Book tells tale of cinematographer responsible for iconic WWI footage

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. Photos copyright reserved: all queries to Hugh Sebag-Montefiore (www.hughsebagmontefiore.com/the_author.php).
Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. Photos copyright reserved: all queries to Hugh Sebag-Montefiore (www.hughsebagmontefiore.com/the_author.php).

As the country prepares for another spate of mass mourning on Remembrance Sunday, historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore – whose paperback on the Battle of the Somme has just been published – reminds us of the bravery of a Hastings cinematographer whose film immortalised the soldiers who were lost on July 1, 1916.

It will be hard to find anyone mourning the soldiers who were lost in the trenches during the First World War who will not have seen the iconic images taken from Geoffrey Malins’ film about the Battle of the Somme. Yet few will realise that he was born in Hastings.

Whether it is the famous photo of the gigantic mine exploding under the German trenches ten minutes before the main attack on the Somme began, or whether it is the photo of the British soldiers sitting in the famous sunken road half way across No Man’s Land, the images he filmed are now an integral part of what most British people know about the First World War.

His written descriptions of what he witnessed are equally resonant. No-one can read his account of the countdown to the great mine going off near Hawthorn Redoubt without being sucked into the tension Malins must have been feeling.

He conveyed the anticipation and the enormity of what he was witnessing in the following terms: “Time 7.19am. My hand grasped the handle of the camera... Surely it was time... Why doesn’t it go up... Then it happened. The ground where I stood gave a massive convulsion... I gripped hold of my tripod to steady myself. Then, for all the world like a gigantic sponge, the earth rose in the air... Hundreds of feet... Then with a horrific grinding roar, the earth fell back upon itself, leaving in its place a mountain of smoke.”

Equally gripping was his walk down a tunnel to see the British soldiers in the sunken road half way across No Man’s Land: “The tunnel was no more than two feet and six inches wide and five feet high. Men inside were passing ammunition from one to another... They were wet with perspiration, working like Trojans...”

Mr Sebag-Montefiore said: “If any teacher wishes to enthuse his students with a description of what the Battle of the Somme was like, I recommend they start by reading them these dramatic episodes from Malins’ account.”

The paperback edition of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Somme: Into the Breach, published by Penguin, is out now, as is the updated paperback 75th Anniversary edition of his Enigma: the Battle for the Code with new material added, published by Orion’s Weidenfeld & Nicolson.