I have a tendency when thinking about attacking the German line to think of advancing northwards.
In fact in the northern sector of the battlefield the British were in fact attacking towards the east.
In July 1916 the Hawthorn Ridge was part of the heavily defended German front line along the Somme. It was decided that the ridge would be the target of one of ten mines that would be dug along the front line as part of the opening of the offensive.
A total of 18,000 kg of Ammonal explosives were used at Hawthorn Ridge.
Further down the line on the Pozières Road an even larger devices was used at La Boisselle.
All the other mines to be fired that morning were timed to be detonated at 0728 hours giving the dust and debris exactly two minutes to settle before Zero Hour and the attack by the infantry.
The objective was to give the Germans little time to be able to respond, and allow the British to seize the all important far lip of the craters.
However the commander of VIII Corps which was detailed to attack here against Beaumont-Hamel as well as against Serre slightly to the north, felt that if his mine was detonated well before the
attack it would allow his men to gain the crater and be ready to support the main attack when it eventually went in.
Lt General Hunter-Weston was not supported though in his thoughts by his other officers and eventually a compromise was decided upon. His mine would be detonated at 0720 hours, eight minutes before the others.
For a week the British Artillery had been hammering the German defences with tens of thousands of rounds each day. In particular they had commenced a particularly intensive bombardment first thing each morning which had continued until 0745 hours.
On the 1st July instead of continuing as normal it would suddenly lift slightly to the rear as the British soldiers commenced their assault.
Troops all along the Allied line — the French also took part in the offensive — were getting ready to slip out into no-man’s land to be ready for the attack as soon as the barrage moved on.
Then at 0720 hours in front of Beaumont-Hamel the first of the huge mines exploded.
The detonation of the mine has become famous because it was filmed by the army photographer Geoffrey Malins. The only thing missing in the experience from his footage is the roar of the blast which shook both front lines.
The crater produced from the mine’s explosion was 140 metres long, 90 metres wide and 25 metres deep.
As soon as the earth had started to settle, a Company from the 2nd Bn Royal Fusiliers under Capt Russel rushed the crater and did manage to secure the near side as Hunter-Weston had intended, but
the German defenders managed to retain part of the far side.
The Germans had been given ten minutes of respite.
After eight days of heavy bombardment, they now knew not only where the attack was to come but when.
Along the remainder of the Hawthorn Redoubt the Germans were scrambling back up to their positions from their deep bunkers. By the time that the main attack started ten minutes later, machine guns had been positioned and the Germans were ready to pay back for all they had suffered for the previous week.
The Fusiliers in the crater could only watch as their battalion, advancing into a storm of artillery and machine gun fire, was wiped out.
An hour later the men in the crater were still hanging on, but the attack of Hunter-Weston’s Incomparable 29th Division had crumbled.
In the 2nd Bn Royal Fusiliers, 23 officers and 538 men became casualties that morning.
It has often struck me that the failure here at Hawthorn Ridge caused a ripple that had far reaching consequences for the entire first day of the Somme.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it is difficult to say with any accuracy if we would have done any better if the mine had been detonated along with all the others.
The general consensus of the Staff was that the British Tommy was good for many things but seizing mine craters wasn’t one at which he was particularly adept.
However the early detonation did give the Germans that little bit of extra notice to be able to steel themselves elsewhere. The failure of the assault by the 29th Division left the flank of the 36th (Ulster) Division on the far side of the Ancre open to devastating fire which would eventually contribute to their forced retirement from the terrain they had taken.
That withdrawal eased a lot of the pressure on the German positions at Thiepval, and so the dominoes tumbled.
A few hundred metres from the site of the Hawthorn Mine you can visit the trenches and walk across the battlefield within the Newfoundland Memorial Park. Walking across the field is a sobering experience and one that allows plenty of time to dwell not so much on the if and maybe of what could have been done, but the stupendous valour of what was done.
Once you have visited the Park drive out and around to look at the position of the crater and the ridge.