Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Somme Film

Image from The Somme, 1916 film
Oh that awful journey. The dead and the dying, lying, crawling along the ground…My God! dear God!”
            --Lieutenant John Turner, 1/8 Royal Warwicks, on his regiment’s retreat through No Man’s Land at the Somme on 1 July 1916                                 (Turner papers, Imperial War Museum)

I discovered there were no 8/Warwick officers or HQ in the trenches…At 11:00 am I found them and was just in time for a roll call.  I cannot describe my feeling when I discovered that only forty-five soldiers answered their names out of over 600 men of the battalion.”
            --Lance Corporal Williamson, 1/8 Warwicks, 2 July 1916 (Williamson papers, Imperial War Museum).

Clifford Henry Benn Kitchin was a lieutenant with the 1/8 Royal Warwickshire regiment, a unit that suffered devastating losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It’s estimated that 800 men of the regiment went into battle; 343 were wounded, while 232 died that day.*

London newspaper, 23 Aug. 1916
Three years after the Somme, in 1919 Kitchin published a poem that commented on the movie The Somme, a British documentary propaganda film released in August of 1916.  In the first months after its premier, an estimated 20 million people viewed the film.  The Somme depicted preparations for the battle, the stockpiling of munitions, troop movements towards the front lines, artillery bombardments, and a staged “over the top” attack that was filmed behind the lines before the battle began.  Kitchin’s poem is addressed to the dead of the Somme who, captured on celluloid, perform their exits and their entrances before the cinema crowds of the world. 

Somme Film 1916

There is no cause, sweet wanderers in the dark,
For you to cry aloud from cypress trees
To a forgetful world; since you are seen
Of all twice nightly at the cinema,
While the munition makers clap their hands.
            --C.B.H. Kitchin

The men who died are represented as “sweet wanderers in the dark,” a phrase that suggests both ghosts moving restlessly in the gloom as well as moving images on film, fated to endlessly repeat their doomed charge in darkened theatres for as long as the film is shown.

The Somme, 1916 film
To proclaim their tragic stories, these soldiers have no need to climb the cypress trees (a tree associated with death and mourning since ancient times).  Although the world is a forgetful place and other soldiers’ deaths may be lost in the mists of time, the twice nightly showings of the propaganda film guarantee that the memory of those killed at the Somme will live on. 

London newspaper, 2 Sept. 1916
And yet the poem implies that the memory created by The Somme is a false one.  The realities of the battle have been manipulated so as to highlight the grit and glory of the British troops, so that the soldiers who fell at the Somme are cheered as they charge to their deaths. The applause of the munition workers is tragically ironic; the workers’ yellowed hands, tainted by the poisonous chemical TNT, clap with excitement at the scenes of the battle, while those same hands had manufactured the 1,7000,000 shells that were fired at the German lines before the attack, shells that were supposed to guarantee the safety of the men who made the fatal charge. 

Like Sassoon’s poem “Glory of Women,” the poem’s irony draws a sharp contrast between the fighting men and those who serve on the home front as they supply the troops with instruments of death. However, in Kitchin’s poem, the munitions workers can also be viewed as victims, manipulated by government propaganda and deceived by the carefully crafted version of war that the film presents as truth.   

*These figures, along with the quotations from Williamson and Turner, were taken from Robert David Williams, A Social and Military History of the 1/8th Battalion, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the Great War (unpublished Master’s thesis, University of Birmingham, 1999).  I am indebted to the Geert Buelens’ article “The Silence of the Somme: Sound and Realism in British and Dutch Poems Mediating The Battle of the Somme,Journal of Dutch Literature, 1.1 December 2010, pp 5 – 27 for providing the reference to Williams’ thesis. 

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