Ghosts on the Somme

Filming the Battle – June-July 1916

By Alastair H. Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw, & Steve Roberts

Pen & Sword, 2016

ghosts-on-the-sommeThis book was originally published in 2008, but this reprint in paperwork is prescient, not only because of the centenary of the Somme campaign but also because of the IWM’s campaign to get the film shown widely during this period. The making of the film is itself carped in mythology, something that the authors seek to explore and dispel where necessary.

The book has an added interest for me, as during the research for my book about Carshalton’s fallen, I discovered that Geoffrey Malins was a local resident, and the release of the film garnered much interest in the area.

The book does not follow a cohesive narrative, rather it looks at each shot in the film and discusses the location, the date (wrongly captioned in many of the film scenes), and the subject being filmed. As such, it is probably best utilised by having it to hand whilst watching the film, pausing where necessary to read the notes for each shot. The existence of comparable stills (shot by the photographer Ernest Brooks) helped the authors identify units and even individuals. Locations have been verified by cross-referencing footage with Malins’ own (slightly confused) account and relevant war diaries. The level of insight is fantastic, from the locations and the activities, to what we can tell from the uniforms and equipment, even down to what the men are saying by using professional lip-readers (‘Hello Mum’ being a frequent occurrence!). A large number of still shots, comparison photographs, and pictures taken by Ernest Brooks are used to illustrate the conclusions reached.

A chapter examines the so-called ‘fake footage’ and concludes that most of it was shot separately, going so far as to provide the likely location for the filming. However the authors conclude that some of the scenes that are believed to have been faked, were in fact shot in the midst of the action.

A brief chapter examines the editing and release of the film. Amazingly copies were ready by the beginning of August and it went on general release on 21st August. However the book does not go into its reception and merit as a propaganda tool.

An appendix provides a breakdown of the scenes in the film and refers the reader back to relevant pages in the book. A selection of maps helpfully point the reader to where specific shots of the film were taken. Comprehensive notes, bibliography and index are also valuable for those with a more studious interest in the evidence.

This is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the film, and is a fantastic testament to what evidence-based research can achieve.

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Ghosts on the Somme: Filming the Battle – June-July 1916