Friday, 1 July 2016

Triumph on the Somme

Saturday 1st July 1916 From our Correspondent in the Field.

The Great Offensive, so long expected, began yesterday. It was by far the largest attack the British Army has made in this war or, we venture to suggest, in any war. A total of thirteen British divisions, over 150,000 men, attacked along a front of sixteen miles as the crow flies, perhaps twenty as the trenches run, from the town of Gommecourt in the north to Montauban-de-Picardie in the south. Our gallant French allies also attacked both on our left flank and immediately to the south of the River Somme.

Your correspondent was in the sector in which two battalions of the Bedfordshire Regiment made their operations. As luck would have it their two divisions – 18th and 30th went into battle side by side. In such a large battle one can never be sure, unless, of course, one is commander-in-chief or a senior commander of “staffer”, how things have gone but if things went as well elsewhere as they did for our two battalions then a huge step forward in shortening the war has been made today. Indeed, your correspondent overheard two members of the 7th Battalion speculate that the British Army will be in Berlin ere summer is out.

We will deal first with the 2nd Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, which forms part of 30th Division. This formation is the final tip of the British right wing in France – from here as far as the Alps the French armies have their sector.The attack, against the village of Montauban, was made by men of the 17th and 20th Battalions, King’s (Liverpool) Regiment,  New Army or Kitchener formations, raised since the outbreak of war. The regulars of 2nd Bedfords were in support. The new men behaved splendidly and gained all their objectives, leaving the Bedfords with little to do other than follow up the advance. This means that casualties have been light and those that did occur were from enemy shelling. Besides supporting the advance of the Brigade the Battalion had special duties allotted to it – some of the men from one company were “cleaning up” the German dug-outs and trenches to ensure that no enemy lingered alive to fire at the advancing men from the rear. These cleaning-up groups were split up into small parties of a non-commissioned officer and five men each, and told off to work up defined sections of enemy trench. This was successfully accomplished and about three hundred prisoners and four machine guns were taken. This work completed, the men rejoined their company.

The ground over which the 7th Battalion attacked

The 18th (Eastern Division) went into the attack on the left flank of 30th Division. In contrast to their regular colleagues in the 2nd Battalion the 7th Battalion, another New Army of Kitchener unit which has been in France just under a year, was one of the assaulting battalions. And what a splendid job they did! Beginning from trenches just outside Carnoy they assaulted the main road from Montauban to Mametz. Beginning near the top of one slope of a shallow valley they advanced down the slope and up the other side to attack a German strongpoint in the area of the aforementioned road, called the Pommiers Redoubt. This taken they pushed on and moved down into the next valley, securing all their objectives.

Your correspondent has been speaking with the battalion’s commanding officer, Colonel Price, who described the events of the day. He divided the battalion’s attack into two columns, a right-hand column formed by B Company and a left-hand column formed by C Company. D Company was in support of these two columns with A Company in reserve. The Battalion was formed up in four forming-up trenches. Each of the assaulting Companies was on a two platoon frontage of 175 yards each, with one platoon in support and one in Company Reserve thus mirroring, in miniature, the attack of the battalion overall. The first three waves of each assaulting company moved in extended order, with the men quite some way apart.

The British attack was timed to begin at 7.30 am. Two minutes before this B Company moved out of their trench and into No Man’s Land. The Colonel explained to me: “I considered this most necessary, as the company had some distance to traverse before reaching the first line of German trenches”. C Company was a little behind but was also crossing through the wire in front of their front line trench at Zero Hour. Before the intense bombardment by our artillery, just before Zero Hour, the enemy machine guns had been particularly active and the Colonel wished to get the men through our wire whilst this bombardment continued. The Colonel takes up the story of B Company’s attack.

“As the machine gun fire even on cessation of the intense bombardment was still very galling the attacking waves hurried through the gaps in our wire and doubled down the slope. It was on the gaps and the top of the slope that the machine gun fire was principally directed. There was practically none at the foot of the slope. Here the attackers formed up in deliberate formation, making absolutely certain of their true line of advance. They then advanced as if on parade. The waves were perfectly dressed, intervals and distances as it seemed to me from our trenches, kept extraordinarily well”.

“The machine gun fire still continued to be very active and casualties were seen to occur before the German front line was reached, but the waves still continued on their way, seemingly without a check. Between the Austrian Trench and Emden Trench(1) the Company was practically leaderless as regards officers, all having been either killed or wounded. There was practically no opposition except from machine gun fire. This principally came well away from our right flank which from the early commencement of the fight, was most exposed owing to the 6th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment on our right being unable to advance at the same rapid rate as our attack”.

“Severe machine gun fire seemed to come from Poppof Lane, which did considerable execution. It was not until reaching the ground between Bund and Pommiers Trench that a real check occurred. Here the wire in front of Pommiers Trench was not cut and a mixed party of the B Company with men of the Berkshire Regiment proceeded to cut the wire in a most methodical way”.

“As regards the actual storming of the Pommiers Redoubt, this was carried out piecemeal, elements of B, C and D companies the latter having pushed forward in sections here and there, all taking part. It is quite clear that the front face was forced by parties swinging round to the flanks. Here many individual acts of great gallantry and devotion to duty were performed, as the German front trench which was held very tenaciously by the enemy and is now filled with their dead. Here too our losses were heavy, many of our dead lie round the front and flank of the redoubt. It is unquestionable that the Germans who remained in the Redoubt were either ordered or fully prepared to defend this last vital point in their line of defences to the last. The fight at this point was therefore extremely obstinate and costly to both sides. The redoubt was not in our hands entirely until roughly about 9.30 a.m., our first elements having arrived at 8.30 a.m. Before the Redoubt was taken men of all three companies had pushed on to the Maple Trench, which was subjected to a heavy shrapnel fire, and here it was that Captain Bull, commanding officer of B Company, who had done splendid work, was wounded severely and had to retire”.

“Beetle Alley was next to be occupied, by that time, though platoons had been reorganized, and were under the control of very junior non-commissioned officers. The three companies were still mixed. Losses had been very heavy in the taking of part of Pommiers Trench and the Redoubt. Those that were left were used in bombing attacks along the Montauban Alley and the eastern part of Beetle Alley, and during the latter part of the day, were among those who occupied White Trench where they are still as we speak”.

“C Company’s attack ran straight ahead from our line. It has been difficult to get exact details of what happened to the first two waves due to casualties. From observation it appeared as if the lines of both assaulting companies were moving on at exact intervals. From a sergeant in the fourth wave who eventually took command of the Company it seemed to him that the first two waves became merged before reaching Emden Trench. It is certain that the company passed quickly through our wire and doubled down the slope - reforming in the valley below. It is equally certain that their losses were heavier in the initial stages of the attack than B Company, for between Austrian and Emden Trenches a section of the company reserve had to be thrown in to make good a gap. Somewhere in the vicinity of Emden Trench this part of the attack came under the German barrage but the men dashed through it suffering very few casualties, as they put it behind them. After Emden Trench the left attack was left without an officer. Between Bund and Pommiers Trenches the line became very ragged and there was some difficulty in keeping formation as the fire was very heavy. The barrage on Pommiers Trench was so hot that the left company pushed on and lay in the open beyond it and the Maple Trench”.

“Whilst waiting there, C Company came under fire of machine guns and snipers. Men were laying in shell holes and any cover they could get, and there was again some considerable difficulty in reorganizing the line. Relief eventually came from B Company which had got ahead of C Company’s attack. As the Germans fell back C Company followed closely on them, and some made their way into the Redoubt and some outside. The bulk of C Company only remained about twenty minutes in the Redoubt and being scattered had once more had to be reformed in the open and came under shell fire which was avoided by their pressing on, but unfortunately they ran into our own barrage which compelled them to fall back. Thus they waited and on the barrage lifting rushed forward and took Beetle Alley without opposition at the place they entered it. Patrols were then pushed forward and the work on consolidation proceeded with. Those men who got into Beetle Trench have apparently remained there, for from Emden Trench they were without officers, the company being under command of a sergeant”.

“D Company, in support, crossed our wire two minutes into the attack. Its losses in parts were nil, for there was no machine gun fire at the time it crossed our wire. Their losses commenced at the German second line trench from a machine gun in the Emden Trench brought up from a dug-out  after the first waves had passed by. An officer was with it, who shot Sergeant Laughton and was, in turn, killed just a second too late by Sergeant Slough. Before reaching Bund Trench all the officers of this company were out of action. In the advance between Bund and Pommiers Trenches a machine gun from the left of Pommiers Trench held up the whole attack. It was being used on the parapet and moved about. This gun must apparently have been taken on by the 11th Royal Fusiliers, on our left, for it stopped firing and when the men rushed forward after being reinforced. They found heaps of ammunition but no gun. It was here that the elements of all three companies became mixed up, before taking the Redoubt and getting into Maple Trench”.

“A Company, in reserve, went through our wire ten minutes into the attack. This company came under quite a heavy barrage of shrapnel and machine gun fire. This latter seemed to come from direction of Black Alley. Half the losses of this company occurred while passing through the wire and two officers were put out of action before crossing our own fire trench”.

Captain Percival

The commanding officer of A Company is Captain Arthur Percival(2). He told me: "On arrival at the Pommiers Redoubt, a great state of confusion reigned. Men of four different Battalions (Bedfords, Royal Fusiliers, Essex & Berkshire Regiments) no officers and no non-commissioned officers As the Fusiliers were making for the Beetle Trench I at once sent forward three platoons with instructions not to go beyond it until arrival of 53rd Brigade on our right flank. I then set about the consolidation of the Redoubt and told off men of the 53rd Brigade into bombing parties to clean up Montauban Alley. At 10.15 there were no signs of the main attack of the 53rd Brigade. A strong party of Germans were holding Montauban Alley at this time. The first attempt to clear it was not successful but a fresh party of men of the Essex Regiment accomplished the clearing of it by 2.30 p.m. About 3.30 pm the same platoon of the Essex Regt. cleared Montauban Alley as far as Loop Trench. About 6 pm the Norfolk Regiment made good the remainder of Montauban Alley”

Colonel Price went on: “On my arrival at the Redoubt the confusion mentioned by Captain Percival was still very evident. My time of arrival was about 9.50. Pommiers Lane was choked with men, principally 53rd Brigade, and I had considerable difficulty in thinning the men out as at any moment there was danger of heavy shell fire from the Germans”.

“The situation at this time was critical. On the right the 53rd Brigade seemed solidly held up with no signs of any advance of their main attack, though considerable numbers of Essex & Berkshires had in some manner made their way into the Redoubt. Similarly on our left flank, the advance of the 91st Brigade (of 30th Division) had not made headway. The two assaulting Battalions of the 54th Brigade (7th Bedfords and 11th Royal Fusiliers) had made good as far as Beetle Alley which was being consolidated. The Northamptonshire Regt was close up in support. We were thus in a salient, on our right. Neither Montauban or Caterpillar Alleys were clear of Germans and there appeared to be heavy fighting in the direction of Montauban village. On our left Fritz Trench was held but to our left flank there was the wood of Mametz which might easily have harboured a large force for counter attack. Under the circumstances I deemed it more prudent to consolidate the positions already gained and to endeavour as far as possible to clear Montauban Alley in order to relieve the pressure on the 53rd Brigade”.

So the position this evening is that both 7th and 30th Divisions have made most or all of their objectives. The right flank of the huge attack made today has been a complete success. Sadly it has not come without a cost. Colonel Price reckons that around one hundred men of the 7th Battalion have been killed, about one tenth of its strength, perhaps twice as many are wounded. We will get true figures in the next day or two. For now, the battalion is watchful, preparing for any German counter-attack.

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

(1) See the map above for the German trench system and names of the trenches
(2) Infamous for surrendering Singapore to the Japanese in World War Two. By a bitter irony the surrendering garrison included 1st/5th Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment. Some of these men had fathers who served under Percival in the 7th Bedfords in World War One.

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