This dramatic image is inspired by a sequence in a film about the Battle of the Somme made in 1927. It’s recreated by the Production Editor of Lochnagar Crater Today, Michael Gilbert, and captures the tension the Tommies faced as the clock ticked down to the moment when the troops were due to go ‘over the top’. The film is called ‘The Somme’, and was made at Isleworth Studios by a company called New Era Films. It was directed by M. A. Wetherell.
In a cleverly-directed sequence, Wetherell perfectly captures the stress and tension before the whistle – an emotion so well-captured by the annual remembrance ceremony at Lochnagar Crater each July 1st. Extracts from ‘The Somme’ featured in a recent presentation at the British Film Institute called ‘The Lost Genre of the Battle Film’, which is part of a series of First World War films in partnership with the Imperial War Museum. The film is what you might call a ‘docudrama’. It recreates behind-the-lines preparations on both sides of the wire, including a mining sequence. At the end of the attack on July 1st, we see an officer conduct a roll call in the trenches, crossing off names as ‘Killed in Action’. Parts of the footage are surprisingly frank: we see ‘dead’ bodies, a soldier suffering from ‘shell shock’, and another stumbling across the Cratered landscape, blinded. Overall, the treatment is patriotic and upbeat, as we see Allied troops – some of whom were veterans recreating on film scenes they actually took part in – advancing at places like Montabaun and Pozières, and – towards the end – storming Beaumont Hamel and Y Ravine. One of the captions sets the tone, describing a British attack towards the Bazentins and Delville Wood, which the French declined to take part in: “The British decided on a surprise attack by night…Its brilliance made military history”. The film also tells the stories of four of the 51 Victoria Cross awarded on the Somme. One is re-enacted and told by the soldier himself – Corporal T. W. H. Veale of the 8th Devonshires. He rescued a wounded officer under fire in No Mans Land.
Theodore Veale told how he saw a wounded man waving his hand, pleading for help: “I flopped down onto the ground, but got up again and ran on to the spot where the man was waving. To my surprise it was one of our wounded officers, Lieutenant Savill. I laid down and did all I could for him, and I was well fired at whilst I was there. Savill was so close to the Germans I pulled him back about 15 yards, for I found to my surprise that I was only about ten yards from them. I pulled him back, thinking they were going to pull him in. I went back to get some water, and I took it back out to Lieutenant Savill. They fired at me again, and it was surprising how it was that I was not hit. But I meant to save him at all costs; because it was all so open I had to crawl back again, got two more men and a corporal to come with a waterproof sheet, which we put Savill on. We tried to pull Savill back. We got about 80 yards, and then had to rest. The corporal stood up like on his knees and we saw five Germans pop up out of the grass about 100 yards away. We had to go over a bit of a bridge, and they shot the corporal ( Cpl Allen ) through the head. That made the other two with me nervous, and they wanted to get back. So I said “Get back, and I’ll manage.” So they went and I pulled the wounded officer into a hole and left him comfortable, and went back. Then I sent a team out to cover any of the Germans that might try to fire at Savill, and tracked out to him myself again with water”. Later Veale went out again with the Chaplain who was also acting as stretcher bearer, Lt Duff and Sgt Smith. They reached Savill just before dark and when they were going to get him home they spotted another group of Germans creeping up. Duff covered the Germans with his revolver while Veale, risking his life again, ran back for his Lewis gun, a total of 150 yards, and then raced back. At this fifth attempt, with fire of the Lewis gun, Private Veale covered the party and the officer was finally carried to safety. Nowhere does the film mention the awful casualties on the First Day. Nor does it refer to the fact that overall, on both sides, around a million men were killed or injured during the four month campaign. It does, though, make the point that in February, 1917, the Germans abandoned 900 square miles by withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line, which meant that – in the film’s view – ‘The sacrifice had not been in vain’. Tellingly, one of the captions refers to: ‘A glorious tragedy’.
You can watch the 90-minute silent movie yourself – for free – on the Bfi Player
For more details about Theodore Veale VC, see: www.victoriacross.org.uk The film’s ‘literary advisor’ was an author called Boyd Cable, who wrote several books about WWI. One is called ‘Between the Lines’, and contains a chapter about mining. You can access it – again for free – on archive.org