'Causeries from Java'. Review of the British propaganda film The Battle of the Somme in the Dutch East Indies

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Film review by the Dutch playwright and journalist Henri van Wermeskerken published in De Sumatra Post on 21 April 1917.


On 21 April 1917, Henri van Wermeskerken, a Dutch playwright and journalist, published a personal account of the British propaganda film The Battle of the Somme. He was shaken by the film, which showed the barbarity of war, and he discouraged his readers from watching it for reasons other than a genuine need for information and out of moral obligation to know more about soldiers' suffering. His review also testified to the increasing gap between the generally pro-Allied Dutch and the mostly pro-German and pro-Turkish indigenous audience. Van Wermeskerken was outraged by the reaction of indigenous audiences, who laughed at the most dramatic moments and joked about the suffering of European soldiers. The Dutch colonial press, and especially Karel Wybrands, editor-in-chief of Het Nieuws van den Dag voor Nederlandsch-Indië, considered film propaganda to be the long-awaited remedy against German and Ottoman propaganda campaigns direacted at the indigenous population in the Dutch East Indies. German agents used the neutral Dutch East Indies as a conduit by which to smuggle agents, weapons, and inflammatory propaganda to the British colonies. They also tried to take advantage of the growing unrest of the Muslim population in the Dutch East Indies. They used the vernacular press to spread news about the victories of the Central Powers. German and Turkish propaganda also played upon religious sentiments of the Muslim community, which felt obliged to support Turkey rather than the Netherlands. The German Emperor proclaimed himself to be the defender of the Muslim community worldwide and was considered a natural ally. The Battle of the Somme was definitely the most anticipated film. Yet, it proved unable to compete with Germany's image of the triumphant Central Powers. To a certain degree, the film also threatened the colonial order in Dutch East Indies. Showing dying white soldiers on the screen was believed to stir up anti-colonial feelings among the indigenous population. The Battle of the Somme reached the Dutch East Indies in April 1917, nearly at the same time as the French film on the Somme (most probably L’Offensive française sur la Somme. Juillet 1916). By February of that year, the public had already read announcements and reprints from the Dutch daily press. So although the two Somme films were vying for the public's attention at roughly the same time, both had already been compared to a great extent prior to their release, mostly in favour of the French production.