Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, November 1, 2019

After the Mine Exploded, What Happened on Hawthorn Ridge, 1 July 1916?

One of the most iconic images from the Battle of the Somme is of the detonation of the Hawthorn Mine Crater just west of the village of Beaumont Hamel on 1 July 1916. Until I discovered the account below, I never had a full appreciation of what it was like at the receiving end of the mine explosion and exactly what ensued when the British 29th Division followed through with the main attack. The official history of the defending German 119th Regiment (26th Reserve Division) describes the explosion and what followed.

Hawthorn Ridge Mine Detonates at 0720h (According to British Accounts)

"At 0815h [The Germans set their watches forward an hour ahead of the British and French] a huge explosion occurred… It was clear that this was not a result of the shelling. A terrible rain of earth and stone was coming down on us and a gigantic cloud of dust and smoke was rising into the air, just in front of where 9th company was positioned. The English had dug a tunnel towards a protruding corner of our defenses which they called the Hawthorn redoubt and had blown a huge mine below it.

More than three groups [10–12 men per group] of the 1st Platoon of 9th company were killed outright. The dugouts next to them collapsed, trapping the men of four other groups inside. Only two groups could be rescued in time. The explosion had left a crater with a diameter of 50 to 60 meters and a depth of 30 meters and had set the signal for the start of the attack.

Hawthorn Mine Crater, November 1916

…The sun could be seen reflecting on English bayonets. Their columns advancing down from Auchonvillers, carrying bridges and wooden planks with them to cross our trenches with. Eight dense waves were coming towards us. Horse artillery and Cavalry could be observed…. English staff officers were observing the assault.

10th and 11th company greeted the English with a withering hail of machine gun and rifle fire… In the section of 9th company, which had been taken out of action by the mine, brave English bomb-throwers and machine gunners managed to break into our trenches towards the left of the huge crater. Here, 3rd platoon was still trapped inside a large dugout whose four exits had collapsed when the mine was blown. One of these exists was just being opened up by one of the men. Behind this man were Leutnant Breitmeier and Oberleutnant Mühlbayer."

Vizefeldwebel Davidsohn described what happened next:

"…We had only just opened the exit of the dug-out when they were upon us. A bayonet thrust killed the man who was holding the shovel, his body fell down the stairs of the dug-out tearing the men that were just in the process of getting out down again. I had no rifle with me but managed to fire a signal flare into the face of one of the attackers. The English answered by throwing some hand grenades which forced us to withdraw”. [back inside the dugout]. 

A short and intense close combat developed in which the English were annihilated. Their leader, a most brave Lieutenant was wounded and taken prisoner… The platoon of 9th company, who had just escaped from the collapsed dug-out now fanned out to man the defenses. Just in time to open fire on yet another wave of attacking English infantry supported by machine-guns… It was then the enemy broke and started to retreat towards his lines. At 1130h everything was over."

Sources: Excerpt from Gott Mit Uns—German Military History 1848–1945 Website, quoted in "The End of All That: The Battles of Verdun and the Somme (1916) in retrospect," by Dr. Yagil Henkin, The Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.  Also, thanks to Paul Albright for bringing this to our attention.

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