Remembering the Battle of the Somme

As Europe prepares to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, composer Laura Rossi tells us about how film and music have created a powerful memorial. 

Remembering the Battle of the Somme

The 1916 film The Battle of the Somme is one of the most watched in British cinema history. A first feature-length documentary film made by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, it gives us an invaluable insight into the battle and is the source of many of that battle’s most iconic images, including the massive bombardment and coverage of the first day (the greatest number of casualties in a single day in British military history) and the aftermath. In 1916 it was shown in 18 countries and, in Britain, it was seen by nearly half the population in the first six weeks of its release - a box office record not beaten until Star Wars in 1977 – as people flocked to the cinema hoping to catch glimpse of a friend or loved-one on film.

The Imperial War Museum commissioned me to score The Battle of the Somme for the 90th anniversary in 2006. The music was recorded and performed live with film by the Philharmonia Orchestra for the premiere – a full house at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall.

It was a very exciting prospect to write the music for such an important film, and the more I watched it the more I realised what a huge responsibility it was to write music that appropriately fits these images.

Before I wrote a note of music, I spent a huge amount of time researching the film and the battle, including a visit to the site of the battle.  During my research I discovered that my great uncle (whom I knew – he survived the war) was a stretcher-bearer, attached on July 1st 1916 to the 29th Division, who appear in the film. Using his diary, I retraced his footsteps.

 Rossi's great-uncle, who fought in the Battle of the Somme.

It was an incredibly moving trip. I went to many of the places where the film was shot, including the exact spot Malins filmed the famous Hawthorn mine explosion. All this research really helped me to get a feeling of what it would have felt like to be there, and that helped me get the right feeling for writing the music.

One of the biggest challenges with scoring this film was that there are some very contrasting scenes juxtaposed. For example, we see happy soldiers receiving mail, immediately followed by a shot of dead bodies in a crater.

The music had to link these contrasting images, help make them flow and enhance the loose structure of the film. I wanted the music to reflect the appropriate emotion for the image: a happy marching theme to match the spirit of soldiers marching off to war, but something more simple to accompany scenes of the dead and wounded. I didn’t want to over-dramatise the images: they are powerful enough.

At the first performances I realised how engaging it was for people to watch this film on a large screen, in its entirety and with a live orchestra.  People were moved by these images – which are real; it really is incredibly moving to watch. The live music really helps bring the images alive, and sitting in a cinema or concert hall and hearing the music performed by a live orchestra makes those images jump out from the screen and fill the room, and it makes you connect with the men in the film and that time in history. That’s the power of live performance - it can evoke a gut reaction unobtainable any other way.

The Philharmonia orchestra perform Rossi's SOMME100.

Orchestral screenings also engage a different audience for the film – often people that know nothing about the film or the battle.  These are people that are going to watch a concert – with the youth orchestras it’s often parents and siblings, for the amateur orchestras it’s their friends and the regular concert-going audience, and even in the professional screenings the audience is full of people interested in cinema and music and not necessarily the Somme. They are often going because it’s a live event, and the thing that I’ve noticed is that when they get there and watch the film, they become completely absorbed in it and leave incredibly moved by what they have just experienced - which is soldiers, often young lads, from 100 years ago - brought to life by the live orchestra. They wave and smile at us from the big screen, they look directly at us.

This is the most important piece of work I’ve ever been involved in – and I want to help get this film seen by as many people as possible on a big screen, in its entirety and with a live orchestra accompanying it.

The team at Somme100 FILM are helping co-ordinate 100 live orchestral screenings in the Centenary year from 1 July 2016 to July 2017 and we are helping link people up to put on their own local live screening. We have about 60 so far and we are actively seeking more orchestras to sign up – we’re especially keen for local orchestras (youth or amateur) to partner up with their local cinema, museum or church to put this on and come together as a community to commemorate The Battle of the Somme in this unique and special way. Performances are happening across the UK and internationally.

The thing that always connects people to this battle was that is it was just ordinary local lads that signed up in their pals battalions and they got slaughtered in their thousands – whole towns of young men were just wiped out. It's so tragic but so important that they aren’t forgotten. This film is a great way of connecting us to that time in history.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo will perform the SOMME100 film at a national commemorative event at Thiepval Memorial, France on 1 July. To find a screening near you or to sign up to the project please visit



  • Article Type: | Blog |
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