Ref n° 2004-16 part a – essential information

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The Battle of the Somme

REF N° 2004-16


The 1916 film The Battle of the Somme is uniquely significant both as the compelling documentary record of one of the key battles of the First World War (and indeed one which has come to typify many aspects of this landmark in 20th Century history) and as the first feature-length documentary film record of combat produced anywhere in the world. In the latter role, the film played a major part in establishing the methodology of documentary and propaganda film, and initiated debate on a number of issues relating to the ethical treatment of “factual” film which continue to be relevant to this day. Seen by many millions of British civilians within the first month of distribution, The Battle of the Somme was recognized at the time as a phenomenon that allowed the civilian home-front audience to share the experiences of the front-line soldier, thus helping both to create and to reflect the concept of Total War. Seen later by mass audiences in allied and neutral countries, including Russia and the United States, it coloured the way in which the war and British participation in it were perceived around the world at the time and subsequently, and it is the source a number of iconic images of combat on the Western Front in the First World War which remain in almost daily use ninety years later, of which two examples are reproduced below.

Finally, it has importance as one of the foundation stones of the film collection of the Imperial War Museum, an institution that may claim to be among the oldest film archives in the world.

2.1 Name (person or organisation)

Roger Smither

Keeper of the Film and Photograph Archives

Imperial War Museum
2.2 Relationship to the documentary heritage nominated

Head of the archive responsible for the preservation of the nominated item

2.3 Contact person (s)

Roger Smither

Keeper of the Film and Photograph Archives, Imperial War Museum

Alternative contacts are:

Paul Sargent

Deputy Keeper of the Film and Video Archive

David Walsh

Head of Preservation, Film and Video Archive
2.4 Contact details (include address, phone, fax, email)

Film and Video Archive

Imperial War Museum

Lambeth Road

London SE1 6HZ

Telephone: +44 (0) 20 7416 5290 (Roger Smither)

+44 (0) 20 7416 5291 (Paul Sargent)

+44 (0) 20 7416 5248 (David Walsh)

Fax: +44 (0) 20 7416 5299 (all of the above)


3.1 Name and identification details of the items being nominated

The Battle of the Sommeidentified in the Imperial War Museum’s records under catalogue number IWM 191: five reels of 35mm film, total length 5005 ft (1525 metres), equivalent to a running time of approximately 70 mins when screened at a correct projection speed for silent film.

3.2 Description

Physical description:

A summary description of the five reels of the archive master copy follows. A printout extract from the Museum’s Full Technical Records database is attached as Appendix 1.






IWM 191/01 F 1 A 35





IWM 191/02 F 1 A 35





IWM 191/03 F 1 A 35





IWM 191/04 F 1 A 35





IWM 191/05 F 1 A 35







Key to fields:

CAN LABEL: film number/reel number (reels 1 to 5 of film IWM 191)

copy type copy number (“F 1”=first Fine Grain copy)

base (“A”=Acetate)

gauge (“35”=35mm)

LENGTH: in feet

COL: Colour – “B/W”=Black and White

SND: Sound – “MUT”=Mute

STATUS: Archive status – “AM”=Archive Master

Responsibility for the original nitrate negative was handed to the Imperial War Museum in 1920, and a nitrate protection master was made in 1921. A new safety film protection master was made in 1931, and this copy is now the film’s archive master copy, the original negative and all but one reel of the 1921 master having been destroyed following the onset of irretrievable nitrate decomposition in the early 1970s.

Physical condition and storage:

As was common at a time when the only method of making additional copies of a popular film was to strike them from the original negative, the negative of Battle of the Somme was already seriously worn at the time it was handed over to the Museum in 1920, with much evidence of scratches and abrasions, and some sections replaced by duplicate sections which – again reflecting the limitations of film technology at the time – were of lesser quality than the original. The steps taken by the making of the two “protection masters”, on nitrate in 1921 and on safety film in 1931, were intended to preclude the risk of further damage (and may well represent the first time that any institution had acted on the archival principle of making additional copies for the sole purpose of protecting a film for posterity).

The early safety stock used in the 1931 master seems to be reasonably stable, although the picture quality is somewhat variable, primarily due to the irreparable wear in the original negative already noted. The “1931 master” in fact now consists of an assembly of picture footage on 1931 filmstock, with intertitles spliced-in subsequently – some printed in 1962 and others in 1982 from various sources – as the Museum’s copying policy in the 1920s and 1930s concentrated on picture elements only, omitting intertitles to save costs.
The master is stored in the Imperial War Museum’s master film store at the ISO-recommended conditions of 5C and 40%RH.


4.1 Authenticity

Authenticity is established by the provenance of the record (see first part of answer to Question 3.2 above), and by the ability exactly to match the Imperial War Museum’s holding against descriptions of the film found in contemporary press coverage and screening programmes, such as the programme for a special screening at Windsor Castle in the presence of the then King, George V, on 2 September 1916 (of which copies are also held at the Museum), etc.

Note that, because the film remained in popular demand from its first release in August 1916 until the end of the War in 1918, the physical materials preserved by the Museum reflect some alterations made to the film after its first release to keep it “topical” – most conspicuously, the addition to the end of the film at some point after 8 April 1917 of a map showing the extent of the territory given up by the German Army during its withdrawal on that date to the ‘Hindenburg Line’. Such changes may, however, be readily identified and the film could easily be restored to its original appearance should the need ever arise.
4.2 World significance, uniqueness and irreplaceability

There are several factors which establish the record’s significance and uniqueness, many of which are elaborated in the correspondence with experts from which extracts have been included in Appendix 4 (and from which the remarks quoted in italics in the following paragraphs have been copied).

Documentary film as a genre:

The potential value of film as a medium for documentary record was recognized very early in the history of cinema, in a number of far-sighted works such as Une nouvelle source de l’histoire by Boleslaw Matuszewski published in Paris on 25 March 1898. Despite this early recognition, and continuing awareness of the value of documentary film (for example, there is a specific ‘Best Documentary’ category in the Academy Awards™), the Memory of the World Register does not yet include any documentary films. The following paragraphs argue that The Battle of the Somme has a strong case to become the first such record to join the Register, because it is in many ways “the first” in its genre.

The Battle of the Somme as a factual record of the event:

Taken by two “official cinematographers” just half a year after the British War Office relaxed its initial total ban on filming at the front, the film The Battle of the Somme offers a documentary record of the opening of the British Army’s 1916 summer offensive on the Western Front during the First World War. If it were no more than this, it would already have great significance. In the words of Professor Peter Simkins: “From a British, and Commonwealth, viewpoint, the 1916 Somme offensive was the first major battle fought by the British Empire’s first-ever mass citizen army. In numerical terms, the casualties suffered by the British and Dominion forces on the Somme were the highest incurred in any single battle, and British losses on the first day alone (1 July 1916) were the worst ever suffered by the British Army in a single day in its entire history*. The British Army on the Western Front in July 1916 was also still a volunteer army and, moreover, it was notable for the strong local links which most of its formations had with towns, cities and rural areas at home. Scarcely a family … was therefore left untouched by the battle which, as a result, occupies a unique place in our collective folk memory as well as leaving a permanent scar on our collective psyche.”

*What has been called “the bloodiest twenty-four hours in the entire history of the British Army” is normally reckoned to have cost 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead and 35,493 wounded. Understandably, as an official film with acknowledged propaganda intent, the film does not dwell on the scale of the disaster. Nonetheless, the reality of death in battle is one of the inescapable lessons which it offered and offers its audience.
The Battle of the Somme as a phenomenon of popular awareness:
Battle of the Somme was privately previewed to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George on 2 August 1916, barely a month after the events it portrayed. It was then shown to an invited audience on 10 August, and placed on general release in London ten days later when it proved phenomenally popular. It has been calculated that it achieved as many as 20 million attendances in the first six weeks after its release. The film was perceived at the time as a means by which the civilian home-front audience could share the experiences of the front-line soldier. Because of this perception, the film brought to the cinemas many members of the society who had previously ignored film as a lower-class entertainment. A reasonably typical reaction was voiced by Frances Stevenson, secretary (and mistress) to Lloyd George, who was present at the 2 August screening and recalled her brother Paul’s own death in combat: “I am glad I have seen the sort of thing our men have to go through, even to the sortie from the trench, and the falling in the barbed wire. There were pictures too of the battlefield after the fight, & of our gallant men lying all crumpled up & helpless. There were pictures of men mortally wounded being carried out of the communication trenches, with the look of agony on their faces. It reminded me of what Paul's last hours were: I have often tried to imagine to myself what he went through, but now I know: and I shall never forget. It was like going through a tragedy. I felt something of what the Greeks must have felt when they went in their crowds to witness those grand old plays – to be purged in their minds through pity and terror.” (Quoted in Lloyd George: a Diary by Frances Stevenson (ed. A J P Taylor, London, 1971)
The Battle of the Somme reaching audiences across borders and time:
The film was shown widely around the world, to encourage support for the allied cause: it was one of the films taken by Captain Alfred Bromhead on his 1916/17 missions to rally support for the war among the troops and civilians of Britain’s Russian ally, and it was one of the films used to promote the allied cause in the still-neutral USA. It helped shape the world’s perception of the First World War, and continues to do so to this day. The film remains the source of a number of iconic images of combat on the Western Front in the First World War which, almost ninety years later, are still widely used in books and newspapers and on television whenever the experience of trench warfare and the heroism and suffering of the ordinary soldier need to be evoked. Still images from the film appear in innumerable books and articles published in many languages. Television series such as The Great War (BBC, 1964), The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century (KCET for PBS, 1996), or The First World War (Wark Clements for Channel 4, 2003) and countless other series and individual programmes produced around the world have all made scenes from The Battle of the Somme familiar to the global audience. In the words of Professor Jeffrey Richards: “It captured the experience of World War One on celluloid and has shaped the popular reaction to and memory of that war ever since.”
The Battle of the Somme as a model for documentary/propaganda film:
In addition to the importance of the film as a documentary record per se, the film The Battle of the Somme has additional importance as the first feature-length documentary film of a battle ever produced. It played a major part in establishing the methodology of documentary (and propaganda) film, creating a style which remains familiar in many subsequent productions from many countries. It also initiated debate on a number of issues relating to the ethical treatment of “factual” film that continue to be relevant to this day. For example, the film provoked immediate controversy in the correspondence columns of British newspapers about the intrusion of the camera into scenes of private tragedy, while the use of “faked” or reconstructed footage in the film was examined and debated in the 1920s.
The Battle of the Somme as an agent towards the establishment of film archives:
Finally, and linking back to the original impulse that inspired the writer of Une nouvelle source de l’histoire and similar visionaries, The Battle of the Somme has importance as one of the foundation stones for the concept of film archiving itself. The Times of London, writing about the film on 11 August 1916, said: “If anything were needed to justify the existence of the cinematograph, it is to be found in the wonderful series of films of the opening of the British attack on the Somme on July 1 which were shown privately at the Scala Theatre yesterday and which will soon be exhibited in every part of the country. In years to come, when historians want to know the conditions under which the great offensive was launched, they will only have to send for these films and a complete idea of the situation will be revealed before their eyes – for we take it as a matter of course that a number of copies of them will be carefully preserved in the national archives.” The inclusion of film in the collections of the Imperial War Museum when that institution was formally established in 1920 may be interpreted as a realisation of the ambition voiced by The Times, and the measures taken by the Museum in 1921 to ensure the survival of this film and others may be seen as some of the first truly film archival actions taken by any institution.
The “irreplaceability” of film is more difficult to establish than that of other forms of record, given that film is by definition a medium of mass communication: there are several other copies of Battle of the Somme in the world, including those released by the Imperial War Museum itself to broaden access to the title. However, the archive masters preserved in the vaults of the IWM Film and Video Archive are the copies with the most direct linkage to the original negative, and are to this extent truly irreplaceable.
4.3 Criteria of (a) time (b) place (c) people (d) subject and theme (e) form and style

Several of these issues have already been addressed indirectly or generally in the extended answer to Question 4.2 above. The answers below offer brief comments in response to the specific themes covered in Section 4.2.5 of the ‘General Guidelines’.

  1. Time: the film The Battle of the Somme is unquestionably “of its time” both as documentary evidence of a major military engagement and as the vehicle by which the civilian populations (initially of Britain; subsequently of all countries) were made aware, or felt they were being made aware, of the realities of combat on the Western Front. As previously noted, it is also “first of its kind” in a number of ways – as feature-length documentary, as official propaganda film, as impulse in the creation of film archiving, etc.

  1. Place: The Battle of the Somme records the French landscape over which the campaign of the summer of 1916 was fought, and the damage inflicted on it by the fighting. However, its greater importance might be held to be as a record of the symbolic place that “the Somme” has come to hold in the consciousness of several generations.

  1. People: the nature of the British Army at the time of the opening of the Somme Offensive on 1 July 1916 has been characterized by Professor Peter Simkins in a letter already quoted in answer to Question 4.2 – “The British Army on the Western Front in July 1916 was also still a volunteer army and, moreover, it was notable for the strong local links which most of its formations had with towns, cities and rural areas at home.” In other words, the soldiers seen in the film were not members of an exclusive professional army but representatives of the entire range of the population that had been civilians less than two years before. One of the more touching aspects of the film itself is the way that soldiers on many occasions react to the presence of the camera – waving or “putting on a show” – knowing that their friends and families at home may see them: even German prisoners of war are encouraged to make sure they are “in picture”. On the other side of the screen, as it were, the film was perceived as an important way by which the civilians at home could identify with the experiences of the soldiers at the front. The film also has been and remains a means by which people beyond the boundaries of the country where it was made, and of later generations than that for which it was first projected, have understood the realities of the First World War. Therefore, the resonance of the film, both at the time and since, pervaded and pervades many kinds and conditions of humanity.

  1. Subject and theme: warfare is regrettably a theme that runs through much of human history. The Battle of the Somme records an important moment in one of the two great conflicts of the Twentieth Century, as well as providing several iconic images that are still in regular use to encapsulate the meaning of war in general.

  1. Form and Style: not only did The Battle of the Somme record a very significant battle, it also helped to establish the methodology by which future wars would be depicted through the medium of moving pictures. The pattern set in 1916 by Battle of the Somme is recognisable in films produced by all sides in the Second World War and beyond. The film also initiated debate on a number of issues that continue to be relevant to this day. In addition to ethical issues of intrusion and authenticity previously noted, the film provoked debate about whether such material belonged at all in a medium normally devoted to entertainment: one owner was moved to display a sign outside his theatre reading “We are not showing The Battle of the Somme. This is a place of amusement, not a chamber of horrors.” This may be compared with a letter by Arthur Conan Doyle (published in The Times on 4 September 1916), which asked “How can we learn to understand and sympathize with the glorious achievements and sacrifices of our soldiers so well as when we actually see them in action before our eyes? The film is a monument to their devotion. The theatre is filled constantly with the relatives of the men portrayed, and I do not think they feel there is any desecration in the performance.”

4.4 Issues of rarity, integrity, threat and management

Consideration of the issues of rarity and integrity has been included in the answers given to Questions 4.1 and 4.2 above. The level of institutional or environmental threat is considered low; the level of inherent threat (potential instability of carrier) is considered medium (see 8.1 below).

Details of the Museum’s management plan are provided in 6.1 below.

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