Stand To! No 85, the journal of the Western Front Association, is now being distributed to current subscribed members of the WFA.
Stand To! is published three times a year in Dec/Jan, April/May and Aug/Sept.
The Editor is always prepared to consider original articles for publication.
Below you will find the contents list and an example article from the current edition.
Contents of Edition 85
1. Communication Lines
2. Ghosts on the Somme – by Alistair H Fraser
3. ‘Dear Robert’ – (Part 2) - by David Langley
- the letters of Frank Richards to Robert Graves
4. Tactically Naïve Schoolboys? – by Chris Baker
5. War Art – Claggett Wilson - by Michael Barton
6. Rudyard Kipling and King George V:
- The 1922 Pilgrimage to the Flanders Cemeteries - by Michael Aiden
7. Army Cyclists - Not Glamorous But There - by Keith Tebutt
8. Saving the Lives and Limbs of Soldiers – by Roger Austin FRCS Ed
9. Undefeated in the Field (Part 2) - by David Filsell
10. Remembering the Great War at Liverpool Street Station – by Ray Westlake
11. The Camera Returns – by Bob Grundy and Steve Wall
12. British Medical Casualties on the Western Front in the Great War (Part 3 & 4) – by Dr. David Payne
13. The Hackney Synagogue First World War Memorial – by Martin Sugarman
14. D51: ‘Deborah’ – The Flesquieres Tank – by Rob Kirk
15. Garrison Library – Lieutenant Colonel Bob Wyatt co-ordinates book reviews in his capacity as Stand To! Review Editor.
16. Mapping the Front – in association with the Imperial War Museum
The cover photograph from the collection of Ralph Whitehead shows five enlisted men from the 9th Company, Reserve Infantry Regiment 119 standing in the trenches. The card was sent as a souvenir of the trenches to a Gefreiter in II Battalion RIR 119 on 4 April 1916 when the regiment occupied the trenches north of the Ancre near Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt.
Ghosts on the Somme: New Techniques in the Analysis of Documentary Film
by Alastair H. Fraser
Web Editor's Note: some of the images suffer from the moire effect caused by using certain scanned images at low resolution. They are rendered much better in Stand To!
The Battle of the Somme is certainly one of the most significant films in British cinema history. It is estimated that in 1916 over half the population may have seen it; both at the time and subsequently it has been central to the way that we view the Great War. Now that the generation that fought in that conflict has all but passed on it is the nearest thing we have to an ‘eyewitness’ view. It is therefore very important that we are clear what we are looking at. It is curious to note that virtually all previous studies of the film have centred on its role as a propaganda tool with attempts to analyse its effect upon the contemporary audience. Eminent film historians such as Roger Smither, Toby Haggith, Stephen Badsey and Nicholas Hiley have all written extensively on the subject. However, with the exception of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) viewing notes to the video version nobody had treated the film as an historical document and made any extensive study of where and when it was shot and who appeared in it.
In 2006 Andrew Robertshaw, Steve Roberts and myself became involved in a Yap Films documentary which in part examined the footage shot by Geoffrey Malins in June and July 1916 around the White City area near Beaumont Hamel. The programme was entitled The Battle of the Somme: the True Story and was broadcast on Channel 5 in Great Britain on 1 July 2006. The techniques we were able to use included facial recognition technology, archaeological survey, lip reading and experimental reconstruction. The amount of new information that we extracted from the eighteen minutes of film that we examined was startling and it became clear that there were other approaches that could also be used. All three of us are members of No-mans-land: the European Group for Great War Archaeology and have extensive experience of excavating sites on the Western Front. Much of the background research and fieldwork was equally applicable to the analysis of film footage and we were also able to compare excavated features with structures filmed in 1916. Astonishingly, forensic pathology could also be used to date some scenes. This all added up to a powerful set of tools that could be used to analyse the entire film and bring much of the footage back into the historical record as a depiction of known events and people at particular times and places. We began the process of picking apart the film and re-examining every scene from the beginning, casting a sceptical eye over all the existing sources such as the Imperial War Museum ‘dope sheet’ and Geoffrey Malins’ book, How I Filmed the War. We also employed a source that had not previously been recognised as significant – the ‘tie-in’ book Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push on the Somme which contains many ‘screen grabs’ not available elsewhere. This was particularly important as we were able to identify footage which was seen by audiences in August 1916 but is no longer in the only surviving print. A re-mastered DVD of The Battle of the Somme has recently been released by the IWM and includes the missing footage as an extra feature. We recommend the DVD to anybody interested in the film and it is a pleasure to be able to acknowledge the enthusiastic and crucial assistance that Roger Smither and the IWM staff have given to our project. The results of this investigation are to be found in our book Ghosts on the Somme: Filming the Battle. June-July 1916, recently published by Pen & Sword ISBN 978-1844158362.
We must make it clear that our study is not the last word on this important film and we hope that our work provokes discussion and brings new information to light. More remains to be discovered; for example prompted by our research more extensive sections of missing footage have been found in France in recent months.
One of the most controversial elements of the film is the question of how much is faked. The suspect material includes two scenes of British soldiers going over the top and advancing into the smoke, several men falling as they move forward. This footage is frequently interpreted as showing the ‘reality’ of the Great War but doubts have been expressed about its authenticity since at least 1922 when a panel of War Office experts declared it to be fake. These comprise the first and second shots of caption 31. It is worth noting that the film is divided into numbered captions; each shot has been given a number within the caption so that these two segments of film are described as 31.1 and 31.2. Our numbering corresponds to that used in the DVD release of the film. Shots 31.1 and 31.2 are also related to additional material which is alleged to show British shells landing on German trenches. These are shots 17.3-17.6, 27.1 and 29.4. Important evidence is often contained in associated still photographs and screen grabs. For the ‘over the top’ sequences the relevant IWM photographs are Q65406-65407, Q70164-70166, Q70693-70695, Q70693A, Q79498-79499 and Q112291-112292. For thefootage of the shelling we examined Q787-788 and Q79487 and additional shots occur on pages 69 and 78-79 of Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push on the Somme. The discussion below is adapted from chapter 10 of Ghosts on the Somme and gives an indication of our methodology. Other ‘doubtful’ material is discussed elsewhere in the book.
‘Tommies falling…at one’s feet’
It can be argued that one of the reasons for the success of the film was its genuine appearance. Unlike the newsreel material of 1914 and 1915 it was not contrived and showed real soldiers risking their lives. From remarks in contemporary papers it is certain that the audience believed they were watching men die and regarded the film as entirely genuine. The Durham Advertiser recounted ‘then comes the order for the attack and at a given signal the men, bayonets fixed, leap over the parapets and advance into the heavy fire, two gallant Tommies falling, as it were, at one’s feet’. (1) Is there any justification for passing off such material as genuine or were the cameramen cynically manipulating the emotions of the audience? Combat was and still is dangerous and difficult to film and Nicholas Hiley makes the seemingly contradictory point with regard to Great War ciné film that the fakes ‘in fact increased the realism of the photographic coverage of the war’. (2)
Although faking was frowned upon by many cameramen it was not clear how it should be defined. Malins said ‘I have tried to make my pictures actual and reliable, above all I have striven to catch the actual atmosphere of the battlefield’. (3) Bertram Brooks Carrington, who was interviewed in 1972 by Kevin Brownlow, denied that he faked shots. ‘No, I never did that. It was easy enough to do if you wanted to because there was a trench mortar battery school at St. Pol and it would have been easy to reconstruct anything there … You just had to get your story. Sometimes exaggerate the story a little bit. No faking. Not in the true sense of the word.’ (4)
Quite what the true sense of the word was he does not reveal. When asked about faking he stated, ‘I don’t think anybody else did. Malins was the only bloke who did that. Apart from early days, the two that were there most of the time McDowell and Raymond wouldn’t have attempted anything like that.’ Again there is a qualification in his statement as he suggests that scenes were faked ‘in the early days’ by which he presumably means 1914 and 1915. Hilton de Witt Girdwood appears to have faked combat footage in his film With the Empire’s Fighters, which was shot in 1915; Ivor Castle of the Daily Mirror manipulated two sequences of still photographs. One included a shell burst from a picture taken at Ligny-St.-Flochel. Ernest Brooks was particularly upset about these photographs which were ‘a thing we have strict instructions not to do – we have never done it. We have always taken our chance up amongst the fighting.’ (5) On the other hand at least one cameraman, Oscar Bovill, is known to have been dismissed for falsification in 1917.
‘Over the Top’?
The story of the ‘over the top’ sequences and footage purporting to show the bombardment of the German lines at Beaumont Hamel is a complex one. It begins with a statement by Brooks Carrington who remembered: ‘early in ’17 we were in a place called Rollencourt, close to St. Pol. At St. Pol there was a trench mortar battery school and I went in there one day – I was on my way to Arras, got time to spare, sat down and had a cup of coffee, a chap passing by, a serviceman, saw my camera and tripod. He strolled over and said ‘Excuse me’, he said, ‘do you know a Lieut. Malins? I said ‘yes’. He said ‘I wonder how his pictures came out’. He said ‘he did a lot here at the battery school. I was one of the blokes that fell down dead in the trench.’ (6)
CAPTION: The training area at Ligny-St.-Flochel with the trees along the Ternais to Averdoingt road in the distance (IWM Q787)
CAPTION: The same view in 2007
The chateau at Rollencourt was used as a base by press correspondents. The ‘trench mortar battery school’ was Third Army Trench Mortar School based at Ligny-St.-Flochel about 6.5 km east of St. Pol. The school has no surviving war diary but was used for the demonstration of weaponry to important personalities including King George V. Brooks Carrington described the school as a set of trenches and wire ‘laid out in a full scale model (mockup) of the real thing. So blokes could practise under conditions that would ensue afterwards.’ There is one piece of evidence to back up Brooks Carrington’s statement that Malins was at Ligny-St.-Flochel at about the time of the ‘over the top’ sequences. (7)
CAPTION: A photograph of Malins at Ligny-St.-Flochel. The original caption reads ‘In a shell hole in “no man’s land” filming our heavy bombardment of the German lines. I got into this position during the night previous. It was here that I earned the soubriquet “Malins of no man’s land”. The shot cannot be genuine as the tree stump to Malins’ right also appears in shot 27.1 from the opposite direction. In later sequences the tree stump is augmented with more barbed wire and appears partly in 29.1 as well, both shots being filmed at Ligny-St.-Flochel. Shot 27.1 is captioned as showing shells landing on the German positions. If this is true then Malins would have been in no man’s land but filming back towards the British lines watching German shells dropping on the British trenches. The conclusion is that Malins is shown on the Ligny-St.-Flochel training area either before the Somme filming or at an early stage in a visit to get the ‘over the top’ scenes before the immediate vicinity had been dressed with more wire. (8)
It is not known if both cameramen were involved in the ‘reconstructions’ or when the footage was taken. The two men returned to England about 10 July; McDowell was certainly interviewed in his London office that day. They could have stopped at Ligny-St.-Flochel on their way to England to re-shoot scenes that they had doubts about. The film must have been developed immediately as it was screened in negative on 12 July, which would hardly have allowed enough time to set up a filming session in France. It seems more likely that one or both men returned to France in the week after 12 July, having seen the unedited film and knowing which material they had to re-shoot. This was ready by 19 July when the film is known to have been at the editing stage. Malins filmed men going over the top at White City and some of this footage survives in shots 31.3-4 but it may be that the remainder was either unspectacular or too bloody to show. Whilst prepared to show some casualties, simulated or real, the authorities could hardly sanction film showing two battalions of infantry being cut to pieces. This could be the reason for a more acceptable but still controversial reconstruction of men going over the top. There may also not have been enough genuine footage of shelling. Real shell fire was impossible to orchestrate properly and filming it under controlled conditions would produce a more dramatic effect.
We suggest that the ‘over the top’ and ‘shelling’ scenes were shot in the days between 12 and 19 July. The filming required considerable assistance from the army as it involved the participation of several mortars and their crews as well as the provision of smoke, mortar ammunition and about twenty men to masquerade as infantry. Labour would also have been required to add to the existing barbed wire defences.
The first ‘over the top’ sequence is filmed from the left rear and shows a group of about twenty soldiers equipped with rifles and gas helmets being led over the parapet of a shallow, unrevetted trench by an officer armed with what appears to be a riding crop. One man partly visible on the left of the shot falls back into the trench and his arms and left leg can be seen to move; another man further to the right exposes his head over the parapet for a second, turns his head to the left and then slides back down the side of the trench. Presumably one of these men later spoke to Brooks Carrington. Once out of the trench the men disappear down a slope into smoke which is drifting from right to left.
CAPTION: Screen grabs from shot 31.1 showing the officer with no anti-gas protection and the men without all the equipment seen on front line soldiers elsewhere in the film. Men of 2/Royal Warwickshire Regiment appear in genuine front line footage in shot 33.1 and it is instructive to compare their burden with that of the men here. The weight carried by British infantry on 1 July 1916 is perhaps overemphasised as a cause of failure. What is not so clearly understood is that the attackers had to carry everything necessary to fight their way into the enemy trenches, kill the garrison and consolidate the objective against counter attack. The men in this footage are not equipped for this task. The ‘dead’ soldiers are at bottom right (Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push, p. 79)
The second shot is taken from directly behind and shows about sixteen men led by an officer stepping over a low wire apron and disappearing into smoke which is drifting from left to right. Two men fall amongst the wire, the left one seemingly crossing his legs after a few seconds, the other still moving slightly. The last man visible continues after his comrades and begins to fall as the shot ends. On the right of the shot can be seen a bayonet belonging to another soldier who would be standing in the middle of small arms fire that has already incapacitated two of his comrades and which would put the cameraman at considerable risk himself. Again the troops, who may be the same men as in the previous shot, have minimal equipment. The smoke hides the surroundings but comparison with the shelling footage reveals that this shot was taken in the same place as shots 27.1 and 29.4. The same barbed wire appears on all three shots and the tree stump which betrayed Malins is also seen in 29.4. Knowing that these three scenes are taken in the same place enables us to strip away the smoke and reveal what the troops are advancing towards. The general terrain fits well with the south end of the training area and a low flat topped feature is visible in the distance at a slightly higher elevation. We suggest that this is the trench from which the men emerge in the previous shot. Although we cannot be sure in which order the two scenes were shot probably the men advanced into the smoke and kept going until they were stopped. They then turned round and were filmed going back the other way. This explains the smoke, presumably produced for a contrasting backdrop, which comes from different directions in the two shots. In shot 29.1 one can see smoke on the right of the shot, probably to beef up the effect of the shells which are falling.
CAPTION: Note the wire support to the left of the shot which also appears in 27.1 and 29.4. One ‘casualty’ has already fallen into the wire. (IWM Q70168)
CAPTION: A screen grab of shot 29.4. The low flat topped feature on the horizon to the left of the shell burst may be the trench from which shot 31.1 was filmed. The same wire support appears in the centre and the wire is considerably thicker than that seen in 31.2 (the second ‘over the top’ scene). The sandbags in the foreground have also been increased and on the far right what appears to be additional smoke is starting to spread. (Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push, p. 69)
Sham shell fire
Three separate sequences of shell fire which are not front line footage appear in the film, namely 17.3-6, 27.1 and 29.1. An additional set of screen grabs appear in Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push which are from a sequence no longer in the IWM print but still extant in the series Our Empire’s Fight for Freedom. These are taken in the same place as shots 17.3-6 but not at the same time. Shots 17.3-6 follow two shots of a 9.2 inch howitzer near Bayencourt and convey the weight of fire landing on the German positions. Shots 17.3 and 17.5 are taken from the same position whilst the camera has been moved to the left to take shot 17.4 and 17.6. The wire has been augmented considerably in 17.3 and 17.5 and in 17.6 a reel of wire can be seen on the left of the screen together with a shovel. The screen grabs show two additional phases; which order these were shot in is impossible to determine but one has a coat hung on a post in front of the trench and a wooden support propped up against another on the right hand side of the shot; another grab does not have the coat although the post is in the same position. It is difficult to link this location to the other two shots, 27.1 and 29.1 but the appearance of a wood and some isolated trees on the horizon suggest that it may be somewhat further north on the training area and nearer the village of Ligny-St.-Flochel.
CAPTION: A grab from footage which does not appear in the film. This is one of the ‘missing’ sequences. Note the coat to the left which appears in one sequence but not the other. (Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push, p. 69)
CAPTION: This grab from shot 17.6, often captioned as being genuine, was filmed before the wire was thickened. (IWM Q79487)
Shot 27.1 follows a series of shots of 15 inch howitzers. Again it is a demonstration of the power of British artillery. In this case the wire supports and the tree stump link these two shots to the second ‘over the top’ sequence and enable us to see that location without the smoke. This location appears again in shot 29.4 which follows the explosion of the Hawthorn mine and is probably also intended to lead up to the dramatic sequences of the men going over the top. This filming was not without risk as the barbed wire can be seen to be disturbed by fragments from the explosions.
There is no evidence that any other surviving sequences in the Battle of the Somme were shot on the Ligny-St.-Flochel training area and in our book we can positively say that two other shots, previously suspected to be fake, are in fact genuine footage. The vast proportion of the film was shot on the Somme in the front line. Some scenes are not quite what the captions claim they are but our analysis indicates that only about one minute and twelve seconds in a film of one hour and fourteen minutes has been faked. This is almost certainly because suitable footage could not be taken rather than because of any desire to mislead the audience or avoid danger.
Our thanks are due to Roger Smither and his colleagues at the Imperial War Museum; to Kevin Brownlow for permission to use the transcript of his interview with Bertram Brooks Carrington and to Nicholas Hiley for allowing us to use material from his thesis.
References cited in the article:
(1) Durham Advertiser, 29 Sep. 1916.
(2) Hiley, N. Making War: The British News Media and Government Control Thesis (n.d.), p. 618.
(3) Malins, G. H. How I Filmed the War. 1993, p. 303.
(4) Brooks Carrington interview.
(5) Hiley, p. 694; Ernest Brooks, 12 Dec. 1916. (IWM Dept. of Film and Video).
(6) Brooks Carrington interview.
(6) Ibid.(7) Malins, p. 122.