Friday, 11 November 2016

The faces of the men

On the evening of 4 November 2016, Jo and I attended a screening of The Battle of the Somme at the Gala Theatre, with a live soundtrack performed by Durham University Symphony Orchestra. The composer of the score, Laura Rossi, was in attendance and gave a brief introduction.

Rossi was commissioned to write the score by the Imperial War Museum in 2006, for the 90th anniversary of the Battle and the completion of the digitally remastered film. As part of her research, Rossi visited the Somme battlefields, taking with her the diaries of her Great Uncle who she had known, and discovered had been a stretcher bearer during those opening days of the battle. 

Most of the footage that makes up the film was recorded by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell during the first week of the battle that was to rage for months after. During the autumn of 1916, some 20 million British people saw the film.
Photograph the same as a scene from The Battle of the Somme: Gunners of the Royal Marine Artillery cleaning 15-inch shells near Acheux, July 1916. © IWM (Q 878)
For me, it was the first time seeing it in full, and what I had seen was on a small screen. For me, three things stood out, especially being able to see this restored film on a big screen.

1) Just how big some of the guns were and how many people it took to operate them
2) The faces of the men: Smiling. Determined. Pained. Bandaged. Unseeing.
3) The moments of humanity. The moment a British soldier gives a German prisoner a cigarette and a box of matches. A man having a gunshot wound to his arm patched up. A unit happy to be receiving post in the trenches, immediately followed by shots of bodies on the battlefield. 

It was an emotional evening.

I think I have said before that working on this project, you feel like you get to know some of these men we research, whose diaries and letters are transcribed. Often though, we only have a construct of them in our minds. Seeing the moving images of soldiers, sometimes up close, we see them as the real people they were. And we remember them. 

More about the making of The Battle of the Somme:

More about Laura Rossi's score, including the diaries of her Great Uncle:

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