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The Battle of the Somme

In 2005 a British First World War documentary/propaganda film called and about The Battle of the Somme was the first British artefact designated of world significance by Unesco's Memory of the World Programme 'to guard against collective amnesia'. (The only other UK item thus identified so far is the Hereford Mappa Mundi.) The film was shot by the official war photographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, who had started shooting before the opening of the battle, staging scenes of troops 'going over the top', but much of the footage was shot during the first day of fighting on 1 July 1916.
          When the rushes were viewed back to England on 12 July, the cinema industry's British Topical Committee for War Films decided, unusually, to make a feature-length film, which was edited by Malins and Charles Urban, who was a prominent member of the Committee. Hitherto the committee had released 10-minute Topical Budget newsreels. The film was produced by William Jury, who was knighted in 1918 for his work in providing filmed entertainment to the troops at the front. Urban was a fast and energetic editor and the film was ready within a month. The finished production ran for over an hour.

Battle of the Somme
The 'going over the top scene' from The Battle of the Somme [Imperial War Museum]

While the battle continued in France, the premiere was held in London before an invited audience on 10 August 1916 at the Scala in Charlotte Street, the theatre owned by Dr Edmund Distin Maddick, where Urban's Kinemacolor had run so successfully between 1911 and 1914. It was released on 21 August at 34 London cinemas and went on general release around the country a week later. Within two months the film was seen by an unprecedented and never repeated 20m people. It was also distributed successfully in the USA and 17 other countries. It was also shown to troops in France. The success of the film with audiences led to the formation in October 1916 of the War Office Cinematograph Committee to take over the work of the British Topical Committee for War Films, chaired by Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) and headed by Jury. Film had become official.

The missing film
In 1929 it was discovered that the master copy of The Battle of the Somme was missing. In February 1920 Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for War, told the House of Commons that all the films of war in Europe taken by the War Office Cinematograph Committee were in the possession of his department. However, the Somme film had been made before that Committee was formed, albeit under War Office auspices. The story was that the Somme film had been in the possession of Dr Maddick, who, according to his grandson, had been a Director of Army Kinematography during the war. [It has not been possible to confirm this.] Maddick was exceptionally well connected, having been on social terms with King Edward VII, King George V and the King of Italy. His wife's first cousin was General Julian Byng, later Field Marshall Viscount Byng of Vimy, one of the top three British commanders in the second half of the First World War. The film had been put in a safe at the home of Maddick's son, Major Strafford Byng-Maddick, who had moved to Albany Villas in Hove in 1927. Why it was taken there is not known but in 1925, when Maddick was suffering from a serious illness, it had been moved in accordance with the provisions of the Celluloid and Cinematograph Films Act 1922 about storage of film. This required that film must be kept in a 'fireproof store-room or in fire-resisting receptacles which shall not be used for any other purpose and shall be plainly marked "Film"'.
          The search for what was described at the time as 'the most historic film ever taken' made news around the world. A not entirely reliable account by Major Byng-Maddick's son (it refers to 'highly unstable 16mm film') reports the film was eventually discovered in a metal cabinet in the basement of the major's house and deposited at the Imperial War Museum after the major's death in 1965. If this is correct, the film must have survived at least four moves as Major Byng-Maddick moved within Brighton & Hove from Albany Villas to Dyke Road in 1937, then to Littlewick Green near Maidenhead in Berkshire and finally back to a different house in Albany Villas, Hove around 1961. Dr Maddick himself had lived in Hove, where he owned property and planned to build a cinema, from 1934 until his death in 1939.
          The film has since been digitally restored and was issued on DVD in November 2008 to mark the 90th anniversary of the Armistice. As well as allowing modern audiences to see the images of death and destruction that shocked three generations ago, the film was issued with two music tracks: one suitable elegiac, the other reconstructed from the suggested playlists of more upbeat and even jingoistic tunes that were issued for cinema musicians when the film was first seen.

Sources: Chris Byng-Maddick: 'Edmund Distin Maddick CBE FRCS FRSM (1857-1939)' in FOWNC (Friends of West Norwood Cemetary) Newsletter no 35, May 1999; The Beaverbrook Papers (; Hansard (HC Deb 25 February 1920 vol 125 cc1714-5W); IMDb; Wikipedia; Auburn Citizen, New York, 30 October 1929 and other US newspapers.
The Imperial War Museum had issued a viewing guide to the DVD and biographical notes about Malins, McDowell and Urban that can be downloaded as PDFs.

Page created 15 May 2009
David Fisher