Saturday 2 July 2016

Day Two in the Somme

Sunday 2nd July 1916 From our Correspondent in the Field

It is evident this evening that my hopes, formed in expectation of the great success on the right flank of the British Army’s attack yesterday, were severely premature. As the day has gone on I have heard increasingly sombre accounts of the events of yesterday which took place elsewhere and it is with these that I will begin.

30th Division was on the right of the British attack with 18th Division on their left flank. On the left flank of 18th Division was 7th Division home, until late last year, of the 2nd Bedfords. This division lost severely yesterday but, through costly fighting, the Germans pulled back this morning leaving the village of Fricourt in its hands. Every other attack failed. Ten divisions achieved nothing bar acts of heroism in a losing cause. All were back in their own front line trenches by the end of yesterday. All this is very disappointing in itself. Far more than disappointing is the number of casualties. Yesterday 7th Bedfords were highly successful but lost around one third of their strength, of whom about one hundred were killed. Of the British Army overall, out of just over 150,000 men attacking the German lines over 56,000 have become casualties, of whom, we believe, around 19,000 have been killed. This is the same number of men lost in the three weeks of the Battle of Loos in September 1915 lost in a single day. To put it another way, the combined populations of a swathe of south Bedfordshire including the towns of Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard and their neighbouring parishes of Billington, Eggington, Heath and Reach, Houghton Regis, Stanbridge and Tilsworth as measured by the 1911 census are 18,293.

Last night the 2nd Battalion were consolidating ground won by the rest of their division, principally battalions from Manchester and Liverpool. They have carried on this work today, beating off four German counter-attacks. They have dug a new trench to link up the captured trenches to our old front line which they have taken upon themselves to name Bedford Trench

The 7th Battalion also spent the night after their attack in consolidating the ground they had helped to win in the Pommiers Redoubt and Beetle Alley. At day-break they returned behind the old British Front Line to Carnoy from the enemy's captured trenches and rested. As I write this they are about to move forward again, as a reserve battalion, to Emden and Austrian Trenches.

Today your correspondent caught up with Captain Bull, commanding officer of B Company who was wounded in the attack yesterday and is now receiving attention behind the lines. He spoke with feeling of the time the attack stalled in front of the Pommiers Redoubt: "The hour outside that trench will be a nightmare for years to come and this was our expensive time. There were about twenty men from the Royal Berkshires and about the same numbers of my lot. They were all splendid, the way they cut the wire just as if there was nothing doing”.

Colonel Price is penning a report to his Brigade Commander about the attack yesterday and has shared his thoughts with me about the reasons for its success. He believes there were eight of these and, in his own words, here they are:

1. The work of the artillery, with very few exceptions the wire was beautifully cut and the trenches filled up. The shooting was wonderfully accurate.

2. The training of the Battalion behind the lines at Picquigny (where attacks were practised for some weeks over very similar ground to yesterday’s). The time and attention to every detail that was carried out there was repaid a thousand-fold. As an example I may quote that only three officers in the entire Battalion got beyond Emden Trench, most of the platoon and very many section leaders had gone, yet so thorough was the training beforehand that the men carried on entirely by themselves, knew where to go to and what to do when they got there.

3. The clear and concise orders that were received, nothing had been forgotten and provision had been made made for all emergencies.

4. The good work done by the clearing up parties who followed our attack to deal with any Germans still not neutralised who might have fired at us from the rear. The work done by the 6th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment was splendid and we had no shooting from behind. I would suggest that these parties, so absolutely necessary, should be increased in strength.

5. The good work of the carrying up parties. In addition to those provided under Brigade arrangements, another party was made up from odd men in the Battalion such as cooks and mechanics, about thirty in number, and they carried up with A Company a supply of small arms ammunition and bombs. This party then returned to the most advanced dump and continued during the whole day to maintain the supply. A large number of bombs were used in clearing Montauban Alley and without the supply furnished by this advanced party matters would have come to a standstill. They did most excellent work and never ceased carrying until a large stock of bombs and ammunition had been accumulated. I would suggest this advanced carrying party going with the Reserve Company whenever possible.

6. The quickness with which the assaulting Battalions left our Trenches. Where a prearranged timetable barrage is arranged, it seems imperative that the men should be quick off the mark. In the assault the two companies left our trenches before cessation of intense bombardment. They were thus able to take full advantage of the artillery barrage(1). It would thus appear safer to risk a few casualties from our own guns than to miss the effect of the barrage and so come under the fire of enemy machine guns which are without doubt kept in dug-outs until the barrage has stepped forward. This point has continually been insisted by all those who were in the first waves.

7. The close co-operation of all units in the assaulting waves. This was very marked, both between our two companies and the company of the 11th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers on our left. With regard to the latter both at the Pommiers Trench and Redoubt they rendered most invaluable assistance at very critical times. Their help was very deeply appreciated and remarked on by the men of my Battalion. I would suggest also that in clearing Montauban Alley as far as Loop Trench considerable assistance was given by us to the 53rd Brigade which enabled them to make good their final objective.

8. A sustained and continual advance. This seems highly important and is exemplified in the taking of the Redoubt. Those immediately facing it were held up but elements which outflanked it pressed on, made use of their bombers and machine guns, killing or forcing the defenders to fall back. Those held up immediately pressed forward and allowed the lines to maintain their formations. An advance of this nature has, no doubt, a big effect on the morale of the enemy.

9. Communications - though minute and detailed arrangements were made for visual signalling and communication by runners, neither were very successful. Messages took a very long time in getting through, and the varying aspect of operations could not be brought quickly enough to the notice of higher authority. Perhaps some form of small portable wireless telegraphy might be arranged for in future operations(2).

Elsewhere on the battlefront the complete failure in the northern sector seems to have led to operations there being suspended. During the day 30th Division found that Bernafay Wood was undefended and so took it. Further north 17th and 21st Divisions launched an attack to try to capture two small woods called Bottom Wood and Shelter Wood immediately south of the village of Contalmaison, which lies east of Mametz Wood and is still in enemy hands.

Sources: X550/3/wd; X550/8/1

(1)  In other, less well-led, divisions, the familiar picture of men “going over the top” only once the barrage ceased was played out. Many of these men were killed in the first few seconds of the attack. Another familiar picture from the first day of the Battle of the Somme is men wearing packs weighing sixty pounds or more trudging slowly across No Man’s Land. Divisional orders for 18th Division made it clear that men were not to carry packs, indeed, were to carry the minimum of equipment. This enabled them to move at the double across the space between the front lines, cutting down the time spent there and the casualties suffered.

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