The First War Documentary

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Monday, January 7, 2013 – London

Well, I’ve put it off as long as I can: try as I might to argue that this course is really about things like labor unions, women’s rights, racism, the fate of Western civilization, and going on pilgrimages, I guess I’ve got to do some military history at some point. Otherwise putting “war” in the title of a course is just a cheap gimmick to guarantee high enrollment. (A highly effective gimmick that I’ve used for two classes already and soon a third, but a gimmick nonetheless.)

Imperial War Museum LogoAnd so we start the working week with what’s likely to be a lengthy visit to the world’s best military history museum: the Imperial War Museum. Or, to be more precise, IWM-London, since the museum also administers a separate campus in Manchester and an aviation museum in Cambridgeshire.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I spent three months in London researching one aspect of a world war without ever visiting this museum (or the IWM’s preserved WWII-era light cruiser docked across from the Tower of London, though I did tour the IWM-run Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall), so I won’t have much to say about specific exhibits. But I can testify to the extraordinary breadth of the IWM’s collections: artifacts, documents, oral histories, sound recordings, and motion pictures. Watch almost any documentary on WWI and you’ll see the fruits of the Imperial War Museum’s labors.

British war photographer Geoffrey Malins
Geoffrey Malins - Imperial War Museum

For a good virtual introduction to the IWM’s extensive collections related to the First World War, visit the website that accompanied the 2008 exhibition honoring the 90th anniversary of Armistice. One of its highlights is a remarkable silent film produced in 1916 by a photographer named Geoffrey Malins: The Battle of the Somme.

The titular battle started ninety-five years ago today, on July 1, 1916, near the French village of Albert. (We’ll visit the area on Day 12 of this course.) Generally acknowledged as the most devastating battle of the war for British forces, it began as an Allied offensive meant to relieve pressure on the French defense of Verdun (an even more awful battle then concluding its fifth month). On the first day alone, nearly 20,000 British soldiers died, with another 37,000 wounded, missing, or taken prisoner.

Staged combat scene from the Battle of the Somme film (1916)All the while, Malins and his colleague John McDowell, under commission by the British government, had their cameras rolling, gathering behind-the-scenes footage and a few staged examples of trench warfare (like the famous image to the right). Their 74-minute documentary premiered in London that August, as the battle itself continued into its fifth week. (It didn’t fully end until November.)

By any standard, it’s a remarkable work. First, Malins and McDowell were granted unprecedented access and freedom, and they took full advantage, filming scenes that are still striking today. While actual combat could not be filmed, the working of weapons and their effects on human bodies were captured with astonishing candor. To this day, filmmakers who produce new works on WWI mine the Somme documentary whenever they need images of medics tending to the wounded, lines of dead soldiers, or ruins of shelled villages.

"Tommy rescuing a comrade under shell-fire"
Perhaps the most famous non-staged image from the documentary. It shows a Tommy carrying off a wounded comrade on the first day of the battle. (The wounded man died half an hour later.)

But what’s even more famous about the film is the reaction of British audiences. On the one hand, the film was an extraordinary success, selling millions of tickets and (when shown in a censored form) somewhat accomplishing the government’s goal of boosting morale. But when screened (early on) in an unabridged form, Britons were horrified by the images that they saw flickering silently on the screen. It’s hard for 21st century Americans, long since desensitized to the sight of violence, to imagine how shocking it must have been to people raised on stories of medieval chivalry, Romantic odes to heroism, and Kipling’s tales of derring-do suddenly to experience the sensation of being present at the actual front lines of a modern war, watching fellow Britons suffer agonizing wounds and be carted off for burial.

Small wonder that people screamed and fainted. Or that convalescing soldiers fled the theater in tears. (As an analogue, remember the response of some WWII veterans to the famous Normandy beach scenes at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.)

To see just what garnered such reactions, check out selected scenes streaming at the IWM page, or order the entire documentary on DVD from the museum shop. For a preview, here’s a promotional clip from the DVD posted on YouTube.

Coming up next Tuesday: Day 6 finds us soaking up modern art at the Tate(s).

<<Day 4                       Day 6>>

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