In the week leading up to 1 July 1916 the German lines on the Somme had been shelled incessantly in an attempt to soften the defences and cut the barbed wire. More than 40 tunnels and saps had been dug under No Man’s land in preparation for the attack, and twenty mines would be blown before 7.30am – Zero Hour.
The British Government had been in high spirits. They believed the Somme Offensive would be the decisive assault and dispatched two cinematographers to film the soldiers on the eve of battle. The names of these cinematographers were Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell.
On 1 July McDowell was stationed near Mametz to the south of the Somme front. Malins, meanwhile, positioned himself alongside the soldiers tasked with attacking the strong German defences near the village of Beaumont-Hamel.
The Sunken Lane
The main task for the soldiers stationed near Beaumont-Hamel was to secure the village. In preparation for the assault some of these men, the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, had occupied a forward position in a low country road called ‘the Sunken Lane.’ The Lane was situated in No Man’s land, directly below the German position.
To reach the Lane, at just passed midnight on 1 July the Fusiliers had advanced through a tunnel (constructed by the Royal Engineers over the past weeks). It connected the Lane with the British front line further west.
Malins himself arrived at the Lane through the tunnel at 6.30am. Resting soldiers greeted him, awaiting the signal to commence the attack. It was during this ‘calm before the storm’ that Malins made sure to film the Fusiliers.
As Zero Hour approached, Malins headed back from the Sunken Lane. By 7.19am he had positioned himself at a part of the British front line trench called ‘Jacob’s ladder.’ There he waited with his camera up and running.
Malins’ position gave him a clear view of ‘Hawthorn Ridge,’ the German stronghold that dominated the area.
During the build-up to the battle, members of the 252nd Tunnelling Company had covertly mined underneath the formidable bastion and planted 40,000 lb (18,000 kg) of explosives. Its detonation, the British High Command had decided, would signal the end of the artillery bombardment and the start of the Allied attempt to take Beaumont-Hamel.
At 7.20am on Saturday 1 July Malins caught the exact moment the detonation occurred — one of the most iconic pieces of footage captured from the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He later recalled witnessing the explosion:
“The ground where I stood gave a mighty convulsion. It rocked and swayed. I gripped hold of my tripod to steady myself. Then for all the world like a gigantic sponge, the earth rose high in the air to the height of hundreds of feet. Higher and higher it rose, and with a horrible grinding roar the earth settles back upon itself, leaving in its place a mountain of smoke.”
The Battle of Beaumont-Hamel: 1 July 1916
The attack commenced. Members of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers stormed the crater and managed to take control of several areas of the destroyed stronghold. The German defenders however, realising from the ceasing of the artillery barrage and the deafening explosion that the expected assault had started, emerged from their bunkers and raced to set up their machine guns.
Within minutes of the explosion they had re-manned much of the ridge and started to fire down into the advancing British. Shell-shock presumably gripped many of these defenders. Still they fired. By 7.30am the Germans were ready for the main attack.
What followed was a catastrophe for the British, especially for the Lancashire Fusiliers stationed in the Sunken Lane. As they emerged from their forward position at Zero Hour, a slaughter ensued.
The Germans knew the Battalion had situated themselves in the Lane and quickly focused their firepower on the soldiers as they emerged. Casualties mounted rapidly. Many of those whom Malins had filmed hours earlier did not live to see the sun set – 163 killed, 312 wounded and 11 missing.
“The Battle of the Somme”
By mid-morning the Germans had pushed back the British assault at Beaumont-Hamel and both sides had agreed a ceasefire. It was not until 13 November that the British finally captured the village.
Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell returned to England with over 8,000 feet of film which was edited into “The Battle of the Somme.” The film went on to shock international audiences over the summer of 1916 and was the highest grossing film for over 20 years, until “Gone With The Wind” was released in 1939.