The village of Beaumont Hamel is a nice enough place. Take a walk out of it and along the road that leads you to the British cemetery that bears its name and you will notice the Celtic cross, a memorial to the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at the foot of Jacob’s Ladder which takes you up on to Redan Ridge. It was a killing ground. Just beyond this is White City and just about there a showman named Geoffrey Malins was living the dream. He’d got himself the gig of a lifetime filming the mother of all battles on the opening day of the Big Push – the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the footage he shot that day would become legend. The great mine explosion at Hawthorn Ridge at 0728 on the 1st of July, 1916, is used in every Great War documentary. But the next sequence of the soldiers running after it into the maelstrom is not seen so often. You see them running low, Indian file, fast and headlong towards the enemy using the defiles in the land for cover. Those men were not walking with their rifles at the high port as many histories like to tell. They knew what they were about and were doing their job. The machine guns in Beaumont Hamel were many and overlapping. The advancing troops were not fools or dupes to some cartoon class war vision of Douglas Haig or the actual battle architect Henry Rawlinson. They were charging for victory and running for their lives and yet they all died. In Malins film they are little more than specks in the distance because he dare not and could not get closer. The celluloid fate of the men ended up on the cutting room floor and is lost to history.
And so, at some time between the 12th and 19th of July, Malins took himself down to the 3rd Army Mortar School at Ligny-St-Flochel and filmed some sequences of men going ‘over the top’ in close up. The tommies were paid in fags and other goodies. The footage he made there has become the currency of the Great War. You see men staggering over the wire and some fall. It is our vision of the war. It is real. It is OUR WAR. The completed film Malins and his colleagues made has been reused and rehashed. No complete version survives. The stills have taken on a life of their own. In terms of bums on seats, the movie itself became the most successful film in British cinema history until the 1970s when another war film usurped it at the box office. That film was Star Wars. And that image of the men going over the top and struggling on the wire persists, doesn’t it? Shut your eyes and you can see it.
It meant so much to Scott Addington he had it tattooed on his arm.
Now, I’m sorry Scott, but I hate tattoos, but I’ll let you off this one, mate; because I really admire the sentiment. It takes something to have that on your arm. The Great War is in Scott’s blood – it’s under his skin, so much so he wrote this book. It is a layman’s guide, it’s a quick read and it’s very entertaining, like a chat over a pub table when you’ve got fed up talking about the merits and demerits of Paolo Di Canio or the nuttiness of Kim Jong-un. You can dip in and out or rip through the lot in one fell swoop. I really like and recommend it to the person who feels they need to know enough without wanting to know too much. You won’t have to read your kid brother’s Horrible History anymore. But I’d rather you did want more, actually – and I’m sure Scott does, too. Because when ninety-nine years becomes a hundred there will be lots to talk about and the shallow end of the telly and the tabloids will be full of it and you might like to be one step ahead and be able to tell people about Geoffrey Malins and his colleagues and the films they made and the people they filmed. Included in one sequence is a man who is seen bringing in one of the wounded on the 1st of July, who also makes regular appearances in that well trodden round of the “wasn’t it hell?” and “Let’s put words in his mouth” stuff that so many media types are wont to do…unless of course they could just get off their supine arses and find out what he actually thought of it all. He came from just up the road from where I am typing and is buried in Leigh-on-Sea and I can see his face and he is real. He didn’t write poetry, he was an ordinary bloke. Scott sets you on your way to the millions of ordinary blokes. The story of the first day of the Somme is just one page, and that’s the whole point – the war, that terrible bloody war, is defined by a certain well known iconic events, but the fact is it was much, much more. The media will pick out the big stuff while the Scott Addingtons will point you to the reality. It was a long road.
By this time next year there will be a forest of Great War books. Some will be puerile, others will be worthy and one or two might be really good. Scott’s has got legs and one hell of a tattoo. None of the others will be able to boast that! I reviewed a much more serious general guide to the war last year and I liked that one, too. The books do the same job. Actually, I am wrong, because this book IS serious, but it is, I suppose, Great War Light. My version is in print; but you’ll find soft copies on the website listed above.
WORLD WAR ONE: A LAYMAN’S GUIDE
By Scott Addington
Available from www.military-research.co.uk