The explosive start of the Battle of the Somme

The explosive start of the Battle of the Somme

Contemporary photograph of the explosion at Hawthorne Ridge on July 1, 1916. © Ernest Brooks

On July 1, 1916, a spectacular series of explosions initiated the Battle of the Somme – one of the defining battles of the First World War. The explosions were intended to break up the German positions – with only limited success. More than 100 years later, scientists have now examined the crater at Hawthorn Ridge, the first and largest of these blasts, in more detail for the first time. Their findings reveal how the German troops used the explosion intended against them to their advantage.

The Battle of the Somme in northern France is still considered the most important and costly battle of the First World War. Between July 1 and November 18, 1916, more than a million soldiers died there, and many more were wounded or missing. The starting point was a front line lined with fortified trenches between German troops on one side and the Allied French and British troops on the other. Both warring parties faced each other in a trench warfare in the hilly area between the Somme and Ancre rivers.

The big explosion on the Somme

On July 1, 1916, the British military planned an important strike against the Germans: soldiers secretly dug hundreds of meters long tunnels under no man’s land to under the German positions and planted 19 powerful explosive charges there. “These mines were not only intended to destroy the German fortifications, but were deliberately so oversized that they created craters with pronounced rims,” explain Kris Wisniewski from Keele University in the UK and his colleagues. “These were intended to provide protection for the attacking British troops – provided they reached the crater first.” The largest of these mines, containing more than 18,000 kilograms of ammonia-based explosives, was planted on Hawthorne Ridge near the village of Beaumont-Hamel. There was a particularly strongly fortified German position there.

The Allies planned to detonate the explosives at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, thereby beginning their offensive. However, because they feared that the mega-explosion at Hawthorn Ridge would bury their own troops during their advance, it was decided to detonate this mine ten minutes before the others. When the explosive device went off at 7:20 a.m., the effect was spectacular: “The ground beneath me shook and swayed. Then the ground was thrown dozens of meters high – the masses of earth rose higher and higher until they collapsed again with a terrible rumbling,” reported the official British cameraman, Geoffrey Malins, who filmed the blasts at the time.

But the premature explosion at Hawthorn Ridge was a military mistake, as is clear today: although many German soldiers were killed, they were also warned about the attacks that would follow. “The Hawthorne Ridge mine explosion was the first action in the Battle of the Somme and was intended to give the Allied troops the upper hand,” explains co-author Peter Doyle from the University of London. “But the Germans were the first to conquer the craters and used this to their advantage.” As a result, the Allied offensive failed and the positions on Hawthorne Ridge could only be captured four months later, after a second demolition in November 1916.

First investigation of the Hawthorne crater after a good 100 years

Wisniewski, Doyle and their colleagues recently examined in more detail for the first time since the end of the First World War what exactly the crater looks like and how the German troops expanded it to defend themselves after the explosion on July 1, 1916. “Because the land was privately owned for almost a hundred years, our study is the first of this historically significant crater,” says Wisniewski. The team examined the site using drones, walkthroughs, laser scanning and geophysical analysis methods. They came across various wartime objects, including barbed wire, artillery shell casings and an unexploded artillery shell with the timer still intact. The impact marks of dozens of British bullets were also still visible.

What was particularly interesting were the traces that testify to the takeover of the crater by the German soldiers: “On the north side of the crater rim there were rectangular pits at regular intervals, each between 2.50 and 3.50 meters wide. “Mounds of earth around one meter wide were piled up in between,” the researchers report. “These earth structures correspond to a typical trench system of gun pits and traverses and bear witness to the takeover of the crater by the Germans.” The analyzes also revealed a tunnel that extended from the crater into the no man’s land between the fronts – it too had been dug by the German troops .

“Our study has provided new evidence of the fortifications that the Germans built in the crater they occupied, giving them a fortified position in the middle of no man’s land,” says Doyle. “This confirms that detonating the explosives at Hawthorne Ridge ten minutes before the others was a very bad idea. It was only four months later and with another demolition that this fortification was able to be taken by the British.”

Source: Taylor & Francis Group; Specialist article: Journal of Conflict Archeology, doi: 10.1080/15740773.2023.2297202

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