The Battle of the Somme (1916) and the First World War Centenary Partnership

31 March 2016 | Liz Robertson

This year, Imperial War Museums (IWM) and members of the First World War Centenary Partnership are working together to show the UNESCO listed film The Battle of the Somme, to audiences across the world.  Shot and screened in 1916, it was the first feature length documentary about war and changed the way both cinema and film was perceived by the public. In the year of its release around 20 million people, almost half the population of Britain at the time, watched The Battle of the Somme many hoping to see the image of a loved-one, or friend captured on film.  One hundred years later, this unique film from IWM’s collection, is being shown to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

To find screenings and events near you, visit our Somme hub.

The film is being distributed with the 2006 soundtrack, composed by Laura Rossi and performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra

Laura Rossi’s new score was commissioned by IWM to mark the 90th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme. The re-mastered film was screened for the 90th anniversary of the Battle to a full house at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the premiere of Laura’s orchestral score, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra and received a 5 star review in The Times.

And these troops in the mud grinned or stared at us to a new music score by Laura Rossi, brilliantly effective, played with typical dexterity and polish.” Geoff Brown, The Times. *****

An introduction to The Battle of the Somme, courtesy of Dr. Toby Haggith

The Battle of the Somme was shot by just two cameramen; Geoffrey Malins and J B McDowell. Filming took place between 25 June and 9 July 1916, covering the build-up and opening stages of the Battle of the Somme. The structure of the film is simple; the first two reels cover the preparations for the infantry attack, the third reel covers the attack on the 1 July 1916 and the next two, the aftermath of the battle. The film stands out for its close-up footage, as at many points the cameramen would have been in as much danger as the soldiers. Anticipating the desire of the audience to spot their loved ones, the cameramen captured as many faces as possible, often encouraging the men to turn and acknowledge the camera

The film was privately shown to David Lloyd George on the 2 August 1916 and the first major screening took place on 10 August at the Scala Theatre. It continued to be distributed for at least five months afterwards. By October 1916 the film had received around 20 million admissions – the UK population at the time was 43 million. The film was the first feature-length documentary to record war in action, and offered audiences a unique, almost tangible link to their family members on the Battlefront. It has since been listed on UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ register.