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The Battle of the Somme was a British documentary and war propaganda film. It followed the exploits of the British Expeditionary Force in the preliminaries and early days of the Somme offensive, one of the deadliest battles in human history. More than three million men fought in the battle between July 1 and November , 1916, with more than million left wounded or killed.
The film premiered on August 10 of the same year, before being released generally 11 days later.
Among the things filmed were trench warfare, marching infantry, British troops waiting to attack and the treatment of both the wounded and dead British and German soldiers.
It was an enormous success, bringing in attendance figures of a reported 20 million in its first six weeks of release.
Matt Lee, head of film at the Imperial War Museum, has spent much of his 21-year career analysing the film.
Matt Lee sought to identify the mystery Somme hero.
The Battle of the Somme was one of the deadliest battles in human history.
He told the recent Channel 5 documentary ‘Secrets of the Imperial War Museum’: “The Battle of the Somme was a hugely popular film. People were queuing to get inside, there were many screenings a day to try and cater for the sheer crowds.”
One sequence in the film, however, has puzzled him, and many others, for years.
He said: “It’s a man walking towards the camera, piggybacking a wounded casualty. This is taking place in no man’s land on July 1, 1916.”
The footage was shot on the very first day of the Battle of the Somme. More than 19,000 men were killed in what remains the single bloodiest day in British military history.
Mr Lee analysed the above photo in great detail, seeking the mystery hero.
It is a striking image, with more than 100 families contacting Mr Lee claiming he is their relative.
He said: “Going out into no man’s land rescuing colleagues, it’s an act of selfless heroism. I think people want to associate themselves with that heroism.”
The producers of the film did not keep records of who appeared in it, and the man was not wearing anything identifiable.
After looking at a separate photo from the same day, Mr Lee noticed the same casualty was being carried by a different man.
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The same casualty was being carried by a separate colleague here.
An article in the Burnley Express on November 22, 1916 confirmed that this man was Tom Spencer.
Diverting his attention back to the man in the film, Mr Lee said one name had been suggested to him by three different family members.
Information received suggested he could have had the surname Brennan, and might have been Irish. Mr Lee said: “It kind of makes sense that I hadn’t found anything in the British press. So I started looking at the Irish press.
“Turning through hundreds and hundreds of articles until eventually I found something in the Sligo Champion in December 1916.”
British troops go over the top of the trenches during the Battle of the Somme,
The article read: “Did any of you notice the brawny specimen of manhood who came into the limelight, and walked, breathing heavily, across the sheet?”
After a little more description of the scene, it said: “He was a striking figure in the Somme film, and he was Irish. He is Gunner Charles Brennan.”
Mr Lee said this was a “really quite seismic” discovery. He said: “That moment was a jawdrop moment, and I was really quite excited by that.
“He is our strongest contender, but we’re not able to put it to bed as much as I would like to.”
Mr Lee hopes to eventually have the answer confirmed once more material has been digitised.
He is seeking confirmation that Gunner Brennan, who died in 1982, was indeed at the battle.
His service record did not survive, therefore Mr Lee has not yet been able to prove whether he was there on the first day of fighting.
Mr Lee said: “His family have said he was, but without that final clinching piece, the museum isn’t in a position to make a definite statement.”
Secrets of the Imperial War Museum airs on Fridays at 7pm on Channel 5. It is also available on My5.