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The famous still from The Battle of the Somme showing a soldier carrying a wounded man.
IWM is trying to identify the man in this film.
This famous image from our collection captures a moment from one of the most devastating battles in British history, the Battle of the Somme.

The still, taken from an iconic sequence in the 1916 documentary The Battle of The Somme, shows a soldier carrying a wounded comrade on his back. The footage is believed to have been shot on 1 July 1916 by cameraman Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins.

IWM Head of Film, Matt Lee, has been working to identify the man in the film. His efforts to solve the mystery are featured in Secrets of the Imperial War Museum, a new Channel 5 series starting Friday 26 November, 7pm.

Over one hundred families have contacted IWM claiming that the man is their relative.

Matt says, ‘it’s like a historical jigsaw puzzle, with different pieces covering location, date, service records, facial resemblance… the challenge is to see if they fit with what we know about the events of 1 July 1916.’

The clip is preceded in the film by the caption ‘British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire. (This man died 30 mins after reaching the trenches).’

In his post-war memoirs, How I Filmed the War, Geoffrey Malins describes his experience of making the film:

‘I noticed several of our wounded men lying in shell-holes in ‘No Man's Land’... Every time a Red Cross man attempted to get near them, a hidden German machine-gun fired...

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… Hastily binding up the injured man's wounds they picked him up between them, and with a run made for our parapet.’

The latter part of this account seems to match the sequence in question. It presents a useful starting point for tracing the man’s identity.
IWM Exhibition Manager Nora Ni Dhomhnaill and Curator Vikki Hawkins in the Second World War Galleries

Secrets of the Imperial War Museum is a six-part documentary series exploring all five of IWM's branches.

See how we care for the objects in our collection, find out what it takes to organise a spectacular air show and discover the stories behind some of the powerful objects on display in our new galleries. 

New episode every Friday at 7pm on Channel 5. Watch it back on My5.

Another clue is a photograph (below) taken by official photographer Ernest Brooks, which appears to show the same wounded soldier. He has the same cropped hair, tears to his left sleeve, and a battle patch indicating he is part of the 29th Division.

However, in this photograph, he is being carried by a different man. This man can be seen at the back of the trench in the film sequence, identifiable by his missing or unattached cardigan button.

This tells us that the man in the cardigan handed the casualty over to the man in the trench, who was then filmed carrying him towards the camera. 
Bringing in a wounded man after the assault at Beaumont-Hamel on the Somme, 1 July 1916.
There are several compelling claims to the rescuer's identity. The War Illustrated identified the man in Brooks' photograph as Driver Tom Spencer of the Royal Garrison Artillery.

From very early on the identity of the rescuer 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':

‘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.’

Spencer seems to be referring to the man we can see in Brooks' photograph holding the wounded man's ankles as Spencer carries him on his back.

It is possible that this is the man in the film. However, the different camera perspectives make a useful facial comparison difficult.
Strictly limited event run: 
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Based on stories from the Second World War, immerse yourself in a time where every second matters, every decision is crucial and every action counts.

With five different journeys to choose from,  take on challenges to uncover the secrets hidden underground in the labyrinthine corridors of Churchill War Rooms.
What is interesting is that so many have contacted IWM in the belief that it is their relative in the film.

Some come to us with little more than a photographic similarity or a family anecdote. Others prepare a detailed file of circumstantial evidence linking their relative to the sequence.

Only one claim can be correct. Some cases are relatively straightforward to dismiss. Others are harder, as often there is not enough evidence to rule it out, but only limited proof to support the claim.

Unusually, one name has come up on three separate occasions over the last fifteen years: Charles Brennan. He was from Finglas, Dublin. Research is continuing to establish whether this could be the man we've been searching for. 

What is it about this footage that has inspired so many people to contact us? While the widespread visibility of the image is a factor, there is also something about the selfless, heroic act that draws people to the scene.

Many simply want to give the soldier an identity. However, it clearly goes beyond the removal of one man's anonymity, having inspired so many people to seek 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.

To learn more about IWM's efforts to identify the man in the film, tune in to Secrets of the Imperial War Museum. The series starts 26 November on Channel 5, with a new episode every Friday at 7pm. Watch it back on My5.
Sunday 28 November 2021

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Image 2: © IWM (Q753) 
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