Cinemas and Soldiers, 1914-1918: Reflections upon my doctoral research during the final year of centenary commemorations for the First World War

Chris Grosvenor, University of Exeter

29 July 2018


As I write this blog post, I am in the final stages of bringing together my doctoral thesis –‘Cinema on the Front Line: A History of Military Cinema Exhibition and Soldier Spectatorship during the First World War’. I began my PhD in September 2015, although I had actually started researching the topic of my thesis for my MA dissertation the year before, so in a sense, my research has from its inception been undertaken against the background of centenary commemorations for the First World War. It has been a long, challenging, but incredibly rewarding process, combining my interests in film history, military history and war studies to produce some 100,000 words on a subject which, from my perspective, has until this point lacked a comprehensive history and analysis within the discipline of Film Studies [1].

The fact that I have undertaken this research during the centenary period has proved to be hugely significant. More than the ample amount of First World War-related academic conferences, research networks and publications prompted by the beginning of the centenary in 2014, the history of the conflict – its significance, impact and legacy – will perhaps never again be as prevalent as it has been within our contemporary political and cultural environment, certainly not within my lifetime. It is my hope, therefore, that by accident rather than design, my research can contribute something hitherto missing from, not only our own academic field and discipline, but an internationally shared cultural history and ‘memory’ of the ‘Great War’, particularly as we leave this monumental milestone of the centenary of the conflict behind us in 2018. Indeed, even a century after the close of the conflict, I hope that research such as my own showcases the wealth of stories and histories that are still waiting to be discovered in the archives of the First World War.

Image 1: Two British soldiers standing beside a projector (most likely a Pathé 1913 model) c.1916. Courtesy of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter. EXE BD 84481

So – what have you discovered then? – you’re probably asking. Fundamentally, my research outlines how cinema exhibition during the First World War did not begin and end with theatrical exhibition on the home front, but encapsulated a whole, largely forgotten, demographic of wartime spectators: British soldiers. From the domestic commercial venues where potential soldiers were targeted with cinematic recruitment propaganda in the hope that they would enlist, to the make-shift venues constructed for exhibition on the front line itself, and the appropriation of the medium within the context of soldier rehabilitation and recovery in military hospitals and convalescent camps, the cinema intersected with the average British soldier at practically every point of their military career. Painstaking research undertaken using official military documentation held by the National Archives has revealed the previously unacknowledged scope of cinemas established by different formations of the British Expeditionary Force – Armies, Corps, Divisions, Brigades – on the Western front between 1914 and 1918. Moreover, detailed information about front line exhibition practices, from film programmes to venues, equipment, finances and musical accompaniment shed further light on this unique instance of historical exhibition. Furthermore, careful examination of soldier diaries, letters and ‘trench publications’ held by institutions such as the Imperial War Museum, the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds, and the BFI, has placed front and centre a fundamentally singular body of wartime spectatorship. Whilst cherishing the psychologically restorative powers of escapist comedies and dramas within the immediate environment of the front line – where ‘the grim realities of warfare are temporarily forgotten during the performance’ – I argue that soldiers also evolved to become intellectually discerning spectators in their own right, equipped to interpret, negotiate and ultimately deconstruct the artifice and manipulation of wartime propaganda and fictional films depicting the conflict, including major topical releases such as The Battle of the Somme (1916). [2] More generally, the diverse range of exhibition practices utilised for the entertainment of British soldiers either on the front line or at home – from films projected onto hospital war ceilings for the bed-bound wounded to shell-damaged barns or huts within close proximity to the dangers of the front line trenches – evidences the fact that cinema exhibition for soldier spectators during the conflict was rife with variety, experimentation and unprecedented spectatorial encounters with the medium at this early juncture within the 20th century.

Image 2: Postcard of Larkhill Camp, Salisbury. The top of the ‘Military Cinema’ can just be seen on the right-hand side (white building). Author’s Collection.

At its core, however, it is the soldiers themselves who have come to reside as my primary focus of research. Indeed, despite the distance in time and supposed objectivity required of the historian, it is the stories of a generation of young men fighting and even dying for their country which have had the most impact upon me during these last four years. Whilst I sit in the Imperial War Museum’s research room holding a mud-stained and partly faded diary, it is impossible not to think of the man who held it one-hundred years ago. Turning the page, I may find some comment about how the antics of Charlie Chaplin or the familiar romance of a drama momentarily removed the soldier from his immediate war-torn and psychologically oppressive surroundings for the duration of the programme. He didn’t care that the ‘cinema’ he sat in was nothing more than a barn stocked with ‘empty petrol boxes’ or ‘old pieces of wood, all sizes and thicknesses, to take the place of tip-up seats’. [3] In these instances, the power of the medium as a morale-boosting, engaging and fundamentally escapist form of entertainment highlights the influence and impact of the medium during this unprecedented and horrendous conflict. It is no wonder then, that soldiers took the medium of the cinema with them from the civilian lives to the front line; for some, it was an absolute necessity for survival.

Image 3: Postcard depicting a column of British soldiers marching past a cinema, c.1916. Author’s Collection.

Whilst the specific objects of fandom or the popularity of certain genres may have changed, the fact that soldiers paid what little money they earned to visit a military-run cinema behind the lines, even in the most extraordinary of circumstances, underlines the same fundamental attraction of the medium that continues to engage audiences today in the 21st century. This, more than anything, has been one of the most important conclusions I have personally drawn during my research over the last four years – that the cinema’s social and cultural function can, in a certain sense, serve to bridge the gap in time between audiences of yesterday and today – a poignant, albeit simple reminder that these men were real people, with real lives and families, hopes and dreams, sacrificing all for their country and their fellow men in the trenches, who found in the medium of cinema a momentary respite from their anxieties and fears. More than ever, this notion should be maintained and safeguarded as we draw to the close of the centenary in 2018, with the war having now resolutely slipped from living memory to the memory of the historical archive.


[1] For some introductory material on the subject, as well as writing on the YMCAs provision of cinematic entertainment for soldiers during the First World War, see: Kevin Brownlow, The War, the West, and the Wilderness, (London: Secker and Warburg, 1979), pp. 44-47; J. G. Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 110-113; Emma Hanna, ‘Putting the Moral into Morale: YMCA Cinemas on the Western Front, 1914-1918’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2015), pp. 615-630; Amanda Laugesen, ‘Forgetting their Troubles for a While: Australian Soldiers’ Experiences of Cinema during the First World War’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2015), pp. 596-614. Of course, it is my hope that my research will offer the most comprehensive and detailed account of this historical practice.

[2] ‘Weekly Notes’, The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 20 September 1917, p. 75.

[3] C. G. Lilley, ‘Back of the Front! A Description of Tommy’s Cinema Shows’, The Bioscope, 7 September 1916, p. xv.


Chris Grosvenor is a final-year PhD student at the University of Exeter, UK. His thesis – ‘Cinema on the Front Line’ – examines the role of the cinema as it intersected with the lives of those who served for Britain during the First World War, shining a light on a largely unacknowledged history within the discipline of Film Studies. More broadly, his research interests include silent cinema, British film history, exhibition studies and the work of silent comedian Charlie Chaplin.


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