Full pic­ture of Great War’s front­line cin­e­mas is re­vealed by new re­search

Western Morning News - - News - BY MARTIN FREE­MAN

Peo­ple to­day flock to cin­e­mas to es­cape from ev­ery­day life and en­joy an ac­tion film in a lux­u­ri­ous mul­ti­plex. A cen­tury ago, sol­diers in the First World War sought re­lief from real-life car­nage with come­dies screened in bombed-out build­ings on the Western Front.

They did so in their thou­sands on a scale much greater than peo­ple re­alise, re­search by a Devon his­to­rian has shown. There were dou­ble the num­ber of mil­i­tary cin­e­mas on the Western Front than pre­vi­ously thought, Chris Grosvenor of the Uni­ver­sity of Ex­eter found.

“For sol­diers the cinema was... a much needed psy­cho­log­i­cal respite from the im­me­di­ate dan­gers of trench war­fare: a cathar­tic, morale­boost­ing re­lease from the ev­er­p­re­sent, im­pend­ing aura of doom that per­me­ated life on the front lines,” he said.

But, with the makeshift cin­e­mas of­ten only a few miles from the trenches, the sol­diers could not en­tirely es­cape the war. “Screen­ings were of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by the ev­er­p­re­sent sound of gun­fire and shelling,” he said.

The cin­e­mas were in aban­doned town halls, barns, pur­pose-built huts or in the open air. The sol­diers were pro­jec­tion­ists and there were of­ten three screen­ings a day of the lat­est re­leases. Venues could hold 1,000 or more but could not al­ways ac­com­mo­date the num­bers queu­ing.

The study, which shows the huge part films played in the lives of Bri­tish sol­diers, is a re­sult of years of anal­y­sis of doc­u­men­ta­tion and di­aries by Mr Grosvenor.

He found 66% of Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force armies, corps and di­vi­sions serv­ing on the Western front had their own mil­i­tary cinema.

The men were most in­ter­ested in watch­ing slap­stick come­dies star­ring early stars such as Char­lie Chap­lin. How­ever, sol­diers were fre­quently dis­mis­sive of top­i­cal fic­tion or doc­u­men­tary films de­pict­ing the war it­self, such as the fa­mous doc­u­men­tary The Bat­tle of the Somme.

“Sol­diers of­ten ap­proached th­ese types of films with cau­tion, mock­ing the overly sen­ti­men­talised, cen­sored, or even staged scenes which could never com­pare to the re­al­ity of what sol­diers ex­pe­ri­enced on a day-to-day ba­sis.”

Cinema-go­ing took place dur­ing rest days. Sol­diers com­monly spent two weeks in the trenches, al­ter­nat­ing ev­ery four days or so be­tween the front line and re­serve trenches, fol­lowed by six days’ leave in a camp fur­ther back be­hind the line.

Mr Grosvenor said he hoped his re­search would “bridge the gap” be­tween to­day’s au­di­ences and those in the war, par­tic­u­larly as the 100th an­niver­sary of the end the con­flict ap­proaches.

‘Screen­ings were ac­com­pa­nied by gun­fire and shelling’

Chris Grosvenor

First World War sol­diers march­ing past a cinema (top), places that pro­vided es­capism from the hor­ror of bat­tle

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