Thursday, 7 July 2016


Have we heard enough about The Battle of the Somme?

I ask the question because it seems to me that the media – and perhaps the general public – seem to be obsessive about the Somme.  When you hear the word “Somme”, it is generally synonymous with the slaughter of 1 July 1916.  Yet however many times the details are explained to us, albeit in a dumbed-down fashion, we seem unable to get over that initial gut response. Many people still believe that “a million men were killed on the first day of the Somme”, which is far from the truth.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that the Battle of the Somme was a minor incident that should only be seen in the context of the war as a whole.  It was surely a catalyst, and that is why it has become symbolic of the enormous loss of life – wasted life, if you like – that occurred in Europe between 1914 and 1918.  However, when Sassoon was witnessing the battle, he did not see it in quite the same light as we do now.  It's true that it became well-known very quickly, partly thanks to the film, made by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, that circulated in cinemas and brought home to non-combatants at least some of the horrors their friends and family members were facing on the Western Front.

The first public viewing of the film occurred as early as 10 August 1916, while the Somme campaign was still going on - it would not draw to a close until November.  Not everyone was happy with the decision to show it in cinemas.  A bishop referred to it as "an entertainment which wounds the heart and violates the very sanctity of bereavement", whereas Lloyd George called it "an epic of self-sacrifice and gallantry".  While it was doing the rounds of the cinemas, King George V, together with Prime Minister Asquith and Lloyd George, toured the battlefields with words of encouragement for the troops, and this too became the subject of a film.

The King Visits His Armies in the Great Advance was followed at the beginning of 1917 by The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, a real propaganda coup which showed how, in November, Britain had begun to use tanks on the Somme, a devastating blow to enemy morale.  Sassoon's reaction to the film is well-known because of the poem he wrote about it: "Blighters". Written at Litherland, the poem reveals Siegfried's contempt for those who, without understanding what he and his comrades have been exposed to, apparently enjoy watching the scenes of slaughter on screen.  

I always think of the poem as being somewhat unfair, particularly in the way it seems to target the female half of the audience, whom he calls "harlots".  What were the public to think, when all they knew of war was what the government cared to tell them?  Was it the falseness of the message that Siegfried objected to, rather than the reception it got from cinema-goers?  

Whatever the answer, we have heard a lot about the Somme in recent weeks, and there is more to come, with a whole BBC2 series on the topic beginning next week, introduced by Peter Barton, who introduced us to some of the more technical aspects of the battle in War of Words, the recently-repeated documentary on the war poets which renewed my admiration for Siegfried Sassoon but also made me want to go back to the work of some of his contemporaries, prose as well as poetry - books like Bernard Adams' Nothing of Importance, particularly notable for being the only memoir of the war to have been published while it was still going on.  Peter Barton himself co-produced War of Words with Sebastian Barfield.

The new series, The Somme 1916: from Both Sides of the Wire is in three parts and will, as the title suggests, consider the experiences of the opposing armies. It looks set to give us some insights that could be as shocking as any of the revelations contained in the Chilcot Report.  Yet if more people had read Sassoon, perhaps we would not have needed Chilcot at all. Is it hopeless to believe that humankind will ever learn the lessons history has to offer us?

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