Technological and Scientific Progress during the First World War

French school system: History, 3rd and 1st • Canadian grade level: Grades 9 to 12

Introduction

The Great War was a period of great advances in scientific knowledge. In addition to medicine and surgery (see the 10 Lives file on this subject), the physical sciences, chemistry, and mathematics were revolutionized at the beginning of the 20th century. The large number of famous scientists at this time is indicative of the progress made in the 19th century and in the First World War. From the very beginning of the war, academics and scientists were mobilized by the various governments of the belligerent countries, like the rest of the population, and many of them participated actively in the conflict, to the extent that “even contemporaries realized they had entered the era of scientific war, according to Ernst Junger.”

When the Great War broke out, both government and industry in Canada became acutely aware of their dependence on German products and know-how in the domains of optics and chemical processes. Scientists in Canada, as elsewhere, were mobilized for combat, but more often to carry out research that would be useful in fighting the war. In Great Britain, the Board of Inventions and Research was established for this purpose; in Canada, an Order in Council in June 1916 created the Honorary Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the basis for the National Research Council (1925). The members of the Council quickly concluded that scientific research in Canada was underdeveloped, and the first measures they took aimed to correct this situation, including the granting of scholarships. Most of the research was carried out at the University of Toronto and McGill University, with a flurry of proposals of a military nature being submitted to the research fellows, who contributed much to innovation in combat.

A time of effervescence for science

Max Planck, already a renowned scientific pioneer at the beginning of the 20th century, carried out important work in thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and statistical physics. In 1894, he formulated the law on blackbody radiation, and in 1899, introduced the Planck constant and the notion of quanta (photons). At the end of 1900, the summary of his research, presented to the German Physical Society in Berlin, marked the birth of quantum theory, although Planck himself would not contribute significantly to this specific subject after this time. However, with Walther Nernst, he organized the first Solvay Conference in Brussels in 1911, which brought together the most eminent physicists of the era.

Both Max Planck and Albert Einstein were active at the time of the Great War. The latter, born in Ulm on March 14, 1879, specialized in theoretical physics. Einstein was first a German national, then, after a period of statelessness, became a Swiss citizen in 1901, and eventually acquired dual Swiss-American citizenship in 1940. He was the theoretician who succeeded in synthesizing the discoveries in physics up until and including his own work. He developed his special theory of relativity and the famous equation, E=mc2 (energy=mass times the speed of light squared), established the matter-energy equivalence, in which all matter is energy.

In 1916, Einstein elaborated his general theory of relativity in which he described the behaviour of the gravitational field (the space-time metric) according to the energy and material content. The theory of relativity, together with Einstein’s articles of 1905 and 1916, form the basis of modern physics.

Following those discoveries, Einstein turned to quantum physics, and in 1917, solely using quantum theory as a basis, showed the consistency between the statistics of the absorption and emission of light by atoms and Planck’s distribution law, an idea that was the basis for the development of the laser. In this epistemological context, the discussions between the group led by Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger on one side and that of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg on the other bridged the domains of physics and philosophy.

Other notable contemporaries of Einstein and Planck whose work led to technological progress during the First World War included British chemist Francis William Aston (1922 Nobel Prize for Chemistry), Belgian-born chemist Leo Baekeland, British physicist Charles Glover Barkla (1922 Nobel Prize for Physics), and Marie Curie (1903 Nobel Prize for Physics and 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry), who was actively involved in the conflict, offering her knowledge to help the wounded.

Even this condensed summary of innovative work by scientists in these years demonstrates the effervescence of the period for scientific advancement.

War and science, an explosive mixture

Chemists and physicists, but also geologists, biologists, psychologists, and geographers asked to be mobilized according to their expertise so that they could take part in an unprecedented research effort.

During the First World War, the scientific and technological progress that brought about innovations in the industrialization of mass production was entirely directed towards the upgrading of weaponry and military technology in general. This continued a trend that had begun some fifty years before, first in the Crimean War and the American Civil War, and which was further substantiated in the Anglo-Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Balkan Wars. New, ever more lethal weapons were used in these successive conflicts, in spite of the international agreements at the First Hague Conference in 1899 for disarmament and the prevention of war, and the Second Hague conference in 1907.

At the same time, technological innovations in weaponry and the ravages they caused among combatants spurred significant new developments in medical treatment (see the Progress in medicine and surgery during the First World War file).

Below is a summary of the major technological innovations brought about by the Great War and which appear in the Apocalypse 10 Lives app.

Individual weapons

The types of firearms and other individual weapons used in war increased, both in diversity and efficiency. The French Lebel rifle, developed in 1886, was quickly shown to be obsolete, inappropriate for trench warfare. The many new and not-so-new weapons that replaced it were widely used and continually adjusted and upgraded during the war. The use of various types of individual weapons such as submachine guns, the dreaded machine guns, grenades and grenade launchers became the standard. When used in combination, these weapons constituted an almost impenetrable wall of defence against enemy infantry attacks, especially when the attackers were also targeted by increasingly precise shelling by large artillery guns.

Artillery

Considerable advances in artillery were made in the First World War. In trench warfare, heavier, more powerful weapons were needed to destroy enemy lines and to kill or wound the maximum number of enemy combatants on the ground before sending in foot soldiers.

Artillery guns were often placed behind the lines due to their long-range capacity. The number of shells used was unprecedented and difficult for us to imagine: “In the Allied bombardment that preceded the main offensive at the Battle of the Somme, 1,500,000 shells were fired by 50,000 British artillery gunners. In 1918, the Allied offensives on the Western and Italian fronts were regularly supported by between 5,000 and 8,000 artillery guns.” 

British heavy artillery at the Somme, 1916.<br>Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département Estampes et photographie [EI-13 (502)].
Canadian artillery at the Somme, 1916.<br>Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département Estampes et photographie [EI-13 (525)].
British heavy artillery at the Somme, 1916.<br>Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département Estampes et photographie [EI-13 (502)].

Among the emblematic weapons of the First World War were the “Big Bertha” gun and the “Paris gun”, the latter being the name of the artillery used by the Germans to shell Paris in 1918.  

“Big Bertha” (the M-42 howitzer) was a particularly powerful piece of artillery manufactured for the German army by Krupp in 1908. Its purpose was to destroy French fortifications in the case of war. Its shells, packed with explosives and weighing more than 800 kilograms each, could smash through walls three metres thick up to a relatively short distance of 14 kilometres away. It was a custom in the Krupp factories to name new artillery models after members of the manufacturers’ family, and this one was reportedly called Bertha after the daughter of Friedrich Alfred Krupp.

The German “Paris Gun”, 1917.<br>Calibre: 210 mm; barrel length: 36 m; range: 126 km; weight: 750 tons; weight and speed of projectiles: 105 km, 1600 m/sec.

The “Paris Gun”, often confused with “Big Bertha” bombed Paris in 1918. Initially, the Germans intended the gun to shell English ports, but when this scenario became unfeasible, they decided to use it to terrorize the people of Paris. Weighing over 7,000 tons, it had an extra-long range of 130 kilometres. However, its location was soon discovered and the emplacement was bombed in turn. The gun was taken back to Germany before the end of the war to be dismantled, so that it could not be used by the Allies. The plans and documents related to it were also destroyed, which explains the mystery and fascination surrounding this weapon.

Many other pieces of field artillery were used, including the French de Bange cannon. Using this very heavy, cumbersome weaponry required well-oiled logistical support and pre-planned infrastructures: railway tracks and cleared paved roads to move them and to transport the mortar shells.

Approximately 75 percent of the physical injuries in the war were caused by shell explosions. In addition, the continuous artillery barrages deeply traumatized and demoralized the combatants.

Flame-throwers

In contrast to First World War weapons that had been tested in the previous wars mentioned above, flame-throwers were a new development of total war. This dreaded weapon sent out a long tongue of ignited gas or flammable liquid (petrol or nitrogen). It was a portable device with a long tube connected to a cylinder carried in a backpack. The flame-thrower was developed for the German army in 1910. Above all, this weapon was intimidating, often causing enemy troops to flee in fear that they would be burned alive. In the First World War, flamethrowers were generally used at the end of a battle to “clean out” a trench taken in an attack.

The Allied armies also used flame-throwers, but as both sides in the conflict soon became aware of the difficulties and dangerous risks involved in deploying them, despite their formidable destructive capacity, they were not widely used in this war.

Aircraft

To overcome their adversary’s artillery force, the belligerents on both sides quickly sought effective reconnaissance techniques to locate enemy positions so that they could aim their attacks more precisely. This was done by dirigibles, but these were soon overtaken by airplanes, which, although still in the preliminary stage, were faster, more manoeuvrable, and less easily spotted than the Zeppelins. Also, aircraft could carry and drop bombs on enemy lines.

Early on in the war, certain pilots began to fly with firearms to shoot at enemy planes that were also carrying out reconnaissance flights. The first air battle in history took place in October 1914, when a German plane was shot down by two French aviators. From then onward, direct clashes between enemy aircraft became frequent, facilitated by a major technological innovation: the installation of machine guns that could fire bullets through the propellers. It was the birth of the fighter plane.

All through the end of 1914 and during 1915, German, British, and French pilots fought air battles, according to who crossed whose path in the sky. Some of the early pilots were already known for their daring feats, like Roland Garros for France and Max Immelmann for Germany. Immelmann’s name was given to an acrobatic manoeuvre he invented to escape fire and at the same time gain an advantageous position in the fight.

The effectiveness of aviation in war was confirmed in 1917, leading to a wider use of aircraft in the latter part of the conflict. Intrepid French aviators such as Georges Guynemer and René Fonck became legendary heroes, as did their German counterparts, aces Manfred Von Richthofen (the “Red Baron”) and Hermann Goering, in their own country.

The British were the first to create a separate airborne corps that was not under the command of the ground army: the Royal Air Force. In the spring of 1918, the French army created the 1st Aerial Division, made up of several hundred fighter planes and bombers. Allied aircraft succeeded in disrupting the German ground offensive at the Second Battle of the Marne, turning the tide of the war.

Aerial bombing intensified with the development of twin-engine and four-engine airplanes capable of carrying heavier payloads. This innovation mainly benefitted the Allies, allowing them to clearly gain the upper hand in the air war. The Germans tended to use dirigibles, including Zeppelins for the bombing of Paris and London.

Bomber, 1918.<br>Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie [EI-13 (593)].

Tanks

The concept of an armoured vehicle known as a tank—from “water tank”, a strategic term meant to disguise its purpose in wartime—had already been considered at the beginning of the 1890s. However, this war vehicle was only effectively developed in the First World War when the belligerents sought strategies to break the stalemate situation of trench warfare. Tanks combined strong fire power with protection from enemy fire, enabling combatants to move closer to enemy trenches. Carleton J. Lynde, a Canadian researcher, contributed to the development of the first British attack tanks through his work on the resistance of metals. The British were the first to innovate in this field, creating the Landships Committee to modernize the vehicle. Based on a system of caterpillar locomotion that allowed it to move on any kind of terrain, the first tanks were equipped with machine guns and heavy armoured panels. Although they could plow over trenches 2.4 metres wide, these tanks quickly revealed serious shortcomings. They were vulnerable to artillery fire on their corners, and often broke down, mainly due to their very high fuel consumption, which limited their range of action. Mark I tanks were used by the British army at the Battle of the Somme, where they impressed the Germans but were too few and too unreliable to penetrate enemy lines. They proved more effective at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. However, in the counter-offensive at Amiens, of the 534 tanks that the Allies sent into battle, the majority became unusable after a few days, for the usual reasons: they were too heavy (weighing dozens of tons), needed too much fuel to travel strategic distances, and moved “very slowly (at a walking pace) due to their massive bulk” and weak motors. Furthermore, to be able to fire in all directions like the battleship gun turrets, they had to be manned by a large crew: 18 men for the German A7V, for example.

A7V tank during the German offensive in Artois and Picardy, May 1918.

Given the problems with the lumbering British prototypes, the light French FT-17 tank was a welcome improvement. It exemplified the concept of the “armoured infantryman”, complete with a swivelling gun turret. In tandem with action by with fighter planes, it was a highly effective attack machine. It weighed only 6.5 tons, was mounted by an 8mm Hotchkiss machine gun or a 37mm cannon. The crew was reduced to two men, the gunner and the pilot.

Column of French (Renault) tanks in a destroyed village (Audignicourt).

In March 1917, 150 FT-17 tanks were ordered from the Renault factory, and the First Battalion was officially formed in April 1918. More than 300 FT-17s were deployed for the first time on May 31, 1918, at Villers-Cotterêts, and were massively used during the Allies’ counter-attack in 1918.

The war at sea

During the decades before the First World War, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, progress in metallurgy and construction methods made it possible to build increasingly powerful motors. In naval construction, it meant that battleships and cruisers became bigger and faster, with more efficient armoured protection and better fire power. Also, with the development of longer-range artillery, enemy fleets could fight battles leaving a greater distance between them. In Great Britain, the 1906 launching of the HMS Dreadnought epitomized the revolution in battleship construction, marking a turning point in this aspect of military technology. Moreover, it was Great Britain that possessed the world’s most powerful surface fleet. Germany, on the other hand, had particularly concentrated on the development of submarines.

The war at sea was an important priority for these two countries. As both depended heavily on imports, each imposed a blockade on the other as soon as the First World War began. The Royal Navy blockade of Germany’s ports spurred that country to further increase its fleet of submarines, or U-boats, triggering the Battle of the Atlantic (which in turn, led to events that brought the United States into the war). The Germans were soon handicapped by the Allies’ capacity to detect their submarines. Newfoundland-born physicist Robert William Boyle contributed to the development of the first ultrasound detection system used by British ships in 1918, a prototype of sonar. French physicist Paul Langevin’s work was also crucial in this respect. The detection system, combined with increased weapon efficacy, greatly improved results in targeting the U-boats. However, one of the tragic outcomes of the Great War was the large number of victims, many of them civilians, of the stealthy German submarines’ destruction of Allied and neutral shipping.

The advances in naval construction and ship armament were strongly in evidence at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

Gas

The development and use of gas as a combat weapon was another innovation that characterized the Great War, a key period for the escalation of the techniques leading to modern chemical warfare. Chlorine, phosgene, yperite, mustard gas: an estimated 112,000 tons of these chemicals caused the deaths of almost 500,000 men. The French used tear gas in the war from the outset, but Germany was the first belligerent country to adopt the systematic use of disabling, lethal gas for the purpose of forcing enemy soldiers to leave the trenches they occupied, in spite of the international Hague Convention that outlawed its use. The Germans began with chlorine gas at Ypres in April 1915, and subsequently, both armies used phosgene and mustard gas. Yperite, also used by the Germans, made its appearance in 1917 at Ypres (hence its name).

Australian infantry soldiers equipped with gas masks at Ypres, 1916.

Mustard gas alone stood out as a symbol of the chemical warfare that the belligerents engaged in, due to its extremely harmful effects when exposure was long enough. It caused blisters and internal hemorrhaging, strongly damaged the respiratory tract and the eyes, and destroyed lung tissue. The victims suffered horribly and usually died after about five weeks.

Gas masks, immediately distributed to protect the combatants, were continually upgraded to meet new threats and considerably diminished the damage caused by chemical agents. However, although gas only caused a relatively “low” percentage of the total combat deaths in the First World War (4 percent), this weapon remained a fearful spectre in battles and a major source of anxiety that aggravated the soldiers’ psychological trauma.

War and communications: A tactical necessity

Decades before 1914, progress in communications had already brought significant changes to the world, but it was in wartime that new communications technologies were fine-tuned and came into their own. The Great War was the first major conflict in which military and diplomatic telecommunications were widely used and took on an important tactical dimension. They were vital in relaying messages between the front and the rear, between different points on the front line, and between different army units during manoeuvres.

The soldiers in charge of telecommunication networks were assigned to engineers’ brigades, such as the British Royal Engineers. In France, the 8th Signal Regiment, created in 1913, specialized in military telegraphy. Starting in 1914, this regiment, assisted by a team of scientists and engineers who included Louis de Broglie, perfected and adapted the wireless telegraph system for military use and achieved a high level of innovation in radiotelegraphy, developing increasingly sophisticated devices. French troops were equipped with mobile wireless stations and acoustic location systems. Stations were also set up to communicate with the colonies, with allies, with ships at sea, and with all the command posts. In this context, the Eiffel Tower was a structure of great strategic importance, and special measures were taken to protect this quintessential symbol of France.

At the front, a network of cables had to be laid to allow the high command to communicate with front-line units. Thousands of kilometres of wires lined the networks of trenches. However, communications were frequently cut off, especially as many cables lay outside the trenches and were therefore extremely vulnerable to damage by shells. Even burying them as deeply as possible did not always protect them from destruction. Laying these cables and making the frequent necessary repairs to them was highly dangerous work that claimed numerous victims.

Carrier pigeons, known to perform well in relaying messages, were extensively used in the Great War. However, they could only be handled by specially-trained personnel and their reliability was unsure, as they could be disoriented by the blasts of shells, artillery barrages, and firing in general. 

Releasing a British army carrier pigeon, 1917.</br>Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département Estampes et photographie [EI-13 (556)].

Aircraft equipped with transmitters could send messages, whereas ground troops used other methods to communicate with pilots, such as signal lights and flares. 

The heyday of cryptanalysis, an increasingly strategic issue

During the First World War, communications—essentially wireless radio—between the chiefs of staff, the command posts, and the front lines could be easily intercepted. There was an urgent need to develop means to prevent essential information and tactical plans from leaking out. The aims were to keep the enemy from discovering one’s future manoeuvres, finding out what his planned actions were, and sending him disinformation. In this context, the neglected science of cryptology, the study of codes and ciphers, became strategically important. The British and the French were pioneers in this relatively new science. At the very beginning of the war, French code-breakers reconstituted the map of the German information networks by repeatedly cracking their codes and ciphers. Memorable stories about the French cryptanalysis service, the Bureau du chiffre (called the “chambre noire” or “black room”), survived the war, such as the occasion on Christmas Eve, 1914, when French army cipher experts flaunted the fact that they had decrypted German messages by sending out a wireless broadcast of a satirical poem rendered in the same code.

The convoluted world of secret information services, ciphers, and codes during the First World War is well illustrated by the case of the Zimmermann telegram in 1917. What was this famous incident? In their strategy, from the very beginning of the war, of blockading Great Britain to prevent the arrival of weapons and supplies there, the Germans initiated the submarine war, using their U-boats to torpedo and sink several American ships, even while the United States remained resolutely neutral, with Woodrow Wilson having been re-elected in 1916 on the strength of the slogan “He kept us out of the war.” Naturally, the German attacks risked provoking the United States to enter the war in retaliation. To avoid this possibility, which would have seriously compromised a German victory, German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann sought a diversionary strategy to keep the American army busy on other fronts, i.e., in Mexico or in Japan. The plan he came up with was a Mexican invasion of the southern U.S.A., with the logistical, financial, and military support of Germany. This way, the American army would be occupied in defending U.S. territory. On January 16, 1917, when Zimmermann’s encrypted telegram instructing the German ambassador to Mexico was sent via Washington (for reasons having to do with cable transmission), British cryptoanalysts intercepted and deciphered the message; its contents were then widely reported in the North-American press on March 1, with Zimmermann himself confirming its authenticity. American public opinion shifted, and President Wilson convinced Congress to vote for an official declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917.

Another cryptography-related incident that had very important consequences is known as the “Radiogramme de la Victoire”, involving French code-breaking hero Georges Painvin, a polymath and paleontologist recruited by the Bureau de Chiffre. On June 2, 1918, he succeeded in cracking the German cipher used to communicate preparations for an attack on Compiègne, north of Paris, scheduled for June 9. Painvin’s success enabled the French to carry out an effective counter-offensive.

Submarine cables

In 1851, the first submarine telegraph cable was laid between Dover (England) and Cap Gris-Nez (France), using a German technique developed by Siemens to insulate an electric line in sea water. The connection was broken when a fishing vessel spotted the cable and dragged it up to the surface, but the challenge was posed and further attempts followed in continuous succession. In 1869, France laid its first trans-Atlantic cable between Brest and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, the French islands off the south coast of Newfoundland.

Great Britain, for its part, laid thousands of miles of underwater electric telegraph lines to create an unprecedented worldwide network linking almost all the parts of its empire. Inaugurated on October 31, 1902, the All Red Line owed its name to the colour that customarily designated the territories of the empire on world political maps.

The All Red Line around the World<br>In George Johnson, <i>The All Red Line: The Annals and Aims of the Pacific Cable Project</i>. Ottawa: J. Hope & Sons, 1903.

The first trans-Atlantic cable connecting Ireland and Newfoundland in 1858 was also subject to frequent breakdowns; the line laid between Valentia Island, Ireland, and Newfoundland in 1866 gave less trouble. In 1870, Suez was linked by cable to Bombay, and from there to Madras, Penang, and Singapore. Australia was connected in 1870, when the line was extended from Singapore to Darwin, and by 1872, messages could be sent directly from London to Adelaide and Sydney. Australia was linked to New Zealand in 1876. Finally, despite its high cost, the worldwide telegraph network reached its objective, a remarkable accomplishment, as British Empire communications remained uninterrupted and inviolate during the First World War, while the British rapidly succeeded in intercepting and disabling Germany’s international cable network.  

War and the progress of photography and filmmaking

(see also the “The Arts and the First World War” file on this subject)

The technological progress of this period is reflected in the close historical link between the Great War and the development of photography. In 1855 during the Crimean War, a veritable visual revolution occurred when English photographer Roger Fenton spent months in the British army camp. He was supported by Queen Victoria on condition that his photographs would not show the dead or British soldiers with bloodstains on their uniforms. It was the world’s first media chronicle of an international conflict. Not long afterward, Matthew Brady organized the photographic coverage of the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. The thousands of pictures taken in this war represent an important moment in the history of photography.

In the middle of the 19th century, the French government, aware of the potential of war photography, created a special service within the army. At the same time, the preservation of photographs was assured by their legal deposit at the Bibliothèque nationale, starting in 1851. This institutional recognition of the importance of documentary photography was echoed in several other countries.

In a logical outgrowth of the interest in photography, in 1898, the first pictorial newspapers appeared in France with the weekly La Vie illustrée and the bi-monthly Lectures pour tous, and in England in 1904, with The Daily Mirror.

News photography developed in Germany mainly through the activity of Dr. Erich Salomon (1886–1944), a “gentleman photographer” and the first to designate himself as a photo-journalist, signing his prints. American reporter Jacob Riis was the first professional journalist to produce true photo reportages towards the end of the 19th century.

Technological progress, including the invention of the film roll in 1884, only increased interest in the various uses of photography. In 1914, the first image for a news report was transmitted by belinograph (an early wirephoto process): it was a photograph of the First World War.

Considering these developments, the prominent role of photography in chronicling the Great War was inevitable. As soon as the conflict broke out, the military authorities controlled the taking and dissemination of pictures by regulating the wearing and use of cameras and making it obligatory to obtain official permission to enter the war zones. In France, in the spring of 1915, the ministries of war, foreign affairs, and education and fine arts created the photography section of the army (SPA), giving it the well-defined objectives of countering German propaganda in the neutral countries and creating a documentary source for army use, and above all, an archival fonds. It also functioned to support patriotic discourse and encourage the national war effort. However, the SPA team, originally meant to comprise six professional photographers, only had two.

The equipment was heavy, restricting movement and making it difficult to take pictures of combat scenes. The great majority of the official photographs were of the daily routine of soldiers in the trenches between attacks.

Soldiers of all the belligerent countries carried their Vest Pocket Kodak cameras to the war and took hundreds of pictures. However, most of the amateur photos captured life at the front in its more “normal” aspects: not only did the soldiers know what would or wouldn’t get by the censors, but they also wanted to spare their loved ones from worry.

Magazines dedicated to current events were still few and far between. In France, L’Illustration published its first photographs in 1891, but it was with the creation of L’Excelsior in 1910 that magazine news photography took off in France, as it did in several other countries at this time. The same year, the editor of Le Petit Parisien inaugurated Le Miroir, a weekly photo tabloid that had a circulation of 400,000 at the beginning of the war.

Along with photographs, a film on the war, The Battle of the Somme, attracted much attention. This 1916 documentary (which included some staged scenes) was shot by two official British government cameramen, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell. Released in London on August 10, 1916, the film showed the British army at the time of the beginning of this monumental battle. Its objective was to give the public an idea of trench warfare and the activities of the infantry. It captured images of the shelling of German positions, British troops waiting for the signal to attack, medical treatment of wounded British and German soldiers, British and German dead, and German equipment and positions. A scene where British troops crouch in a ditch, then “go over the top,” was staged for the camera behind the lines.

The film was a great success: 20 million British men and women flocked to see it during the first six months after its premiere, and it was subsequently distributed in 18 other countries. A sequel dealing with the last phase of the battle came out in 1917, named The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks. In 1920, The Battle of the Somme was archived in the Imperial War Museums; it was restored and digitalized in 2005 and is now part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. It remains a classic example of a propaganda film of that era.

In general, the images of the First World War should be treated with caution, as they may have been enhanced, or, as we have seen, be re-enactments of events. Today, many of the photographs that appear in school textbooks and are part of our collective remembrance of the war are unauthentic, as they were not taken during the actual battles. A good number of famous photographs of war subjects were fictional recreations or recomposed after the events depicted. One of the best-known of these photographs features a French grenadier struck by a bullet during an attack, and usually bears the caption “Verdun 1916” or “Death of a poilu.” This image is actually a photogram from a fictional film by Léon Poirier, Verdun: Visions d’Histoire, made in 1928 for the 10th anniversary of the Armistice. When the film was released, this still photo was used in an advertising flyer. 

Still photograph from the film by Leon Poirier, <i>Verdun, visions d’Histoire</i>, 1928: French soldier shot on the battlefield.

Notes

Bibliography / Webography

© Réseau Canopé, 2015