Hard on the heels of the losses sustained in the confrontation between the Royal Navy and the German High Seas Fleet at Jutland on May 31, 1916, the nation was in a fever of expectation for the announcement that the great offensive planned on the Somme in France, Haig’s Big Push, had begun.
To relay the campaign to the public in the new picture houses, the government commissioned Geoffrey Malins to go to France and film the preparations for the greatest offensive the British Army had ever conceived.
Beginning with seven days of artillery fire onto the enemy front lines, the film shows the massive preparations and logistics of supplying the bombardment carried out by the Royal Artillery. Then comes the infantry assault across no man’s land into the German frontline, which it was stated would have been reduced to wasteland, with barbed wire swept away and the enemy driven out by the shelling.
The film was shown in picture halls across the nation and was the most watched film of all time in the UK (22 million individuals) until the Star Wars series began in 1977. It aroused controversy and criticism for showing dead British soldiers, and thereafter the depiction of battle scenes could not show British dead.
The film shows the fighting and aftermath of the first days, with the sad images of wounded and disoriented men who have experienced something that the audiences at home could not imagine.
A total of 19,240 British soldiers died on the first day of the Somme, July 1, 1916. The five-month struggle would claim a further 100,000 lives before it petered out in an inconclusive final assault at Beaumont Hamel.
To mark the beginning of the Somme centenary, the project will be showing the film, The Battle of the Somme, using a digitally remastered version and a new soundtrack by Laura Rossi. It will be shown at the Memorial Hall in Frank Street, Wallsend, at 7pm on Thursday, June 30.
The film is provided by the Imperial War Museum with an introduction. We are also going to have a presentation on the strategy behind the offensive by John Sadler, local historian and founder of the Time Bandits historical re-enactment group. Admission will be free, with a collection on behalf of military charities.
We are grateful to the hall management for facilitating this in a building which commemorates so many local men lost in that campaign.
The project’s new exhibition, Tyneside and The Battle of Jutland, is on view at The Old Low Light Heritage Centre, Clifford’s Fort, on the Fish Quay, from 10am to 4pm daily until June 23.
The project workroom is open at Linskill Community Centre, North Shields, every weekday, from 10am to 4pm. See www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk