The Hawthorn Ridge Crater Association (HRCA) has announced its formation with the intention to support and develop the most intensive study of any Great War battlefield ever attempted, writes Andy Robertshaw.
The association will be leasing the site from the owner, the local council, on a 99 year lease for a symbolic and ‘peppercorn’ €1 fee. The objectives of the project are to improve access for visitors, manage the crater’s upkeep and to protect the site for future generations whilst providing a detailed study of the area with various partner organisations. Working within a defined boundary of the Beaumont-Hamel area, an international team of experts and volunteers will conduct a programme of research, using all sources of evidence, to create an in-depth archive of material devoted to the battlefield of 1914-18, its post-war reconstruction and the impact of the Second World War and modern tourism. The Hawthorn Ridge Crater Association is a Franco-British collaboration based in France and founded on the 1901 French law of a formal association. It is supported by Keele and Staffordshire Universities in the United Kingdom, and will employ the services of experienced Great War battlefield archaeologists and historians.
The explosion of the mine under Hawthorn Ridge was the very first action of The Battle of the Somme and was famously recorded by Geoffrey Malins at 7:20am on 1 July 1916, becoming one of the best-known pieces of film of the Great War. Later, Malins recorded his observations of this dramatic event: “The ground where I stood gave a mighty convulsion. It rocked and swayed. I gripped hold of my tripod to steady myself. Then for all the world like a gigantic sponge, the earth rose high in the air to the height of hundreds of feet. Higher and higher it rose, and with a horrible grinding roar the earth settles back upon itself, leaving in its place a mountain of smoke.”
The mine was blown for a second time on 13 November when the 51st Highland Division captured the ridge and village. The project study is initially looking at the period between these two dates from both sides of No Man’s Land, giving a German perspective to our understanding of events. The central hub of the project will be web-based and form a virtual resource freely available via the Internet.
The first phase of clearing undergrowth at the crater started in January and is ongoing. With the approval of the French authorities, the next step will be to widen the path to the site from the main road. Work will also be carried out to protect visitors at the craters edge, and also to protect the surrounding farmland. Limited interpretation panels will be added on site and information will be available electronically as part of what will be a broader study of the battlefield.
The HRCA is a charitable organisation and visiting the site is, and will remain, free of charge.