The Great War and the Movies
Propaganda and Mass Media

The Crimean War (1852-1856) taught the British government a very useful lesson: in case of war, censor. One of the famous thorns in the side of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, William Howard Russell (1821-1907) was a famous war correspondent who was assigned by The Times to cover the war in Crimea. As his biographer, John Atkins wrote in 1911, “Most war correspondents, indeed, are war correspondents by accident. They become war correspondents because they are, or are thought to be, competent journalists, not necessarily because they understand war.” In fact, Russell himself was no soldier as he stated, “Though I had always been fond of military matters- I knew nothing of what is called by soldiers soldiering. My early ambition to wear a uniform could not be gratified. I tried to get into the Spanish Legion,! but I was too young. When I became an ensign in the Enfield Militia I was too old, and I had little taste and less leisure for the training.” But he cut his reportorial teeth in wars that were small and did not directly involve British interests. Then came the Crimean War. In these early years, it was clear that the military had no idea of the importance of the role of war correspondents and the significance of mass media and the public reach of The Times. Russell was on his own, visiting the battlefields, attempting to talk to reluctant leaders and all the while noticing everything. He wrote to his editor,

I have just been informed on good authority that Lord Raglan has determined not to recognise the Press in any way, or to give them rations or assistance, and worse than all, it is too probable that he will forbid our accompanying the troops. I have only time to say so much to show you that the promises made in London have not been carried out here. Part of one Division, Brigadier Adams’, has got no tents. There is no beef for the men for the last three days, only mutton which the doctors say will bring on dysentery. Just imagine this : the sappers and miners sent out to Bajuk to survey do so in full dress, as their undress clothes were not ready when they left. Am I to tell these things or to hold my tongue ?

Of course Russell did not hold his tongue and revealed the dangerous incompetence at command level and the mismanagement that prevailed at all levels, impacting on the health, safety and lives of the troops. But he was still at loose ends, floating freely, and, as would become plain, not carefully controlled by the government, and unsure of how he should write of this war. After the Battle of Alma, about which he wrote honestly, he mused, “What will they say in England ? That question,” writes Russell, ” never occurred to me in my distracted career till I had to deal with the misery that fell upon us in the winter, and then indeed I thought, as I wrote, that they in England would say that their army should not utterly perish. Better had I discoursed upon the weather and said everything was for the best: though more men might have died, I should not have made so many powerful and relentless enemies.” In other words, having little information from those in charge, Russell used his eyes and ears, cultivating relationships among the ordinary soldiers who were dying for cholera and whose lives were being thrown away. But he had a turn of phrase that made his reports–as incisive as they were–exciting to read. Shortly after the Charge of the Light Brigade, he describe the Russian calvary riding towards a line of Highlanders, standing firm awaiting the attack: “The ground flies beneath their horses’ feet ; gathering speed at every stride, they dashed on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel.” But in December of 1854, Russell wrote to his editor at The Times, “Lord Raglan now and then rides out to the front. He has not been down to Balaclava for a month, has never visited a hospital, and never goes about among the men. Canrobert visits the Kamiesch hospitals and the men repeatedly. You hear nothing now but grumbling against the General; but no one doubts our ultimate success. One hour of Wellington, of Napier, or five minutes of Marlboro’ or Napoleon, would have saved us months of labour and thousands of lives.”

The rest, of course is history: the Queen and the Prince complained. Victoria was not pleased with “infamous attacks against the army which have disgraced our newspapers,” and Albert railed against “the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country.” The Royal couple called upon the services of Roger Fenton, and, as discussed in a previous post, the photographer was sent to the Crimea–his mission: to erase the writings of Russell with consoling photographs. But it was too late. Russell’s condemnation of the British conduct of the War were so powerful that they brought down the government, forcing Lord Aberdeen to resign. When the Great War broke out and England reluctantly joined in, two things were clear: the military had to control war correspondents and the government had to control the media in an age when media was now “mass,” mean polyvocal, newspapers, magazines, photographs, and motion pictures, not to mention fine art. As Stephen Badsey pointed out, “British generals had also learned before World War One to treat the press and its owners with respect, although always with a certain disdain for war reporters..The experience of earlier wars had convinced most governments and military authorities that unrestricted newspaper reporting was an unacceptable security risk. In the strict interpretation of military regulations, virtually any contact with the press by a member of the armed forces was an offence. Lord Kitchener, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War in 1914, was also personally hostile to the press.” He added, “ strict military regulations, cameras were forbidden on the Western Front, but a few soldiers carried them and took photographs which later appeared in local newspapers.”

Quickly, on the 4th of August, the Defense of the Realm Act was proposed and subsequently passed, with section C being of particular interest to communicators, either visual or verbal: it was unlawful “to prevent the spread of false reports or reports likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty or to interfere with the success of His Majesty’s forces by land or sea or to prejudice His Majesty’s relations with foreign powers.” A counterpart to control would be mass distribution of the “facts” the government wanted to circulate and the War Propaganda Bureau was set up in Wellington House where it would operate secretly to control public opinion. Immediately a conflict became apparent. It was  one thing for the WPB to organize well-known authors to support and justify England’s role in the War,  but words needed authentic images and the military was not cooperative and restricted photographic access to the front lines. According to Stephen Badsey in his book, The British Army in Battle and Its Image 1914-18, by 1915 Wellington House decided to incorporate its own film unit, set it up in house, operating through the Topical Committee of the Film Manufacturers’ Association of what were at that time called, “newsreels.” It was with this Committee, also called the “Topical Committee for War Films,” in tow that Wellington House would make a movie,, not a few brief moments of footage, but a full length film of the coming Battle of the Somme. In these early years of film-making, a new art form barely twenty years old, a documentary this ambitious would be the kind of venture the film-makers wood have to make up as they went along, so to speak. Two cameramen, Geoffrey Malins and E. G. Tong were sent to France as early as November of 1915 and produced a series of short and uninteresting newsreels. Tong became ill and was replaced by J. B. McDowell and was the latter who would continue the project with Malins.

By June of 1916, the military had granted permission for the team to have access to the front lines at the Somme. The cameraman, a skilled photographer and practiced filmmaker, was Geoffrey Malins (1886-1940) and John Benjamin McDowell (1878-1954), were embedded with the troops, filming on the front lines under difficult conditions, shooting when the smoke cleared. As Badsey noted it was safer to film at a safe remove and concentrate on the actions of the big guns. In their article, “How the Battle of the Somme was Filmed,” Laura Clouting and Ian Kikuchi wrote that, up until this point, film or the motion pictures, was mostly enjoyed by the lower classes. This is an interesting observation because Wellington House had previously targeted the opinion of the elite and now with film the WPB was reaching out the larger public. The public wanted a narrative and a story, a convincing account of why this War was worth the sacrifice. Like all the artists and photographers that would subsequently called upon by Wellington House, the filmmakers would have been given instructions as to what to film and why. It was the goal of Wellington House to bend the story arc in the desired direction.

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These movie makers, called “kinematographers,” carried cameras, the mechanism contained in a wooden box about the size on an ammunition box, and when they wanted to capture a scene, they cranked a handle. Malins was given the courtesy rank of lieutenant, while his partner McDowell, a projectionist, was not, or, depending upon whom you read, preferred to remain a civilian. The pair was going to war with highly flammable nitrate film, with cameras that looked suspiciously like guns, with the lens catching the light of the sun. It was safer to film from behind the lines from a position of safety. The newsreel photographers arrived in time to capture the build-up for the Battle of the Somme, a battle, which was postponed by the Battle of Verdun interjecting itself into the schedule of the British high command. Although Wellington House could not have known of the unprecedented deaths on the infamous first day of the battle, the arrival of the film footage on July 10th was timely. Due to the stunning lack of success of the opening days of the Battle, it was urgent that the the Propaganda Bureau make some sense of the carnage and explain its purpose to the public.


Constructed as a narrative, the resulting The Battle of the Somme (1917), was a combination of truth and fiction, with some scenes being “constructed” for the sake of the safety of the cameraman. McDowell apparently attempted to film some of the charges towards the German trenches but, predictably, the film was too shaky to be of use. The famous “over the top” sequence was staged and filmed behind the lines by Malins who was sent back to France and attended a training camp about twenty miles behind the Front to get the necessary footage. With the sight of the troops going “over the top,” the climax was in place and the film could be released.


For the British public starved for information and desperate for images, the documentary looked absolutely authentic. BBC noted that half the population of Great Britain saw the film, making it more popular than Star Wars. Its distribution was huge, thirty-four theaters, opening on August 21st, as the Battle dragged indecisively into the Fall. One million people saw the documentary the first week, recoiling at the impactful montage of dead bodies, wounded soldiers, and agonized close-ups. James Douglas for the Evening Star reported that “the Somme pictures have stirred London more passionately than anything has stirred it since the war. Everybody is talking about them. Everybody is discussing them. Everybody is debating the question whether they are too painful for public exhibition.” Laura Clouting, writing for The Guardian, stated that “These shots had a tremendous impact in the cinema, with audiences cheering the men. There are reports of a woman crying out Oh God, they’re dead! at the ‘deaths’ played out for the camera alongside unflinching real shots of the dead and wounded.


The audience of 1916, unlike those of today, were not used to “war films” and not understanding editing or replication for the sake of safety, would believe, because it was on film, everything they saw was “real.” The Battle of the Somme might be considered the first war movie or the first documentary filmed during a war and, it must be stressed, it was released while the Battle was still going on, showing in some two thousand theaters after the first six weeks. When Malins wrote his book in the 1920s, How I Filmed the War, he did not mention McDowell. He occasionally referred to his “companion,” who could have been his driver, and his adventures seem to have been his alone. Nevertheless, his description of being on the battlefield was compelling:

“I was kneeling filming the scene, when I heard a shell hurtling in my direction. Knowing that if I moved I might as likely run into it as not, I remained where I was, still operating my camera, when an explosion occurred just behind me, which sounded as if the earth itself had cracked. The concussion threw me with terrific force head over heels into the sand. The explosion seemed to cause a vacuum in the air for some distance around, for try as I would I could not get my breath. I lay gasping and struggling like a drowning man for what seemed an interminable length of rime, although it could bave only been a few seconds.”

He called himself “Malins of No-Man’s Land,” and later he explained the atmosphere of the destroyed landscape:

“While I was lying here, there crashed out a regular infemo of rifle-fire from the German trenches. The bullets sang overhead like a flight of hornets. This certainly was a warm corner. If I had filmed this scene, all that would have been shown was a dreary waste of mud-heaps, caused by the explosion of the shells, and the graves of fallen soldiers dotted all over the place. As far as the eye could see the country was absolutely devoid of any living thing. Thousands of people in England, comfortably seated in the picture theatre, would have passed this scene by as quite uninteresting except for its rnemories. But if the sounds I heard, and the flying bullets that whizzed by me, could have been photo- graphed, they might take a different view of it. Death was everywhere. The air was thick with it.”

On the occasion of the centenary of the War, the Imperial War Museum restored the historic film which had been viewed by forty six million people when it was released in 1917. One can only imagine the impact of the film upon the British people, who by then had lost so much, whole villages wiped out, streets without adult men. This film might give some lucky sister or mother a last brief glimpse of her brother or son, a young girl might see a father who never came home one last time. As one of the movie goers wrote, “I have lost a son in battle and I have seen the Somme films twice. I am going to see them again. I want to know what was the life and the life-in-death that our dear ones endured and to be with them again in their great adventure.” The writer was referring to the fact that the movie was divided into five parts, with a three part structure. In his 2011 article, “The Battle of the Somme (1916): An Industrial Process Film that ‘Wounds the Heart,'” Michael Hammond noted,  that “The first depicts the build-up to the attack on 1 July 1916; the second the attack itself, which includes staged footage of the men going over the top. The third and final section has scenes of the wounded being carried in, prisoners being brought back and the dead collected and buried; it ends with an upbeat scene of the Worcesters waving and “continuing the advance.”


As Hammond pointed out, the British audiences were fully informed about the vaunted “Big Push” towards the Somme, which was also the first major British-only operation for the War. Therefore the film provided for the audiences scanning anxiously for familiar faces on the screen what the Italians called sceneggiata, or a collective “mode of reception,” or a unique experience that was very rare–the first full length documentary film released at time when the viewers still perceived photographic processes as “realistic,” and watched by a desperate and needful nation while the battle was underway with no end in sight.

© IWM (HU 59419)

 Nicholas Hiley of the University of Kent reported that in 2006, The Battle of the Somme was entered into UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register” as an historical document of world significance. However, the reception of contemporary historians has been mixed, Badsey criticized the film for not showing the enemy, the dreaded Hun, or explaining to the audience the battle plan or strategy–“patternless” and “bewildering.” As the book written by Malins indicated, it would have been both dangerous and impossible for him to capture scenes of the Germans attacking and, at its time, according to historians, the Battle and the experience of simply being there would leave the soldier with a sense of purposelessness. Indeed in his 1997 important article, “Cinema, Spectatorship, and Propaganda: The Battle of the Somme (1916) and Its Contemporary Audience,” Nicholas Reeves stated that he was impressed with “the extent to which the film revealed some of the brutal realities of war on the Western front that seem so especially was precisely the lack the film’s lack of that kind of special pleading which seems an inescapable  quality of most propaganda films with gave it its extraordinary power. The lack of a sophisticated structure, the roughness of some of the editing, the sparse, factual character of the inter titles, coupled with its remarkable cinematography, are at the very heart of its unique appeal.”


What can be discerned from the reception of The Battle of the Somme in its own time and now in the centenary of the War is that the production propaganda and the purpose of propaganda films were apparently mixed in with the historic notion of reporting. In its rough and primitive form, it is clear that movie, altered as it was, was nearer to a documentary than to a propaganda film. It is also clear, in light of its enormous success, that this seminal and mostly forgotten film set the standard and precedent for future “war movies,” such as the post-war All Quiet on the Western Front, a fictional account, to Victory at Sea, a true documentary.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   

Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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