The famous still taken from The Battle of the Somme showing a soldier in a trench carrying a wounded man on his back.
© IWM. The famous still taken from The Battle of the Somme showing a soldier in a trench carrying a wounded man on his back.

This famous image from IWM's collections captures a few seconds from one of the most well-known battles in British military history - the Battle of the Somme. The image is a still taken from a sequence of footage in the 1916 documentary film, The Battle of the Somme. The film was originally watched by millions of cinema-goers in 1916 and sequences from the film are now widely seen on television, in print and online. This iconic sequence lasts for around six seconds and shows a soldier carrying a wounded comrade on his back as he walks along a trench towards the camera. 

The footage is believed to have been shot on 1 July 1916 by Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins, one of two 'War Office Official Kinematographers' (the other was Lieutenant John B McDowell) who filmed The Battle of the Somme. IWM has received over one hundred different names for the soldier carrying his dying comrade. We feel the question of the soldier's identity has still not been definitively proven. However, by examining the film frame by frame we have been able to learn a great deal about the rescue and its context. 

This article reveals what we've discovered so far.

© IWM 191 Still from The Battle of the Somme.

Rescuing a Comrade Under Shell Fire

The three sequences in the clip above are related and show the rescue referred to in a section of The Battle of the Somme film. 

34.1     'No man’s land rescue'
34.2     'Trench piggy-back carry'
34.3     'Trench stretcher carry'

All three sequences follow caption 34 in the film, which reads: 'British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire. (This man died 30 mins after reaching the trenches).'

© IWM 191

'No man's land rescue'

The first sequence, 'No man's land rescue', lasts around 13 seconds and shows two soldiers in no-man's land carrying a wounded man towards a trench. It is noticeable that at the start of the sequence the filming is a little shaky, possibly showing the hurried nature of trying to record unfolding events from a distance and in an exposed position.

In his post-war memoirs, How I Filmed the War, Geoffrey Malins describes filming these sequences: 

'The heavy firing continued. I noticed several of our wounded men lying in shell-holes in "No Man's Land." They were calling for assistance. Every time a Red Cross man attempted to get near them, a hidden German machine-gun fired. Several were killed whilst trying to bring in the wounded. The cries of one poor fellow attracted the attention of a trench-mortar man. He asked for a volunteer to go with him, and bring the poor fellow in. A man stepped forward, and together they climbed the parapet, and threaded their way through the barbed wire very slowly. Nearer and nearer they crept. We stood watching with bated breath. Would they reach him? Yes. At last! Then hastily binding up the injured man's wounds they picked him up between them, and with a run made for our parapet. The swine of a German blazed away at them with his machine-gun. But marvellous to relate neither of them were touched.'

The latter part of the account seems to broadly match the first part of the film sequence, showing an injured man being rescued from no man's land. 

© IWM 191

Trench piggy-back carry

After describing the rescue in no man's land, Malins went on to write:

'I filmed the rescue from the start to the finish, until they passed me in the trench, a mass of perspiration. Upon the back of one was the unconscious man he had rescued, but twenty minutes after these two had gone through hell to rescue him, the poor fellow died. During the day those two men rescued twenty men in this fashion under heavy fire.'

The second sequence in the film, 'Trench piggy-back carry', shown above, appears to correspond with Malins' description. The information contained in caption 34 is also supported by Malins, that the wounded soldier died shortly after being brought in from no man's land - although there is a slight discrepancy concerning the timing of his death. What we do not know for certain is if the first sequence contains the same wounded soldier seen in close up as in the second sequence, given that it is stated that the two men 'rescued twenty men in this fashion'.  


The official photograph


The official photograph

There were two official cameramen working on The Battle of the Somme and also an official photographer, Ernest Brooks, who was working closely with Geoffrey Malins. Brooks took this photograph which relates to the rescue in the film.

A comparison between the official photograph by Ernest Brooks and a still from the film. The injured man being carried in both of the images has the same cropped hair, tears to the left sleeve of his tunic, a half-diamond on his left shoulder and dangling fabric on his right shoulder - showing him to be the same man.
© IWM (Q 753) Ernest Brooks and © IWM 191

The same man?

At first glance, the official photograph taken by Brooks and the film shot by Malins do not appear to be linked. However, if you look closely at the image you can see that it is the same fatally wounded soldier who is being carried. He has the same cropped hair, tears to the left sleeve of his tunic, a half-diamond on his left shoulder (a red battle patch indicating he is part of the 29th Division), and dangling fabric on his right shoulder.

A still from The Battle of the Somme showing a group of soldiers at the back of the trench. One of them - wearing a cardigan and no helmet - is the same soldier shown in the Ernest Brooks photograph, carrying the wounded man. Another soldier, at the front of the image, is now carrying the wounded man. This is the famous shot from The Battle of the Somme.
©IWM 191 34.2

The back of the trench

The casualty being carried is clearly the same man in both the film and the photograph, but it is a different man carrying the casualty in the film. The authors of Ghosts on the Somme have discovered that the soldier in the Ernest Brooks photograph carrying the wounded soldier also appears in The Battle of the Somme. Crucially, he appears at the back of the trench when the soldier in the film carries the wounded soldier along the trench. You can see the facial similarity and missing or unattached cardigan button in the still and photograph.

With this information we can now reasonably conclude that the man in the cardigan handed the same casualty over to the man in the trench, who was then filmed. What is not clear is whether the man who carries the wounded soldier towards the camera, is the second soldier in Malins' description, who also went into no man's land and was filmed. 

Ernest Brooks' photograph was featured on the front pages of the national and local press. In The War Illustrated 29 July 1916, the soldier in it was identified as Driver Tom Spencer of the Royal Garrison Artillery.
©The War Illustrated 29 July 1916. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

Tom Spencer

Ernest Brooks' photograph featured on the front pages of national and local press. In The War Illustrated 29 July 1916 the soldier carrying his wounded comrade was identified as Driver Tom Spencer of the Royal Garrison Artillery. Spencer is top centre and is wearing a bandolier - a shoulder belt for cartridges.

An illustrated article in a local paper The Burnley Express (subscription required), quotes a letter that strongly supports the conclusion that it is Tom Spencer and a fellow soldier who we see in the Malins footage, carrying the wounded soldier in no man's land toward the trench, and in the Brooks photograph. We then spot Spencer again in the film, at the back of the trench, after he has handed the casualty over to another man.

Tom Spencer's attestation papers or personal information form, showing his regimental number, previous occupation, place and date of birth.
© Images reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees of The Royal Artillery Historical Trust, London, England.

Tracing Tom Spencer

Sadly, the First World War service record of Tom Spencer does not appear to have survived, but his Royal Artillery attestation record from 1914, shown above, does. Articles such as The Burnley Expressalso reveal more information about his war record and his family.

One article from the time features Tom's mother, who mentions that he is now attached to a Trench Mortar Battery and had previously served in the Navy. His pre-First World War naval record is accessible at the National Archives. This states that he was born in Burnley in 1888 and at age 18 he was 5 feet, five and a half inches tall, with grey eyes and auburn hair. From what we have been able to discover, Tom Spencer survived the First World War but we know little of his later life.

Another soldier came forward in 1916 claiming he had carried the injured man to safety.
Detail © IWM (Q 753) Ernest Brooks

A rival claim?

From very early on the identity of the rescuer in Brooks' photograph was contested. A rival claimant came forward in 1916 to say he carried the wounded soldier as well. Tom Spencer wrote to his mother after being informed of the 'challenger'.

"About that fellow who claims to be the original in the photograph which you have seen in the paper. I know him, and he was with me when I brought that man in. If you have a copy of that photograph you will see him holding on to the ankles of the wounded man."
Burnley Express - Wednesday 22 November 1916

Tom Spencer is presumably referring to the man we can see in the Brooks photograph holding the wounded man's ankles as Spencer carries him on his back. Spencer also confirms that it is the same man that was with him when he brought the casualty in from no man's land. Close examination of the 'No man's land rescue' scene shows one of the men is bare-headed and the other is wearing a helmet. Just as the sequence ends, you can see that it is the bareheaded man who is about to take the wounded soldier on his back. If this account is accurate and there is no reason to suspect it is not, the 'rival claimant' is actually another of the men involved in the rescue who was captured by Brooks and very likely, Malins.

It's possible that the man holding the casualty's ankles is the same man that we see walking towards the camera in the 'Trench piggy-back carry' sequence in the film. Unfortunately the different camera perspectives make a useful facial comparison difficult.
Detail © IWM (Q 753) Ernest Brooks and © IWM 191 34.2

Another possibility

Another possibility is that the man holding the casualty's ankles is the same man that we see walking towards the camera in the 'Trench piggy-back carry' sequence in the film. Clearly, he would have had to remove his helmet and tunic, but the different camera perspectives make a useful facial comparison difficult. Over the years a number of facial recognition experts have examined various claims and have detected good matches, but further historical research has significantly weakened their case.

© IWM 191 34.3 and © IWM 191 34.2

'Trench stretcher carry'

The third scene in the filmed rescue, 'Trench stretcher carry', lasts for 11 seconds and shows two men carrying what appears to be the same wounded soldier - his short cropped hair and torn left sleeve are visible. The two men are carrying the casualty along a different trench with kilted men from the 2nd Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders in the background.

The man at the front carrying the stretcher in the 'Trench stretcher carry' sequence, is the same man that follows the man carrying the wounded soldier in the 'Trench piggy back carry' sequence. A detailed examination of the images highlights the number of men involved in the rescue and how they are working in relay to get the wounded soldier medical treatment. 

Photograph depicting soldiers carrying a stretcher
© IWM 191 34.3

Walter Henry Lydamore

We believe we know the name of the man carrying the front of the stretcher, as he contacted the Imperial War Museum in 1964 after seeing the third sequence of the rescue in a documentary. The museum provided him with an 8mm film copy of the rescue sequences. The man's name was Walter Henry Lydamore, born 1894 at Tilbury, Essex. He served with the Royal Garrison Artillery and was posted to the V29 Heavy Trench Mortar Battery. His service record has survived and we can see that he was promoted to Lance Bombardier only a few weeks prior to the events of 1 July. The single chevron signifying his rank is clearly visible on his tunic. 

The story of the soldier's identification made it into the Southend-on-Sea Pictorial 23 December 1964, nearly fifty years after the events it describes. The piece was titled:"That Grimy, Weary Soldier Was Himself" and Lydamore is quoted as saying: "We were bringing in the wounded from no-man’s land, but we had to give up eventually because of enemy machine gun fire". Lydamore states that the scene was taken on 1 July 1916. 

The story of the soldier's identification made it into the Southend-on-Sea Pictorial 23 December 1964, nearly fifty years after the events it describes. The piece was titled:"That Grimy, Weary Soldier Was Himself" and Lydamore is quoted as saying: "We were bringing in the wounded from no-man’s land, but we had to give up eventually because of enemy machine gun fire". Lydamore states that the scene was taken on 1 July 1916. 

We know for certain that two men involved in the rescue were attached to Trench Mortar Batteries. The War Diary of the V29 Heavy Trench Mortar Battery contains a casualty list for December 1916 and states that a "T Spencer" was admitted to hospital "sick" on 27 December 1916. The regimental number provided - 49346 - corresponds with Thomas Spencer’s Royal Artillery attestation, seen earlier in this article, so we can now conclude that he was also attached to the V29 Heavy Trench Mortar Battery. 


A fake rescue?


A fake rescue?

It has been suggested that the scenes of the rescue were staged for the camera.

It is certainly true that fakery played a role during the filming and photography of the First World War and a few short scenes in The Battle of the Somme film were reconstructed behind the lines, like the film still above. However, it seems unlikely that the rescue events in the sequence were recreated for the benefit of the camera. Not only would it require collusion between Malins and Brooks, but it would also require all of the men in the images to participate in the deception, after the images were seen by millions of people back home and a number of the men were identified by contemporary accounts. 

It is also important to remember that Tom Spencer verified the events in 1916 as apparently did the unnamed man holding the ankles of the wounded soldier. In addition, 50 years later, Walter Lydamore confirmed that men of the trench mortar battery - of which he was part - were bringing in the wounded on 1 July 1916 and he remembered seeing the camera team there. If the film and photographs were faked for propaganda purposes, it seems curious that they would choose to employ a story where the soldier dies soon after being rescued. It is possible that the production of images were influenced by the cameraman and photographer, but we cannot know for certain to what extent.  

© IWM 191 Still from The Battle of the Somme.

Multiple identities

The photograph and film sequences raise a number of questions that are difficult to answer. The most interesting - and most challenging issue - is why so many people have contacted IWM in the belief that it is their relative in the film carrying the soldier along the trench. Whilst some come to us with little more than a photographic similarity, or a family anecdote passed down the generations, others prepare a detailed file of circumstantial evidence linking the claimed soldier to the sequence.

Only one claim can be correct, but the difficulty comes from assessing the likelihood of the claim. It is relatively straightforward in some cases, if for example, the soldier named was not serving at the time, or he was not based in France during the Battle of the Somme. Others are harder to assess, as often there is not sufficient evidence to rule out the claim, but only limited evidence to support it.

The Sligo Champion
©The Sligo Champion 16 December 1916. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

Charles Brennan

Unusually, one name has been suggested to us on three separate occasions over the last 15 years: Charles Brennan. He was from Finglas, Dublin.

After researching soldiers with the same name, it appears he is Charles Brennan, Royal Garrison Artillery (regimental number: 48048). Whilst his service record has not survived we can ascertain from medal rolls, a Distinguished Conduct Medal card and medical records that he served with 14 Siege Battery, Y51 Medium Trench Mortar Battery and 91 Heavy Battery. We know he was with 91 Heavy Battery in January 1916, but it is unclear if he was still serving with them in July 1916. What is interesting about this individual is that he is the only man that we have so far discovered that was also identified in 1916 as the man carrying his comrade along the trench. A newspaper article on page 5 of the Sligo Champion of 16th December discussed the footage. But the piece does not provide any further information on Brennan’s regiment or battery, but it does make clear that he was a Gunner with a Heavy Trench Mortar Battery. Research is continuing in order to establish if Charles Brennan (48048) is the man who appears in the film.

What is it about the six seconds of footage that has inspired so many people to write to us? Whilst part of the answer can be attributed to the widespread visibility of the image on television and online, there is also something about the selfless, heroic act that draws people to the scene. Many simply want to give the soldier an identity. But, it clearly goes beyond the removal of one man's anonymity - as it has inspired dozens and dozens of people to seek public and formal recognition. So far, none of the suggestions we have received has come with irrefutable evidence and so the question of the man's identity remains open. 

If anyone is able to provide more details about the rescue, or more information about any of the publications or individuals mentioned in this article please get in touch with us at [email protected]

I would like to thank my colleague Roger Smither for his knowledge and advice and the ground-breaking research by the authors of Ghosts on the Somme, Alastair H. Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw and Steve Roberts. 

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