‘Our youngest son’ Eric Heaton of 1 July 1916

E19 of Collected Articles

‘Our youngest son’: Eric Heaton, the Unrecognised
Hero of Beaumont Hamel

Filming the start of the Big Push

The immense number of volunteers that offered up their lives in the Big Push on the First of July 1916 has ensured that this day is embedded deep within British consciousness. Twenty three months since the start of the Great War, it had taken this time to find the men willing to fight, to train and equip them, to organize them into platoons, companies, battalions and divisions and to support them with the necessary mechanical items such as cannon and mortars.

One such volunteer was Eric Rupert Heaton, one of the subjects presented in the recent book ‘If you’re reading this … last letters from the front line’. Sian Price describes vividly the personality of this infantry officer aged just 19 years when he joined up. He fits into the category of soldiers known as ‘thrusters’ and, as a 2nd Lieut. was appointed the commander of No.1 Platoon in ‘C’ Company, 16th (Public Schools) Service Battalion (the Duke of Cambridge’s Own) Middlesex Battalion prior to the Big Push.

Before he volunteered in March 1915 he was a pupil at Guildford Grammar School and expecting to study to become a member of the medical and dental profession. He joined up with gusto and threw all his energy into his training (Price, 2012). But his fate was to lead the charge, to be hit by a shrapnel or machine-gun bullet in his leg, thereby succumbing to the trauma experienced. In his approach to life and to soldiering he showed the character of the soldier who lead the charge filmed by Malins.

The 16th Middlesex was one of the Pals Battalions in the trenches of the Somme region facing the German forces. Part of the ‘Incomparable’ 29th Division, commanded by Major General Beavoir de Lisle, it was located in front of Beaumont Hamel, a fortress village prepared by the German forces for defence for over a year (McCarthy, 1993). The Battalion was positioned in the assembly trenches behind the 2nd Battalion the Royal Fusiliers on the right and behind the 1st Battalion the Lancashire Fusiliers on the left. By 03.00 hours on the morning of 1 July 1916 its four Companies had reached their positions. These faced the Hawthorn Redoubt that overlooked the New Beaumont Road running between the village and that of Auchonvillers held by British forces. Assembled in Cripp’s Cut trench were the ‘B’ Company, on the left flank, the Battalion Headquarters in the middle and ‘C’ Company, on the right up against the Pilk Street trench. Behind them in Cardiff Street trench were ‘B’ Company on the left and ‘A’ Company on the right.

The Redoubt was ”one of the strongest German redoubts” (Malins, 1920, p.124). It was considered so impregnable that British diggers of 292 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, had spent seven months driving a tunnel underground towards and under it. They had then packed 20 tons of Aminol high explosive into the sap head, waiting to be ignited on the morning of the Big Push.

Ready to film the exploding of the mine was the kinematographer, Geoffrey Malins. As he described in his biography ‘How I filmed the War‘ (1920) Malins began his filming at Beaumont Hamel on the 30th June by hand-cranking his Debrie Parvo camera. He filmed the firing of ‘plum pudding’ trench mortar guns from a pit in the front trenches. Next morning at 06.20 hours he filmed the soldiers of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers in the Sunken Road. They had waited patiently there since 03.30 hours, taking great care not to be spotted from the German trenches just across No Man’s Land. He then carried his camera and the sturdy tripod to the side of a small bank on the south side of the escarpment called the White City after a German shell obliterated his stand at Jacob’s Ladder (Bailey, 2006). Looking out across Les Champs Cornu, on the opposite bank beyond the Road, Malins was ready to capture the moment when the mine was blown at 07.20 hours. He recorded the iconic image of the upheaval as thousands of tons of soil were hurled into the air, reducing the Redoubt and its trenches to a forty foot deep crater.

Malins then swung his camera westwards to await the British soldiers leaving their trenches at 07.30 hours. He recorded engineers leaving their trenches on the skyline of the Hawthorn Ridge in order to wire the crater (Malins, p.160/1). Below the skyline he filmed the 2nd Royal Fusiliers begin to move forwards across No Man’s Land. Then the Battle of the Somme film shows the advance of the 16th Middlesex along the lower slope of the Ridge parallel to the Road. Infantrymen are seen running in single file towards the crater. It seems unlikely this was the attack of ‘D’ Company at 07.55 hours, more likely that of ‘C’ Company because the soldiers were running, not walking.

An analysis of the ‘C’ Company charge

The resulting Sequence 31, recorded in Reel 3 of the film prepared for the British and Empire cinemas, shows a series of events that bear a striking similarity to those recounted by Sian Price in her book. The numbers refer to the frames (F) in Reel 3 as identified on the Steenbeck viewer at the Film and Television Archive, the Imperial War Museum.

Actions:

The 1st Lancashire Fusiliers wait to attack from the Sunken Road. F137-1090.

The training ground simulation. F1570-2163.

Engineers are seen on the skyline of the Hawthorn Ridge. F2164-2435.

Below the skyline soldiers of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers are seen moving around. F2436-3074.

A single soldier of the 16th Middlesex is filmed getting out of his trench. F2414-2433.

He then begins to run towards the site of the Hawthorn Redoubt. From F2434.

The soldier is now some 30 to 40 feet ahead of some four soldiers who have just left the trench following him. From F2517.

The flash of a shrapnel shell bursting near the first soldier. F2671.

The soldier turns in the direction of the White City and begins to fall on his knees. F 2675-2785.

The next soldier comes up behind him. F2795.

The flash of another shrapnel shell exploding near this soldier. F 2801.

He begins to fall to the ground. F2802-2833.

The first soldier rapidly rises to try to continue forwards. F2820.

He falls and remains fallen. F2843.

There is now a slight gap in the film. F2846.

The next short sequence ends with other soldiers in an apparently disorganized group moving closer to the crater. Because the two fallen men are not seen, this could have been the filming of one of the earlier attacks, whose chronology within the film was the result of the later editing process. F2847-3074.

Depending on the speed at which Malins was able to hand-crank the camera, the timeline for the soldier first getting up out of the British trench to his final fall is covered by 429 frames. At the normal speed of 18 frames per second, this means 23.8 seconds.

As shown in the actions, the soldiers are running forwards. However at 07.30 hrs the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers and the 2nd Royal Fusiliers dressed from the left ‘as if on parade’ before marching forwards into terrific German machine-gun and rifle fire and the artillery barrage. At 07.55 hours the ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies of the 16th Middlesex repeated this preparation before marching forward. Both attacks crumpled under the murderous fire. Though the timing was not recorded, shortly afterwards the soldiers of ‘C’ Company left the Marlborough Trench and ran forwards – as confirmed by a survivor, Corporal Alf Damon (Hurst, 2007). Soldiers later retreating from the site of the Hawthorn crater were said by Malins to be survivors of ‘C’ Company. Malins continued filming until mid-morning, though much of the footage was edited out in preparing the Battle of the Somme film for public viewing that autumn.

Linking the film to the actions

In putting together the chapter on Heaton in ‘If you’re reading this’ and the actions filmed by Malins it is reasonable to suggest that the kinematographer had captured on film the last moments of this young officer. The lead soldier’s actions are medically comparable to sustaining a severe injury in the leg, falling to his knees and then trying to get up before his legs failed to support him. This fits what happened to Eric Heaton that day, an enthusiastic and courageous young ‘thruster’. It is understandable that he chose to run, having seen the aftermaths of the catastrophic ‘Parade Ground’ marches into German fire at 07.30 and 07.55 hours.

The time, the place and the fate of Eric Heaton match Sian Price’s description of his last seconds alive. On the balance of probabilities, the soldier filmed by Malins leading the charge and Eric Rupert Heaton were one and the same person.

He was buried on the battlefield, 200 yards from the New Beaumont Road and 50 yards from the Hawthorn crater, when on the day after both British and Germans entered No Man’s Land to find the wounded and bury the dead. Neither groups of belligerents fired at the other (Wallis Grain, 1935). His body now lies in Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No.1 in plot A.89. He was the youngest of the three brothers who volunteered but was the only one to die in action.

A lasting record of ‘live action’

The Battle of the Somme (1916) became the most seen film ever in British and Empire cinemas. It has been accorded world heritage status by UNESCO. As an icon for the ‘common man’ it records those volunteers in units such as the Pals’ Battalions who died in the attritional battle which lasted four and a half months. The 16th Battalion was considered a Pals Public School Battalion. The calibre of the soldiers themselves was outstanding, having the personal courage to sign on without being conscripted. Never again in British history would army battalions be largely composed of men who had volunteered willingly to join them. For many people, the film is a tribute to them, the lost generation. Thus rarely have there been wishes to identify single soldiers. Leaving bereaved families to assume it was their menfolk that Malins (and also J.B. McDowell) showed going into action and its terrible consequences.

Some historians claim that no live action was filmed, perhaps lulled into this by the sequence of men shown climbing over a slope in the earth simulating a trench at a training ground. This sequence is positioned between the blowing of the mine in Reel 2 and the charge of the 16th Middlesex. Malins did film actual combat at great risk to himself. By filming that charge he showed the heroism of a 20-year old Second Lieutenant who, by his courage typical of the young volunteer officers, deserves his name of Eric Rupert Heaton to be linked in perpetuity to their courage and leadership throughout the Battle of the Somme.

Sources

Bailey, G.N.A . (2006), ‘Malins filming the Battle of the Somme’, publ. Mars and Clio, Newsletter 16 of the British Commission for Military History.
Hurst, S. (2007), ‘The Public Schools Battalion in the Great War’, publ. Pen and Sword. McCarthy, C. (1993), ‘The Somme: the day-by-day account’, publ. Arms & Armour Press.
Price, S. (2012) ‘If you’re reading this…Last letters from the front line’, publ. Pen & Sword.
Wallis Grain, H.W. (1935), ‘The 16th (Public Schools) Service Battalion (the Duke of Cambridge’s Own) Middlesex Regiment and the Great War, 1914-1916: A Short History of the Battalion’, publ. London.

I wish to acknowledge the support of Sian Price, whose book I reviewed for Mars and Clio, Matthew Lee and his colleagues in the Film and Television Archive, Imperial War Museum, Andrew Orgill and his colleagues, the Central Library, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst , and Dr. Prash Patel for advice about physiological traumas.

This article was written on 29 April 2012 and published in Mars & Clio, the magazine of the British Commission for Military History, in Summer 2012