Eric Heaton and the IWM Despatches

E25 of Collected Articles

Dear Editor,

REMEMBERING THE DEATH OF A YOUNG VOLUNTEER ON THE SOMME

Frank Capa’s iconic image capturing the apparent death of a soldier during the Spanish Civil War has long been thought the first photographic depiction of a man being killed in action. By contrast Geoffrey Malins’s footage of the death of a British soldier on the First of July 1916 has been largely overlooked. However I wish to argue that this footage within the ‘Battle of the Somme’ is of greater historical significance due to new evidence as to the identity of this soldier.

Analysing this film in 2007 I noted a soldier rising from the front line trench to run forward towards the Hawthorn Redoubt guarding the fortified village of Beaumont Hamel, followed by men of his platoon (Reel 3, Sequence 31, frames 2414 to 2846, approximate running time 23.8 seconds). The film is of poor quality because of the technology available for portable cine cameras in 1916. However Sequence 31 clearly shows this soldier leading his platoon forward at a run, being hit by a shrapnel bullet, falling to the ground, trying to rise, then collapsing not to rise again.

Last summer I reviewed Sian Price’s book ‘If you’re reading this’. Her brief biography of Second Lieutenant Eric Heaton called to mind a section in Malins’s autobiography where he recalled filming from his exposed position near the White City for the remainder of the morning, after recording the famous scene of the explosion of the mine under the Hawthorn Redoubt. His position was in direct view of the slope over which the British troops assaulted the crater left after the explosion. The sequence in the film matches Price’s documentary evidence of the running charge of Heaton, and these parallels provide a strong argument that Heaton is the soldier fatally wounded in ‘Battle of the Somme’.

This discovery is all the more notable considering Heaton’s heroic stature, as testified by Sian Price. As a volunteer, he willingly giving up a promising medical career to serve King and Country and deserves to be remembered as more than inscriptions on a gravestone* near where he fell at Beaumont Hamel.

Respectfully,

Dr George Bailey OBE

Included with the article was the photograph taken on 9 May 2013 from the site where Geoffrey Malins filmed of the slope along which Heaton charged.

A section of the article was not published: ‘Carved with pride on his gravestone at Plot A.89 in the Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No 1, Auchonvillers, are the inscriptions ‘Our youngest son’ and (from his last letter to his parents on 28 June 1916) “I came out willingly to serve my King and Country”.’