First World War crater reveals exciting new details

The dramatic explosion of the mine at Hawthorn Ridge, a fortified German front-line position during the First World War, marked the initiation of the Battle of the Somme and stands out as one of the most iconic film moments of the entire conflict.

British miners, located over 60 feet below the surface, meticulously dug a gallery spanning more than 900 meters from their lines and filled it with a staggering 40,000 lbs of explosives. On July 1, 1916, as part of the offensive, this mine was one of 19 strategically placed beneath German front positions and set off to coincide with the commencement of the attack.

However, the detonation at Hawthorn Ridge, famously captured by film director Geoffrey Malins, occurred 10 minutes prematurely, ahead of the scheduled 7:30 am whistles. This premature explosion, later deemed a significant error, signaled to the Germans that an infantry attack was imminent. This forewarning allowed them to hastily assume defensive positions within the newly-formed crater, resulting in substantial casualties among the advancing British troops.

Recently, the first-ever multi-disciplinary scientific investigation of the 107-year-old crater has been published in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology. Led by Keele University, a team comprising researchers, scientists, and historians employed cutting-edge technology, including drones equipped with imaging cameras, to conduct an unprecedented examination of the area.

Through their exploration, the researchers unearthed and studied two sections of trenches, referred to as fire bays, which were utilized to consolidate the newly-formed craters. This discovery underscored the Germans’ adept incorporation of the crater rim into their front line post-explosion. Additionally, the team recovered probable communication wire and distinctive German barbed wire. Furthermore, evidence of a previously unknown shallow tunnel was found, believed to have been excavated by German forces from the crater, establishing an advanced position in No Man’s Land. These findings shed new light on the crater’s history, its capture by the Germans, and the successful integration of the site into their front line following the blast.

The team obtained exclusive access to the French site, facilitated by the Hawthorn Ridge Crater Association, which secured a 99-year lease from the local authority in 2018 to safeguard it for future generations. This association, established as a Franco-British organization committed to the preservation and protection of the site, conducted extensive clearance efforts, creating the first opportunity for in-depth study.

On November 13th, a second mine, detonated by British forces, resulted in the formation of a new crater. This explosion proved significantly more effective, contributing to the success of the 51st Highland Division in capturing the ridge and the nearby village of Beaumont Hamel—an integral component of the German frontline position.

Researchers successfully identified the epicenters of the two distinct mine detonation locations and uncovered 27 impact shell homes from post-explosion firing by British forces attempting to dislodge the Germans. Among their discoveries was an unexploded British shrapnel artillery shell with its intact time-fuse, emblematic of the numerous munitions that failed to detonate during the Somme. Additionally, they found an empty ammunition box for a Vickers Machine Gun, indicative of the period of British occupation of the site.