any kind, to be listed.  The Battle of the Somme film remains the source of many of the conflict’s most iconic images, from the ‘over the top’ sequence to the piggy-back rescue in the trenches, and continues to have great importance not only as a record of war but as a piece of cinema.