Most watched movie ever screened to mark Somme centenary

Throughout the autumn of 1916, 20 million people flocked to see a silent film called The Battle of the Somme.
Picture: IVWMPicture: IVWM
Picture: IVWM

This was half the population of Britain at the time and it remains the most watched movie in our cinema history. However most people alive today have never heard of it, let alone seen it.

That is set to change with the world’s first feature-length war documentary being shown in venues across the country to mark the centenary of the First World War’s Battle of the Somme.

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A range of Scottish venues – including libraries, museums, town halls and chapels – will screen the film, which is listed by world heritage body Unesco in its “memory of the world” record.

The film includes footage of the British preparations for the “big push” and the opening stages of the battle.

Gill Webber, executive director of content and programming at London’s Imperial War Museum, said: “The Battle Of The Somme was the first feature length documentary about war, and it changed the way both cinema and film were perceived by the public.

“In the year of its release around 20 million people saw the film, many hoping to see an image of family or friends.”

Beginning on 1 July 1916 and intended to achieve a decisive victory for the British and French, the Somme became a bloody stalemate on battlegrounds that turned into a muddy quagmire.

It claimed almost 20,000 British lives on the first day alone and there were more than a million casualties on both sides by the time it ended after 141 days on 18 November 1916.

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All the scenes in the film were shot on behalf of the British Topical Committee for War Films. This group of independent producers had lobbied the War Office to allow cameramen into areas of the Western Front to see British soldiers in action.

Although two cameramen were allowed to travel to France in late 1915, they were prevented from visiting the frontline trenches by senior military officers. But at the same time there were people within the British government who believed films could help to gain support for Britain abroad.

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In June 1916 the government agreed cameramen Geoffrey Malins and J B McDowell be given access to the front lines during the upcoming Battle of the Somme.

Their pioneering movie focuses on how well equipped British soldiers were, the quality of weapons such as Howitzers and the good treatment of the wounded and German prisoners.

But while some scenes - such as the one where soldiers go “over the top” into battle - were staged, it still stands as a historical record of the conflict.

The black and white shots include smiling soldiers marching, fixing wire cutters to their rifles and firing shells, the wounded being bandaged up and given cigarettes, and death and destruction on the front line.

The Scottish venues for the film screening include Edinburgh’s National Library of Scotland, Falkirk Town Hall, Midlothian Council Library HQ and the University of Glasgow Chapel.

It will also be shown in conjunction with National Museums Scotland’s Next of Kin touring exhibition which will tour various venues including Hawick Museum, Grampian Transport Museum in Alford, Inverness Art Gallery and Perth’s The Black Watch Castle.

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More than 120 organisations in the UK and 82 British embassies around the world, including in New Zealand, Sweden and Barbados, will screen the movie as part of the IWM’s programme of events to mark the Battle of the Somme.