Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


A Cinema at the Front*


The long, deep shadowed hall was packed with dim forms, their glimmering faces all upturned toward the pictures on the lighted screen. It was an intent audience, silent except for snatches of muttered comment, an occasional shuffle of heavy boots, and the creaking of equipment. Here and there, spotting the gloom vividly for a moment, a resolute face would be lit up in the fleeting flare of a match. The air was thick with the smell of cigarette smoke and wet leather.

The cinema-hall was in a side street of shell-shattered Albert. Outside, under the glassy, blue-white flooding of the November moon, the great falling statue of the Virgin and Child, arrested midway in its dizzy plunge from the top of the Cathedral tower, looked down upon the jumble of broken roofs and windowless walls, and on the ceaseless procession of ambulances, lorries, limbers and tramping battalions which thronged the Bapaume road.

The lower sky all round to the east and north was continually stabbed with jets of flame, so savagely intense that even the unclouded moonlight could not drown them. The windless air quivered and shrank under the shocks of our nearer guns—the 6-inch, the 9.2’s and the 11-inch high-nosing giants. It wailed or whined or whimpered to the soaring passage of the shells as they streamed outwards toward the German lines. Every now and then the fierce wailing in the sky, instead of dying off into the distance, drew nearer, rose into a venomous stream, and ended with a nerve-shattering crash which jarred Albert to her deep cellars; for the ruined town, being crowded with troops, was the object of ceaseless attention from the German batteries along the yet unconquered heights of the Ancre.  In the pauses of the bombardment would be heard, now and again, the waspish drone of an aeroplane questing and quartering the sky far overhead.

But to all these outer sounds and befallings the packed spectators in the cinema-hall gave not a thought. They were engrossed in the moving pictures which passed before them on the screen. And what were the pictures that could so rivet their attention while swift death roared and screamed all about them? They were scenes of an earlier portion of the tremendous conflict going on even now just beyond their walls. For the film was the great battle-film of the fighting on the Somme.

It was all theirs. The naked rises swept with shell-bursts, the fire-scourged roads leading straight into the hell of the locked struggle, the cratered and tortured rolling fields, the ghastly pale patches of wreckage which had been La Boiselle, Ovillers, Contalmaison, the half-obliterated white lines of the trenches for the capture of which the best blood of the Empire had been so lavishly and so splendidly outpoured—all this they knew to every hallowed acre of it. They had marched over it, endured over it, many of them fought over it.

But now, here in the shadowed hall, they were getting really acquainted with the magnificence of their own achievement. They were learning to apprehend the Battle of the Somme. As he who is in the forest cannot see the forest for the trees, he who is in the thickest of the fight sees least of it as a whole. His senses are absorbed in the immediate details which mean life or death to him, and what his fellows in the next ditch are doing he must take on faith. Here, however, before the flickering film, he feels himself on a watch tower high above the gasping fury of the battle. He sees now what he looked like—and perhaps he remembers what he felt like—as he plunged forward with the attacking wave and followed the barrage, and broke with reddening bayonet into the German trenches. As the film rolls on it grows more and more realistic; for as the pictured shell-bursts crowd upon the screen, the spectators not only see them, but hear them. The walls of the hall are shaking under what seem to be those pictured explosions. And at any moment one of those great shells, instead of bursting on the crest of yonder ridge, may swoop down through the roof above their heads and blow the whole audience into eternity. It is not strange, therefore, if the breathing of the audience grows deeper as the show goes on, and in some the line between picture and reality becomes confused; for never before was pictured story brought to such close grips with life and death as in this turn in the cinema hall at ruined Albert on the Somme.


"A Cinema at the Front," Canada in Khaki, No. 2, London: London Pictorial Newpaper Co, 1917, 64-66 [back]