Travels on the Somme Part Five – The Battlefield of Beaumont-Hamel: Hawthorn Ridge & the Sunken Lane

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The battlefield of Beaumont-Hamel. Taken from what was No Man’s Land on 1st July 1916, this view looks east towards the village, the church spire visible in the distance.  The German front line once traversed this picture from left to right in front of the wood on the left, crossing the road and then following the hedge line up the slope you can see on the right.

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So what are we here to see?  This view, taken from the lip of the huge crater that still marks the site of the German front line at the top of the slope visible in the previous picture, looks north west, diagonally across what was once No Man’s Land, towards the British front lines, traces of which you can still see in the ploughed field in the centre of the picture, and the Redan Ridge beyond.  We are up on the Hawthorn Ridge looking down at the road from Auchonvillers to Beaumont-Hamel which runs along the valley floor. Beaumont-Hamel British Cemetery is on the far right, the famous Sunken Lane is in the centre, lined by trees on the far side of the yellow field (to get your bearings, this field is also visible in the previous picture), and the memorial to the 8th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders is in the centre of the picture.  Of all the places I have ever wanted to visit on the Western Front, Beaumont-Hamel has always been at the top of the list.

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This trench map extract shows the land visible in the previous photo, the Sunken Lane marked in pink, and the crater from where the photo was taken in blue.  The German front line trenches are in red.  The first photograph was taken from just north of the road to the right of the Sunken Lane looking east.

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Anyway, first things first.  We are now down in the valley at the memorial, looking up to the trees that surround the site of the Hawthorn Ridge Mine Crater from which the previous photo was taken.  We shall take a closer look at both later, but first…

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…welcome to the Sunken Lane.

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It was here on the morning of 1st July 1916 that Geoffrey Malins filmed men of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers waiting their turn to go over the top.

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And their turn was first, the vanguard of the British assault.  The protection afforded by the steep sides of the Sunken Lane would become a distant memory the second they reached the top.

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The Sunken Lane ran parallel to the front lines in the middle of No Man’s Land.  A tunnel had been dug from the British front line a hundred yards to the west, emerging on the left somewhere around here to allow men to enter the lane unseen by the Germans.  Malins too, with all his equipment, had to use the tunnel to reach the lane.

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When the time came, at least this was how the theory went, they would have less distance to cover, perhaps a hundred yards, before reaching the German trenches, with the obvious benefits implied.

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As we now know, of course, none of this helped one single iota.  Many Fusiliers were cut down as they emerged from the Sunken Lane, which soon became a scene of carnage and death.  Although Beaumont-Hamel was reached at one point further south it could not be held; it would be November before the Germans would finally retire from the village.

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View looking south down the Sunken Lane, Hawthorn Ridge in the background, the trees ringing the crater on the left horizon,…

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…and south east, the village hidden behind the trees to the left.

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We continue a further fifty yards up the lane, now no longer sunken, before turning to again look back at the Hawthorn Ridge and the trees surrounding the crater on the far left.  The trees we can now see on the horizon some way beyond the crater grow within Newfoundland Memorial Park, to the south west of Beaumont-Hamel, where we shall be heading in a later post.

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Looking south west from the same position.  The British front line ran south down this field roughly parallel to the lane on which we are standing, not much more than a hundred yards away, turning west to follow the line of trees for a short distance, before again turning, this time south once more, to cross the road and make its way up the Hawthorn ridge in the left background.  On 1st July many men of the second and following waves were mown down in this field before they even reached the Sunken Lane.

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Panoramas looking south down the lane towards the Hawthorn Ridge in the background…

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…and turning round, looking north at the battlefield of the Redan Ridge.  The men of the East Lancashire Regiment, first to try to cross these fields as the attack began, suffered the same fate as their Fusilier cousins.

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A couple of posts ago I mentioned that we would encounter Redan Ridge Cemetery No. 2 again.

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The last time we saw it was from the road as we headed south from Serre towards Beaumont-Hamel village…

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…and if you look very carefully (or enlarge the picture) you can see the Cross of Sacrifice at Redan Ridge Cemetery No. 1 peeking over the horizon to the left of the photo.

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Time to head back down the lane…

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Soon after the men went over the top, the lane quickly began to fill with wounded as survivors crawled back to the relative safety afforded by the steep banks.  Many others, wounded, dying, crept into shell holes or hollows in the ground on either side and prayed for darkness, many, many hours away, and the opportunity to at least attempt to find their way back to the British lines.

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I cannot put into words, having first seen Malins’ film maybe forty years ago, what it was like to actually stand in the Sunken Lane and ponder the past.  You really need to visit yourselves.

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But if you can’t, perhaps these words and photos convey something of the essence of this place, an opportunity to remember the brave young men staring at the camera all those years ago, less than an hour before going over the top and, for many of them, less than an hour before the end of their lives.

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Time to visit the 8th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders Memorial, which as you can see stands in what was once No Man’s Land at the southern end of the lane.

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Sited near to battalion headquarters in November 1916, this memorial remembers the men who once more attacked from the Sunken Lane and were wounded or killed during the eventual capture of the village on the 13th of the month, as well as the battalion’s dead from other sectors of the Western Front throughout the war.

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In the form of a Celtic cross…

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…it was unveiled in 1923 by the Duke of Argyll.

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The memorial also remembers the men of the 51st Highland Division, the 61st Division, and the 15th Scottish Division who fell in all theatres throughout the war.

“Friends are good on the day of the battle”.

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View east towards Beaumont-Hamel.

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Panoramic view of the Hawthorn Ridge looking south from the memorial.  After the mine was blown the Royal Fusiliers were the first to attack across the ridge towards the crater up in the far left of shot, followed by the Middlesex Regiment.  They suffered so many casualties in their failed attempt to capture the smouldering crater that a follow-up attack by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was called off.

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Looking east towards Beaumont-Hamel church.

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Among the trees to the west of the Sunken Lane and Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders Memorial, this was as close as I could get to the site Malins chose to film the explosion as the ground beneath the Germans on the ridge erupted in fire and flame.

You’ll find Malins’ film here.

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The Germans had created a strong redoubt up on the top of the ridge, beneath which, over the months preceding the battle, the British had packed thousands of ammonal-filled petrol cans at a depth of about eighty feet, with the results that you have just witnessed.  We shall visit the crater later.

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Time to cross the field to the east of the Sunken Lane..

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…and pay our respects at Beaumont-Hamel British Cemetery.

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The cemetery contains a total of 179 burials of which 97 are identified.  38 of these are men killed on 1st July…

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…including sixteen men of the Lancashire Fusiliers.  I can only assume that the only Newfoundland burial in the cemetery, Lance Corporal Horatio Barbour, pictured above right, was brought here along with a number of other battlefield burials after the war, as the Newfoundlanders attacked a little way south of where we are currently visiting.

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Five unknown burials.  Immediately beyond the cemetery boundary the linchet (the small bank), and in the background the trees lining the Sunken Lane, are clearly visible.

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It’s impossible not to think of the faces in Malins’ film when looking at these headstones.  Many of the Lancashire Fusiliers he filmed that morning were killed in the first seconds after they left the Sunken Lane, and some are surely buried here.

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The cemetery is sited in No Man’s Land about mid-way between the Sunken Lane and the German lines.

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The linchet next to the cemetery proved somewhat problematic on 1st July.  Not only was the approach from the Sunken Lane slightly uphill, it was quite an obstacle to negotiate, weighed down with equipment and in the face of enemy machine gun fire…

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…and still another fifty yards to the German front line over there in front of the trees.  In actual fact a small salient (the British called it Sap 95.  It is visible, although unmarked, on the trench map at the beginning of the post) poked out from the German lines here so the enemy machine guns were even closer to the attacking troops once they descended the linchet than elsewhere along the front.  Whether any men of the Lancashire Fusiliers actually got any further than the linchet is itself open to doubt, reports suggesting that some fifty men who had reached it remained there until nightfall before safely rejoining their wounded colleagues in the Sunken Lane.

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View from near the cemetery looking towards the Hawthorn Ridge…

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…and east towards the village.

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Time to cross the road and visit the crater.

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From the road, this view shows the land that the Lancashire Fusiliers leaving the Sunken Lane had to cross to reach the German trenches.  As we have seen, not many got much further than the linchet that hides much of the cemetery from view in this shot.

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On the southern side of the road, there’s a photograph showing men of the 16th Middlesex, survivors of the initial attack on the crater, retreating in great haste across this field towards the bank in the foreground, and the British trenches off camera to the right (see also panorama eighteen photos ago!).

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Although now referred to as the Hawthorn Ridge Mine, its actual name at the time was H3, and the excavation of the 330 yard tunnel was so difficult that the tunnellers often resorted to picking away the chalk with bayonets so the Germans did not hear them.

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And the Germans didn’t hear them.  Which in retrospect was the only successful part of the enterprise.

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Looking to our left once again at Beaumont-Hamel British Cemetery, with the Redan Ridge beyond.

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The steepness of the linchet becomes clear in this shot.

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At this point we are right on the German front line which we shall follow up the slope to the crater.

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This way.

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On arrival, it’s steep…

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…and deep.

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Just before we head down, a quick view away to the south of the Thiepval Memorial, towering above the Somme landscape.

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At 7.20 on the morning of 1st July, as we have seen, 40,000 lbs of explosives erupted beneath the German defenders here.

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The ten minute delay before the British left their trenches at 7.30 a.m. to assault the German lines, however, proved ample time for the surviving defenders to consolidate the crater and the British attack here, as at so many other places on the Somme that morning, faltered in the teeth of the German machine guns.

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Despite the vast size of this place…

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…I have read that, despite the devastation caused to the German redoubt which stood here, of the 52 casualties the Germans sustained when the mine was blown, only 26 were killed.

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As you can see from these pictures (above & below), the crater is in fact two huge craters, one in which we are standing, and one beyond the small ridge.

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Once the initial attacks of 1st July had failed, the Beaumont-Hamel sector of the British offensive, unlike many places on the Somme further south, saw no further concerted attacks on the Germans, and for the next four and a half months troops on both sides returned to trench warfare, with, of course, the inevitable raids and counter-raids that accompanied it.  Later in the year the British decided to reopen the underground workings that had survived the explosion of the mine and create a new chamber, into which they then packed 30,000 lbs of explosive.

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When the mine was blown again on the morning of 13th November, this time six minutes before zero hour,…

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…the results for the British were altogether more favourable, resulting in the capture of Beaumont-Hamel village by the end of the day.  Just four and a half months late.

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Anyway,…

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…time to clamber out.

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Looking across the valley at the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders Memorial, Sunken Lane, and the cemetery, from the rim of the crater.  The Royal Fusiliers, as mentioned earlier, were the first to attack the crater across this field in which we are walking, followed by the men of the Middlesex Regiment.

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No Man’s Land.  Beaumont-Hamel British Cemetery, with the Sunken Lane on the left, and the Redan Ridge beyond.  The linchet behind the cemetery caused further problems on 13th November when men of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, attacking from the Sunken Lane following the blowing of the second mine up on the ridge behind us, got caught up in German wire laid across the bank itself and a number of men, including the battalion commander, were killed.

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The trench system once known as White City, round the corner to the far left of the trees, was a complex of dugouts and stores close to the British Front Line, using the bank on which the trees now grow as a form of natural cover.  The earlier photos sandwiching Malins’ film of the mine explosion were taken from within these trees.

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Anyway, there’s the car.  Before we head south, another of my brief diversions is in order.  If you remember I mentioned at the beginning of this post that this is the road from Beaumont-Hamel to Auchonvillers, just a short distance way to the west, so, as we’re here,  we shall pay a quick visit to the Auchonvillers next post before we move on.

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4 Responses to Travels on the Somme Part Five – The Battlefield of Beaumont-Hamel: Hawthorn Ridge & the Sunken Lane

  1. Dougie Mackaill says:

    Fantastic posting !! I have been 3 times and The Sunken Lane still haunts me. My grandad was wounded on 24/10/16…RFA and died in 1984.He just couldn’t speak about it without crying.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thanks Dougie, you’re a gent! Glad you enjoyed the post and, as someone who has been there, and knows how it feels to stand in the Sunken Lane, I doubly appreciate your comments – it is a haunting place, and not easy to try to put that across in text and photos, but I have done my best. Did I read about a new memorial somewhere near the Lane? And I too had a grandpa who was wounded on the Somme, I think, after time in Salonika – we had the piece of shrapnel they took from his foot for many years I remember as a kid – he kept it in his 1914 Xmas box, which I do still have, with card. And a Great Uncle who won a M.C. on 1st July, somewhere in the region of the Sunken Lane (near the crater somewhere) with the Middlesex. Really! (Yes, I have the M.C. too). Thanks once again for your kind comments.

  2. I just ran across this most impressive piece of work – very nicely done!
    I walked the same steps only two weeks ago during my second trip to the Somme. Locating the Sunken Lane had been a major objective of mine for a long time and I was able to locate it this trip. Your comments about the faces of the soldiers before going over the top mirrored mine. It was indeed a very haunting experience to stand in the same spot, 101 years on, and reflect on the countless hopes and dreams extinguished that day.
    Many thanks for creating these pages – you have a new reader.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Morning Gary D. Very glad you came across my site, even better that you’re here to stay; mind you, you have a lot to catch up on! Btw if you tick the ‘Notify me of new posts by email’ at the bottom of the page, then you will get notified each time a new post is published. Does exactly what it says on the tin.
      It is a haunting place, the Sunken Lane, and like you I had always wanted to visit. So, as someone else who has visited, I very much appreciate your kind comments – I am glad I have managed to get across an idea of the feel of the place, and hopefully done some justice to the memory of the men who fought here. Is there a newer memorial somewhere nearby since I visited, by the way? I’m sure I read that there was.

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