Is it right to let us see men dying?

The Battle of the Somme (1916)
The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Source: James Douglas, extracts from article in The Star, 25 September 1916, p. 2, quoted in Nicholas Reeves, Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War (London: Croom Helm, 1986), pp. 244-245

Text: Is it right to let us see men dying? Yes. Is it a sacrilege? No. If our spirit be purged of curiosity and purified with awe the sight is hallowed. There is no sacrilege if we are fit for the seeing. And I think the seeing ennobled and exalted us. There was a religious reverence in the silence closing over the sobs … I say it is regenerative and resurrective for us to see war stripped bare. Heaven knows that we need the supreme katharsis, the ultimate cleansing. We grow indifferent too quickly … These are dreadful sights but their dreadfulness is as wholesome as Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. It shakes the kaleidoscope of war into human reality. Now I know why soldiers are nobler than civilians in their tenderness and their chivalry and their charity … I say that these pictures are good for us.

Comments: James Douglas (1867-1940) was a British journalist, editor of The Star newspaper from 1908 to 1920. The above is an extract from a longer commentary on The Battle of the Somme (UK 1916), a documentary produced by the British Topical Committee for War Films, which was seen by millions in the UK and beyond, bringing home to many something of the reality of war. A scene in which British soldiers appeared to go ‘over the top’, some of them falling dead, illustrated above (and now known to have been simulated), had a particularly powerful effect on audiences and is probably the sequence Douglas refers to.

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