Full picture of Great War’s frontline cinemas is revealed by new research
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’
First World War soldiers marching past a cinema (top), places that provided escapism from the horror of battle