Chris Bond: The Somme's full truth is even more haunting and humbling

IT HAS been said that journalism is 'the first draft of history'.

Thousands of poppies cast a red sea of colour over a field on the edge of Leeds, West Yorkshire, ahead oe events to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.
Thousands of poppies cast a red sea of colour over a field on the edge of Leeds, West Yorkshire, ahead oe events to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

And while some people might balk at such a lofty proclamation, it does contain a kernel of truth.

History, though, has a habit of being rewritten, which means it can be distorted and the facts or, more importantly, the truth about the facts get lost amid the hyperbole of best-selling books and Hollywood blockbusters.

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Sometimes the first draft of history proves better than the last. But what happens when it’s wrong?

In the week where we have seen commemorations both in this country and across the Channel to mark the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, it feels like a pertinent question.

Sitting here today we know certain facts about a battle that has come to epitomise the horrors of the Western Front.

We know that on July 1, 1916, more than 100,000 British soldiers went over the top and we know, too, that 57,670 men, including thousands from Yorkshire, were either killed, missing or injured on that first day alone – that’s enough to fill Elland Road and Sheffield Arena and then some.

Pals battalions from Barnsley, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield and later Hull were among those mown down on the Somme battlefields, leaving families and sometimes whole streets in mourning back home.

What is remarkable about this particular battle is the fact it was the subject of a British propaganda film, shot by two official cinematographers, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell.

They were given access to the Front and their subsequent film shows the huge preparations and logistics of supplying the bombardment carried out by the Royal Artillery.

Then there’s the infantry attack across no man’s land into the German frontline, with barbed wire swept away and the enemy driven out by the shelling.

The documentary – The Battle of the Somme – was shown in cinemas up and down the country. Within two months of its premiere in August 1916, a staggering 20 million people in Britain had been to see it – more than went to watch Star Wars.

But while people flocked to see it in their droves it was criticised for showing dead British soldiers.

It also contains some discrepancies. It features a scene with soldiers about to go “over the top” which it later emerged was staged with men behind the front line. There’s also footage of what was claimed to be battle scenes but was actually of soldiers training.

Nevertheless, it remains a rare glimpse into what life was like for those men in the trenches during the Great War.

For many people today, their view of the Battle of the Somme probably chimes with that of the writer Vera Brittain, who called it “that singularly wasteful and inefficient orgy of slaughter”.

Yet, at the time, that disastrous first day was reported as a victory in the Press. But how, you might think, was that possible?

A hundred years ago, there was no television and radio was still in its infancy, which meant that apart from the newsreels and propaganda posters people relied on newspapers to keep them informed of how the war was going.

The problem was that the Press itself was shackled. Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, both the government and the army wanted to stifle any criticism of the war effort and the stream of information was kept under strict control.

Reporters were banned from the front and instead newspapers were fed a stream of dull, matter-of-fact, army communiques. There were a couple of determined journalists who risked the army’s wrath by actings as “outlaws” and smuggling back their dispatches any way they could. But they risked being shot if caught.

By July 1916, the government had relented to pressure from newspaper proprietors and allowed a small number of “embedded” correspondents access to the Front – though their reports were still subject to the censors and their dreaded red pens.

These dispatches were then syndicated in a number of newspapers and magazines. The Yorkshire Post was among those sent reports of that first day of fighting at the Somme.

On Monday, July 3, we covered the story under the headline: “Great British Attack in France – German defences broken between The Somme and Ancre”.

The report claimed that German casualties were “very heavy” while ours were “comparatively light”. It added: “Last night, Sir Douglas Haig announced the situation favourable after a day’s hard fighting.”

There was no mention of the catastrophic losses, or this being the blackest day in the history of the British Army.

This was repeated in the national press, too. One reporter who wasn’t ideally placed on the battlefield to see the entire picture, and also subjected to censorship, wrote: “We may say it is, on balance, a good day for England and France. It is a day of promise in this war.”

Another journalist sent a telegram to Reuters which read simply: “The day is going well for Great Britain and France.”

Some of these dispatches were no doubt written in the knowledge of what was really happening but were done so to spare the feelings of the families back home. But they also kept the truth, so often the first casualty of war, from coming out.

We might be tempted to believe that such slaughter couldn’t be kept hidden from us today. But the massacre at Srebrenica and the Rwandan genocide took time to emerge and who knows what as yet unrecorded atrocities have been carried out by the so-called Islamic State?

This is isn’t simply confined to conflicts, though. As we saw in the recent EU referendum, trying to sift the facts from the fiction amid a tsunami of propaganda and the white noise of social media can be a thankless task.

A century after the killing fields of the Somme, writing that all important first draft of history is no less of a challenge.

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