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Epoch Cinema Documentary Review: ‘Heroes of the Somme’


World War I used to be a conflict that didn’t get too much attention. Part of the reason was that it has often been overshadowed by World War II, a conflict that has almost been fetishized in numerous Hollywood films—everything from golden oldies such as 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” to more recent entries such as 2016’s “Hacksaw Ridge.”

Additionally, many folks consider the trench warfare of World War I to be rather boring, as opposed to some of the faster-paced, dramatic World War II battles, such as the storming of France’s Normandy coastline by Allied forces on D-Day (cinematically immortalized in 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan”).

Since World War II well seems to have been visited a little too often in recent years and may be going dry, both historians and filmmakers have adroitly turned their attention to the Great War (also known as the “War to End All Wars”).

The Battle of the Somme was extremely costly. “Heroes of the Somme” (360 Production)

This pivot has resulted in plenty of documentary films being produced that detail the massive conflicts between the main players of World War I. This includes many European countries, the United States, the Russian Empire, and more far-flung theaters such as the Middle-eastern and even parts of Asia. The bloody conflict lasted from 1914 to 1918 and the toll on human life was huge—an estimated 9 million combatants died, many of them while fighting on the Western Front.

Director Edward Hart’s 2016 historical documentary “Heroes of the Somme” (available on EpochTV) focuses on the Western Front. Hart combines rare archival World War I footage and reenactments, and interviews with military historians, as well as relatives of the men who fought in the Great War.

The result is a thought-provoking look at the sometimes heroic, sometimes futile aspects of the conflict through the stories of seven soldiers who served in the British Expeditionary Force, during the Somme offensive of 1916 against German forces. These seven men exhibited acts of “conspicuous valour” that earned them Britain’s rarest medal, the Victoria Cross.

The Somme offensive took place across six miles of empty farmland near the Somme, a river in Northern France. It spanned from July 1 to Nov. 18, 1916 (141 days in total). In all, 13 different Allied countries participated in over 14 pitched battles. A rather dubious distinction of the first day of the conflict (July 1), is that the British military experienced its most crushing loss in its military history—over 57,000 casualties (of which over 19,000 were fatalities). It’s also estimated that the total cost of casualties on both sides was one million.

The documentary features military historian Gavin Hughes (of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland), who, using a copy of an old historical World War I battle map, travels to the Somme to piece together the actions of British forces in the hours leading up to the Battle of Somme.

By June 30, 1916, the British had built up a thirteen-mile-long offensive line, comprised of 120,000 soldiers, along the German army’s frontline. Their objective was to break through the German frontline and within a week, make its final victory march to the German capital of Berlin.

Private Billy McFadzean in “Heroes of the Somme” (360 Production)

Hughes explains how one recipient earned a Victoria Cross before the first shot was even fired. An Irishman by the name of Private Billy McFadzean of the 36th Ulster Division was helping a bombardier unit prime their grenades before an assault on the German frontlines.

The men were crammed into a trench they’d built earlier, working away, when a box of grenades fell into the trench and two of the grenade’s primer pins fell out. Being a bombardier, McFadzean instantly knew what would happen if the munitions went off—mass carnage. In an act of final service to his cohorts, he dove onto the box and took the brunt of the blast, dying instantly. That selfless act of courage spared all of their lives. McFadzean has since become an Irish folk hero and the first Victoria Cross recipient of the Somme campaign.

British soldiers run across No Man’s Land and into German frontlines in “Heroes of the Somme” (360 Production)

The film also details how General Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, wanted to unleash a massive artillery barrage upon the German frontlines ahead of rushing in with infantry. His objective was to completely obliterate every German soldier facing them so that the Brits could move across No Man’s Land (the area between the opposing entrenched frontlines) unscathed and onto certain victory.

However, once the smoke cleared and the British soldiers began to advance, they found out that Gen. Haig’s plan hadn’t quite panned out the way he’d wanted it to. Despite the incredible display of artillery bombardment, the British ran into the withering torrents of German bullets and explosive ordinance. Some of the Brits displayed unusual acts of bravery during their advance, which earned them Victoria Crosses.

One of the things that I found fascinating about this near-one-hour documentary, is how leading historians have come to consider the Somme offensive—was it worth the extreme loss of human lives? Or, was it a futile conflict that didn’t result in any substantial gains?

One thing is for certain—no one can question the heroism of each of the seven men who risks everything in the service of their country. The Victoria Medals awarded to them were well deserved and it is their personal sacrifices that make them.

Watch“Heroes of the Somme” on Epoch cinema here.

‘Heroes of the Somme’

Director: Edward Hart Running Time: 59 minutes MPAA Rating: PG-13 Release Date: Jul. 6, 2016 Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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