Tag Archives: Britain

Battle of the Somme: What the Audience Saw

Written by guest blogger Seth Feldman.

Battle of the Somme (Geoffrey Malins and J.B. McDowell, 1916) was the most seen non-fiction film made during the Great War and in wartime Britain, the most seen film, period. For a hundred years bits of its remarkable footage have appeared in documentaries to the point where they have become iconic of the Great War itself. Battle of the Somme was the first film inducted into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, inspiring a digitally restored print by the Imperial War Museum and a second premiere with full orchestra a new score. In recent years, some film historians have argued that it should be designated as the first true documentary.

My problem in writing about Battle of the Somme was that to a twenty-first century audience the film doesn’t look like much. It is largely a procession of silent film intertitles, nearly one per minute, describing the shots we will see next. Almost all of these shots can be divided between preparations for the battle and its aftermath, with very few shots of the battle itself. Malins and McDowell, who worked separately, had been told to collect random shots to be used in newsreels. There was no idea for a narrative and, with wartime censorship in place, there was little mention of the bloodbath that had taken place while they were shooting.

Yet Battle of the Somme is more than just an historical curiosity. My hope was to use it as an archaeological exercise, a tool for imagining the way in which the audiences of 1916 saw it. Usually, writing about film audiences is based on reviews, newspaper reports and in some cases research by a film’s producers. And there has been some excellent writing of this kind about Battle of the Somme. But what I hoped to do was to recreate the 1916 British audience from the emotional context in which they watched the film to the way they would perceive certain shot compositions by Malins and McDowell as well as the editing credited to Malins and Charles Urban (one of the lesser sung heroes of early non-fiction filmmaking).

Battle of the Somme’s audience was an unusually homogeneous group. All of them were embarking on the third year of an unprecedented catastrophe; most coping with anxieties about friends and loved ones at the front. They were also increasingly resentful of the conditions the War had imposed upon them. As official propaganda, Battle of the Somme intended to raise their morale by connecting their sacrifices to soldiers at the front. What they saw was the enthusiasm of the troops, the care given to the wounded and, of course, what were then the battle’s small victories. Given the timing of the film’s release – while the four and a half month battle was ongoing – it also played upon the audiences’ desires for the “big push” that would finally end the conflict. Various shots in the film as well as the film’s editing and the wording of the intertitles show how this was attempted in a subtle or sometimes not-so-subtle manner.

My work was to scrutinize writing on the film and the film itself. This was made both more arduous and rewarding by the many publications released during the Great War Centennial. I then made notes to myself on and off for about a year before I even began to write. In all, the paper took far longer to produce than did the film. And while its distribution will be dwarfed by Battle of the Somme, my hope is that this archaeological exercise will provide readers with insight into other peoples’ as it existed a century ago.

Seth Feldman is an author, broadcaster, film programmer and Full Professor Emeritus at York University in Toronto. His latest Canadian Journal of Film Studies article, Battle of the Somme: What the Audience Saw” is temporarily free to read on UTP Journals Online.

Canada’s Constitutional Legacy: ‘Notwithstanding’ its framers?

Written by guest blogger, Ben Gilding.

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It is timely, even more so than I could have possibly intended, that my article emphasising the role of the British Colonial Office in defining the features of Canadian Confederation should be published in the Canadian Historical Review at a time when the constitution—albeit a newer section of it—is once more making headlines. I am, of course, referring to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to invoke the ‘notwithstanding’ clause in order to push through his reform of Toronto’s municipal elections. The Ontario Superior Court ruled that Ford’s bill violated freedom of expression under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was entrenched in the constitution during its repatriation in 1982. To combat the Court’s ruling, Ford invoked the ‘notwithstanding’ clause, which allows governments (provincial or federal) to temporarily override rights and freedoms outlined in sections 2 and 7-15 of the Charter. These include freedoms of religion, association, and expression, among others. Since then, it has been revealed that the new Premier-designate of Québec, François Legault is threatening to make use of the same clause to ban the wearing of religious symbols by provincial civil servants, leading the Premier of B.C. to remark on the appearance of a ‘domino effect’ on the use of the controversial clause.[1]

Constitutional debates pitching courts against politicians are, of course, nothing new in Canadian history. This is not to say that the current case involving Ontario’s use of the ‘notwithstanding’ clause is in any way justified by historical constitutional jurisprudence. Rather, it is simply to point out that the courts have decisively intervened at various stages in Canadian history through the interpretation of key clauses of the constitution.[2] This, of course, gave rise to the disputes between originalist and ‘living tree’ interpretations of the Canadian constitution which have oftentimes been falsely perceived as dichotomous. Originalists, in short, attempt to uncover the original meaning of the constitution through the intentions of its framers. The advocates of the ‘living tree’ doctrine, on the other hand, argue that the constitution ought to be seen as an organic structure that is adaptable over time. That these are not mutually exclusive attributes of a written constitution with a formula for amendment is not only self-evident but also admitted by Lord Sankey, the founder of the ‘living tree’ metaphor. In 1931, he declared that, ‘[i]nasmuch as the [British North America] Act embodies a compromise under which the original Provinces agreed to federate…the process of interpretation as the years go on ought not to be allowed to dim or whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded.’[3]

Ontario’s recent controversial use of the ‘notwithstanding’ clause has prompted a response from several of the framers of that provision (former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, and former Chief Justice of Ontario, Roy McMurtry). These three, famously involved in the so-called ‘kitchen accord’, argued that the ‘notwithstanding’ clause “was designed to be invoked in exceptional situations, and only as a last resort after careful consideration.”[4] The assumption behind the release of this joint statement, and much of the commentary in the press and on social media surrounding this controversy suggests that the intentions of the framers matter in constitutional jurisprudence. Not that they ought to rule supreme and fossilize archaic notions into the structure of what would thereby become an increasingly obsolete document; but that they ought to be considered and accounted for in a rational debate concerning the principles that define the national character and the institutions of state.

Upon this assumption—that the intentions of the framers matter in constitutional jurisprudence—my article examines the ideas and motivations of what I term ‘the silent framers’ of Canada’s original constitution. These were the political and permanent staff of the British Colonial Office who, alongside the already-familiar “Fathers of Confederation,” drew up the provisions of the British North America Act that continue to shape politics today. Notwithstanding the Confederation debates, the recent furore surrounding Ontario’s use of the Charter’s overriding clause suggests that Canada’s constitutional legacy is still far from settled, 151 years after its inception.

[1] Richard Zussman, “B.C. premier surprised by ‘domino effect’ of use of notwithstanding clause.” Global News, 5 October 2018, https://globalnews.ca/news/4518008/bc-premier-horgan-notwithstanding-clause/

[2] See John T. Saywell, The Lawmakers: Judicial Power and the Shaping of Canadian Federalism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).

[3] Privy Council Appeal No. 38 of 1931, p. 7. <http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKPC/1931/1931_93.pdf>

[4] “Chretien, Romanow and McMurtry attack Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause.” Maclean’s, 14 September 2018, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/chretien-romanow-and-mcmurtry-attack-fords-use-of-the-notwithstanding-clause/

Ben Gilding is a PhD candidate at Christ’s College, Cambridge. His research currently focuses on domestic responses to imperial crises in the British Empire in the “age of revolutions” (circa 1765–95). His article “The Silent Framers of British North American Union: The Colonial Office and Canadian Confederation, 1851–67 ” is free to read in the latest issue of the Canadian Historical Review. Read it here!

Building Better Britains?: Settler Societies in the British World, 1783-1920

To mark the publication of the newest book in the CHA/UTP International Themes and Issues Series, the author, Cecilia Morgan, provides some background on her reasons for writing Building Better Britains?: Settler Societies in the British World, 1783-1920.

Building Better BritainsWriting Building Better Britains? appealed to me for a number of reasons. For some years now I’ve been teaching a course in the history of gender and empire, one that’s become more focused on the British Empire and the colonies of “white settlement.” Thus, the opportunity to research and write a short study of British settler colonialism which focuses on the period of its immense spread and growth seemed too good to pass up! As well, much of my research deals with questions of colonialism in nineteenth-century Ontario and the links between English Canada and imperial, transatlantic, and transnational worlds. I thought, then, that this book would take me a few steps further from more narrowly-focused monographs to the wider canvas of a short survey. I also had just finished writing a short book on the history of commemoration and public memory in Canada, enjoyed the experience, and thought that I could put to use the lessons I’d learned from it.

Other reasons, though, also made me want to tackle this project. For one, discussions of settler colonialism are very much “in the air” at the moment. Scholarship in the journal Settler Colonial Studies and a host of monographs, edited collections, and journal articles, all written in a range of disciplines—history, geography, anthropology, law, and literary studies, just to name a few—have been exploring particular instances of settler colonialism or theorizing about it, so it seemed like a particularly good time to address this phenomenon in a wider-ranging historically grounded study. As well, the phrases “settler society” or “settler colonialism” crop up often in public discourse and in talks with my students, phrases which in Canada are almost inevitably—and understandably—linked to discussions of residential schooling, unfulfilled or broken treaty promises, and missing and murdered Indigenous women. This seemed like an opportune moment to try to provide an account of the longer and complex history of colonialism in countries such as Canada. This latter goal was important to me, since my primary appointment is in a faculty of education, a site where the phrase “settler” is used frequently but not with much attention to the historical specifics of time and place or an understanding of the historical processes that have led us to the present day.

Like the other books in the CHA’s series on International Themes and Issues, I synthesized a large body of other scholars’ research and arguments while simultaneously attempting to put my own “stamp” or my own interpretation on this work. For me, that meant at least two things. First, I wanted to foreground the perspectives and experiences of Indigenous peoples as much as possible. As British historian John Mackenzie has recently pointed out, the question of imperial intent—how deliberate and self-conscious was imperial expansion—becomes less important when we consider the very real effects that imperialism had on Indigenous peoples’ lives: no less so when we look at settler colonies. The other perspectives I wanted to emphasize were those of the settler colonists: not to celebrate or condone their attitudes and practices but, rather, to push students to understand the ideologies, practices, and experiences that both bound them together and divided them. While imperial policies were important in shaping these colonies, settlers brought a range of values to their new homes, ones that in turn might be brought into sharper relief, revised, or changed fundamentally because of their interactions with Indigenous peoples, unfamiliar landscapes, or each other. Settler colonialism can often seem like an inevitable process or foregone conclusion but, like other forms of colonial expansion, it too had its own tensions and uncertainties; the role of historical contingency can’t be ignored. The quotes that open each chapter represent my attempt to draw the reader into these worlds and, too, to suggest that the creation and expansion of these settler societies affected and was viewed by different groups in different ways.

Other considerations shaped this book. Simply trying to determine which “settler” colonies to explore and delineate a time frame was a challenge, particularly for a short book. There are other British colonies, most notably Kenya and Zimbabwe, that could have been included in this study but that would have meant writing a bigger book with a longer chronological sweep. Too, the United States could have been part of this book but that also would have meant a significant expansion of the book’s chronology and dealing with a historiography that has only recently begun to question national frameworks and incorporate the insights of imperial and colonial history. Overall, Building Better Britains? is not meant to be the “last word” on the topic of settler colonialism’s expansion. Rather, I see it as providing a kind of map for students and, I would like to think, for interested members of the general public. Such a map, I hope, will give readers a framework to help them pursue their own questions about the spread of the British Empire and the many actors involved in that expansion.

Cecilia Morgan is Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.