|“A Wonderful & Most Realistic Production”: watching The Battle of the Somme on the Western Front.|
|The Battle of the Somme is considered a landmark in cinematographic representations of war. A compilation of actuality footage shot at the front line by the official British cinematographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell between 25 June and 10 July 1916, it opened in London in August of that year and played to packed cinema houses there and in the provinces, being seen by an estimated 20 million British cinema goers. Most sources suggest that the film was well received by the British public, who responded positively to the first ‘authentic’ or ‘truthful’ film of the war, though there were some voices which expressed their unease at ‘unpatriotic’ shots of dead British soldiers. Badsey (1981) and Reeves (1997) have analysed the contemporary reception of the film, while Smither (1994) has demonstrated conclusively that most of the offending shots were in fact reconstructions staged after the event. The consensus amongst commentators, however, is that the film functioned primarily as a bridge between two separate forms of wartime experience, familiarising waiting relatives at home with the world of the soldier on the Western Front.
What is missing in this analysis is the fact that the film had another audience. It, along with other films, had repeated showings behind the lines on the Western Front where cinema going had become part of soldiers' regular recreational activities. Soldiers' reactions to the film were divided. Rowland Fielding who commanded a Battalion on the Somme took his men to see it whilst the battle was in action in September 1916 and found that its 'wonderful and most realistic' depictions relieved the nerves of troops who had not yet gone into combat. Wilfred Owen was more cynical, writing to his sister that 'those Somme pictures are the laughing stock of the whole British Army'. This paper moves away from a focus on the domestic audience to consider how the film was received by those in the best position to judge its veracity: the soldiers who participated in the battle itself. It draws upon some soldiers’ letters from the Imperial War Museum archive. The paper will also place the soldiers’ response to The Battle of the Somme in the context of soldiers’ recreational habits and debates within the War Office and the film trade about the provision of suitable ‘entertainment’ for the troops.