To the modern observer of the conflicts that occur around the world, with their plethora of ‘embedded’ war correspondents that now accompany the armed forces into the front line, it may seem strange that war was not always so reported. To be sure, there was the famed early war reportage of the illustrious correspondent in the Crimea War, William Howard Russell, and the war photographers in the American Civil War such as Matthew Brady and Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Also there was soldier/correspondent Winston Churchill in the Boer War. But these were all rather exceptional.
On the Western Front, in the early part of Great War, the war correspondent was not at all encouraged. Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, was said to hate them as a result of his experiences with them in the Boer War. He considered that the critical despatches of the war correspondents, and their editor’s questioning and down-beat editorials, encouraged the enemy to fight on when they otherwise would have been expected to have given in. From September 1914, Kitchener actually banned all war correspondents from the British Sector of the Western Front. So, at least initially, did General Douglas Haig (subsequently the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force - BEF) and he was generally very reluctant to co-operate with the Press. Accordingly, the flow of reportage to the British Press from the British sector was generally restricted to censored written reports, and a smattering of still-photographs, prepared on an almost ad hoc basis by British Army Intelligence officers.
However, by the time of the run-up to The First Battle of the Somme in early 1916, selected photographers were allowed into the War Zone provided they were accompanied by military officers and their output censored by an Army Press Officer. From October 1915 this permission included selected cinematographers (or, in the parlance of the day, kinematographers).
Included in this elite cadre was an Official British kinematographer, Geoffrey H. Malins.
Geoffrey. H. Malins
Geoffrey Malins was a British subject who began his professional career as a portrait photographer. In 1910 he became a kinematographer (hereafter, cameraman) at the Clarendon Film Studios in London and was soon promoted to the prestigious post of Chief Cameraman.
At the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, he became a freelance cameraman on what became known as the Western Front in Belgium and France.
In due course, Malins was assigned (under the aegis of the British Topical Committee for War Films) to make a film of the preparations for, and the execution of, a battle on the Western Front.
In March 1915 the British Kinematograph Manufacturers Association finally obtained official permission from the British War Office to have two cameramen deployed with the BEF on the Western Front for this purpose; equivalent to the ‘embedding’ of the war correspondents of today.
The two cameramen were Malins himself and a Edward Tong. They were given the rank of Lieutenant, and left for the Western Front in early November 1915. Their salary was £1 per day plus free transport and lodging. Unfortunately, Tong fell soon fell ill and was repatriated to the UK in December 1915.
Nevertheless, in the run up to the First Battle of the Somme the film unit had produced 26 short films on various war themes.
Early in June 1915, the War Office agreed that a special effort should be made to make a propaganda film of the preparations for and, as far as technically and humanly possible, the actual execution of what would assuredly be the successful Somme offensive itself. It was also decided to replace the invalided Tong with another British cameraman – John B. Mcdowell - for the occasion.
The Somme film was to be a silent, subtitled, documentary and filmed entirely in black and white. If the film could be successfully realised, it would be released through the countrywide commercial cinema-house net-work as a sort of documentary /news feature, and also throughout the Empire. As was usual at the time, it was intended that the showing of the silent film to the general public be accompanied by a pianist playing a judicious selection of a repertoire of well known popular music. As was the norm, the chosen music would be skilfully synchronised by the pianist to further dramatise the scenes being projected onto the cinema screen. It was decided that the name of the completed film was to be The Battle of the Somme.
John B. Mcdowell
John (also known as Benjamin) Mcdowell was also a British national and had started his film career as a general factotum at the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company; his duties included that of a cinema projectionist. A series of jobs as projectionist and cameraman followed which included employment with one of the founding companies of the British Topical Committee for War Films – the British and Colonial Film Company.
In early June 1916, Mcdowell was sent to France to join Malins, but, it seems, not under the same terms and conditions: there was no army commission for Mcdowell.
The cameraman duo
Once in France, Malins and Mcdowell quickly set to work filming the preparations for the Somme offensive. The joint Anglo-French offensive formally started on the 1st July 1916, but was proceeded by 14 days of selective shelling and extensive mining operations. An unexpected few days delay in the launching of the offensive, due to bad weather, gave the duo more time than they had anticipated to carry out the pre-operations work. But even this preliminary filming proved to be exacting and dangerous work. The Germans maintained a constant state of combat readiness and alert in full anticipation that an Anglo-French offensive was planned to take pressure off the French armies involved in a titanic struggle with the million strong German 5th Army on the Verdun Front, 125 miles (200km) to the south-east.
As the time for the British attack approached, Malins and Mcdowell were respectively assigned to the British 29th and 7th Divisions in the Beaumont Hamel and Mametz sectors that were respectively located at the northern and southern ends of the 20 mile long British lines. Each cameraman was to carry out his own schedule of opportunistic filming under the guidance and censorship of an Army Press Officer.
Evidence of the risky nature of their filming work is particularly well demonstrated from the British Imperial War Museum exhibit IWM 239 entitled Destruction of German Blockhouse by a 9.2 inch Howitzer. Filmed by Malins in 1917, in the open and through a loophole in an adjacent observation post that was barely a foot square, the sequence shows the systematic manipulation of the howitzer and the total destruction of the German blockhouse by the eighth of a series of heavy howitzer shells. An impression is clearly conveyed of the dangers and technical problems that this kind battlefield filming entailed.
The 35mm film movie cameras used by the duo were suitcase sized and screw-mounted on sturdy tripods. As the inbuilt motors were unreliable, the cameras were usually hand-cranked. This required hard concentration to avoid a potential speeding up when the action being filmed became fast paced. There was a single hand focusable lens – no zoom-lenses in those days – and the cameras were heavy and awkward to manipulate. The weight of the film stock that had to be carried around the location was alone about 30kg. Also, the nitrate 35mm film was highly inflammable, so dangerous to use in a confined space, particularly with military action going on all around.
The model of the movie cameras used by Malins and Mcdowell is not known, but it is likely that they were either the Pathé Studio or Bell & Howell 2508B models. As the war wore on the more versatile Bell & Howell would have probably superseded the formerly ubiquitous Pathé Studio model, but perhaps not in time for the filming for The Battle of the Somme.
Once detected in the field by the Germans, the cameras were often taken to be machine guns and received appropriate punitive attention. For the cameraman to be caught standing up cranking a five foot high film camera/tripod assembly in the middle of an artillery and infantry shoot-out cannot have been a very comfortable or risk free experience for the cameraman by any means. Accordingly, the so-called ‘high-shots’ (i.e. with the cameraman standing up) are relatively few in the action parts of the film, and many of those that are there are claimed to be staged ‘out-of-the-line’ sequences.
Results of the filming
In spite of the difficulties and risks of location filming on the battlefield of the Western Front, a large series of incidents from behind and on the battlefield were amassed. These were subsequently edited to produce a fast paced 80-minute film. However, there is some contention as to exactly how much of each cameraman’s individual work appeared in the final format of the Somme film.
Although Malins and Mcdowell is each said to have returned to London with around 4,000 feet of exposed film, Malins, who participated in the editing process in the London studios, is believed to have convinced the other film-editor (Charles A. Urban) to leave the majority of Mcdowell’s film footage on the editing room floor. Certainly, Malins never accredited Mcdowell with any of the final footage, and Mcdowell’s participation was subsequently minimised if not entirely forgotten.
The edited scenes of the film
Both Malins and Mcdowell insisted that many of the scenes that appeared in the final cut were filmed on the battlefield itself, or close the British lines, and showed real fighting and casualties. However, as a part of the propaganda exercise, the British Army Press Officers had assured that pictures of German casualties predominated.
As mentioned earlier, since the Great War there has been a debate about the veracity of some of the scenes depicted and authoritative sources have stated that some of the more famous action scenes – particularly the scenes of the soldiers going Over-The-Top - were staged behind the Front Line. There were also anecdotal reports by serving soldiers to substantiate this. But recently analysis by a Canadian Company – Yap Films – have produced a digitalised version of the Somme film from which they maintain they can ascertain British soldiers being caught in the open by machine gun and artillery fire. And many of those who have seen this digitalised version agree with its veracity. However, the controversy still rages off-and-on over other excepts with little likelihood of a consensus after all this passage of time, and the fact that all the participants have died.
Of course, there is no doubt about veracity of the dramatic scene of the gigantic explosion at the Hawthorn Redoubt. Or the soldier carrying his wounded comrade down a trench packed with soldiers – although long maintained claims about the identity of the carrier of the dying soldier have been recently pretty well refuted. The episode of soldiers seen lying in a sunken road waiting for the command to advance on the 1st of July, also appears to be absolutely genuine. In a 2006, the aforementioned Canadian film editors demonstrated, in a British television programme, how a professional lip-reader was asked to decipher what one of the soldiers was saying in the latter sequence. In her response the lip-reader claimed that the soldier said, ‘I hope we are not in the wrong place’. It seems likely that this is a correct reading and even sadly prophetic. But, 90 years later, the arguments about authenticity go on.
The showing of the Somme film
By the late summer 1916, the film was ready for public display. Its promotion was boosted by the enthusiastic prior endorsement of David Lloyd George - Secretary of State for War - who urged all the 4,000+ British cinema owners to show it and all British subjects to see it. It was first shown to an invited audience in London on the 10th August 1916 – an extraordinarily fast release, even for a documentary film – and progressively across the nation, and abroad, over the next few weeks. In Britain alone it was seen by an unprecedented 20 million paying customers – more than half of the adult population – in six weeks.
Packed audiences almost universally received the film with acclaim. For many it was their first ‘live’ impression of the merciless juggernaught that was the war on the Western Front. However, there was dissent. The Bishop of Durham protested against ‘an entertainment which wounds the heart and violates the sanctity of bereavement’. It seems unlikely that the good bishop had spent much time with the soldiery on the Western Front.
It is not thought that either of the cameramen received any royalties from the film, although Malins successfully published a book – How I Filmed the War (1920); Mcdowell’s role was not mentioned in Malin’s book.
The fate of the Somme cameramen
Both continued their official war filming work on the Western Front in 1916 and produced several more war documentaries including the Battle of the Ancre, The Advance of the Tanks, The German Retreat and The Battle of the Tanks; all in 1917. However, it was the Somme film that made them the most famous cameramen of the Great War. But Malins fell ill in early 1917, and was repatriated to the UK. He had received several wounds and suffered illnesses during his tour of duty. He returned to duty in January 1918, but was again invalided out and discharged as unfit for service in June 1918. It seems likely that the cause of his discharge was what had become to be called ‘shell shock’ or ‘war neurosis’.
Mcdowell served to the end of the Great War, becoming in charge of all military cameramen on the Western Front from April 1918. He finally received his commission in July 1918. His solo effort, The Funeral of Baron von Richthoven (1918) was widely seen across the world.
Both men survived the war and both were awarded the Military Cross and the OBE for their work.
After the war, Malins wrote his rather self-serving book – mentioned earlier. He travelled abroad as a filmmaker and finally settled in South Africa in 1932. He died there of cancer in 1940, aged 57. Mcdowell turned to free-lance film work and founded his own company - Mcdowell’s Commercial Films. In 1926 he joined the Agfa Kine Film Department. He died in England in 1954 aged 77 years.
Several observations arise from the foregoing.
Firstly, it is quite remarkable that someone in the British War Office had the initiative at the time to propose and see executed the Somme film project and to arranged for its general release in the commercial cinema houses of the country and Empire. No doubt it was originally intended to show a famous victory. But, of course, in both the long short term, it was the notoriety of the battle itself and the unprecedented heavy British Army casualty rolls of the 1st July 1916 - or since - that has focused attention on the battle scenes depicted in the film. It certainly brought home the reality of war to a British public that had never seen things so starkly shown. How much it reinforced the will of the British people to continue the fight to the end is impossible to gauge, but after its showing few can have retained any romantic or chivalric ideas about the ‘glory’ to be found in Total War.
The poor treatment throughout of John B. Mcdowell, and his virtual exclusion from the kudos associated with the film of The Battle of the Somme, is almost impossible to comprehend. It seems definite that he shared the dangers in equal part with his superior, Geoffrey H. Malins, and produced prodigious footage of the battle: indeed, some observers maintain that many of the more dramatic and effective shots were actually Mcdowell’s work.
But what it does show is that a ruthlessly ambitious person can manipulate things and events to the detriment of the reputation of a deserving but less self-centred subordinate. And there appears little doubt that Geoffrey H. Malins fell into the former category and John B. Mcdowell into the latter.