Throughout the autumn of 1916, 20 million people flocked to see a silent film, The Battle of the Somme. This was nearly half the population of Britain at the time. The film remains one of the most watched in British cinema history, even bigger than Star Wars.
While cinema audiences had been shown newsreel footage for many years, it was never a major attraction – they were drawn in by the comedies of Charlie Chaplin, serials such as The Perils of Pauline or sweeping dramas from Hollywood like Intolerance.
The Battle of the Somme was different. It took real life footage and turned it into a main feature with mass appeal. The film showed images of the first week of the ‘Big Push’, the joint offensive which began in July 1916 where British and French armies hoped to break through the German lines and achieve victory on the Western Front.
British Topical Committee for War Films
The Battle of the Somme footage was 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 the British section of the Western Front.
Although two cameramen were allowed to travel to France in late 1915, they were prevented from visiting the frontline trenches by senior military officers.