By Judith Phillips
Over 60 people came to the Witham in Barnard Castle on the evening of Wednesday 5th July to see the digitally-remastered film of the Battle of the Somme. The original film was shown in cinemas throughout the UK in 1916 and 1917. The remastered version, accompanied by Laura Rossi’s newly-commissioned music, was made freely available until the end of July 2017 as part of the commemoration of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme through the First World War Centenary organisation led by the Imperial War Museums, supported by Faber Music and arts Council England.
A brief introduction reminded us that the film was originally screened from September 1916, not that long after the horrendous first few months of the battle and before it officially ended in late 1916. The cinematographers were at the front line and generally did not use staged scenes, although there might have been some encouragement to get the men to cheer when on the march? The famous scene of men going over the top of the trenches was recreated but the whole scene lasts only 70 seconds in film running over an hour.
Another famous scene – it comes up in nearly every TV documentary about the First World War – shows a man coming along a trench towards us, carrying a wounded soldier on his back. What the voice-over told us – and I don’t remember having heard this before – was that the wounded soldier died half an hour after the film was shot. And for the first time in film, dead men and animals were shown. That must have been a huge shock to audiences.
The scenes were introduced by cards showing short written information, and I suddenly realised that this information was on screen for quite a long time, long enough to allow people in the audience who were not used to reading to understand. The music replaced the range of sounds we are used to in modern TV and films. No clip-clop when horses appeared, no background rustle of trees and grass, no grunts of effort as soldiers man-handled huge pieces of artillery. But I really noticed that lack of sound.
I could almost feel the emotion that family members and communities must have experienced when the name of familiar regiment or French/Belgian place was mentioned. It was heart-rending to look at all those men – so different, so individual – and wonder how many survived, not just the Battle of the Somme but the whole war. It was a very intense experience, watching this film more than a 100 years since it was first seen and making a connection with the men in it and also with the audiences who saw it first.