Long read

How The Battle Of The Somme Was Filmed

Tens of thousands of soldiers went 'over the top' at 7.30am on 1 July 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Nearly 20,000 British soldiers died that day, which looms large in the collective national memory of the First World War.  

The ferocious offensive drew upon Britain's imperial forces, and was the platform for the bloody debut of civilian volunteers who had besieged British recruitment halls in 1914. Among those who amassed in readiness for battle were two individuals who weren't there to fight, yet they were profoundly influential in shaping our vision of the conflict. Cameramen Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell were there to record footage that became the cinematic sensation, Battle of the Somme. This feature film has shaped how we imagine the First World War. It blazed a trail for cinema's subsequent obsession with fictional war movies.  

At the turn of the twentieth century, short films were a fairground novelty. Their popularity paved the way for purpose-built cinemas, but the 'movies' remained largely the preserve of the working class. But with the onset of war, what had seemed faddish now gained traction. Craving news from the fighting fronts, British audiences flocked to the cinema for a sense of immediacy that no newspaper report, photograph or illustration could rival. Cinema-going became more acceptable and, across the social spectrum, people warmed to the narrative-driven perspective that film offered.

The Battle of the Somme was, in some ways, a surprise to both its makers and its audience. When Malins was dispatched to the Western Front in November 1915, he was charged with shooting footage for use in short newsreels. Neither the War Office nor Malins's cinema trade employers expected a feature film. In late June 1916, Malins was joined by McDowell, and together they turned their cameras towards the British Army gearing up for, and then launching, the largest battle it had ever fought. When their reels arrived in London, the decision was made to present the silent footage as a feature film, often accompanied by an unexpectedly jaunty score played by musicians in cinemas.

The finished film had an extraordinary impact. Released in August 1916, audiences were stunned by the feeling that they had witnessed the battle for themselves. The feature starts with the build up to the battle. Mountains of munitions and thousands of men deluge the frontline in readiness. German defences are smashed by British guns. Yet to give these real scenes a coherent narrative, the film needed climactic images of men going 'over the top'. Unable to capture this crucial moment because they were loaded down with cumbersome equipment, the cameramen resorted to fakery. They staged troops leaping over their trench parapet and stepping through barbed wire before disappearing into a smokescreen.

These shots had a tremendous effect in 1916, with cinema audiences cheering the men going into battle. One woman was heard to cry out, 'Oh God, they're dead!' at the sight of "deaths" played out for the camera alongside unflinching real shots of the dead and wounded. Some were appalled at the exhibition of images of the dead in cinemas, a place of entertainment.  

Watched closely, the staged shot of men going 'over the top' gives itself away. It is believed to have been filmed at a mortar school near St Pol at some point between 12 and 19 July. This timeframe suggests that the cameramen shot material that they either couldn't capture previously or which they had filmed but with poor results, to incorporate into the final edit. When going 'over the top', the men leap into action without the weighty packs that real attacking soldiers had to carry. One man drops 'dead' in front of the barbed wire – and proceeds to cross his legs to get comfortable on the ground. 

Most telling of all is the camera position. Had Malins or McDowell been filming like this in a frontline trench for real, they would have been in considerable danger from German fire. Most of the audience would have had no reason to doubt the footage's authenticity and very few would have realised they were watching a reconstruction. 

The Battle of the Somme's imagery has become representative of the conflict as a whole, and paved the way for what we might think of as a 'war film' – a fictional reconstruction of a real conflict. The tension between dramatic effect and recording the 'reality' of war has confronted filmmakers ever since, in creating both feature films and documentaries.

You can watch excerpts from The Battle of the Somme and understand the role war has played in film in IWM London's exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies.