In the Footsteps of Malins
History on film by Ross Barnwell
By 0630 on the 1st of July over 300 men of B and D companies of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers were occupying a sunken lane in the middle of no-man’s land. Having tucked themselves up against the bank they were somewhat hidden by the thick brush and trees - for this section of the Somme front was full of grass and trees and greenery, and had been relatively quiet for so long until one week ago when the British guns began dropping shells on the village of Beaumont-Hamel.
Just before 0630, cinematographer Geoffrey Malins entered the lane using the tunnel dug by the engineers. The men gaze into the lens as he begins to crank the handle at two rotations per second to expose the film to the morning light of the lane.
Two men from B Company clean their 3-inch Stokes mortar as a man in the background stands with confidence to urinate. There are a few chuckles and sly comments directed at the cameraman, one lad of no more than 19 stares with his mouth half open. Further down the lane Malins films D Company. A boy with a downturned mouth stares through Malins’ lens.
A Second Lieutenant and his batman lie facing each other. His batman speaks.
“I hope we’re in the right place this time or I’m just going to bomb them and **** off”.
That is where the footage of the men in the sunken lane ends. The sequence comes to a close and “The Battle of the Somme” moves on to film shot by John McDowell further south.
In the book Ghosts on the Somme, authors Alastair H. Fraser, Andy Robertshaw and Steve Roberts breakdown the contents of the film and reveal its hidden stories. What Malins captured in these 50 seconds filmmakers have spent the past 100 years trying to replicate. What many have failed to realise is that old silent footage offers much more than a glimpse into the immediate physical world of that era.
Regarding ‘The Battle of the Somme’, by studying their faces and mannerisms we see how varied each man was to a shared task. By lip-reading we hear how they interacted and understand a little of social constraints or their willingness not to conform. Cameramen Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell and photographer Ernest Brooks - amongst many others - have given to us the chance to see our ancestors living and breathing war and battle.
Using countless hours of digitised footage available on the internet one can watch and re-watch these clips with in detail. With each watch you will notice something new - something different - and before long the people in that silent, grainy black and white footage will become as colourful as your family in 2018.
Working alongside Andy Robertshaw, I will be examining these scenes and the morning of the 1st of July in a short cinematic drama entitled ‘Beaumont-Hamel’. For more information on the film project, click here
Plus, in the week leading up to 1st of July this year, Andy - with Battlefield Partnerships - will be running a few small tours around Beaumont-Hamel following in the footsteps of Malins. To book, click here