The Battle of the Somme – Can a documentary be propaganda?


Part 3: The Attack! A group of soldiers crouch in a trench. There is the signal! They leap over the parapets. Next shot: they climb over barbed wire as they move on and ultimately disappear in the midst of battle. Some do not even make it out of the trench, others fall while approaching the enemy.

The audience was shocked and impressed at the same time and the film was a huge success. Everyone wanted to see the documentary that showed the reality of war in northern France. Within the first six weeks after The Battle of the Somme had first appeared in British cinemas, twenty million tickets had been sold – the United Kingdom had 43 Million citizens at that time.

Filmed between the 25th June and the 10th July 1916, The Battle of the Somme revealed recordings from the Entente offensive at the river Somme. Being one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, and human history, the Somme Offensive has become an important part of British collective memory and a memorial for the horrors of war.

The prevailing images of the battle today have been shaped by the corresponding documentary. The film is a popular source for footage of the First World War and has frequently been called the beginning of the documentary genre. But at the same time, it was also a project of the British propaganda agency. How could a genre that claims objectivity for itself actually serve as propaganda?

The First World War was accompanied by modern mass media. By that time, cinemas had become one of the most popular means of entertainment. Probably around 6000 cinemas existed in Britain back then, selling around 20 Million tickets a week. The audience was highly interested in war-related films and the film industry responded to that demand with a variety of patriotic films. What made the media film so attractive was its claim to reflect reality. The acted war dramas, however, were far from that. People wanted real impressions from the war. But at the beginning, British propagandists were reluctant to send cameramen to the front. Not only was filming at the battle front dangerous but the government was also afraid of revealing secret information.

Then in December 1915 Britain Prepared appeared – commercially and politically a major success. For the first time, a propaganda film featured real recordings from the front. Nevertheless, it could not live up to its expectations to present realistic impressions from the war. The images presented in films and newsreels from then on were very one-sided, showing the happy faces of soldiers who were not ultimately on the front. Actual scenes of combat were forbidden because the government feared that they could have a negative impact on people’s war morale. Any combat actions were staged. Consequently, the obviously unrealistic propaganda was not appreciated by the audience.

The Battle of the Somme was first screened on the 21st of August, 1916. Not only was the film a lot longer than the preceding productions, but it was also exceptionally authentic. War was not portrayed heroically but appeared realistically with all its horrors. The climax of the film was the disastrous first day of battle where the British troops suffered approximately 57 000 casualties. Ironically, it was exactly this most iconic part of the film, where the soldiers leave the trench and move towards the enemy, that was staged.

However, including such staged scenes into a sequence of actual footage from the war did not make the film appear less realistic. Technical limitations and the dangers of war made such re-enactments essential. But the mixture of real and staged scenes was so cleverly balanced that the production was very authentic overall.

It was especially the fact that the documentary seemed to dispense with the use of propagandistic elements such as the heroisation of war or the portrayal of the Germans as barbaric war machines that made it so distinctively different from preceding war films. So, what then was the propagandistic value of such an apparently objective documentary?

One would assume that the documentary display of the true nature of war would cause pacifist outcries. Indeed, the very same film was screened in The Hague as an anti-war film. In Britain, in contrast, the film reinforced the audience’s commitment to war. There was no need to persuade the people for the cause of British war effort as opinions were already made. The people were convinced that Germany was the aggressor and that Britain was in a position of moral superiority.

The extent of the British casualties on the disastrous first day of combat was hidden. In fact, the British soldiers appear more optimistic than their German counterparts, making them appear victorious – although they had just run into a massacre. The final scene of happy soldiers waving into the direction of the camera especially underlines that impression. But this very subtle kind of propaganda was far more effective than the heroisation of war and defamation of the enemies known from earlier pieces of propaganda.

The contrast with preceding propaganda films probably contributed a lot to the success of the documentary. The audience approved the honesty of the British War Office to refrain from overtly propagandistic productions. Because the audience was already convinced of the moral superiority of Britain, no such defamation of the enemy was needed. However, the documentary might not have had the same effect on people if it had presented a more balanced account of the battle.



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History Editor | 19-20

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