The Somme’s forgotten history

2 mins read

Film-maker Ross Barnwell is crowdfunding for a new documentary drama based on Geoffrey Malins, the cameraman who famously shot footage of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In an exclusive article for MHM, Barnwell gives us a sneak preview of the stories he uncovered while filming.

WATCH: Military historian and consultant Andy Robertshaw on the unlikely kidnap of a group of prisoners-of-war near the Bergwerk during WWI.

Those who know the area of Beaumont-Hamel on the Somme know of Hawthorn Ridge and its craters, and of Jacob’s Ladder and the sunken lane.

Those who have stood in the sunken lane and pictured the faces of the Lancashire Fusiliers captured in Geoffrey Malins’ footage in The Battle of the Somme would have surely peered over the bank and across the old no-man’s land to the edge of a small wood that – more-or-less – traces the German frontline of 1914-1916.

This is the Bergwerk. Once a heavily fortified German stronghold, it occupied the higher ground which rose to the north and dropped southwards into a valley from which Hawthorn Ridge rose out.

After gaining permission from the landowner, I stood with a group of historians and archaeologists on the edge of the wood and we looked down towards the sunken lane. From this view alone, the advantage the Germans had over the Lancashire Fusiliers on 1 July 1916 was clear.

No-man’s land gently declines before sharply disappearing into a dip in which a man could almost stand without being seen from the Bergwerk – albeit dangerously exposed to the machine guns on his right flank above Hawthorn Ridge. The land rises again into view as it continues some 40 yards before reaching a 30ft bank, which appears and disappears like a tear in the earth.

Tucked against the bank lies Beaumont-Hamel cemetery where, over one hundred years ago, coils of tangled barbed wire lay after being thrown up into the air by a bombardment intended to cut it to pieces. Aerial reconnaissance failed to notice such a deadly mess, as the blackened twist of wire appeared on the photographs to be nothing more than a shadow cast by the bank.

As some 300 men rose from the tree-lined sunken lane on the morning of 1 July, they charged 50 yards across pock-marked ground before arriving at this invisible drop – cut into the ground like a tooth in a cable tie.

The sheer impossibility of traversing a drop full of sharp wire caused most of the men to go around. The Germans of the Bergwerk wreaked havoc with their heavy fire and the deeply fortified minnenwerfer pits that lay behind the ridge were alive with the sound of guns.

The Lancashires struggled to make it round the hidden bank in which many would later be buried. A few unconfirmed sightings were reported of men reaching the German wire and possibly beyond.

What is sure is that by the afternoon of 1 July, the heavily fortified Bergwerk – despite its battered appearance and shaken occupants – remained unmoved, and so it remained until mid-November 1916 when the village of Beaumont was finally taken.

Along with historian Andy Robertshaw, I will be making an historically accurate film portraying the events of the morning of 1 July 1916 at Beaumont-Hamel, through the eyes of Geoffrey Malins. For more information and how you can help, click here.

1 Comment

  1. Remarkable. I look forward to seeing the finished film. Several years ago, I visited these hallowed grounds when I was kid on a family trip to France. It was the first time I saw my father cry — but didn’t understand why or how he felt. I do now.

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