The Battle of the Somme is one of the most successful British films ever made. It is estimated that more than 20 million tickets were sold in Great Britain in the first two months of release, and the film was distributed worldwide to prove Britain’s commitment to the First World War. It is the source of many of the conflict’s most iconic images.
The Battle of the Somme gave its 1916 audience an unprecedented insight into the realities of trench warfare, controversially including the depiction of dead and wounded soldiers. It shows scenes of the build-up to the infantry offensive, including the massive preliminary bombardment, coverage of the first day of the battle – the bloodiest single day in the British Army’s history – and depictions of the small gains and huge costs of the attack.
As a pioneering battlefield documentary, the very concept of The Battle of the Somme outraged commentators on its release, inaugurating a debate about the on-screen depiction of combat that continues to this day. Its use of a staged sequence to represent the opening of the assault also set the scene for continuing controversy about the “truth” of the documentary format.
The film’s importance was recognised in 2005 by its formal inscription in the UNESCO “Memory of the World” register – the first British document of any kind to be included.
The film has been digitally restored, offering a startling improvement on previously released video versions. It is available with a choice of three soundtracks in 5.1 and Stereo: a newly commissioned orchestral score, composed by Laura Rossi and performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Nic Raine; a recreation of the medley of light classics, folk tunes, popular songs and military music, recommended as an accompaniment to the 1916 release, performed by a small ensemble led by Stephen Horne; an audio commentary by Roger Smither, Keeper of the Imperial War Museum’s Film and Photograph Archives.
This film was shot a few days before and after the initial attack on July 1st, 1916 by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, the only cinematographers allowed anywhere near the front line. It was released in cinemas on August 21st, 1916.