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De la Grande Guerre à la Seconde Guerre mondiale

Inventing a Battle: The Case of the Somme

Inventer une bataille: le cas de la Somme
Claire Bowen
p. 44-61


Du point de vue britannique la Somme et Passchendaele furent les lieux des deux batailles mythiques de la Grande Guerre. Le prix de la victoire alliée au terme de la bataille de la Somme en 1916 fut extrêmement élevé et impossible à cacher au public britannique. Pour la première fois dans l’histoire de l’édition, la presse illustrée avait accès à des photographies officielles prises au Front et celles-ci étaient publiées en confirmation des dépêches envoyées par les cinq correspondants de guerre homologués par le Ministère de l’Information. Cet article examine les stratégies éditoriales mises en œuvre pour pallier les limites techniques de la photographie contemporaine, et analyse la façon dont texte(s) et image(s) sont associés dans la presse illustrée afin de produire un récit de la bataille qui, en s’auto-fécondant, façonnera l’opinion des civils.

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Texte intégral

“‘T’was the Somme that broke our hearts”
Rudyard Kipling, The Irish Guards in the Great War, 1923.

1The Battle of the Somme was fought between 1st July and 18th November 1916. From the British point of view it was to become, with “Third Ypres” (Passchendaele 1917), one of the two emblematic battles of the First World War, acquiring the significance that Verdun possesses in France and Gallipoli in Australia.

  • 1  The Accrington Pals lost 584 killed, wounded or missing out of 784 on the first day of the Battle, (...)
  • 2  The first Official War Artist was Muirhead Bone, appointed in May 1916 and sent to “cover” the Som (...)
  • 3  The film, The Battle of the Somme, sponsored by the War Office and shot by Geoffrey Malins was mad (...)

2The Somme was, and remains, startling in its figures and “firsts”; 53 of the 56 Divisions of the British Army in 1916 fought on the Somme and the Battle also involved troops from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa. Fighting along an initial front 30 km long the Allies gained only 12 km of territory over the four and a half months of fighting, and this was at great cost. There were 58,000 British Expeditionary Forces casualties on the first day, a third of them killed and 420,000 BEF casualties by the end of the Battle. More than 500,000 German and 200,000 French soldiers were also killed or wounded. A significant number of the British victims were volunteer members of Pals units of Kitchener’s New Army and their loss had devastating results on small-town communities at home1.  From a technical point of view, the Somme saw the first use of tanks at Flers-Courcelette and the biggest yet recorded artillery barrage by some 1500 BEF guns in the 8-day softening-up bombardment that preceded the July 1st dawn assault. It also saw the first battlefield presence of British Official War Artists2, Official War Photographers and Official War Cinematographers3 whose efforts combined to create the extensive―and cohesive and censored― representation of the battle offered to the British people, their allies and neutral states.

3In this paper, we will examine the ways in which the visual representation of the Somme was organised in and by the British press. Following a tradition well-established since the Crimea, the War had, of course, been the subject of intense written and graphic journalistic interest from its first weeks and was immediately represented in the daily and weekly illustrated press by photographs, sketch maps, artists’ impressions and, eventually, cartoons. The four were combined and had different uses. The map was a teaching aid that clarified strategy, the artist’s impression was a representation of the un-photographable event, systematically validated―in The Illustrated London News, for example―as the product of “material supplied by an officer present at the action”, the cartoon a comment. The immediate and mechanical nature of the photograph had long given it special status as the vector of truthful representation. As early as 1862 the New York Times critic had found that the main virtue of Matthew Brady’s gallery exhibition of his photographers’ pictures of the Civil War was that they revealed “the terrible reality and earnestness of war” in a way that other images could not.  

4The Great War was not perceived by the press as an event simply requiring immediate graphic reporting. It was also to be historicised. The earliest illustrated part-work publications tracing the course of the War and sold as living memorials to be bought by contemporaries for the use of posterity, were produced as early as 1914. By July 1916 the presentation of war news in the illustrated dailies and weeklies, as well as in the memorial part-works, had become a well tempered affair with each publication organizing its choice of pictures and information and its layout in its own perfectly predictable way according to the political choices of its owners and editor and, indeed, its readers. The Somme did not change the principle of graphic representation of war as such. What did change, certainly, was the quantity and availability of photographic material thanks to the presence of the Official Photographers and the Ministry of Information’s distribution system. What also changed, perhaps, during this year of two mythical battles for the Allies―Verdun and the Somme―was the very nature of the formulation and reception of information about the War. The relative optimism of 1914 and 1915 and the accompanying journalistic discourse changed as the War turned into one of apparent deadlock at the front. Ever increasing casualties abroad and shortages and other difficulties at home suggested an urgent need for propaganda that would go beyond a simple patriotic account of events and reinforce national solidarity and support for the government.

  • 4  Serving soldiers tended to refute this in their memoirs and autobiographies. Graves, Blunden and S (...)

5The first question in reporting the Somme was how to organise the representation of the unpalatable but widely known facts of the Battle. The carnage was manifest. Casualty lists were published daily, whole streets in the “Pals” towns lost their young men overnight, men home on leave spoke to their friends and family. The fundamental nature of what was happening in France could not be concealed.  The photographic narrative of the Battle of the Somme, then, was not constructed with the purpose of denying the undeniable, even though very few (British) corpses and no unpleasantly wounded men appear in it. The purpose of the illustrated press was not to tell direct lies about the War, but to select aspects of life at the front in such a way as to bridge the gulf between the men in France and the population at home4. The discourse of these illustrated papers was constructed upon a process of simultaneous recognition and revelation. That is to say, that the essential “ordinariness” of the men at the front was emphasized in the context of the “extraordinary” nature of their situation and of the responses it required. The propagandists insisted on the shared values and origins of the soldier and civilian and, in doing so, attempted to persuade the people of Britain that the spirit of sacrifice and cheerful abnegation of the front should be a model at home. The general tone is one of determination and quiet optimism, the object to construct a shared narrative of the war in which the entire community can find a place.

Photographers on the Somme

  • 5  The principle was, in fact, respected in the letter rather than the observance. The British press (...)
  • 6  The Ministry of Information provided contracts for technicians as well as operators and there are (...)
  • 7  Very few of the photographs in the Imperial War Museum are marked « not for sale or distribution » (...)

6The first generation of front line Great War photographers on the Somme were soldiers. A Photographic Unit of the Royal Engineers was already at the front fulfilling its normal duties when the attack was being planned. The unit was joined by the first Official Photographers, Ernest Brooks and John Warwick Brooke, who were sent to France by the Ministry of Information in June 1916. Harry Knobel and Ivor Castle for the Canadian forces and Herbert Baldwin for the ANZACS arrived soon after.  The Official Photographers were to provide the response to the constant and increasing press demands for images of the War and the absolute refusal of the military to allow non-Photographic Unit cameras, amateur or professional, into the lines5. The majority of the earlier Great War photographs published in the allied press had been taken by professional photographers from different countries, including Germany, and were generally sold to various journals by agencies. These photographs were necessarily records of places located behind the lines and of events located before or after the battle. The new Official Photographers, chosen among press and studio professionals, were to accompany army units and be present during operations. In the event, the possibilities for “action photography” were limited, if only by the constraints of the equipment. The pictures taken by the Official Photographers were processed on the spot6, briefly captioned, censored7 and distributed in London through the Press Bureau shop in Covent Garden. Groups of images were released for sale at the same time. In consequence the same pictures tended to be reproduced in all the allied press over the following weeks. In fact, an identical graphic discourse was modified by changes in the organisation of the material from publication to publication. The same photographs were used in different ways in function of the political stance and target of the publication and their significance transformed in function of the accompanying text (title, caption, comments and, eventually, article), the layout of the page(s) and their position in the journal.

  • 8 The Daily Mail’s Official War Photographs postcard sets are a case in point and merit a separate ar (...)

7Among the most important supports for the photographs were the quality weekly periodicals, especially TheIllustrated London News and The Sphere. The former, in particular, made a speciality of publishing a pictorial narrative of the War. The photographs also appeared in the dailies, some, like The Daily Mail and The Daily Graphic being heavily reliant on images. The Official Photographers’ pictures were also distributed, like some of the Official War Artists’ work, on other supports for distribution or exhibition at home or in allied or neutral countries. They were also reissued as postcards, sold individually or in collections for patriotic causes8.

The photographs

  • 9  They are visible on the Imperial War Museum’s website at

8There are just under 2000 Somme 1916 photographs in the Imperial War Museum archives9 of a total of 40,000 in the national First World War collection. Given that the Somme Official Photographers were few and the first of their kind, and also that the photographic opportunities were necessarily limited, the number is impressive. In terms of subject choice, the photographers’ preoccupations were much the same as those of Fenton in the Crimea and of Brady’s operators during the Civil War with one significant difference. While the Brady operators made numbers of battlefield pictures precisely with a view to showing death and destruction, the Official Photographers, like the Official Cinematographers, avoided images of corpses and of the distressingly wounded, or at least of either in allied uniforms!  Whatever the origin of this subject selection (self-censorship or Ministry censorship), the published photographic evidence of the Somme generally brings to mind the consequences of a series of hard-fought rugby matches rather than those of artillery barrages and infantry assaults. Most of the images are of people – group pictures of laughing, busy soldiers relaxing or going about everyday domestic or professional business, members of identified regiments marching or resting, the decently wounded and their carers and, finally, prisoners and their guards. Many show preparations (a church service, setting the guns, writing home) or aftermath (resting, eating, guarding prisoners, nursing the wounded) rather than the event of battle. A smaller number of photographs are landscapes showing the battlefield before action, movement and smoke during action and ruins (initially bomb and mine craters, later destroyed villages, churches and houses) after action. The space of the photographs is sometimes that of the trenches, frequently of the area behind the lines and, very rarely, what is seen from an observation point overlooking, but at a distance from the battlefield. In temporal terms, there are very few genuine photographs of action as such, and what there is particularly requires textual help if it is to have any significance for the recipient. In extreme cases, these images, taken at a distance, sometimes in unfavourable light offer nothing more than a print that is, in no sense, representational. Thus, one of the first-day landscapes ―shades of grey that are completely abstract and unreadable― requires an interpretative text if it is to make any sense at all.

  • 10 The Sphere, July 15th 1916.

This unique picture shows a British bombing attack being carried out against the German trenches through clouds of rolling poison gas near Fricourt. In the foreground of the view are lines of trenches showing white against the adjacent soil. The actual bombing party is seen in the distance, half lost in the cloud break. In the distance are the woods which dot the landscape in the vicinity of the Somme.10

  • 11  Picture Q.133 of the I.W.M. collection, taken in the opening days after the Battle of Albert is ca (...)
  • 12  One of the largest groups of photographs concerns subjects that suggest German defeat prisoners, (...)
  • 13 The Daily Mail, of its Official War Photographs postcard collection, observed that “Many people wer (...)

9Nothing of any of this is actually apparent in the print. At least three processes combine in every single image, and these images reinforce each other both spatially when they are printed in groups on one page or in one edition of a paper, and temporally when their publication recurs over time. The first process is that of representation; the photograph, map or artist’s impression of event or place. Representation contains the possibilities of the processes of recognition and/or revelation which, in turn, contain the possibility of connotation. The process of recognition derives from the representation of familiar events and there are very large numbers of pictures of troops eating, resting, washing, and so on, just as much is made in the texts of the names of regiments which almost always include their place of origin. The process of revelation seeks to introduce the recipient to unknown military activities. There are, therefore, many photographs of equipment and military operations which are often, especially in the magazines, organized into “how to” sequences in which a group of pictures, taken at very short intervals, are laid out in chronological order to show the steps in firing a Howitzer or a trench mortar. Here, the point is to reassure the observer about the nation’s military power and competence. But the revelation process also contributes to the construction of the German as the Other who is either odious11  or harmless in defeat12. Finally, revelation is often combined with recognition, the familiar and normal being represented in an exceptional context. Thus a grinning, shirt-sleeved Tommy chalks cheerful postcard messages on shell casings, a dog-collared padre takes the names of the wounded and a group of NCOs dine on a make-shift table protected from the wind by a wall of ammunition boxes. The final process, and the most complicated because it relies on a shared culture and shared objectives, is that of connotation. The images of soldiers from specific regiments going about their everyday activities suggest, for the recipients, that they are indeed “people like us”, even, perhaps, people who are familiar13. The construction of the Tommy in the examples described above rests on a visual language of reassurance and recognition. The construction of the German, on the other hand, rests on a visual language of defeat, constraint and utter unfamiliarity.  And, at this stage of the War, shelled landscapes and ruins connote the force of allied firepower and the photograph is proof that the infantry (accompanied by the Official Photographer) has followed into the breach opened up by the artillery.

  • 14  Nick Ut’s photograph, taken in June 1972 of the naked, napalmed Vietnamese girl fleeing with a gro (...)
  • 15  Ivor Castle’s « fake » tank and « over the top » pictures, for example. The former were photograph (...)

10By comparison with pictures of later conflicts, those of the Official Photographers of the Great War are remarkably static. The majority of the photographs are taken from the middle distance and at eye-level. Obviously, although the Official Photographers were “embedded” in the contemporary sense, they lacked the equipment necessary for the angled action-close-up style of the Capa, McCullin and Burrows generations. And this explains one of the features of the photographic representation of the Great War. While there is, for example, a complete photographic narrative of front line conflict during, for example, the Normandy landings or the Vietnam War, there are very, very few records of moments of action in the First World War. In the same way, while the modern photo-journalists are passionately interested in photographing individuals, military or civilian, often in close-up, the Official Photographers record a war in which the group predominates.  Curiously, there are, in fact, few emblematic photographs of the First World War and this is absolutely not the case of later wars14.  The exceptions, perhaps, are in the work of Nicolls and for the Women’s War Work Commission in 1918 and these are often portraits taken in interiors far from the front.  I think that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, there are technical reasons. The action photographs that acquire iconic status in later wars were simply impossible to take in 1916, and what action photographs there are tend to be both fakes and singularly lacking in action15.  Secondly, and much more importantly, the photographers’ role was to collect evidence for propaganda purposes rather than explore the aesthetic, or even political options open to them.  Great War photography, therefore, in both technique and purpose, has nothing to do with modern photo-journalism. The by-word of all the photographic missions of the War, up to and beyond 1918, was quantity, and the taking of images as well as the reproduction of graphic material at home was organised in such a way as to saturate the market with representations of “real life” at the front. Because of the sheer mass of visual information, much of it very similar, Great War photographs tend to fade into each other and form the series of meta-images (blasted trees, shell pools, men marching) that exist in the minds of all the recipients who possess information about the event. They only very rarely exist as emblematic individual pictures made by an identified photographer.

11Because, then, of the limitations imposed by their equipment and the expectations of their employers, the Official Photographers’ record of the Great War was necessarily incomplete. There was, in any case, a powerful argument against a complete visual revelation of the events of the Great War which would, by mid-July 1916, have been more likely to inspire pacifism than patriotism! Although the facts of the front were indeed known and undeniable, the point of the photographs was not to provide an illustration of these facts but rather to form elements of a visual narrative in which individual images, associated with others and supported by text, would encourage the production of a second narrative, formulated by the recipient and based, as I have suggested, on the connotations of a shared culture. The objective of the editor or propagandist (not the photographer whose job was to provide the raw material) was to organize and encourage the construction of this second narrative which would both be formulated from and lead to a series of consensual certainties and conclusions. The photographs, in isolation, constitute neither information nor propaganda. It is their organization and contextualisation which turn them, firstly, into information that brings the civilian at home closer to the men at the front and, secondly, into evidence for the collective patriotic narrative about the nature of the War.  

12Two examples of constructed narratives follow. The first is a single photographic and textual account of a two-day battle, the second the narrative constructed by several papers and magazines of one of the necessarily brief mythical events of the War. The first is a chronological synthesis of recorded events with an interpretative text, the second a case of pure creation in which different visual material accompanies the text to communicate an incident which, by its very nature, could not be recorded at the time.     

The Battle of Morval

13The Battle of Morval took place in on September 25th-28th 1916. It was a brief episode in the Somme campaign and an Allied victory. The fight for Morval was related in a front-page spread in TheDaily Mail of Wednesday October 4th 1916. The headline, Nine Stages of a British Advance in France, appears just below the masthead and is followed by a layout of nine Official Photographs presented in five rows, all captioned and with an accompanying text.

  • 16  Advertisements (pens and cigarettes for soldiers, chewing gum and hair conditioner for those left (...)

14In the first row there are three square pictures in identical format, captioned All agog in the trenches, Waiting for the signal and Over the top. The second row contains two long rectangles, the first, The bombers go forward, smaller than the second, Infantry advance in extended order. The third row, in the middle of the page, contains a single photograph, the largest of the spread and a single long rectangle, Battle warms. The penultimate row contains another single rectangle which is of the same length but narrower than the previous photograph, The Prisoners Arrive. There are two pictures in the final row with the same format as those of the second but in reverse order, that is to say that the longest rectangle, Hun prisoners carry the wounded, is placed before The end: Tommy exuberant on his stretcher.  All the original Official Photograph prints in the Imperial War Museum collection are standard (19,5x14cm). The size and format of the photographs in the layout, as well as the sequencing are, therefore, the result of the Mail’s editorial choices.  There is another image on the page, a text/drawing advertisement for Swan pens, which occupies a long vertical rectangle to the right of the page from the top of the second row of photographs to the bottom of the fifth16.  The visual presentation is organised according to a certain logic of subject ―the two panoramas of the battlefield are necessarily presented as long, wide-angled prints, for example; the first three pictures in identical format are supposed to have been taken over the same short time period. There is also a concern for aesthetic considerations―the different formats, the order inversion in the second and final rows―with a view to varying the “speed” of the narrative as well as the appearance of the page. A text under each photograph completes the information.

Image and Caption


A line of British troops in the trenches, rifles pointing out towards an unseen enemy.
All agog in the trenches

IWM ‘Morval’ group, Q.4290

“Today’s great adventure” was Mr Beach Thomas’ phrase for the attack of September 25th on the Lesboeufs-Morval sector of the British Western Front. These alert ‘Tommies’ are seen eager and ready for it.

2 soldiers looking over the edge of a trench; one is smoking a pipe.
Waiting for the signal

An incidental yet thrilling photograph showing the two characteristic moods of ‘Tommy’ before an attack – his alertness and his nonchalance. One looks out and the other ‘lights up’.

A view from the rear of soldiers climbing out of the trenches, rifles in hand. There are puffs of smoke, top left.
Over the top
IWM ‘Morval’ group, Q.1309

British troops leaving the trenches on the morning of the Battle before Morval. It was to be a great day; “the fruits of nearly three months fighting were dropping into our mouths” (Mr Beach Thomas).

Taken from the trench. Soldiers filing along the trench top.
The Bombers go forward

A bombing party leaves the British trenches to play its part in the grand attack.

Panorama. Scattered infantry advance across a field. Photographed from behind, smoke top right.
Infantry advance in extended order

After leaving the trenches, the British infantry opened out as they traversed the perilous ground beyond. “Each man could depend on his neighbours,” wrote Mr Beach Thomas, adding that “the new men – the Territorials and Overseas men – danced forward in unison through shells and bullets, leaving many dead or few dead – it was all the same to the rest”.

Panorama of a landscape with white clouds/smoke, file of troops on the horizon line, debris in the foreground.
Battle warms

This photograph shows British troops in the danger zone. They are advancing and attacking under fire, as the shell burst behind this khaki line shows. “They went on – to the first, to the second, to the third goal – winning all the way” (Mr Beach Thomas).

A file of German prisoners in diagonal, top left to bottom right.
The prisoners arrive

“A long, straggling line of German prisoners coming in – the first fruits of victory. We have won – we have proved the better man, to our satisfaction and the enemy’s… As I write, fresh from the sight of returning prisoners… I am interrupted by news of one triumphant episode after another” (Mr Beach Thomas)

A stretcher carried by two German soldiers, three other prisoners walk behind with three guards.
Hun prisoners carrying their wounded

These sturdy Germans behind whom is seen the white ‘tin hat’ of a ‘Tommy’ are carrying one of their wounded into the British lines.

 A wounded British soldier, smiling and waving, into the camera is carried shoulder high on a stretcher by German prisoners. Guards and second stretcher party behind the first.
The End: Tommy exuberant on his stretcher
IWM ‘Morval’ group Q.1321

A British ‘Tommy’ borne to hospital on the shoulders of Hun prisoners, gives the camera man his irrepressible assurance that all goes well with England.

  • 17  The Caption Books which are available in the I.W.M.’s Photographs Department provide contemporary (...)
  • 18  It is fair to say that the various catalogues are from different periods and do not always respond (...)

15The layout is established in chronological order, the events of four days condensed into nine photographs that could, in fact, be records of any contemporary battle and this is confirmed in the neutral title Nine Stages of a British Advance in France. The place of the action is identified only twice in the accompanying text. Morval, therefore, could be any battle of the Great War. The photographs themselves are not all fresh material. The Waiting for the Signal picture, for example, appears nowhere in the Imperial War Museum’s Caption Book for the Battle of Morval period17. Similarly, no specifically Morval panoramas are identified. Three of the other pictures are contemporary and identified as ‘Morval’ pictures in the Imperial War Museum’s collection18. It is interesting to examine what the editors chose not to select from the available Morval images listed in the Caption Book. Among them were also pictures of ruins, abandoned equipment and war graves. This sequence, which is presented―necessarily―from the British point of view, emphasizes action and the positive consequences of the battle.

  • 19  William Beach Thomas (1868-1957) was one of the five government-approved War Correspondents. He pr (...)
  • 20  These are the captions for pictures Q.4302 and Q.4303 in the Captions Book.

16The photographs themselves and their organization on the page already constitute a narrative of the battle. The narrative is interpreted and clarified by the accompanying captions and text, the latter mostly quotations from the reports of the paper’s War Correspondent19. These are inserted into text provided by the editor who, in turn, invents a narrative adapted from the bare bones of the captions provided by the photographers to accompany their pictures. Thus the texts that accompany the two final pictures of the layout, both provided by the editor, are some distance from the photographer’s original captions, “Battle of Morval 25-28 September 1916. German prisoners and British wounded coming back on the 25th. Near Ginchy.” and “Battle of Morval. Some German prisoners and wounded Grenadier Guardsmen. Ginchy. 25 September 1916.”20   The captions and text impose continuity on the pictures and interpret them. The use of formal and informal military vocabulary (advancing, attacking, lines, party, under fire, shells, bullets, “Tommy”, “tin hat”) contributes to the revelation process which places the recipient at the heart of “real life”.  Recognition and connotation are served by the listing of the qualities of the men (eager, ready for it, alertness, nonchalance, depend, unison, it was all the same to the rest, they went on, irrepressible insurance) and the treatment of the battle as a team sport (a great day, the grand attack, danced forward, winning, won, the better man). The eponymous Tommy, the man of the New Army of Territorials and overseas troops, meets the universal Hun in an entirely satisfactory adventure story that has very little to do with the facts of the Battle of Morval from either the photographic or the textual point of view. The Mail’s Morval, given to the public as a pure representation of reality is, in fact, pure fiction, one of any number of accounts of incidents and battles of the Great War that progressively merge into a meta-narrative that is created both for and by its receptors.

Neville’s Footballs

17The Daily Mail condensed the four days of the Battle of Morval into a one-page picture narrative. The events of Morval, however imprecisely rendered, had been photographed and material was available for the press. The process of communicating images and a written account of an unrecorded incident was necessarily rather more complicated.

18At Montauban, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Captain Billie Neville of the 8th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment encouraged the men of his company forward by throwing four footballs “over the top” and offering a prize to the first platoon to dribble its ball over No-Man’s Land and into the German lines.). Neville himself was machine-gunned almost immediately, one of the 19,000 British dead on that day. Two of the footballs were recovered and preserved by the Regiment.

19The “footballs” incident was an isolated one. No cameras were present and there was certainly no media plan in the contemporary sense. However, this described but unrecorded event rapidly became one of the mythical and, in a very real sense, iconic events of 1916 and, indeed, of the Great War. The story of Neville’s footballs was quickly picked up by, among others, The Daily Sketch, The Daily Mail and The Illustrated London News. The Daily Sketch and other dailies also reported the end of the story on Saturday July 22nd, three weeks after the incident had taken place. The paper published a cover spread entitled Re-inflation of one of Neville’s footballs at a parade at the East Surrey’s HQ at Kingston on 21st July. There was a shorter sub-title over the four photographs, East Surrey’s Glorious Football Charge. The pictures are arranged in two pairs of identical format and captioned.



Top left : soldier on parade holding a deflated leather ball

Private Draper (of the attack – wounded) and deflated ball

Top right : studio portrait of an officer

Portrait of Captain Neville

Bottom left : soldiers cheering others on parade

Line of Surreys cheering comrades who took part in the charge including the wounded on parade

Bottom right : officer holding up a ball before the men on parade

The Colonel holding up the inflated ball

20A final, very short text recalling the football charge and the reasons for the Kingston ceremony completes the spread.

21Six days later, The Illustrated London News of 28 July published a double page engraving under the title The Surreys Play the Game!” Kicking Footballs towards the German Trenches under a Hail of Shells. The picture was “Drawn by R. Caton Woodville from material supplied by an officer present at the action.” Below the illustration is a caption, “On through the hail of slaughter…they drive the trickling ball”: men of the East Surreys charge towards the German trenches at Contalmaison”. There is also a lengthy text:

The association between the spirit of our national games and the spirit that inspires out troops in the great game of war has received fresh proof on the battlefield. As on previous occasions in the war, footballs have been used during the great British advance of this month as a help to the men in advancing to attack. For example, a Reuter correspondent writes regarding a certain battalion of the East Surrey Regiment which took part in the assault, “The Captain of one of the companies had provided four footballs, one for each platoon, urging them to keep up a dribbling competition all the way over the mile and a quarter of ground they had to traverse. As the company formed on emerging from the trench, the platoon commanders kicked off, and the match against death commenced. The gallant captain himself fell early in the charge and men began to drop rapidly under the hail of machine-gun bullets. But still the footballs were booted onwards, with hoarse cries of encouragement or defiance until they disappeared in the dense smother behind which the Germans were shooting. Then, when the bombs and bayonets had done their work and the enemy had cleared out, the Surrey men looked for their footballs and recovered two of them in the captured traverses. These will be sent to the Regimental Depot at Kingston as trophies worth preserving.” This incident formed the subject of a set of verses by the Daily Mail poet who writes under the name of Touchstone.  The first of three stanzas runs as follows. ‘On through the hail of slaughter Where gallant comrades fall. Where blood is poured like water, they drive the trickling ball. The fear of death before them Is but an empty name. True to the blood that bore them The Surreys play the game.’ In our illustration one football is seen on the right and a second is in the air towards the background near the centre.

22The illustration in black and white shows eighteen figures, all armed and equipped infantry soldiers.  They are drawn in profile, charging over a battlefield from left to right and moving towards a football which is isolated in mid air to the centre right of the picture. The men are lead by an officer. Four of them have fallen and three are falling. The background shows smoke and shell bursts. The artist is sufficiently “close” for the grimly determined expressions of his subjects to be clear. The illustration is utterly typical of the nineteenth -century school of battle painting of which Caton Woodville was himself a leading practitioner. What is interesting here is that The Illustrated London News’ technique for the close-up graphic presentation of the instant of battle in mid-1916 was exactly the same as the one it had used to report the Crimea. In 1916 the artist’s impression was still an essential element in the arsenal of illustrated war reporting and this was entirely logical inasmuch as cameras simply could not perform the function of close-up, instant, action recording. There is often a mixture of photographic images and artists’ impressions in the illustrated publications of the Great War. They complement each other in the construction of the narrative, each filling spaces which cannot be covered by the other. And while the photograph is said to have a higher “reality value” because it is mechanical, the drawing justifies itself by being a representation ―by a reputed and reliable artist― of an action reported by somebody who was actually there.   

  • 21  Newbolt’s poem, first published in 1897 enjoyed a considerable revival at the beginning of the Gre (...)

23The text explains the details of the footballs incident ―at this stage public knowledge and “hot news”, both because of the reports in the dailies of the previous week’s ceremonies at Kingston and of accounts in the press following the event itself.  Just as The Daily Mail used the words of its correspondent, Beach Thomas, as a guarantee of the reliability of the report on Morval, so The Illustrated London News quotes a Reuter’s correspondent on Montauban. And its editor illustrates the story further with another quotation from The Daily Mail’s poetic rendering of the event.  Two things are of interest here. First, the manifest existence of a meta-narrative that is passed from publication to publication and built up over time with borrowings from different correspondents and journalists. Not only were the photographs and engravings re-used freely and without copyright constraints in Allied Europe, so (with acknowledgements) were texts. Repetition―of individual illustrations, in the putting together of layouts and of graphic themes―is crucial to the construction of the journalistic narrative of the Great War as we have seen, but so is the repetition of written material, either in directly quoted or adapted form. In the same way, the language of reporting is repeated and remains constant, whatever the social circumstances of the readership of a given paper or magazine. The game metaphor, for example, stands, whatever the class of the recipient, and the connotations contained in the reference to Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada are open to all, whether they be readers of The Daily Graphic or The Illustrated London News21.

24There is in this presentation of the story of Neville’s footballs some acknowledgement of the mass destruction that took place on July 1st 1916. Just as Newbolt’s poem does not hide the necessity of blood sacrifice, so the Reuter’s correspondent, Touchstone and Caton Woodville do not avoid the reality of “death”, of the “hail of machine gun bullets”, of “bombs and bayonets”.  I suggested earlier that one of the difficulties of representing the Battle of the Somme was that of representing and making palatable an eminently disagreeable truth that was known throughout the country. The example of the presentations of the Neville’s footballs story goes some way to showing how this was done. When it becomes impossible to present the War in a relatively deodorised fashion ―the case of the Mail’s Battle of Morval spread, for example―and when the mechanisms of recognition and revelation of fact fail because it is impossible to make an immediate picture of real events, in both the literal and metaphorical sense, then the recognition of myth takes over.  The Neville’s footballs narrative is at once the source and confirmation of a myth. The entire construction is based on supposition, itself based on the tradition (itself a myth constructed, in part, by any number of paintings and engravings of besieged Redcoats fighting off the enemy published in the illustrated press of the nineteenth century) that British soldiers at war behave in a certain way and accept necessary sacrifice with nonchalant courage. The “footballs” story is nothing more than the precise illustration of a point about sporting heroism repeated later in a more general way throughout the text which accompanies the photographic account of Morval.


  • 22  The art criticism of the period, for example, constantly affirms the “realism” of modern, abstract (...)

25The Battle of the Somme was the subject of a mass of photographic information which was commissioned, censored and distributed by the state and published by the private Allied press.  For the first time, this photographic information was official and, for the first time, photographers accompanied troops to the front lines. The importance of photographic information was twofold. Firstly, the photograph could be easily copied and be made available in large numbers, an important consideration in a newspaper and magazine market desperate for pictorial evidence of the War. Secondly, the photograph, for the majority of contemporaries was possessed of a unique capacity to show reality. The virtually immediate nature of the taking of a picture and the perceived lack of human interference in the process of reproduction gave photographs a special status as vectors of truth in a period in which the public was already much exercised by the need to represent an unimaginable reality as precisely as possible22.

  • 23  Ernst Friedrich Krieg dem Krieg, 1924. There is a modern edition in English, French, German and Du (...)

26The numbers of newspapers, magazines, part-works and other image-based publications published and sold seem to indicate that the public thought it had access to what it expected and wanted in terms of truthful accounts of the War. The cumulative effect of this mass of photographic, journalistic and editorial work was the construction of a narrative about the War in general and the Battle of the Somme in particular that was, in fact, significantly removed from reality. The Somme’s 420,000 casualties appear nowhere in the Imperial War Museum Photographic Department’s collection of official photographs, either released to the press or censored and withheld from distribution, still less in the accounts of the illustrated papers. There are other photographic representations of the War which tell a different story; individual surgeons’ photographs of injuries and the effects of plastic surgery, those of Ernst Friedrich’s War Against War of 1924, reputedly stolen from hospital and military archive images, for example23. However, this is beside the point. The interest of the 1916 pictures of the Somme is not so much to do with the degree of “truth” presented in them, but with the way in which they are associated and contextualised to meet expectations and evoke recognition. They not only present the War but also explain it and, in a strong sense, influence the behaviour and sentiments of those who have stayed at home. Ironically, in a culture which believes profoundly in the “purity” of the photograph, these images are manipulated in a perfectly impure way. The objective, obviously, is to establish a natural solidarity between civilians and those at the front who are “people like us” because they share the same culture and values. All good propaganda identifies the environment of reception and exploits it. What worked on a home front audience did not necessarily work on serving soldiers with different references and, as I have suggested, Blunden, Sassoon, Graves and many others had nothing but contempt for the accounts of the illustrated press. And today, ninety years later, the Somme pictures possess completely different connotations. A photograph of smiling soldiers suggests the irony of the moments before moving “up the line to death”, ruins suggest futile destruction not victory, for example. Beyond the detail supplied in the matter of uniforms, weapons and so on, the photographs are in no sense vectors of any kind of truth or, indeed, possible vehicles of any form of shared experience.  They do provide evidence of three things: of an official desire to provide the makings of a narrative of the War for immediate and commemorative purposes, of a multitude of editorial strategies designed to make opposition to the War effort substantially unthinkable and, finally, of the processes of publication and reception that were at the heart of the construction of what was and substantially remains the meta-narrative of the Great War.

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1  The Accrington Pals lost 584 killed, wounded or missing out of 784 on the first day of the Battle, the figures for the Leeds Pals were 750 out of 900.

2  The first Official War Artist was Muirhead Bone, appointed in May 1916 and sent to “cover” the Somme offensive.

3  The film, The Battle of the Somme, sponsored by the War Office and shot by Geoffrey Malins was made in August 1916. It was seen by over half the adult population of Great Britain.  

4  Serving soldiers tended to refute this in their memoirs and autobiographies. Graves, Blunden and Sassoon, among others, all mention the contempt in which press accounts of the War were held at the Front.

5  The principle was, in fact, respected in the letter rather than the observance. The British press was prepared to publish amateur photographs although it rarely did so. The French press, however, positively encouraged front-line photographers by running competitions or offering on the front cover of every edition, as in the case of Le Miroir, the best prices for the best pictures.

6  The Ministry of Information provided contracts for technicians as well as operators and there are records of their recruitment in the papers of the Photographs Department at the Imperial War Museum.

7  Very few of the photographs in the Imperial War Museum are marked « not for sale or distribution » which would seem to confirm a certain self-censorship on the part of the photographers.

8 The Daily Mail’s Official War Photographs postcard sets are a case in point and merit a separate article. On September 6th 1916, the Mail launched forty photographs of different subjects available in ten sets of postcards. The sets of pictures ―coloured, photofacsimiles and photogravures― were marketed by the paper throughout the month and made available directly from the paper or through stationers and newsagents. The money raised from the sales went partly to military charities. Millions of the cards were sold and the pictures went through a number of reprints. The photographs were sold for commemorative purposes, as “an historical account of the Great War”. The Mail’s idea of self-editing is particularly interesting. Buyers were encouraged to construct their own narrative, “the stories can be pieced together by a sorting of the cards” so that “a soldier’s share in the Great Advance can be reconstructed in a graphic manner.” (The Daily Mail, 12th September 1916).

9  They are visible on the Imperial War Museum’s website at

10 The Sphere, July 15th 1916.

11  Picture Q.133 of the I.W.M. collection, taken in the opening days after the Battle of Albert is captioned « whips found in the German trenches” and shows four “cat o’nine tails” hung from nails against a white wall. The suggestion is that the German troops required energetic physical motivation to fight and carries implications of sadistic officers. The whips in question could also be horse or mule whips or, indeed, French “martinets”.

12  One of the largest groups of photographs concerns subjects that suggest German defeat prisoners, captured equipment, destroyed trenches, etc..

13 The Daily Mail, of its Official War Photographs postcard collection, observed that “Many people were delighted to find their brothers, sons or friends among the groups of soldiers […]. But there was also a ‘run’ on the pictures of famous regiments. People with relatives in these regiments were eager to buy their postcard souvenirs.” 8th September 1916.

14  Nick Ut’s photograph, taken in June 1972 of the naked, napalmed Vietnamese girl fleeing with a group of other crying children comes to mind.

15  Ivor Castle’s « fake » tank and « over the top » pictures, for example. The former were photographs of hulks, propped up for the photograph and said to be rolling towards the enemy, the latter of soldiers apparently paid off in rum to simulate an assault. The best-known “fake” of the Great War is cinematic―the “over the top” scene of The Battle of the Somme, filmed during training in England.

16  Advertisements (pens and cigarettes for soldiers, chewing gum and hair conditioner for those left behind…) were standard on the Mail’s front-page spreads and simultaneously echo the war theme of the layout while providing curious visual competition for the photographs.

17  The Caption Books which are available in the I.W.M.’s Photographs Department provide contemporary typewritten lists of the caption attributed to every photograph in the collection.

18  It is fair to say that the various catalogues are from different periods and do not always respond to cross-checking. The internet keywords are not necessarily those prioritised in the captions and no refined date search is possible for the moment.  I have taken the Captions Book to be the safest listing as the texts are complete, descriptive and almost always dated. This being said, the books themselves are generally - but not always - organised in chronological order and an entry for a specific period may “escape” into another section.

19  William Beach Thomas (1868-1957) was one of the five government-approved War Correspondents. He provided particularly jovial articles on the Battle of the Somme for The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror. These were censored before publication as were the articles of the other War Correspondents. He is said to have been “deeply ashamed” of his work after the War.

20  These are the captions for pictures Q.4302 and Q.4303 in the Captions Book.

21  Newbolt’s poem, first published in 1897 enjoyed a considerable revival at the beginning of the Great War. The poem takes a last wicket stand at a public school as a metaphor for colonial war and contains the lines “Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

22  The art criticism of the period, for example, constantly affirms the “realism” of modern, abstract painting which, although by nature not representational, is nevertheless said to convey the “truth” of the trenches!

23  Ernst Friedrich Krieg dem Krieg, 1924. There is a modern edition in English, French, German and Dutch, War Against War, Journeyman Press, London and Real Comet Press, Seattle, 1987. There are some illustrations from the book on the web at

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Claire Bowen, « Inventing a Battle: The Case of the Somme »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. IV - n°3 | 2006, 44-61.

Référence électronique

Claire Bowen, « Inventing a Battle: The Case of the Somme »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. IV - n°3 | 2006, mis en ligne le 21 octobre 2009, consulté le 29 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Bowen

Dr. (Le Havre, France)
Claire BOWEN est maître de conférences à l’Université du Havre.  Sa recherche porte  sur les représentations graphiques de la guerre et, en particulier, sur les travaux des Official War Artists et des Official Photographers pendant la Grande Guerre.

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Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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