Monday, June 26, 2006

Remembering the Somme

This Saturday, British dignitaries--including the Prince of Wales--will gather in northwestern France, to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. On July 1, 1916, elements of 13 British divisions pushed into no-man's land, hoping to deal a decisive blow against the Germans (and achieve the long-sought breakthrough on the Western Front), or at the very least, relieve pressure on the French Army, which had been bled white during the seige at Verdun.

Despite a week-long preparatory bombardment and careful planning, the Somme offensive quickly disintegrated into chaos and stalemate. Today, the first day of the Somme is not remembered not as the start of a decisive military campaign, but instead, as the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. By the the end of that day, over 19,000 British soldiers had died, with another 35,000 wounded and more than 2,000 missing in action. The number of British combat deaths on that day was roughly equal to the number of soldiers assigned to a heavy division in today's U.S. Army. Put another way, the British lost the equivalent of the 101st Airborne Division in less than 18 hours of fighting. It was a military disaster of the first order.

Beyond the staggering loss of life, the Somme is also remembered as one of the first major battles captured by the motion picture camera. British cinematographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell were invited to film the battle, in hopes of producing a propaganda film. Instead, Malins and McDowell succeeded in capturing the brutal realities of trench warfare, and the human toll it exacted. Footage taken by Malins and McDowell was eventually edited into a feature film that was released to British audiences later that year. Simply entitled "The Battle of the Somme," the film remains one of the most widely viewed in British history. More than 20 million people saw the film in its first two months of release--roughy half of the wartime population of England.

Now, on the eve of the 90th anniversary of the battle, Malin and McDowell's film has been subjected to a critical analysis by a team of documentarians, historians and forensic experts. According to the U.K. Independent, they confirmed that some sequences were staged, but they discovered that much of the battle footage was authentic. The researchers also managed to identify some of the soldiers whose faces appear in the film, and tracked down their surviving relatives. The "new" documentary will air on Britain's Channel 5 this Saturday. American audiences can only hope that the History Channel or Discovery Channel will acquire the rights to this fascinating work.

Hat tip: Transterrestrial Musings.

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