A History of the Craters on Hawthorn Ridge

There are two craters on Hawthorn Ridge. The larger one, closer to the road is that of 1st July 1916 while the small one to the South West is that of 13th November of the same year. They are both visible and it is possible to walk around the craters, keeping to the fenced path into the central ridge between where the two massive explosions were detonated.

The Great War came to the area of Beaumont Hamel with the arrival of the German XIV Reserve Corps in October 1914. Units of the French 10th Army managed to halt the advancing German troops by 4th October, but by that point Beaumont and its related village, Hamel had been lost to the enemy. Both sides dug in and the line stabilsed in this area and was to be the same when the Battle of the Somme began on 1st July 1916.

As the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) grew in strength with the arrival of the volunteers and ‘Pals’ from the first year of the war the BEF was able to take over more of the front line from the French army, which had suffered disastrous casualties in 1914 and 1915. As a consequence, British soldiers arrived in front of Beaumont in July 1915. By that time the German defenders, members of 14th Reserve Corps from Wurttemberg had dug in deeply and turned that high ground South West of the village into a Redoubt, a defensive system capable of all round defence. This area featured a number of hawthorn trees that gave its British name. ‘The Hawthorne Redoubt’. By 1916 the final ‘E’ had been dropped and it became ‘Hawthorn’. The defenders were largely Reservists and therefore older soldiers who would become experts on the area as they served here from 1914 to late 1916.

At the time of the take over of the Somme sector it was considered ‘quiet’, even a rest area. However, when the Allies, took the decision in December 1915, to launch an attack on German positions by French and British forces on the Somme during the summer of 1916 this situation changed. Capturing high ground was key to success as these features provided commanding positions for troops and observation for artillery. As 1915 had shown direct assault was always costly, but mining could be a critical factor in a successful attack. Numerous mines had already been blown by French and then British troops to the north of the position on Redan Ridge, but Beaumont had received no attention. 252 Tunneling Company RE were instructed to dig a tunnel and lay a mine under the Redoubt ready for the planned offensive. This was called H3. To do this a vertical shaft 75 feet (23 Metres) deep was dug behind British lines in the area of Cripps Street trench. A tunnel was then dug forward for over 1,000 feet (305 Metres). The rock in this area is chalk and the miners worked silently prying out blocks of chalk with bayonets. When the amount of flint got too great, they set about dissolving the chalk with vinegar and water. This resulted in a change of direction in the tunnel, a dogleg, and that the mine was laid short of the centre of the redoubt because of shortage of time. A chamber was constructed and 40,600 lbs. (1,844 kilos) of the explosive Ammonal and the detonators and cables installed. With the tunnel partly blocked, or ‘tamped’, with sandbags of chalk spoil all now waited for ‘Zero Hour’. The mine was ‘over charged’ and was intended to destroy the enemy position, kill at least some of the defenders but not thrown up a crater too steep for soldiers to climb, whilst ensuring they could hide behind the near lip.

Unlike the rest of the British Somme front where Zero Hour was 7.30am and the mines, over 20 of them, exploded at 7.28am. At Hawthorn, the decision was taken to blow the mine under the Ridge at 7.20am. This decision, which remains controversial was based on the premise that time was needed for the attacking British troops to seize the crater and look down on the German defenders in their defences during the ten minutes that proceeded then main attack. It was also feared that falling debris would kill or injure attacking troops unless this time delay was observed.

At 7.20am Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins, one of two official cinematographers covering the attack, was in position by what is now the pumping station opposite the house Les Galets to the north of the New Beaumont Road, from Auchonvillers to Beaumont, He managed to record on film the only mine exploded in combat and this footage has been used in countless documentaries. The crater was estimated as 130 feet (40 metres) across and 40 feet deep (12 Metres). The full diameter was 335 feet (102 Metres). As the debris fell to earth British troops south of the New Beaumont road attacked. Sadly, for the attacking troops, as part of the plan British artillery fire lifted from the German forward positions as the mine was detonated. Although 9 Company of the German 119th Reserve Regiment defending the Ridge was almost completely destroyed few of the British reached the crater. They had further to run across No Man’s Land and the Germans responded immediately. The surviving Germans capturing their side of the crater and opened a withering fire on the attackers who went into cover in the shell craters and the high weeds of No Man’s Land.

Minor archaeological research carried out on behalf of HRCA has shown that in the period after 1st July the German defenders converted the new crater into a defensive position by digging fire bays in the rim facing the British lines and it was linked the surviving trenches of the Redoubt. This made an even more formidable position. However, the British had a plan to turn these defences into death trap. The old H3 gallery was opened up and a new tunnel opened from the point where it was too crushed to use. By the end of October, the new chamber, 200 feet (61 Metres) south of the original mine was charged with 30,000 lbs. (1,360 Kilos) of explosives. After a variety of delays the attack staged by the 51st Highland Division took place on the 13th of November. This time the mine was blown at 5.45 am, before dawn and in thick fog. No photography or filming was possible, but the mine explosion was a complete success. The new mine crater collapsed the southern side of the existing crater and many of its defenders must have been killed by this blast. As the second mine was smaller but slightly deeper the crater has steeper sides than the original one and its force swept and large segment of the eastern side of the position away creating a roughly triangular shaped feature that we see today. Within days the Battle of the Somme was over, and the ridge remained in British hands until it was recaptured by the Germans in April 1918.