World-first study of WWI battle site highlights British blunder

British forces infamously started the Battle of the Somme 10 minutes earlier than anticipated, and now a new collaboration between scientists and historians has shed light on just how bad that was for the Allies in 1916.

For the first time, the Hawthorn Ridge site which marked the start of the major World War I offensive has been studied in detail in a collaboration by scientists and historians from 7 institutions from the UK and Ireland.

Using drone-mounted cameras, the group made new aerial examinations of the extensive crater at Hawthorn Ridge, which was blown apart in July 1916 when British forces planted more than 18,000kg of explosives around 20m below the German lines.

Black and white photo showing the aftermath of an explosion at hawthorn ridge in france during world war 1.
The earth settles following the explosion of the mine beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt on July 1, 1916. Credit: Ernest Brooks

The explosion is the subject of footage captured by British war filmmaker Geoffrey Malins.

That detonation marked the beginning of the 141-day Battles of the Somme which saw more than a million lives lost on both sides.

Taking place at 7.20am – 10 minutes earlier than the blowing of whistles for infantry to leave the trench – the early detonation was later described as a “colossal blunder” for giving the Germans early warning an infantry attack was about to begin.

July 1 was the bloodiest day in British military history, with 19,240 men killed and a further 38,230 injured, many of whom were gunned down by Germans who were quick to reinforce the crater before the British infantry push.

The cross-disciplinary research has shown how the Germans turned the blast to their advantage, after gaining access to the site by its caretakers.

Excavating two trench sections established by the Germans in the crater, the researchers observed how the Germans were able to quickly use the crater rim for their defensive front line. They also recovered several site artefacts including communication wires and barbed wire as part of their investigation.

“The land had been in private ownership for almost 100 years, so this scientific study, the first to be carried out on this historically important crater, was both exciting and significant,” says Dr Kris Wisniewski, a forensic scientist from Keele University.

“Using drones with imaging cameras, we were able to image remotely a probable sap or shallow tunnel to the northwest of the crater, showing the German mastery of No Man’s Land after the initial detonation.”

Science shows second Hawthorn explosion was more effective

Near the end of the Somme offensive, Britain blew a second mine to form a new crater and help the 51st Highland Division capture Beaumont Hamel, a nearby town occupied by the German forces.

This more successful detonation was also identified by the research team, with the focal point of each blast now being identified.

During their investigations, an unexploded British artillery shell – with an intact time-fuse – was obtained, along with a Vickers machine gun ammunition box.

Along with the German wire obtained from the site, the Hawthorn Ridge investigation has provided a clearer insight into the occupation of the region by opposing forces.

“Using a range of scientific methods, we were able to map out the epicentres of both blasts and the boundaries of the subsequent craters caused by the first and second explosions, as well as post-blast defensive positions and Allied shell impact craters,” says Wisniewski.

But their report, published today in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology, highlights the cost of Britain’s early detonation.

“Our study has provided new evidence of the strongpoint the Germans built from the captured crater in the middle of No Man’s Land that doomed the British attack to failure,” says military historian Professor Peter Doyle, from Goldsmiths University of London.

“This reinforces the idea that blowing the mine 10 minutes early, to give the earth time to settle, was a very bad idea. It was only with concerted effort 4 months later, and a new mine, that Hawthorn Redoubt was captured by the Highlanders.”

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