Pillbox, Shako, and Cap/Chapter V
Battle of the Somme, and its subsidiary, the battle for Gommecourt, Saturday 1st July, 7.30am[edit | edit source]
As the Kensingtons marched towards the front line they sang ‘songs of the day’– united in body. They cemented their bond and became a unit. Later, they didn’t question what they were told - for they had volunteered and did what they were ordered… for they wanted to be there to fight for King and Country and maintain the Empire… The few sceptics who joined the throng – not wishing to be left out, sang with just as much vim and vigour, along with their mates.
General Joffre wished to retain control of the Allied Forces. To ensure this would happen he placed the French Sixth Army alongside the new British Fourth Army under its commander Lieutenant General Sir Henry Rawlinson.
Sir Douglas Haig had an Army that had been enlarged from four Divisions, in August 1914, to fifty-eight two years later. To support this number it was necessary to have a comparable infrastructure.
Haig’s Headquarters was well behind the front line. His Army Commanders, each with their own Headquarters, was a further distance away. Communications between commanders and their troops was difficult to maintain - particularly during a battle.
Once battle had been initiated steady reliable information from the leading troops was impossible. Once the battle plan had been agreed and put into action there was nothing left to be done but continue with the plan, even if there were in some instances an overwhelming reason to alter it? The pre-battle artillery bombardment ordered by General Rawlinson was so intense that most telephone lines were cut even though they had been laid six feet under the ground, or two feet below the duck-boards in the trenches.
During the battle some important messages took over five hours to receive an answer. In instances where the artillery had to change its firing pattern or a communication trench its use. Discretion suggested they should be left alone.
A communication trench runs at right angles to the firing line - linking it to the rear. They are used to give cover and access - to the troops manning the front line, and passing the rear – for replacements. They provide cover for caterers, weapon supply, runners, and for medical orderlies.
The area commander directs that one communication trench is for ‘up’ traffic – to the front, and another for ‘down’ – to the rear. Messages, unless clear and simple, can be a distraction, some have been known to be a total confusion during battle. This problem was recognised by General Rawlinson, whose doubtfulness about the Territorial Army's efficiency added to his insistence that, 'The Big Push' was to be won on sticking to ‘the plan’, and by ridged training by rote – Taking away any ‘on the spot’ decisions.
There is no doubt that the orders issued by the British GHQ before the battle were comprehensive. The problem was: were they the right ones, and who, at the front, was to see that they were carried out or changed - to take account of changes?
The British Army Commander - General Haig, was a cavalry man. The job of battle commander was General Rawlinson’s, an infantryman, who had just returned from Gallipoli. He had been appointed by Sir John French, now retired.
General Rawlinson distrusted the quality, resourcefulness, and tenor of the Territorial Army. It was in his nature to be dogmatic, insisting on attrition by his guns rather than surprise, and a ridged wave formation rather than adopting the lie of the land - the contours of the battlefield - to give shelter and access.
His artillery was expected to win the battle, and all other aspects left to tactics set down in detail - comprehensively written up in ‘orders of the day’, which everyone had to keep to.
Communications on the battlefield - before and after the start of an attack, were primitive, and extremely unreliable. On the order to move forward the infantry was thereafter lost to strategic command. The Generals had no idea what was happening: how successful the artillery, how efficient the smoke-screen or whether the first wave progressed. It was not known if the timing was kept to, what casualties had been inflicted, and if the follow up plan was taking regard to what had gone before.
The Somme offensive was the result of the Chantilly Conference attended by the Allied commanders on December 5th, 1915. General Joseph Jacques Cesaire Joffre, aged 62, was the Allied Commander in Chief. He believed that the autumn offensives, in Champagne and Artois, were tactical successes, only brought up short by bad weather and lack of ammunition.
Prior to the Somme the Battle of Loos was undertaken by the 47th London and 15th Scottish Divisions. They had done all that had been expected of them by taking the mining village of Loos. It was then necessary for reserve divisions to be thrust in to strengthen the line. This was not achieved, and Sir John French paid the price.
In early 1916, battles were fought and pressure mounted across the whole northern front. These were planned and executed to take the pressure off the French troops at Verdun, where the German Crown Prince’s’ army had pushed the French back. The main British contribution was to be enacted on The Somme, a battle which was described as The Big Push.
Lt-General Allenby, the British Third Army Commander, and Lt-General Snow, its 7th Corps Commander, devised their plan for the diversionary attack on Gommecourt. They had it delivered to General Headquarters on the 4th June 1916.
Snow was given the task to pinch out the Gommecourt salient which stuck out on the Fourth Army’s left flank. It was hoped that this would be sufficient diversion to draw German attention away from the main attack up the main road to Bapaume.
The troops allotted to Lt General Snow were the 46th North Midland Division and the 56th London Division… plus detachments of Engineers and Pioneers.
This story is about the part played by The London Scottish and in particular their support battalion The Kensingtons.
Major General Hull, the 56th Commander, instructed the Kensington's Colonel Young, to 'safeguard our flank.' This was to be achieved by digging a connecting trench across No Man’s Land, and manning it. This special task was given to Major Cedric Dickens, Young’s second in command. Cedric Dickens was Charles Dickens grandson. He was a dedicated Territorial who attended Eton and Trinity Hall, and had trained as a Solicitor. He was well known and liked, playing a central role in the battalion. His men were in the main office workers and business men. It needed someone of Cedric's standing - to be respected and followed.
The Territorial Army was an updated version of The Volunteers. The Volunteers were part-time soldiers paid an hourly rate - exactly the same amount as the regulars. They attending an evening’s drill session once a week, shooting at weekends, and undertook a fortnight’s summer camp every year. This force was raised to defend the country - to be on hand when the country threatened - when the regular troops abroad.
Their Headquarters and Drill Halls were built in most large towns with their members drawn from the local citizenry. They were not expected to serve overseas nor transfer to other units but in fact did. It was these men, together with The Regulars, which made up the British Expeditionary Force.
They became known as the Terriers and were considered to be part of the nation’s social fabric - The Gentlemen were the officers and The Players, the men.
If this sounds rather amateurish and light hearted in many respects it was. It could be described as a club where local men met, acted out a soldier’s life, and had a drink at the bar. Most Regiments and Battalions had their own Masonic Lodge which was a further binding institution. Every so often there was a dance, an annual camp, and an outing for the officers and their wives. Weekend shooting - at various ranges - included Bisley. These were a respected pastime in the battalion’s calendar.
The sergeants too - had their club, and bar, as did the men. This volunteer system allowed the government to have a body of men who worked together - were immediately on hand for an emergency, and understood military procedures.
The Volunteer reserves are an important fabric of the country. Having it in place allowed the government to use it for emergency relief and to back up the police force, and other national services.
The regular officers were in the main men of the middle classes, conservative in persuasion, although ignorant of political theory. Their pursuits were hunting, playing cricket, and after dinner games, involving horseplay. Talking shop was something, ‘just not done!’
As Alun Chalfont remarks, in ‘Montgomery of Alamein’; ‘The BEF was an army almost totally irrelevant to the needs of the situation’.
Five years before the war broke out it was obvious to all that Germany was increasing its armed forces to a degree which took it beyond home defence or national security. It became apparent that the German aristocracy and military leaders were flexing their muscles and that a small incident could explode and turn into war, and this is exactly what happened - Belgian’s neutrality was violated, King Albert’s appeal to King George was met, and Imperial Britain found itself at war.
Now the Territorials were needed. Men, who had trained on the heath and were led by the nation’s professional classes, were called to the colours. These men became controlled by an officer class whose previous experience was based on the African Wars - where Churchill rode in the last cavalry charge at Omdurman. This was a force not long out of their scarlet uniforms.
Throughout the war, neither side really achieved a break-though. The last Allied push, which came right at the end of the war in 1918, succeeded only by America’s intervention - with men and equipment.
The introduction, of tried and tested massed tank formations did finally reap its just reward. The battle on the Somme was fought right in the middle of the conflict. You will see how desperate the struggle was and how futile the sacrifices made.
There are two accepted methods of defeating a strongly held position. Break through the enemy crust and push out into the country beyond, then circle back and pinch out the enemy’s supplies, or by repeated hammer blows, smashing all before your outward surge. Both need intelligence and information but the former needs hands on direction from the front.
In 1916, both the British and French Headquarter staff, and their respective political leaders, came to a joint agreement: their country's soldiers were at a disadvantage… The German Imperial Army was better trained, better led, and had better weapons… All this enabled them to hold their western front and consolidate, whilst looking ahead for the next conquest.
This recognition of Germany’s strength was not just seen in France but on all other fronts too: Russia was finding it difficult to sustain their effort, Hamilton in the Dardanelles had called off the unequal struggle. Serbia was crushed, and the Italians were reliant upon the munitions of its allies. Closer to home at Ypres the combined western forces had been held at bay, and Kitchener had died at sea. There was little to give light and hope.
This was reflected in the differing attitudes between the two sides. The Germans were in the main defending their gains, quite content to sit it out and wear down the attackers. Whereas the Allies were always pressing, attempting to get behind the opposing front line. The former’s philosophy was to dig deep and establish their position. The latter wanted to be on the move and not become bogged down.
The Chief of Allied Command, General Joffre, was of the opinion that success could be achieved on the western front. As the French Supreme Leader he authorised the reduction of the French overseas forces. This would give him more men to build up his depleted forces. He had been led to believe that the Russians would build up their army during the winter and would do their bit when the time came for a spring offensive. There was concord at the British and French Headquarters. Spring was to be the bearer of glad tidings.
When possible the Germans had always chosen the high ground not being pressed for territory would make a step backwards to achieve this. Now General Haig was being pressurized not only to relieve Verdun but to prepare a better jumping off place for future operations. He nominated General Sir H. Rawlinson to command his Fourth Army. If detailed planning held the key to winning battles this was going to be a walk over. General Rawlinson intended to make it his business to produce a plan of operations that was second to none in detail.
Field Marshal Kitchener became Minister of War; he had no illusions that this was going to be over quickly, or cheaply - in material or manpower. By 1915 it became clear more troops were needed and a plan was put in place to recruit five hundred thousand more. At the same time normal recruitment was continued in Regular and Territorial units. Your country needs you was the adopted slogan. It was Kitchener’s magnetism that galvanized the youth of the country to join the ranks.
By the end of that year two million, two hundred thousand men had volunteered. Many of these men were in France about to fight at the Battle of Ancre that summer. During the interim period training took place. Selected officers, N. C. O s, and men, were detailed off - for front line experience, attached to serving units.
It was generally practiced, by all units, that when major attacks were to be fought a core of each battalion was kept aside to train any new intakes should disaster befall. This was a sensible move and paid off later when so many men were lost, after the Somme battles. The training consisted of maintaining a number of set routines. Before dawn the men were roused to prepare for 'stand to' and, 'man the fire steps.' This was to prevent a surprise dawn raid. On many morning there was the usual 'hate' first shots, made to inform the enemy you were alert and 'on guard.'
Men cooked their own breakfast in small groups, shaving, washing, and cleaning continued in-between duties fetching and storing supplies. Both sides were doing exactly the same thing respecting each other’s periods of domestic calm. At night the reverse occurred until all was relatively quiet. Then the night owls came out to repair the wire, lay signalling wire, repair trenches and parapets, and be detailed off for working parties. Sentries posted and patrols sent out to capture prisoners, survey the ground ahead, and arrange the laying of trip wires.
At French Headquarters Petain was promoted to command the Tenth Army Group and Nivelle given command of Verdun. On the 11th of June Petain asked Joffre to speed up the British attack. He was desperate because Fort Vaux had fallen and he needed relief - from German pressure.
Twelve days later the Germans introduced the diphosgene gas shell and panic set in. It paralyzed the French artillery. Three days later the German almost scaled Belleville heights - the last outpost of Verdun. Petain made ready to evacuate the east bank. Four divisions were quickly dispatched by Joffre further weakening Rawlinson's force.
The French were facing huge losses - of a hundred thousand men per month. They needed a strategic diversion… There was only the British Army who could do it. Joffre and Haig agreed that the British Fourth Army would attack along a fourteen mile front, north of the River Somme, preceded by an artillery bombardment lasting five days. The French Sixth Army would attack on a six mile front south of the river. It was this army which became whittled down as troops were withdrawn to bolster up those at Verdun.
General Haig’s opinion was that Guillemont was not the most suitable place to make a breach in the German line. Nor did he concur with General Rawlinson's preference for a sustained artillery bombardment followed by an orderly follow-up by waves of infantry. These tactics he allowed to take place under a certain amount of duress.
Rawlinson was an Infantry General and Haig a Cavalry man who was new to the job. When Haig accepted the entreaties by General Joffre, to give succour to the French troops at Verdun, he relied upon Rawlinson to deliver the goods.
General Haig was a man of supreme confidence - of his own self-worth. This self-opinionated man was one of many such leaders. Perhaps they gained this high opinion by fighting armies from lesser nations - in both military thinking and hardware. Headquarter staff, considered that, as military leaders from the world’s greatest Empire, they were naturally superior. It was this misplaced confidence, in their ability was misplaced. Their military skills proved to be sadly lacking.
The British Army’s General Headquarters Staff were as good as any and the planners, second to none. What was lacking was good infantry tactics. General Rawlinson’s tactic, used during the earlier stages of trench warfare, was to shell the enemy front line allowing the British infantry to advance and seize the front. However, his tactic of preliminary sustained bombardment was largely unsuccessful.
The nature of no-man's-land, filled with barbed wire and other obstructions, was a factor that had to be taken into consideration.
For a British unit to get to an enemy trench line, it had to cross no-man’s-land, secure the enemy position - then face counter-attack. It also depended on the ability of friendly artillery, to suppress the enemy’s, which was frequently thwarted by the German' deep dug-outs and revetments. The British suffered by not having suitable ammunition and their artillery’s inaccurate fire. No attention was paid to the infantry having freedom of movement, making use of the terrain, operating covering rifle fire, and night fighting.
In Haig’s second Despatch, printed 29th December 1916, he submitted the principle of the Somme battle. It draws attention to his army’s lack of training, that any attack had to work in unison with what the French, the Italians, and the Russians were doing, whilst laying great emphasis on the pre-battle preparations regarding military and human necessity… going to great lengths about the difficulties he was faced with, claiming rightly: that the German front and rear lines were strong, and that the ability of flanking fire - from both machine guns and artillery, was going to be a problem.
The report is copious in length going into great detail on relatively minor excursions. The proof of the battles worth must be to compare the final casualty figures and the psychological effects it had on both the armies. Strong, highly planned night attacks, along the whole front line, made by area commanders knowing their front intimately, would have created the same relief to the French as to the British, and saved many thousands of men’s lives. However, I digress; you will have to make up your own mind…
The assault on Verdun by the German Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria created confusion. If matters got out of hand for the French the offensive might turn out to be a totally British responsibility, and that the French definitely didn’t want.
Rawlinson returned to his Headquarters after accepting that the French Sixth Army was going to join in the general assault. He gave orders that all the corps commanders, heads of staff, and the various branches should meet up. This included Generals Hunter-Weston, Morland, and Congreve as well as Birch the chief gunner and Montgomery - Rawlinson's chief of staff.
Rawlinson laid out a detailed report of his findings. The army would attack in June or July. 7 Corps would join them from the Third Army. The artillery would be reinforced by heavy howitzers - and there would be no stinting on ammunition expended.
There were to be many batteries to back up the big guns. Actually there were not that many guns at the time… the numbers were doubled later. A new order from Headquarters required signalling cable to be buried at least six feet into the ground… complex switch lines laid, roads reinforced whilst some widened, and the railway track extended – to get closer to the frontline.
Considering the poor weather and over use the trenches had to be repaired and where possible deepened. All this extra administration and supply needed a reserve of 4-5,000 men to keep pace. These front line maintenance programmes and improvements were led and organized by the engineers. The strength of the Fourth Army and the G.H.Q. Reserve would: double the numbers of men to 500,000 with 100,000 horses, and an increase in motorized vehicles. Training was put in hand immediately so that every part of the battle plan was understood. General Rawlinson laid great emphasis on the necessary supply of oil, and fuel, water, and food stuffs. Dugouts prepared for the medical centres, dressings, and drugs stocked up.
By the end of 1915, after the Battle of Loos, the front quietened down. It was obvious to all that although many men had died the end was still nowhere in sight. At home the country was at last waking up to the terrible conclusion that this was going to have to be outright war and everyone was going to have to contribute. Only new: tactics, weapons, and attitudes, were going to win through. Gradually, as the men were enlisted – taken from the workplace, women took over their jobs. In many instances they did them better. Women were more amenable and capable of far more intricate work where precision was required.
The Kensingtons needed new replacements to make up their numbers. After receiving another batch of reinforcements from England they were back up to strength. A new training schedule was devised to make the Division ready for front line fighting. This was neither the first time the battalion was reinforced nor, as it turned out, it’s last.
The reformed brigade marched off to Loos station and there entrained for Pont Remy. Arriving in pouring rain the brigade marched off again to Citerne. This village set in undulating countryside with few cottages or hamlets was rural in the extreme.
The weather was squally with occasional heavy falls of snow. Again, the brigade was housed in bell tents in a muddy field. The next day they engaged in strenuous training exercises using the latest tactics and weapons.
The automatic Lewis gun with its pan of bullets was going to be an improvement, so too the new grenades and Stokes mortar. Every day groups were detailed off to become expert in the use of these weapons, whilst wearing the new style gas mask. Route and speed marches, in full fighting order, were made at least once a week; distances over twenty-five mile soon led to men dropping out, to be picked up later by wagon. At last, the division set off away from Citerne to Longpre - a large farm complex.
By the time the battalion got to Longpre many men were complaining about blisters. They had short shrift from the sergeants who told them that it was an offence to have blisters and any more complaints then the malingerers would receive punishment for not taking due care. This soon settles everyone down. Guards were detailed off and the rest collapsed utterly exhausted. There were no blankets or food until the following day. The roads were congested by marching Frenchmen, and wheeled artillery… All racing to get to Verdun. Their movement delayed the battalion from continuing - so they had a forced couple of days of rest, interspersed with whatever practices the sergeants could think up - to keep them occupied.
The rolling hills and shallow valleys gave Picardy an appearance of Salisbury Plain. If compared to Ypres it had space, unobstructed views, and open countryside, suitable for unrestricted action. Those of a more frivolous nature described it as good hunting country. The regions ground surface was above layers of chalk, an ideal structure to construct deep shelters and communicating trenches.
The Germans were experts at making the most of their front line putting all their ingenuity into making substantial living accommodation to back up the forward troops. Both sides dug like mad to make extensive trench systems. Once again, the object was to take the strain off the French who were suffering many casualties at Verdun.
It is well to remember how the land north of the Somme was defended and by whom. In September 1914, when the Germens were trying to outflank the French, both sides tried to outflank the other until the British laid claim to the Channel ports, the French the Pas de Calais, the Belgians an area of land west of the river Yser, and the Germans the industrial heart and the coalfield, of Belgium and northern France. February 1916, when Joffre intended to offer up an offensive riposte to areas north and south of the Somme he passed over the French Tenth Army’s front to the British. By spring 1916, Allenby’s Third Army held the land to the north of Hebuterne and the Fourth Army land to the south; this area of combat was changed after the second day of the battle to call The Reserve Army. The Fourth Army Sector was concentrated further south – on Becourt.
The French had been the temporary custodians of Foncquevillers and Hebuterne. This was French land and they wanted the invaders out… This attitude describes the psychological moment: the British wanted to get the war over, and return home, the French wanted their usurped land back… both wanted movement not static defence. The Germans had taken the land - its resources and industry, and had for the moment other fish to fry – they were also fighting the Italians and the Russians, and not in a hurry to move… In which case they thought why not makes the station comfortable and secure? The German command had to instil discipline and order, to make their men happy. They set the men to work to make the line impregnable… letting the local commanders devise the best ways - to make their front efficient and militarily daunting to the enemy.
There is no better way for a leader to get cooperation from the men than to give them a chance to make their life more comfortable. The German trenches were in many cases fifteen feet deep, with dormitories, cook-houses, latrines and wash areas, stores, and armouries - all cut or buried into the ground, boarded and propped. Stairs, companionways, with reinforced head cover; wattle and board trench sides and raised duck-boards. Gun positions, machine gun nests, trench mortar pits, pill boxes, sentry boxes, observation and periscope sites, all frequently constructed using concrete.
The trench system was linked to communication trenches running back to their rear lines, with tunnels leading to vital sectors many lit by electricity and the sides taking telephone wires. Isolated hamlets, villages and factories, bisected by the front line, adapted and converted into fortified positions – as forts along the wall.
The German artillery and machine guns were laid and registered onto key British positions with the distances, indicated by marker stakes. This preparation allowed for immediate firing; each gun capable of overlapping lanes of fire with their next along the trench - to cover the open ground ahead, and where possible enfilade on either flank. All along the front banks of staked barbed wire many yards thick ran out into no-man’s-land. It was these well-constructed trenches that the first then the second wave had to suppress, navigate, and pass through, allowing the third wave to clear – by bombing and take prisoners. Further waves brought along spare ammunition and grenades and later waves got down into the trench to reverse the firing step and opened up access points, clearing blocked intersections and shell damage. Finally the stretcher bearers attended to the wounded and the dead. All this had to be negotiated and made secure before a break-out could attack the enemy rear. All this was to come if all went well.
During early May the 46th Division was out-of-line resting in their billet at Lucheux. After the mud, cold, and wet of Vimy, they appreciated the better weather, the good billets and the excellent country in which they now found themselves. The Chateau de Lucheux and the gateway, stands on the edge of a forest a few miles north of Doullens. As in all out-of-line camps fatigues were carried on, in this case, the men made revetments - to line trench sides.
The 56th Division marched to Souastre continuing their training much as the 46th were doing at Lucheux. A fortnight later they set off again, to march to Hebuterne, whilst the 46th occupied their billets at Foncquevillers. Both these villages held old French lines prepared in 1914. The sixteen or so miles both Divisions had to make were completed in the morning. Divisional Headquarters allowed them two days rest: exploring their local villages, doing some washing, and having a canvas bath.
Shouldering their rifles, they formed up again, to march onto Magnicourt. There they continued practicing attacks and had further instruction of bombing, and another exhibition of the German flamethrower, being told its uses and problems. The Generals were continually thinking of ways to keep the men occupied to prevent boredom and slack ways.
The Germans had launched a massive attack on the French Line at Verdun on 21st February 1916, and the battle was still raging, the French had lost almost half a million men. To alleviate the strain on the French it was decided that the British should make a strong attack on the Somme. Although the battle has been given the name of the Somme it was in fact the Battle of Ancre - another river, more central to the action.
This battle was not planned in isolation. The policy was to keep pressing the Germans on all fronts, in unison, which included the Italian and Russian fronts. All units had to send in night attacks to take prisoners and extract information about the opposing formations. The main battle front lay between Gommecourt to the north and Maricourt in the south. On the north of Ancre lay the village of Beaumont Hamel and Serre four miles south of Gommecourt.
The Somme is the name for a French administrative department taken from the name of the river, which runs through the region. The part held by the British was the northeast corner overlapping into the next department the Pas de Calais. This region of France formed part of the old province of Picardy; an old Roman road linked its cathedral city Amiens and two smaller towns of Albert, northeast of Amiens, and further still Bapaume. The region was crossed by two rivers the Somme and the smaller Ancre. The Germans were defending their gains. The Allies, intent upon pushing them back. The former, constructed deep secure trenches and dugouts whilst developing small villages into miniature forts. The latter, believed such tactics created a 'Sit it out' attitude. The British high command trusted to mobility and attack.
What was typical, the Germans always seemed to hold the high ground; not only could they observe what was going on, but knew that any attack had to be made uphill! They were more interested in securing a defensible position than more land. If this suggests that their leaders were more able, militaristic, and forward thinking, perhaps they were. What was true is that they were on somebody else’s land and their supplies came by road not by sea. As the advantage in war always favours the attackers the Germans held the stronger position.
Both sides were at this time depending on attrition – pounding their opponents into the ground. Not very subtle but the victor would be he who could sustain it longest. Putting in attacks that held no chance of being sustained, or, planned to end the campaign, was wasteful. The battle of the Somme is a case in point. It was never envisaged that it would finish the war and it certainly never had sufficient resources. The result was stalemate. Both sides were soaked in blood and worn out - for it all had to be gone through again! Did the powers that be ever learn any lessons? I am not sure they did and the age of the tank and American intervention was to come.
When General Haig planned this battle he wondered how he could give the attack a better chance! Whilst he considered this he told the commanders of his First, Second, and Third Armies to carry out constant threatening moves - to keep the German troops on their toes. Like all good commanders he consulted his Intelligence section and took sounding from his staff.
He came up with a diversionary movement. This was not a new idea as all commanders consider one, placing them at a distance from the main attack - the flanks being an ideal place. On Haig’s left was a salient sticking out of the German line. This was a continuing sore which would be the perfect place. Gommecourt, for that was the name of the salient would be ideal. As he could not take any forces away from General Rawlinson he contacted General Allenby - Commander of his Third Army - to request a corps transferred. Allenby chose the 46th and 56th Territorial Divisions. Their task was to mount a full-scale attack on Gommecourt. The object: remove the salient if possible, but more importantly, cause a diversion - to stop German reinforcements backing up their troops opposite the main British thrust - which was to be an advance up the main road from Albert towards Bapaume. This main force was Lt-General Rawlinson's Fourth Army, backed up and supported by Lt-General Gough's Reserve Army, who were hoping to break out - into the country beyond.
Neither Allenby nor Rawlinson liked the plan because there was a gap between their Army and Rawlinson's Fourth - leaving no protection to the right flank of the attacking force - between Gommecourt and Serre - the preserves of Hunter Western’ 8th Corps.
Behind Gommecourt - to the north, was the Quadrilateral, a defensive position surrounded by tracks. Southwest lay the village: the high street, crossroads, chateau, park, wood, orchards, and cemetery. By the time of the battle there were three lines of German trenches and interlocking communication trenches, plus their dug-outs and fortified posts. The whole lot constituted The Kern Redoubt.
From the centre of the main British attack at Albert, Gommecourt is some ten miles to the north. All the villages, through which the German front line ran, were turned into fortified strong-points. The Kern Redoubt was one, if not the main defence system in the line and as such going to be an extremely hard nut to crack. This was not obvious to the casual observer, for all the main troop locations were underground with passage ways leading to specific locations and key outer defences.
The machine gun nests were camouflaged; some with top cover others in strategic positions dictated by the attackers approach. The German defending artillery was used for counter battery and bombardment and was hidden by a number of woods. In front of the firing line was staked barbed wire strung to a minimum depth of ten feet. Both the little Z – a ziz-zag on the eastern flank, and the Z just before the village – a finger of park jutting out on the centre, allowed machine gun fire to enfilade the Sherwoods attacking the wood.
Lieutenant General Sir Thomas D'Oyly Snow KCB, KCMG, 1858-1940, was born in Newton Valence. He attended Eton and St John's College, Oxford, obtaining a commission in 1879. Promoted Captain 1887, took part the wars in Africa reaching staff rank in 1897. At the outbreak of the 1st World War he commanded the 4th Division finally becoming commander VII Corps on 15th July 1915. His force at Gommecourt comprised the 46th North Midland and 56th London Divisions.
It was Snow's plan and his alone, to create a pincer movement around the strongly held Gommecourt Park - the tip of the German salient. He had however, no freedom of action - about the numbers of artillery pieces he could muster, the type, or numbers of shells allowed for each gun, or the timing of his attack… for these had to conform to the main battle plan devised by his senior commander - General Rawlinson.
The diversion’s main aim was to draw German attention away from the main battle area - keep him occupied. Whereas, Snow’s plan smacks of ‘a positive aggressive action’ - to encircle, crush, and take.
If he had planned a single push using all his forces, on the weakest part of the German front line – somewhere where they could not be shot at by machine gun fire, whilst making his flanks secure his action would have had - a far greater effect. A narrow front allowed a greater concentration of fire - on batteries on the front and in the rear.
The then current General Staff instructions were: that no attack should be made: when having to advance more than 200 yards from the enemy. Snow stressed before the battle - to his two divisional commanders: ‘this is a diversion to support the main battle, your role is a strictly limited one; there are no reserves, and your attack should only take place when the German defences have been destroyed by the artillery’. These limiting factors are restrictive and important guidelines. They indicate that there was no strategic point in the attack, and that success dependant on a single outcome – the occupation of the Germans. During the attack all Rawlinson’s limiters would need verification - checked by a trustworthy officer who would then to report back. Presumably General Rawlinson received this?
There are no references to an on the spot examination, nor who was to make the decision, or by what means the information was to be carried back to those in charge. Only the commanding officer at the front can decide if the German defences have been destroyer sufficiently to be sure any attack would be successful. If he cannot be certain by personal knowledge he needs good, reliable information passed to him. On the day neither of these instructions were carried out. Within the first few minutes it was clear the German defences had not been destroyed and within the first two hours it was clear that here there was a disaster in the making.
Opposing his men, General Fritz von Below’s 2nd Guards Reserve Infantry Division (3 Corps = 15,000 strong), formed in August 1914 from non-Guards reservists from Westphalia, Hanover, and smaller German states adjoining Prussian provinces. They included artillery, cavalry and engineers. The Division was made up of the 26th Reserve Infantry Brigade, the 15th & 55th Regiments: and the 38th Reserve Infantry Brigade, the 77th & 91st. From spring until late June 1916, there was feverish activity along the whole Allied front which was gaining momentum. It was obvious to all, particularly the Germans, that there was going to an attack. This was even more evident to the German 2nd Reserve Division Reserve Regiments; all were purposely allowed to see preparation taking place. This was part of the ruse to draw attention away from the main British attack. General Haig's plan was to create a series of faints along the whole front - and to make them obvious. This order was carried out to the letter - all preparations were made openly. In May, von Below was informed by his Operations Branch that, ‘air surveys had reported the construction of a broad-gauge railway, new highways, and gun positions.’ Falkenhayn ordered his pioneers to construct a third line of defence – to give extra retiring positions.
A detachment of 8" howitzers was transferred, made up of captured Russian guns. However, Falkenhayn believed the British will only pin down the front - not make a serious attempt at Gommecourt. However, by 1st June, Below worked out by evidence that the British were going to attack Gommecourt and he ordered his men to be watchful. Practices were carried out to see how long it would take from a warning to get men up from the deep dug-outs, assemble their machine guns, and start firing – the eventual target was three minutes.
Fritz von Below and Prince Rupprecht were right, expecting the Gommecourt Salient, would be one of the main targets. Falkenhayn thought the British attack would be further north and refused to send extra troops. At the start of the battle the Germans were outnumbered seven to one. Lt-General Snow told General Haig,’ They know we're coming all right.' Von Below reinforced the Gommecourt Sector with the 2nd Guard Reserve in the middle of June and later with the 170th. Reserve Regiment.
The 2nd Guards Reserve Division was commanded by General Freiherr von Susskind which was part of General Stein’s 14th Reserve Corps. The German savours of the salient were: the 15th, 55th, 77th, and 170th Regiments.
All these German units had, at full-strength, a composite of 800 men in nine battalions. This was approximately half that of the British. The main difference between the two armies was: in training, the number of machine guns, artillery support, and provision of appropriate ammunition. Originally there were two German Regiments and their artillery holding the salient. This was increased to four with a number in support. The two new regiments brought with them their artillery to add to the 19th and 20th Reserve Field Artillery Regiment's fifty plus - which were already positioned there. A number of heavy howitzer batteries were included. All these guns could reach the 7th and 8th Corps troops stationed opposite Serre, Beaumont Hamel, and Gommecourt’s right flank.
Behind the 56th Division was the beautiful village of Hebuterne. The capital of the area was Amiens where the cathedral declared the regions religious obedience. The land was described as chalk-land. Hebuterne was one of the area’s largest towns. A few cottages lined the road with tall stately trees behind which lay orchards and gardens. Amongst these trees the French, the previous occupants, had constructed a number of trenches. The place was typical of the region. All the buildings were built of red sand brick except the church which was of imported stone. The main employer in the village had been the owner of the brick built mill. Its ruins and cellars now formed the battalion headquarters with all the usual staff: the Adjutant, RSM, clerks, runners, signallers, and cooks etc. - the entrances protected by sandbagged abutments. The French had also constructed trenches on the eastern side of the village closest to Gommecourt Wood using a number of inter-connecting communication trenches to give access for supply teams during the hours of darkness. Nearby was a bunker known as The Keep.
The village nestles between the British 3rd and 4th Armies, opposite the salient village of Gommecourt: it's chateau, park, wood, famous tree - the Kaiser Oak, and crossroads. In parts of the front line, the German trenches were only fifty feet away with a hedge in between. The Germans could be heard talking to each other.
By the time the British occupied their front line in 1916 Hebuterne was deserted - a ghost-town - a shadow of its former past, for it was in ruins. Even though the village and church had suffered terribly the tower still stood proudly silhouetted against the sky. As with all points of interest the Germans had the church entrance well within their artillery range - and zeroed-in - even though the entrance had been sandbagged - it was a dangerous place to linger, by standing at the Hebuterne crossroads - looking a mile north, you see the village of Gommecourt with its Cemetery and Park. Between Hebuterne and Gommecourt grew a hedge, interspersed with a few trees which lay in a coombe, a slight valley at an angle to the rise. This is where an advance trench was to be prepared.
The attack at the Gommecourt salient was to be a diversionary one - to delay or stop German reinforcements backing up their troops being made by the main British thrust up the road - the main supply route from Albert towards Bapaume. This Big Push was to be made by the British Fourth Army led by General Rawlinson backed up and supported by the Reserve Army of Sir Herbert Gough, whom it was hoped, would exploit the penetration by creating a rout in the German rear.
From the centre of the main British attack Gommecourt is some ten miles north. The salient sticks out into the British sector was an eye catching bulge, you couldn’t help but be drawn to it! Gommecourt is on a slight rise, dominating the countryside around. The trees in the park had been stripped of their foliage by shellfire making the place ghostly – possessed by evil. It is the village, Park and Cemetery which are contained within the Kern Redoubt whose administration centre was the Quadrilateral, a fortified box – formed by tracks on all sides.
The German front line trench outlines the geographical spur and the village complex. Behind the line the D6 road from Foncquevillers south to Serre. The coombe between the two chalk banks held No Man's Land. The Crucifix on the British front line stood on the shoulder of the valley. As with all German held villages situated on their front line, the buildings became fortified strong-points making this a very strong fortified position. In front of the German trench line runs barbed wire strung on iron stakes in a series of rows, the wire made the position impregnable. The German Front Line trench was serviced with support and guard lines all linked to the communication trenches which stretched back to the central fortress.
The German Front Line was a deep trench well revetted bearing a parapet. It was dug twelve to fifteen feet deep shored up at intervals with timbering and wicker-work. Along its length it was further strengthened by reinforced bomb proof shelters. Cut into the rear of the German trench were deep dugouts some served with their own periscopes on a tripod. It was the job of the observation squads to inform their colleagues if an attack was in being made. A number of tunnels and cuttings lead back to the new third trench… one in particular led back from the Z on D6 road - the Staffordshires front which was to be such an important contribution to the German counter attack.
When the alarm was raised, by the German observers, their shout triggered a timed response of three minutes. Their machine-gun teams assembled their weapon for rapid fire. It was these machine-gun teams and supporting artillery that were the chief danger to both advancing Divisions. They were placed where they would do most damage having a clear field of fire each situated where they could enfilade the area to their front. The German artillery parks, of all calibres, were hidden in the woods behind Gommecourt. They were of equal, if not superior in number, to their British counterparts. Forming the hub of all this was the command centre at the Quadrilateral. The whole salient dented the British Sector. The Germans had the time and the inclination to make themselves as comfortable and as impregnable as possible.
The German 170th Reserve defended this fort. They wanted to survive and to see another day! Part of the German defence was to set up their machine guns so that they could sweep their front and cross over and cover the next gun along the line. At night each gun was set up on fixed lines to cover a particular weak spot or gap in the wire. The gun could be discharged at irregular moments throughout the night dissuading nightly patrols, capture and repair parties.
Against the Germans were pitted the 46th and 56th Divisions. They were going to be asked to walk across No Man’s Land, in line, evenly spaced out, whilst trying not to bunch up, or take shelter. If they could keep pace with the advancing barrage they were assured the Germans were not going to stand up on their firing steps but were going to keep their heads down. This creeping barrage was there to force the enemy to keep below their parapet.
As there had been an almost continuous gunfire for the previous week - planned to destroy the banks of staked barbed wire and gun nests, taking the Redoubt was not going to present a problem. This was the considered belief at British Headquarters. Others less knowledgeable thought this show was going to be a walk over.'
Two days before the attack patrols reported that there were great gaps in the German wire and some of the German positions vacated. On the 46th Division’s front patrols reported there were no gaps, and that there was a large unreported hollow in the ground that was filled with half buried wire.
The weather was squally with occasional heavy falls of snow. Again, the brigade was house in bell tents in a muddy field. The next day they engaged in strenuous training exercises using the latest tactics and weapons. The automatic Lewis gun with its pan of bullets was going to be an improvement, so too the new grenades.
Every day groups were detailed off to become expert in the use of these weapons, including using them whilst wearing the new style gas mask. Route and forced marches, in full fighting kit, was made at least once a week. Both these marches were over twenty-five mile in length. This soon led to men dropping out, to be picked up by wagon. At last, the Division set off away from Citerne to Longpre - a large farm complex.
In October 1915, the battalion casualties had been so bad that the Kensingtons and Irish Rangers had amalgamated. During three months in early 1916 when replacements became available - from training battalions in Britain, they were shipped over to fill up the places, allowing both battalions to reform.
Both were now in training at Halloy which gave the replacement troops time to become familiar with the old salts, and for them all to become proficient with the new Lewis machine gun and Stokes mortar. Particular emphasis was laid on their bayoneting skills. Lectures and demonstrations were laid on to re-introduce the skills necessary. Steadily, as each company became proficient, they took over the Hebuterne sector, on the left of the Somme front - opposite Gommecourt.
A close study of the Somme battles and particularly the attack at Gommecourt, although a subsidiary, gives a picture of the thinking processes of those engaged in organizing and conducting warfare at that time. A great deal of confidence was shown towards what was expected by the various artillery pieces and their ammunition. Here is a list of effects the guns were expected to deliver:
Destroy the will of the opposing forces. Kill as many of the enemy as possibly. Lay waste to enemy dugouts, underground bunkers, and guard posts. Destroy their counter batteries, artillery, and rear facilities. Stop supplies from getting forward. Produce chaos in the enemy’s rear. Break up the staked and coiled barbed-wire. Lay down a smoke-screen. Fire ahead of advancing troops. Destroy, when asked, identified gun-sites and machine-gun nests.
Time and again in both world wars it was proved that the artillery did not achieve what was expected… even if great care taken by sighting and laying the guns. It needs a spotter’s identification to register a correct fall of shot before trying another and even then you do not know the actual result.
To fire a gun half a mile away from the target so that the shot falls into a trench three feet wide needs many attempts. The shell must be fused to ensure it explodes before being buried in the mud, or just at the lip of the trench - to achieve maximum devastation.
To take out a machine gun nest built three sand bags high to give cover to the height of a crouching man sitting on the ground in a five foot pit in circumference is a challenge. The trench had to be large enough to accommodate his number two, spare ammunition and cooling tank and all covered with a shrapnel proof roof of turf that protects and camouflages the nest.
The Germans were purposely forewarned about the attack but not the timing. At the start of the barrage they had either dropped below the parapet, into a twelve foot deep dugout, or retired back to a rear trench. They had practiced many times to get to their weapon pits, erect their guns, and stand to in three minutes.
Staked banks of coiled barbed wire even if subjected to exploding shrapnel is not always severed, and even if it is, it doesn’t just fall to the ground in neat pieces, but resumes its coil – tends to spring back. To rely upon it being passable when so much is at stake, and not make any proper verification, is foolhardy.
Until the following year when more tanks appeared the wire was going to continue to be one of the great hazards for the battle planners. As soon as the enemy saw an effort was actively being made to cut, blow up, or tow away their wire they knew an attack was imminent.
General Rawlinson’s Wave System involved an advance behind a rolling barrage. This creeping barrage was laid down one hundred yards in front of the leading wave – usually ‘A’ Company - of the advancing battalion. They would fall-in on the trench parapet and face the enemy. Each man was to be dressed five yards apart, one hundred yards between waves, with their arms at the port. Their advance was to be slow and deliberate no faster than two miles per hour. There was to be no stopping for any reason, maintaining the correct distance behind the barrage. The battalion would take nine minutes to pass a given point covering an area 400x900 yards.
It is obvious that any enemy machine gun still operating would lay havoc - as it did for the Sherwood Forester’s first waves, advancing towards the Quadrilateral; likewise the German artillery barrage from behind Serre, ranging in on the Kensingtons, who were about to dig the communication trench - to their front - in no-man’s-land.
Infantry Weapons and Tactics
The troops engaged in the attack on the Kern Redoubt were mainly those of the Infantry. The basic weapon in 1916 was the Short Magazine Lee Enfield Mark III, made at the Enfield Manufacturing Co Ltd. It was designed by the American James Lee and built at the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, first produced in 1903. It had a ten-bullet magazine and a high rate of fire. There has been much written about its quality - in comparison with the German Mauser. As the same design was used for over fifty years of manufacture it speaks for itself, as to its usefulness and reliability. It was a most excellent rifle and served the Country and Commonwealth with distinction, could be used in rapid fire - firing over twenty rounds a minute. The short Lee Enfield went out of use during the Malayan War in 1948-1960.
The Webley revolver at the outbreak of the First World War was the Mk V adopted December 1913. On 24 May 1915, the Webley Mk VI was adopted as the standard sidearm for British troops and remained so for the duration of the First World War, being issued to officers, airmen, naval crews, boarding parties, trench raiders, machine-gun teams, and tank crews. The Mk VI proved to be a very reliable and hardy weapon, well suited to the mud and adverse conditions of trench warfare. Vickers Mark I Machine Gun. A development of the Maxim gun had been in service with the British Army since the turn of the nineteenth century. The gun was water-cooled and fed by a canvass belt holding 250 rounds. The gun was served by a team of nine usually an officer, two NCOs and six other ranks. All ranks were expected to take each other’s jobs in an emergency. During the attack on the Redoubt a number of these guns were taken over and used against the German lines. Their use was mainly restricted to protecting the right flank or when men were falling back when the attack petered out. Any other firings had the possibility of becoming friendly fire.
Lewis Light Machine Gun
Once again a weapon devised in the USA, in 1911. Air-cooled with a rotating magazine fitted on the top. Lighter, cheaper and simpler to manufacture. Became standard British close support, automatic weapon. Mills Grenade A hand-held bomb, invented in 1915, by William Mills. It was a hand thrown cast iron fragmentation bomb with delayed action fuse weighing 1.5 lbs with firing lever release pin... Has a thirty yard range, and a possible ten yard killing zone. Bombing parties were formed to clear a trench, its traverse, and mined dugouts. In normal fighting the Mills grenade is used for house and pill-box clearances.
Sir William Scott-Stokes was a civil engineer by trade: Chairman and Managing Director of Ransomes & Rapier of Ipswich. Invented the trench mortar in 1914 made ready to use at Loos firing smoke canisters. The invention, using a cartridge fired by a raised pin, could be adapted to fire fragmentation and solid shot up to 800 yards. Over time, having many modifications became: extremely versatile, simple to use, quickly set up, and very portable.
It was quickly realised that this was the only way to effectively clear a path in barbed wire defences. The tube could be loaded with gun cotton or dynamite sticks and several lengths of the tube could be joined together depending on the width of the barbed wire entanglement. The firing element comprised of a fuse and safety pin setting off the charge in tandem. The object was to thread the tube trough the wire not pushed along the ground. It was the job of the Royal Engineer detachments to make those breaks in the wire.
The final bombardment started at 06.00 on the 1st July. The gunners had saved up for this occasion. It was the greatest bombardment ever laid on, and it went on all along the front. The ferocity lasted an hour before the leading formations rose-up out of their trenches. The ground shook, earth crumbled split apart and cascaded down the sides of the trenches - it was teeth clenching and alarming. Fountains of mud, dust, smoke and debris shot into the air. For anyone brave or stupid enough to look over the parapet they would only see Dante's Inferno and hear the crump, whistle, whine and shriek of metal particles whizzing through the air. The British gunners did try and focus their weapons on particular targets. They were as inexperienced to their task as the infantry were to theirs. They were certainly not the highly trained men of the French School of applied artillery and engineering in Fontainebleau. Great attention was paid to bombarding known strong points: in the Park, centre of the village, the Maze of trenches the London Scottish were going to pass through, Nameless Farm, and the little and large Z points in the line that could enfilade the 46th Division’s advance. Further north was Pigeon Farm another German strong point.
The Infantry saw the gunner's jobs as: 'To take out the opposition's guns, and destroy his barbed-wire' - this is what they had been told by their officers.
The Field Siege Guns and Howitzers were under the Royal Artillery command of Brigadier General C. M. Ross-Johnson. The Heavy Artillery controlled by Brigadier General C. R. Buckle, and the Chief Engineer was Brigadier General J. A. Tanner. These leaders believed they could do all that was asked of them. The British guns at the Somme fired some 20,000 tons of various size shells, a total of 1,627,824 individual shells, according to Official History - but it was the wrong sort of shell. It requires high-explosive to damage trenches and the British did not have enough. Three-quarters of all the shells fired were shrapnel, useless for affecting anything that was well covered, or for cutting barbed wire. A considerable quantity were dud.
Mud, and there was a lot of it on the front, absorbs and cushions the metal particles. The harder the surface the more effective the fragmentation - when the shell explodes, whatever the type of shell. A great many shells were dud or did not explode. The effectiveness is reliant upon perfect manufacture of the explosive charge, the correct amount of explosive material placed in every shell and the weight of each shot being precisely the same.
The gun has to be stable, have its trailing bars firmly anchored and mounted on solid ground. The bore of the gun must not be worn and the sighting arrangement secured. None of these essentials are any use until the sighting shots, straddles, plotted and registered accurately.
It was early on in the war. The Army was still operating on a pre-war mind-set. Such things as conveyor-belt manufacturing, studied chemical composition, ballistics, distances, angles, mathematics, and mapping points, not greatly studied by the regulars let alone the Territorial Units. Intelligence gathering, ciphers, information sifting, gun emplacement recognition, photographic evidence, sound location, aerial spotting, were primitive.
The communication methods almost ineffectual especially once the battle had begun. All these are necessary for accurate gun laying, firing, observation, and achieving scored hits working under the command of forward observation posts, in contact with the advancing troops. ‘Indirect fire could be done off the map but the maps in France were not good: and at the start of the war not squared or gridded. Various other methods were used adopting aiming posts or triangulation. Fire was corrected by observation, needed because the battery observer and target were not accurately fixed. Errors in range were not very significant due to the range zone of the gun but error in line meant always missing the target.
The Royal Flying Corps was commanded by a former Lieutenant-Colonel of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, H. M. Trenchard. The RFC had two categories: spotting for the artillery, photography, and reconnaissance; bombing, and fighting in the air. Before, and during the battles that encapsulated the battle of the Somme, close cooperation between the Flying Corps and the gunners was paramount. Special flights were made that involved artillery observation specifically to reduce the opposing guns. The relatively new craft of air photography became an exact science.
Bombing too began to be taken seriously and became highly organised; night flights for particular targets - those greatly defended by small arms, became a serious occupation... Number 43 Squadron being the first long-range strategically reconnaissance squadron engaged in assessing military build-up in the enemy rear.
The first action the 46th North Midland Division was engaged in was at The Battle of Loos when they attacked the Hohenzollern Redoubt. This was another of the strongly held fortified villages along the front. The 46th had been the first territorial Division to land in France and it was from the Lancashire Fusiliers that they were instructed in the art of trench warfare. On the 1 June 1914, Major General Wortley 1857-1934, became commander of the British 46th North Midland Division. The Division was part of General Allenby’s Third Army. On 20th April 1916 the Division was withdrawn from Vimy and ordered south. By May they were at Lucheux recuperating after the battle’s horrors.
The 46the Division were billeted in Foncquevillers and commanded by Major General Hon. E. J. Montagu-Stuart-Wortley. They were attached to Lt-General D’Oyly Snow’s VII Corps. His Corps was part of the Third Army, whose General Office Commanding was Gen Allenby. The Division incorporated the North Midland Division, who were to attack the north side of the fortified village of Gommecourt - on the left flank on the British Line.
The Division was made up of three brigades: the 137th led by Brig-Gen H B Williams, which included: The North and South Staffordshires. The 139th Brigade commanded by Brig-Gen C T Shipley’s 1st 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8 battalion Sherwood Foresters, and in support, were the138th Brigade’s, 1st 4th and 5th Lincolnshires, led by Brig-Gen G C Kemp.
Last but not least the 1/1st Monmouthshire Pioneers who attended to all their field engineering work. As the Division began to gather together at Lucheux they were ordered to practice their bayoneting skills whilst acting in a variety of servicing and communication skills building pipelines, laying track, building roads, trenches and gun pits. This was preparing for The Big Push. They were now attached to General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army. Their task was to help liberate the Gommecourt salient by linking up with the 56th coming towards them from the other side of Gommecourt Park.
While the Staffs and Sherwoods had been practicing for the attack on the 1st July the Lincoln and Leicestershire battalions were occupying the British Front Line before Gommecourt Park and Wood. There, on the 4th June they patrolled at night, and improved the trench conditions, which was suffering under the continuous downpours of rain. Whilst they were there they were told they were to be attached to the 46th Division.
It was during the practices - simulating the attack on Gommecourt, that the battalion commanders came to the conclusion that they could not manage all that they were being asked. They appealed to General Snow who agreed to loan them the Lincoln and Leicester battalions who were to provide three companies from each to line up behind the Staffords and Sherwood Foresters bearing extra stores and ammunition. The fourth companies (400 men) were to dig a communication trench stretching from the British front line to the German – across no-man’s-land, to aid supply and keep safe from shelling men acting as reserves.
On the 24th June the British artillery started to zero in on the German gun parks to the rear of Gommecourt – hidden in Pigeon, Biez, Square and Rossignol Woods. These shots were meant to register the guns onto the targets. Unfortunately it requires accurate bracketing shots to be sure when the time comes those targets would be hit. The gun barrels and any rifling has to be new, the shells have to fit accurately and have exactly the same amount of propellant, the gun trail has to be properly secured and the ground under the wheels firm.
The Observation Sections, whose job it was to register the fall of shot were responsible for maps, flash spotting, and sound ranging. Considering all these factors you would not want to rely upon the artillery taking out the opposing guns. Unfortunately that is exactly what General Rawlinson did. It was only the previous October that ‘Counter-battery work was to be left to the heavy artillery and a special officer, with the necessary assistants, attached to each Group Commander. By July 1916 the system was still in its infancy.
Surveyors were organized into Field Survey Companies RE; one per Army… each Army had an Observation section for flash spotting and a Sound Ranging section. At the battle of the Somme information was passed via telephone exchanges. These however, were frequently destroyed.
On the night of the 27th June, the area suffered 48 hours of continual rain. The Staffords and Sherwoods filed into the forward trench early the next morning, where they tramped knee deep in mud and slime. The battlefield before them was a quagmire with shell hols filled with water. It was a most depressing sight. It was obvious that the attack would flounder especially as the men had to carry such a vast amount of extra material. At the last minute the attack was put back 48 hours to the 1st July. Now the men in the front line trenches had to be withdrawn to allow them to dry out and rest. For the Sherwoods and Staffords they had to return to Lucheux to demonstrate before General Snow a practice run before they returned to perform the actual run.
At 06.24 on the 1st July, the final shells were sent over using high explosive and smoke. Trench mortars provided more accurate distribution of smoke bombs. Few doubted the Germans had been destroyed the bombardment had been a moral boost. At 07.27 the Sherwood Foresters discharged the final rounds of smoke into no-man’s-land.
At 07.30 the Staffordshires and Sherwood Foresters climbed out of their new forward trench - using ladders or steps cut into the trench sides. Their Sergeants, helping to pull the men out, under the watchful eyes of the Captain and his Lieutenants, who would themselves fall in behind their own companies, with the Company Runner and Engineer/Signaller next to the Captain. All the ‘A’ Companies of each battalion would line up on their parapet dressing five yards between each man. They would advance side-by-side until they had reached one hundred yards. The first three waves would total 600 -700 men.
The day was bright and clear. They moved off at a steady pace with their rifles at the port, bayonet in the air. Behind them further waves lined up and followed them. There was no shouting or light banter they were all too nervous wondering what was going to happen to them. The Sergeants as much to bolster their own courage told them to keep in line and not bunch up… but the ground was pitted with holes half full of water there was no way they could keep a perfect line. The Sherwoods passed over the German front line and disappeared into the wood… When the time came round the ‘B’ Companies would climb out and do the self-same thing… each company, battalion, and supporting battalion, following one-behind-the-other, keeping to a steady 2 miles per hour pace so that the artillery bombardment - put on to keep the German heads down, would be 100 yards in front of the first wave.
Each man would be carrying his battle order kit, spare pair of socks and extra ammunition. Later waves would bring forward duck boards to span the German trenches, ladders to reach down to the bottom, spare ammunition and grenades, and digging tools. So far everything was going well. The first two waves had got across, and there was no reply by the enemy, they were soon lost from sight. Suddenly one felt the wind freshen, it sent a shiver down the spine, as the smoke swirled about and then began to clear. Now the whole panorama presented itself to the German Observers.
The attack by the 46th went as follows: the…
…1/7th Sherwood Foresters, commanded by Lt-Col Hind: to capture the German trenches, Food and Fork trench to their front, leaving later waves to clear up and reverse the firing step. They were to push on past the Schwalben Nest to the Quadrilateral, there to link up with the 1/9th London Rifles, Queen Victoria’s.
1/6th Sherwood Foresters: were split into two: 2 Companies were to back up the advancing 1/5th and 2 Companies the 1/7th Sherwood Foresters. They were all to clear and consolidate the captured trenches.
1/5th Sherwood Foresters commanded by Lt-Col Wilson: to advance and take the German front line, make their way through Gommecourt Wood and head for the Quadrilateral - to give support to the 1/7th.
1/8th Sherwood Foresters were to act as a reserve formation bringing supplies up to the front, looking after the spare ammunition and grenades, whilst collecting up the wounded.
1/5th North Staffords commanded by Lt-Col Burnett were to form extra waves - following behind the 1/6th North Staffords. To clear German trenches, and bear supplies into Gommecourt village and Park.
1/6th North Staffordshires commanded by Lt-Col Boote: to take the German front line and move quickly into the village to support the 1/6th South Staffords - in taking ‘The Keep’ – a strongly fortified position, and meet up with the London Rifles… coming from the south.
1/5th South Staffords commanded by Lt-Col Raymer: to form extra waves - following behind the 1/6th South Staffords. To clear German trenches, and bear supplies into Gommecourt village and Park.
1/6th South Staffords commanded by Lt-Col Thursfield: to split: one half meeting up with the 1/4 London Rifles, and the other half taking the German Fist trench - guarding the Park, bypassing the Kaiser Oak to attack the rear of the Germans in their front line trench Fit and Fig.
1/4th Lincolns Regiment were commanded by Lt-Col Barrell. 3 Companies were to form an extra wave behind the 2 1/6th Companies of the Sherwood Foresters acting as carriers - to supply spare ammunition and grenades, and to tidy up and clear the German trenches. ’D’ Company, to dig a communication trench - across no-man’s-land, to ease the supply chain.
1/5th Lincolns Regiment commanded by Colonel Sandall. 3 Companies were to form an extra wave behind the 2 Companies of the 1/6th Sherwood Foresters. They were to act as carriers – to supply spare ammunition and grenades, and to tidy up and clear the German trenches. The final Company, were to dig a communication trench across no-man’s-land, to make safe the supply chain.
Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Young assumed command of the Kensington Battalion on the 28th June 1916, just two days before the attack at Gommecourt. Major Cedric Dickens the second in command… having been with the battalion since entering France had a greater understanding of the officers and men.
The 56th London Division was probably the most highly trained territorial division in the British Army. Its four component parts had seen a lot of action already losing few men but maintaining a high proportion of their original pre-war volunteers. The men were in the main well educated, working as managers and office workers in London’s business sector.
The Kensingtons formed part of the 56th London Division in January 1916, after the war office authorised its re-formation. By the end of the following month the 56th Division’s composition was complete being joined by the 1st Battalion Cheshire Regiment as their Pioneers and the 1st Field Ambulance Section - ready for the battle of the Somme.
Major-General Hull based his plans, for the attack on Gommecourt, on orders given to him by General Snow. Snow conformed to decisions made by Lt-General Rawlinson, in overall command. Snow’s brief was to create a diversion at the salient to draw German attention away from the main battle area. He was also told there were no reserves and no troops set aside to take advantage of any gains made.
General Snow, conceding that the German defences were strong, decided to plan an encircling movement – to attack from the flanks. Concerned about the distance between the two front lines a plan was put into effect to dig two new trenches in No Man’s Land before both Battalion’s Sectors. On the 56th Division’s front the task was given to Brig-General Loch. When the trench had been completed, his orders were to keep it occupied with his 167th Brigade which was made up of two battalions of Royal Fusiliers and two of the Middlesex, until the attacking troops took over prior to the battle.
Hull was in command of the 56th 1st London Division and the attached pioneer battalion the 1st Cheshires - occupying the British sector south of Gommecourt. This was the right arm of the pincer movement surrounding the park and village. They were to meet up with the 46th North Midland Division coming towards them from the north side, led by Major General Wortley.
According to Brigade orders, Part 2, 'Success is assured and casualties are expected to be 10%. ‘Martin Middlebrook’s, ‘The First Day on the Somme,’ page 97.
This assumption of success was handed down from General Headquarters and was widely believed by all senior commanders. It was a confidence which was misplaced, but dominated every facet of the battle’s planning.
The reader will become aware that the orders of battle – the tasks set for the 46th and 56th Division, were almost identical. There were only one or two changes, to do with their positions on the battle field that were different… but in effect were the same. They were facing the same enemy, using the same tactics, using the same weapons. The distances were approximately the same, as indeed the goal.
The 56th London Division, commanded by Major General C. P. A. Hull: Included the167th Brigade - made up by the 1st Royal Fusiliers, the 7th Middlesex, the 3rd Royal Fusiliers and the 8th Middlesex. The 168th Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Loch with Brigade Major Captain Neame and Staff Captain Major Wheatley had as their battalions: the 4th Royal Fusiliers, the 13th Kensingtons, commanded by Lt-Col. Young, the 12th London Rangers and the 14th London Scottish. The169th Brigade: contained the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, the 9th Queen Victoria Rifles, the 5th London Rifles, and finally the 16th Queen's Westminsters. As their Field Engineers they had the 5th Cheshire Pioneers commanded by Lt. Col. Groves. Major General Hulls Plan: at Zero hour, had the 1st London Rifle Battalion - Royal Fusiliers, commanded by Lt. Col. Wheatley: to advance from Y48 trench, take the German Fen and Ferret trenches… pass on to take Female trench… bear left at the Cemetery setting up two strong points either end > split: one Section to enter the Park - take the Germans in the rear… then set up a strong point at the southern edge of the Park, another to meet up with the Staffordshires, whilst a further to head for the village - there to meet up with the remaining Staffords.
The 1st Queen Victoria Rifles, commanded by Col. Dickins: to advance from Y49 trench, take the German Fern and Fever trenches > pass on to take Feed and Flint > continue over to secure the German rear trench and set up a strong point at the junction with the communication trench Epte. The 1st London Rangers commanded by Col. Bayliffe were to advance from Sector W50 trench, take the German Fetter and Fate trenches > pass on to take Felt trench and Nameless Farm, secure the German rear trench and set up a strong point to enfilade the ground beyond – at the bend in Fame. The 1st London Scottish commanded by Lt. Col. Green were to advance from W51 trench, take the complicated German trench system to its front pass on through to take the German Fact and Fable trench setting up a strong point to secure the right flank - by developing the maze of German trenches. When the German front and second line trenches had been secured the 1st Queen’s Westminster, commanded by Lt. Col. Shoolbred: were to advance from Y48 trench, pass between the London Fusiliers and the Queen Victorias and make for the Quadrilateral – there, to link up with the 1st Sherwood Foresters.
1st Kensingtons, commanded by Lt. Col. Young were to advance in support of the London Scottish. ‘A’ Company, and parts of ‘C’ and ‘D’ Company were to construct a communication trench, with the aid of the Cheshire Pioneers and Engineers, between the two front lines in no-man's-land… constructing fire steps to the right. This working party was to be covered by snipers and their observers… then secured by the Sappers wiring party.
At this stage in the war battalion numbers were varied - men were added and taken away almost on a daily basis – after any battle - numbers dropped alarmingly, to the extent that at some stages battalions were combined - to make a fighting unit. As a rough estimate it would be safe to consider a battalion comprising four Companies, each made up of two hundred men, and within this, a squad being about fifty.
Part of The Kensington ‘B’ Company and two sections of Headquarter bombers, were to clean up the trenches left by the London Scottish of any lingering Germans. The remainder of ‘B’ Company was to act as a carrying party to move forward ammunition and bombs. Meanwhile most of ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies were kept in reserve… whilst lending a hand to keep the London Scottish supplied. Both the London Scottish and the Kensingtons were to protect the right flank from German penetration.
On the face of it this is a very sensible plan and considering the artillery supplied quite feasible. But like all plans it doesn't allow for what the opposition is likely to do and for unknown circumstances. The Germans were never going to sit idly by and allow their deep galleried trenches protected by machine guns to be overrun. After all, their artillery was larger, better designed, more modern, having gun crews better trained. As observed by General Snow, there was this gap between the 56th and the 10th Division attacking Serre. These were the neighbouring troops a mile away on their right. If the British could take the German trenches quickly, after the artillery had done its job, all would be well?
General Rawlinson believed that the only way he would be able to make sure his orders were being carried out was by incessant hard training - by the participants doing everything strictly by rote. He planned for his: ‘Big Push to operate like clockwork, relying on detailed planning and continual practice; two operations that were going to win him the battle. Especially now, when he was dealing with Territorial soldiers…, ‘who might not be up to it.’
The British effort was going to be preceded by a 5-day bombardment designed to meet maximum destructiveness. An hour before the advance, smoke shells were to be fired, and the German front line receive its final onslaught from the massed guns. From then on, the artillery were going to lay down a creeping barrage 100 yards ahead of the first leading wave - to keep the German’s heads down. Further waves of riflemen were going to give support, clear the taken trenches, and bring up supplies.
The infantry would advance in regularly spaced waves, 100 yards apart, five yards between each man; each Company to follow one-after-another with their Captain and Lieutenants following their men. They were to occupy the German trenches, clear them, and keep moving forward. All this movement was to be done according to the strict timetable, so that the leading waves of troops could take full advantage of the softening barrage. Support waves would consolidate and prepare for their next advance. This was not going to be like the child's game of 'What's the time Mr Wolf!' for there could be no stopping - having to keep up with the sequenced shelling. If the leading wave got too far forward their own guns would fire on them, if too far back the Germans would be up out of the dugouts firing at them.
Major General Wortley's 46th North Midland Division included the 137th North and South Staffords, and the 139th Sherwood Foresters. They would lead the attack on the north side, supported by the 138th Lincolnshires and Leicestershire’s.
The 139th Brigade - The Sherwood Foresters - that May, held the Divisional front line at the village of Foncquevillers: burying new telephone cable lines, stacking ammunition, constructing gun pits, and setting up observation posts; all in preparation for the coming battle.
Directly to their front the enemy lines were held by the 3rd battalion of the 91st Reserve Regiment, part of the 2nd Guard Reserve Division, all part of Stein’s XIV Reserve Corps. The 9th and 12th Companies of the 3rd battalion were the Sherwood’s immediate enemy commanded by Leutnant der reserve Metzner and Leutnant der Reserve Overesch.
The 46th Division’s front line ran half a mile north of Hebuterne… then 800 yards, up to the left flank of the Sherwood Foresters. The village of Foncquevillers was directly opposite Gommecourt Wood. Here, No Man’s Land was about 400 yards wide, holding the ruins of the Sucrerie, a disused sugar beet factory then in ruins. These ruins were twenty yards from the D6 main road.
Northwards, towards Monchy-au-bois, was in German hands. The village of Foncquevillers held the centre of the 46th Division’s position directly opposite Gommecourt, its Park and Wood. Further north was the German gun position in Pigeon Wood not far from the little salient of trenches called the little ‘Z’ stationed on the British Divisions left flank. This part of the German line which created a small salient was called the Schwalben Nest holding a maxim gun able to enfilade the whole of the German’s line to the east. The previous winter, the occupying British troops came to the conclusion that they were too weak to hold all the line so they selected certain parts for fortifying - wiring them into strong-points, then filling in the remainder with loose wire which became in time weighed down by the weight of the collapsing sides of the trench.
The village of Foncquevillers was in a better state of preservation compared to Hebuterne - its neighbouring village. It was recognisable as a one-time place of habitation having most of its buildings still standing. The brick church was still there even if the clock had stopped at 11.45. It’s crypt housing the battalion ammunition store and the mills cellar the Company Office. The village boasted a YMCA where food could be bought to supplement the boring army rations. It could even be described as a good billet. The brick cottages with their boundary walls giving shelter to their kitchen gardens contained vines and apple orchards. Beyond the patch of grass outside the orchard the ground dipped down to no-man’s-land where work was in progress every night digging a new forward trench… a move guaranteed to give a 100 yard start to the attacking Midlanders all along the sector. This was in keeping with the work being carried out by the 56th Division on their front.
The 137th and 139th Brigades moved forward into trenches opposite Gommecourt Park on the 4th June. In unison the 138th, the Lincolnshires and Leicestershires, moved back - keeping a supporting role. The thick woodland to their front had been interwoven by dense belts of barbed wire and further belts added in front of every German trench. The British Field guns and mortars had great difficulty in cutting gaps. The German guns took the opportunity whilst the British guns were silent to register their guns on the communication trenches, then stopping before the British guns could ‘range-on’.
The British artillery batteries behind Foncquevillers began registering their guns on the 24th June and were allotted 400 rounds per gun to cut through the wire and take out the German gun pits. This allotment of rounds was increased to 700 rounds per day. Work on the gun pits had been suspended by the incessant rain delaying the sighting of many of the guns. As no delay could be contemplated the guns were set up in uncompleted pits. It was opportune that the German artillery was not too active as this was going on. The activity in the British rear was frantic as new rail track ways, metalled roads, store houses, ammunition and bomb dumps created close to the front. Compounds were built for prisoners and wounded. General Snow’s plan had the Sherwood Foresters 1/7th battalion attacking as the first wave, with the 1/5th on their right. The 1/6th battalion would bring up the rear in support of the two-battalion attack, and the 1/8th held in reserve to bring forward stores and ammunition. Five minutes before the attack opened the smoke parties would discharge their smoke bombs and candles.
The 139th Brigade would attack with five waves made up of ‘A’,’B’ and ‘C’ Companies having the little ‘Z’ on their left. The fourth would bring up the rear and convert the German front line trench by reversing the firing steps and the fifth hump stores and ammunition. ‘A’ Company were to kick off the battle from the newly dug trench in no-man’s-land, the other two, ‘B’ and ‘C’ formed up in the old trench and ‘D’ the 4th., occupy the Retrenchment line… with the 5th in Green Street. There would have been about 200 men in each wave.
Gommecourt Park, most of the village, and the Chateau were not to be attacked by the Foresters for they were not to stop but to keep going… to meet up with the 56th coming from the other side of the Park. (An order of the day requested attacking battalions to keep back from all future attacks one Company from each battalion – to act as a reserve and core for a future retraining programme in times when the bulk of the battalion had been lost.)
The Brigade’s targets were the Germen trenches to their front - given the identifying names Food and Fork, between the little ‘Z’ on their right and the communication trench Orinocho, making for Pigeon Wood. To the left would be ‘The little Z’ - the Schwalben Nest, a salient sticking out from the line, on the side of the main road leading from the North Foreland. This salient - step in the line, was always a danger if not eliminated by the main bombardment, for it would allow the Germans to enfilade the attacking force - by having a clear line of fire on the Sherwoods left flank. As it turned out no special attention was given to this by the planners which was to be a terrible mistake.
A’ Company practically lost all their men immediately, as soon as they emerged from their trench. A number of ‘B’ and ‘C’ made it to the German front line ‘A’, allowing twelve men to carry on to the German second line ‘B’. A number of attempts were made to rally the men; but exhaustion caused by the previous days march back to lines, atrocious weather conditions, flooded trenches, and unbroken wire, defeated them. Their spirits were not to be roused…
The Kensingtons were the first of the 4th London Brigade to report their mobilization complete'... declares Sergeant Bailey in his half of the book The Kensingtons. Battalion Orders were received: to prepare for Foreign Service 28th October, 1914. On Sunday the 3rd November the Battalion followed the band to Watford Station to board train for Southampton to take up station on their steam ship S. S. Matheran, bound for Le Havre and Rest Camp No., 1.
Even before mobilization they were a well-trained formation. The previous four months experience: marching from Watford, sailing to France, manning a front line trench, and undergoing all the rigors of trench life, had made them incomparable veterans. Its four Companies had seen a lot of action, thankfully losing few men but thankfully maintaining a high proportion of their original pre-war volunteers. The men were in the main well educated city men, previously working as managers and office workers in London’s business sector.
On the 18th.November, one half of the Battalion found itself occupying a trench south-east of Fauquissart. From the 21st their duties were shared with the other half in a three-day rota system. The Kensingtons first battle was Neuve Chapelle where they acted as Brigade Reserve. From the middle of March 1915 the Battalion were to share all the hazards of regular formations, for their baptism of fire was now over.
Each of the Battalions prided themselves on their local town content - representing a particular part of London. Conan Doyle has Sherlock Holmes characterize a stockbroker's clerk who appears in one of his cases as, 'Representative of the type found in one of our better London Volunteer regiments.
Each of the Battalions prided themselves on their core that represented a particular part of London. Within the London Division were Brigades, each Brigade comprised a number of Battalions - overseas, headquarters, another in training, each Battalion had four rifle Companies made up of three platoons, comprising a number of squads. These multiples could be increased to four or more in times of war and shed in times of peace. After each battle the fighting strength of a platoon was made good by stripping away from the Headquarters Company.
To specify exactly the strength of each during an engagement is impossible. Accurate figures can only be found via the diary of each company. These are not always available. Each battalion had a number of other companies in support of the riflemen, who were in the front line. These were headquarters staff, transport, armourer, catering and other specialists i.e., machine gun, mortar or bomb. Backing up the front line troops were the reserves, support companies, ammunition parties, signallers, stretcher-bearers (Band members), and pioneers.
When the Kensington battalion took over the trenches at Hebuterne from the 8th Middlesex on the 21st May communication trenches had been established. The ruins of the village provided some cover from German snipers in Gommecourt Park although it was in the range of German artillery in their rear. Battalion Headquarters was established in the mill's cellars which fortunately had its entrance well sandbagged to prevent the occasional enemy fire.
It was obvious to all the men that an attack was imminent. The stacks of supply dumps, additional ammunition and bombs, new pipelines and railway tracks, road works and gun-pits were everywhere. The weather was beautiful allowing the preparation to be made in near perfect conditions. However, this was not to last.
A draft of 200 men went some way towards making up for men lost. Behind the village dumps were being laid out for ammunition and shells and tapes laid for other supplies. By this time the battalion in company with the rest of the brigade knew that a trench was to be dug in No Man's Land. The digging parties were all supplied with the necessary picks, shovels, and sand bags. At night parties went out and cut lanes in the British wire in preparation and laid tapes.
The British front line, prior to the construction of the new trench, was initialled as Sector Y: 50, 49, 48, 47, & W: 50, 49, 48; it then crossed the D27 Road. Lt-General Snow gave the task of constructing a new British front line trench, to Brigadier General Loch. It was to be dug halfway between the British and German lines and identified with the letter S instead of R. This new front line was provided with communication trenches that linked to the rear areas - the village of Hebuterne and Brigade Headquarters in the mill.
The 56th Division (three Brigades totalling 3,000 men) were ordered to construct this new forward line in No Man's Land, 400 yards in front of the existing trench. This was to extend for almost two miles, the work being done on the nights of the 25th/26th May and identified with the omission of the old front lines identification letter S.
The Germans observed all this activity but did nothing about it, not appreciating its significance - keeping well down behind their trench wall - sheltering from a huge barrage which was partly meant to achieve a distraction from what was going on. This new advanced trench was dug with little loss of life, which was a fine achievement. Volunteers were called for, within the 167th to man the trench that night.
The following night the trench was deepened, and firing steps cut in. This action saved many lives. This very simple expediency, like linking shell holes or pushing out a sap, allowed attacking troops to get closer to the enemy front line. It was a pity that the new trench on the 46th front was so inadequate.
This trench building was no mere casual arrangement but a well-organized undertaking. The task was given artillery support, if necessary, and a number of ruses to confuse the Germans whilst the work was under way. Its construction went a long way towards the successful penetration of the German front line on the day of the battle. The days during, and preceding the attack the 167th Brigade stood guard in this trench, staying until relieved by the 168th and 169th Brigades before the attack on the 1st July.
The 46th Division also made an effort to do the same only their trench did not have the same support. Their poor attempt was undermined by the two days of incessant rain which half-filled the trench. These new advanced trenches were dug with little loss of life, which was a fine achievement. The following night the trenches were deepened and firing steps cut in.
The German front-line trench was sectioned off and given a code name beginning with the letter 'F' and the connecting trenches with an 'E'. Behind this forward trench was the German second line, also identified with a letter 'F' for FABLE and a new third rear trench close to the D6 main road. The British artillery behind Hebuterne and Foncquevillers started registering their pieces on the 24th June the object being to sever and flatten the wire, whilst taking out the plotted German strong points. As the day of the battle approached the bombardment intensified. The German’s meanwhile noted where the guns were firing from, but did nothing. Prior to the battle all the communication trenches were made ‘up’ trenches until after the initial waves had gone forward. It was made clear that the previous direction for each communication trench would then be returned to its original task. This order was to lead to a terrible confusion when the wounded were being ferried back and Company runners tried to get through with their orders.
This is a Roll Call of active Kensington Officers who took part in the battle. In all there were 23, on the 1st July, 1916. Men involved in the attack on the 1st July were 615, of all ranks. The commanding officer was Lt-Colonel W. H. Young who had only been attached to the battalion two days before. He was stationed at battalion HQ in the mill’s cellar, organizing support. Second in command was Senior Major Cedric C. Dickens. Major Mackenzie. Adjutant: Lt C. N.C. Howard, Transport Officer: Lieut. Holland, Medical Officer: Lieut. Keen, Quartermaster, Lieut. Ridley and Drum-Major Skinner. All bandsmen were the battalions Stretcher bearers.
O.C. A Company, Captain Robertson Lieutenants: Lewin, Venables, 2nd Lieut. Mager & Sach.
O.C. B Company, Captain H. N. Whitty Lieutenants: Roseveare, Penn, 2nd Lieut. Pike.
O.C. C. Company, Captain Ware (k) Lieutenant: Cohen, Heath, 2nd Lieut. Mason.
O.C. D Company, Captain Taggart (w) Lieutenant Parton, 2nd Lieut. Beggs.
The Pioneer battalions, were created as a new concept in the British Army in 1914, with a role to provide the Royal Engineers with skilled labour, and to relieve the infantry from some of its non-combatant duties. Pioneers became the work horses of the Expeditionary Force and acted in conjunction with the army\: constructing roads, bridges, working on entrenchments, fortifications, making mines, and constructing approaches. They are provided with proper clothing, hatchets, saws, axes spades, and entrenching tools.
The Coldstream Guards, and over three dozen County regiments, created at least one pioneer battalion. Several new Army battalions were raised specifically as Pioneers, while others were converted Territorials or Kitchener units formed originally as conventional infantry.
The Pioneers adopted a badge of a cross rifle and pick. They wired no man’s land, dug trenches, and revetted in all weathers, and in all terrains. On many occasions, later in the war, they abandoned their working tools and fought alongside the infantry, repelling enemy attacks.
In their efforts to stem the German offensives of 1918, several Pioneer units fought themselves to virtual annihilation. The work of the Pioneer battalions has been largely ignored or misunderstood. Far from being the units of the old and infirm, these sixty eight battalions played a major role in the Allied victory.
A detail of the 5th Cheshire Pioneer battalion, attached to the 56th Division, were constructing strong points in the German trenches, turning the firing positions to face the opposite direction – towards the German’s new front line. On the right flank the Kensingtons 'A' Company and Pioneers were to dig a new flank-facing trench under Major Dickens leadership. A platoon of pioneers was detailed off to wire up the German side of the trench when completed.
The Royal Engineer detachment was responsible for making sure the British wire barrier to the front had been opened sufficiently for the troops to advance, and the German wire gapped to allow the infantry to carry through - to take the German frontline trench. There was a problem that the gaps were too narrow. Bangalore Torpedoes were used the night before to ensure breaches were made. As soon as the charge went up the Germans knew not only what was afoot, but where - giving them chance to fix their machine gun lines on the gaps before the troops could reach them. Just as the artillery bombardment and the creeping barrage it was all a matter of timing. If you got it wrong someone was going to die.
In 1916, military communications were provided by the Royal Engineers Signal Service (Royal Corps of Signals was formed in 1920). Communications in the front line area were maintained by using line and telephone between forward positions and formation headquarters.
To effectively mask what was going on a screen of smoke was laid down by smoke shells and mortar bombs. This did not stop the German's knowing an attack was likely to be made but did instil confidence in the advancing troops and saved lives. However, as happened on the 56th front, the smoke was so thick they could not see the gaps in the wire - not know which way to turn. It took a few moments for the Company Sergeants to direct the men to the gaps in the wire.
In all instances it requires immediate effective control by the officers leading the men to make their orders understood. In the case of the 56th this happened and all was well in the case of the 46th more smoke was not made and the men were mown down.
During the battle, information about what was happening to the advancing troops was relayed by runner attached to the senior field officer. This would probably be the Company runner. The Captain would be stationed behind his Company that was moving forward. Once the runner had left with a message subsequent messages had to be made by a rifleman who might not know where the Company or Headquarters was stationed.
The message would take at least half an hour to receive an answer. Signalling by flag was out of the question. Once the field telephone lines were snagged, torn, or cut, resighting the artillery - to take on specific targets- became impossible to order. Someone, able to give instructions to the gun layer, had to see the fall of shot - to be sure a straddle – one shot over and one shot short, could be made.
Once the men had begun to advance the rear Headquarters would have very little idea how the battle was progressing. Spotting from the air was the only recourse only in this instance the smoke was so thick nothing could be seen. Unless the advancing troops could take-out the machine gun nests themselves the battle would be lost. In many instances acts of heroism achieved these nests were eliminated.
This was going to be biggest battle so far - conceived to take the strain off the French who were beginning to buckle at Verdun. The artillery had enveloped the German trenches with continuous fire for weeks. Most men thought it inconceivable that the artillery could not and did not achieve what it had set out to do. They had faith in their officers when they were told it was going to be a walk over. Officers carried walking sticks as did many senior NCOs. After all the planning every detail must have been covered... surely?
As daylight began to break on the horizon the men in the front line trenches prepared themselves. Some washed, some shaved, and others repacked their packs and collected all their things around them. Breakfast was consumed and hot tea drunk. Again they check for the umpteenth time their possessions. The men nervously chatted about anything and everything with much false laughter and bonhomie.
Now the guns spoke again. It was rapid fire, a last period of hate which obliterated the German lines in lightning flashes, plumes of smoke and fountains of flung soil. The earth began to trickle once more from the sides of the trench as the ground quivered. It was hell on earth. They began to wonder if the wire in front of them was broken and the machine guns nest destroyed. They would soon find out.
At 07.26 the British gunners discharged their last rounds, of their preparatory barrage. Now they concentrated on producing a smoke-screen - a combination of explosive shells and smoke bombs - calculated to cause maximum effect. Special sections on both the 46th and 56th fronts were lighting smoke candles and firing smoke bombs from mortars. A dense cloud of smoke drifts about in no-man’s-land. The final loosing of shells heralded the start of the attack.
The men in the firing line never experienced anything like the ferocity, for they felt it through their feet. Those on the firing steps could see the trees in the wood enveloped in smoke, and hurled about like twigs in an autumn gale. In the final minutes the trench mortars contributed a further last few rounds of smoke bombs as Gommecourt disappeared in a white mist, flaming shot and shattered vegetation. It appeared like complete saturation, which could not be withstood… Or could it?
The men waiting to go over the top, were lulled into a false sense of security. Their officers had told them that it was going to be literally a walk-over. They were equipped for such an event being loaded down with all that would be needed to pursue the enemy. Duck-boards were carried to bridge the trenches, food, water, ammunition, bombs, spare drums and belts for the machine guns, everything for a stay of three days before relief got to them.
The average load was sixty pounds plus their rifle. The supporting troops had also picks and spades to alter the German trench and do the necessary repairs, whilst stretcher bearers and engineers brought up the rear to give, succour, support, and communication. They had practiced often and now it was the time to put their practice into action. No two men had exactly the same kit - to go over the top with. Some had ladders, some bombs, others spare ammunition and water.
Company runners may have carried a basket of pigeons and signallers their flags. The Royal Engineers attached to the forward troops carried spare flex and tools for repairing breaks in the telephone wire. It was not envisaged by the commanders that the attacking force was likely to return the same day. The plan was to hold the taken German positions for a number of days – until the supporting troops from the rear regularised their positions.
The relevant Headquarter vialling sergeants had prepared a special breakfast and passed out bread and bully beef to sustain them until the cookhouse staff could join the forward troops and set up their stoves.
On the north side the 5th Leicester held the British Front Line south of Foncquevillers. They had moved into their trenches on June the 4th patrolling at night to check the Germans were not preparing to attack or put out their own patrols.
The Germans had been faced with days of similar bombardments, forewarning them - now knowing that an onslaught was heralding an attack. They were on their toes as soon as the artillery stopped. The machine gun crews practiced setting up their pieces in three minutes flat - told that they were the saviours of their position. Lookouts were posted using their periscopes to give the alarm in time. When the British smoke-screen was laid the alarm was given. Now was the time to put their practice into good use…
The Sherwood Forrester’s had never felt such an effect before. The ground was trembling, which they could feel in their legs, and the trench sides were trickling with streams of dislodged earth. The puddles in the trench bottoms lapped about, over the duck boards. Those brave or stupid enough to glance over the parapet could see the wood to their front disintegrating – trees being hurled into the air and branches being snapped off, to be flung about.
At 7.30 the smoke bombs and explosive shells stopped. Section leaders shouted, as The Staffords began to scramble out onto the parapet, there to form up, port arms, and start to walk towards the enemy down the sloping ground into no-man’s-land. As the Company Sergeants lent a hand to get the men out of the trench to form the second wave, the first had cleared the last of the British wire. The next wave was struggling out of their trench, some up ladders, others climbing on boxes, whilst the sergeants grabbed their equipment… helping all to form up.
So far all was going well, the men kept station, as they made their way through the smoke into Gommecourt Wood. Now they could feel the wind getting up blowing the smoke away thinning it sufficiently for the Germans to see the long lines of troops coming towards them… This sparked several Germans to clamber out of their trenches without their equipment, to rush forwards with their hands in the air.
On the other side of the park The London Rifle Brigade were doing the self-same thing. Long lines of men were making sure they were in position walking quickly and quietly through the gaps in their own barbed wire, made the night before using Bangalore torpedoes. Just after 07.00 on the 1st July German observation posts on their right front - manned by the German 91st Reserve Regiment, reported, 'A smoke-screen was being laid down.' As the rest of the British Divisions advanced the Kensingtons on the far side of the 56th Division held back - waiting for the London Scottish to move forward a hundred yards, before they too formed up to follow on. Even though the German wire had been gapped and the smoke screen laid down the German machine guns had reaped a terrible harvest. The dogged London Scottish had by 08.00 penetrated the German line. They were the first of the 56th Division to move into and past the first German trench.
In spite of the terrible fire, the men went forward trying to keep in line, at a steady pace. The German wire was supposed to be cut - by the artillery fire, but was in many places was untouched. Trying to get over the wire, the strands caught in their equipment or became wrapped around their legs.
It was discovered later that the Germans had moved back to their rear trenches. Onward marched the London Scottish to take, and move past, the German second line - making for the other side of the maze of enemy trenches and - Fable and the German third trench. The advance continued until all the German trenches on the right flank of Gommecourt were in British hands.
Part of the 169th Brigade - the Queens Westminster Rifles, followed up – moving up over the captured German trenches between the London Rifles and Queen Victoria’s to start the linking up movement with the North Midland Division - when they moved down from the north. As this was happening, a section of the Cheshire Pioneers were constructing strong points in the German trenches and repositioning the firing steps to face the German’s new front line. The Westminsters had received many casualties - from bypassed Germans who were emerging from their deep dugouts – shooting them in the back. As the German artillery began to realise what was happening they started shelling no-man’s-land and their own abandoned front line. As there were no officers available to direct the bombing - to clear the German dugouts, second lieutenant George Arther left his Pioneer Section to take over the attack. Though slightly wounded he instilled resolution in the men about him. Forcing their way forward the bombers got to within 400 yards of the German trench, almost within reach of where they were to join up with the North Midland Division.
Meanwhile the British Artillery bombardment was directed onto the German artillery – to act as a counter battery. They in turn were replying, shooting into No Man's Land disrupting the supply of ammunition and bombs making the British advance difficult - through lack of support. There was a shortage of ammunition and bombs.
Fortunately for the Germans, the right sector of their fire trenches - facing the 46th North Midland Division, was not being shelled. This allowed the sheltering Germans there to leave their deep dugouts to see what was going on. The ground to their front looked towards no man’s land and Foncquevillers, a distance of just over 400 yards. The surface was level gradually dipping down into no-man’s-land giving them a completely open vista. They could see the smokescreen being blown about thinning in some place and clearing in others. Through these gaps the British North Midlanders could be seen coming towards them.
The Germans set off their alarms and their trenches began to fill with breathless men. Those manning the Maxim machine guns had to assemble them and arrange their ammunition to be close at hand. The order was given for rapid fire.
The order was given to the London men to attack and the section leaders shouted to the men to form up. Long lines of men set off making sure they were in line, dressed five yards between each as they walked through the gaps in their own barbed wire made the night before.
The British artillery bombardment had been lifted to raise their sights to the next aiming point. The London Division's advance was downhill into a shallow valley, then up the other side towards the village - towards the road, Nameless Farm, and finally the Quadrilateral. The attack was across open ground enfiladed by German machine guns and artillery. All troops were told to advance at walking pace, keep in a straight line, and not to bunch up.
Manning the German Line before the 56th Division were the 91st Reserve Regiment. Their look-out men had not been so observant, this coupled with a smoke screen that had been laid thicker completely masked what the British troops were doing. This slow reaction meant the Germans took longer to man their trenches and erect their machine guns allowing the 56th Division to make particularly good progress.
The previous night a number of British patrols had blown gaps in the German wire with Bangalore torpedoes which helped enormously the next day. By 08.00 the bulk of the 56th were in the German front line trenches taking prisoners, others had even gone further into the German support trenches beyond.
On the left flank of the 46th Divisions Front the 5th and 7th Sherwood Foresters had risen up out of their front line trenches and formed up… They felt confident that their gunners had done a fine job, their officers had been telling them for weeks that the bombardment had flattened the German trenches and there would be no opposition. They did as they were instructed and marched forward, finding gaps in the wire - entered the Gommecourt wood, after having first moved past the maze of forward German front line trenches. They were making for the Quadrilateral, the heart of the Kern Redoubt.
Following orders they were not stopping, leaving the passed over trenches to be mopped up by the later waves following on. They were not to know that the wind had risen and driven the smoke-screen away revealing the follow up waves to the Germans. These men of the Sherwood Foresters were never seen again.
As another wave of the Sherwoods left their trenches the German field guns, stationed at Monchy - further to the north, were now alerted to the fact that an attack was on. They joined in the machine gun fire enfilading from the Schwalben Nest (little ‘Z’) and those from the German front line. The enemy field guns, previously laid down onto the communication trenches and no-man’s-land, plastered these position. The British carrying parties, heavily loaded down, were caught in the middle not knowing whether to go forward or back. The machine gun fire decimated them as they tried to move.
On the 46th right flank, on either side of the D6 main road, the first two waves of the South and North Staffordshires were held up - not finding a gap in the German wire, particularly around the Sucrerie. The slaughter was enormous as the men were trying to clamber over the dead, dying, and wounded, many impaled on the wire. Universally it was the officers and rallying Sergeants who were killed leaving the men without orders or leadership. Those who did finally find a gap and had sought cover in the wood were rounded up by the now fully alerted German defenders. ‘A’ Company of the Leicestershires plus two other platoons, and their leading Sub-Lieutenants, started out to make their way to the Sucrerie to begin to construct a communication trench stretching to the German front line. They started to mark out the extent it was to take. It was a hopeless task - as the German machine guns were continually raking the ground around forcing them to take cover. It became painfully obvious that it was a hopeless task and the detailed troops were ordered back to the start line. There they found the Staffordshires waiting for the order to make another attempt to move forward into the wood.
To the south, on the other side of Gommecourt, the 56th support Companies were advancing… joining those others who had been first in the German Line. The German artillery now took up the challenge. A move was then made to stabilize the capture of the German second line by the Pioneers. All the German trenches were now in British hands.
The Queens Westminster Rifles continued moving through the London Rifles to start the linking up movement with the North Midland Division moving down from the north. The London Scottish on the extreme right also made excellent progress towards the main road, where they were to set up a strong point.
After having their rum issue the Queen Victorias stood-to till 7-25a.m when they put up a smoke screen and went over the top at 7-30 with the London Scottish and Queens Westminster Rifles bringing up the rear. They took four lines of trenches from the Germans, but were driven back by midday to their original position. Losses were very heavy although taking many prisoners.
The Germans made a special effort to kill all those men directing, marshalling, and leading the attack. These officers and leading NCOs were easily identifiable for they wore a smarter uniform, carried walking sticks, and side arms. The Germans were so adept at doing this that attacking forces soon lost all their commanding officers and NCOs. In proportion far more replacement officers were needed. In many cases men of lesser rank carried on superior jobs. This action was particularly felt during this attack on Gommecourt.
By late morning, part of the Kensington battalion, on the right flank of the line, was about to dig a connecting trench in no man’s land. The London Rangers and Queen Victorias were on their left making for the third rear German trench, Nameless Farm, and the main road. The 10th Division at Serre, a mile away on the 56th Divisions right flank, had been pushed back. A result of the attack petering out the German artillery switched their sights onto No Man's Land and W Sector trench - behind the London Scottish. It was here that the rest of the Kensingtons were preparing to make for no man’s land, after being told the London Scottish had passed the first two German trenches - to start digging the connecting trench.
The Germans shelled the trench to such a degree the Kensingtons lost half their men - very few had even the opportunity to get out of the trench. The Kensingtons sector trench W48R was only four feet wide and packed with the men unable to move because the trench was so full of dead, dying, and wounded men.
Major Dickens sent back word at 13.00 hours that there were few men left to hold their existing position - that he was the only officer left. Could he please have instructions? The Kensingtons lost sixteen officers and three hundred men (Major Dickens was killed by a sniper eight weeks later). To the north things were going from bad to worse. The 46th Division had started off but had been defeated by the German barbed wire which had not been gapped. The previous night’s rain had turned their trench into a morass some of the men were knee deep in mud all night long. It was difficult to get the second wave of men out in time. As they appeared in dribs and drabs on the top, they were machine gunned down on top of others trying to get out. The slipping, clawing men could not get a hold of the trench side for the dead and wounded were blocking the ladders. There were long rows of dead and dying men piling up on the parapet making it even more difficult.
The officers were standing on the parapet helping men out and ordering others to support the men in front. Another wave of men was ordered forward only to be mown down again. By this time men were refusing to move staying with the wounded in shell holes huddled together.
Further north - in the centre, things were a little better. The Germans there had not been so quick allowing the Sherwood Foresters’ to get into the front line trench… clear it, and make towards the support line. The Germans erected a machine gun - facing to their rear - back onto their own lines took the attackers in the rear. By the end of the morning their trenches were clear. A sortie was made by the Lincs. and Leics. Late in the day they were to seek stragglers and survivors… but in the end they had to give up and return to their own lines.
The previous day it was suspected by the Germans that the British were going to attack but not exactly when. The British preparations had always been made obvious to suggest a main attack - to divert attention away from Rawlinson’s ‘Big Push’… the ruse was having the desired effect. The 91st German Reserve Regiment, on the north side of Gommecourt Park, had the luck to find the smoke-screen patchy at best and non-existent in others. They were rightly alarmed and using their practiced preparations manned their front line and prepared for hostilities.
The Germans easily repelled the invaders, gunning down the waves of troops coming towards them. The North Midlanders were not a serious threat even though many limited assaults were made throughout the day. Those who had made it faced almost immediate expulsion.
Conditions in the trenches on the 46th Divisions front were horrific. The German field guns had bracketed the area and the trench was full of the dead and dying. Those who were still active were crouching down too exhausted to make any move. At 15.30 the British artillery resumed their bombardment to prepare the way for a renewed attack. Major General Wortley came forward to see that his order was carried out.
The Sherwood Foresters started out again adopting the same tactics. On their right they expected to see the Staffordshire, but they had refused to move and were not accompanying them – they were on their own. The order was given once again to return to the old front line. The attack had been a failure. By 16.00 all that was left of the Staffordshires were ordered back out of line, and the 5th Leicestershires took over. On their left the 5th Lincolnshires did a similar job relieving the Sherwood Foresters.
On the London Division's front it was a different story. The smokescreen had been efficiently laid by the Royal Engineers and did all that it was supposed to do. The London Rifles, Queen Victoria's, Irish Rangers, and London Scottish, had all penetrated into the German lines helped by the bombardment and smoke-screen. The Westminsters worked their way through The Rifles and Victorias into the German third trench and The Kensingtons followed on, after the London Scottish. All found the smoke-screen almost impenetrable having been laid so thickly that some of the forward British troop became lost and disorientated.
By 08.30 the 56th Division was well on its way – making for the D6 road trench, by jumping into the German front line (F) working their way forward through the communication trenches. Many of the dazed Germans were captured and led back. All along the trench mini battles were raging as both parties bombed each other.
By 9.00 the first objectives had been reached and the leading British troop had penetrated over a mile towards the Kern redoubt where they were to link up with the North Midlanders. On the Londoner's left Gommecourt Park and village, on the right Nameless Farm - on the D6 Hebuterne-Fuquay Road, and a little further, the maze of German trenches - to be made into a strong-point by the London Scottish.
Now the German 170 Reserve Regiment (52nd Division) prepared to counter-attack. Von Below arrange for 55 Reserve Regiment to attack with four companies to the north and nine companies to the south, including two from the 2nd Guards Reserve. By midday and early afternoon this counter-attack began to be felt. The first things to be destroyed by the Germans were the barricades erected by the Pioneers and Engineers allowing them to retake their old trench.
The whole London Division was now beginning to run out of bombs and ammunition. The German artillery was ordered to shell no-man’s-land. Little by little the British were put under pressure giving up well earned territory, leaving pockets of desperate troops in shell-holes, providing some respite from the machine guns and barrage. The German 2nd Guards Reserve Division having been pushed back almost out of the salient were now recovering, still holding Fricourt in the front line.
What was left of the Kensingtons, including part of the London Scottish machine gun section, was preparing to repel any German foolish enough to try to take it back. After a period of four hours, they were still in position, although by now the Westminsters had been pushed back to the first line - along with the bulk of what was left of the Division.
The diversionary tactics formulated by the British Headquarters Staff was working - diverting German efforts onto their front in accordance with the original plan. Now the Germans, having destroyed the 31st Division at Serre - on the Kensingtons right, relayed their guns - to shell no-man’s-land on the Kensingtons front - which was nearest to them.
As the 46th was enfiladed, so too the 56th - it was a devastating barrage. It fell like, ‘a curtain of steel’, writes Christopher Moore’s in ‘Trench Fever’ no-man's-land was cut off. Major Dickens and his men could receive no help from reserves or stretcher bearers, for they were stuck out in front - with very little cover - having to suffer the awful bombardment.
Now the situation on the 56th right was becoming untenable. The prime object had been achieved. Linking up with the 46th would have been helpful straightening up the line. But taking on a very strong trench and dugout system, still in good working order, without reserves could/would be described as rash. The worst decision was to do nothing, for the Germans were beginning to take stock and recover fast.
On the 56th left, the Westminsters had moved up, between the London Rifles and the Queen Victorias; they were prepared to start a bombing attack on the rear of the Gommecourt Garrison. Unfortunately, the Westminsters had received too many casualties, and there was no one to direct the attack. Leaving his pioneers, Second Lieutenant George Arther lead the attack, though slightly wounded. Forcing their way forward the bombers got to within 400 yards of the German third trench, almost within reach of where they were to join up with the North Midland Division.
The North Midlanders had fared badly - they had been forced back. There were one or two groups who were holding out against strong opposition. Once again they continued the attack to try and link-up with the Westminsters who were bombing their way towards them.
General Snow demanded another attack pressing the Divisional commander to order another attack using the supporting troops. Six battalions of the 46th had started that morning all had been driven back, there were only two companies left. No officers had survived. Snow ordered the North Midlanders to repeat their attack again, that afternoon - to link up with the London Division, which by then was being counter-attacked – gradually being forced back to the captured German trench to their rear.
The Germans, on the other hand, were now over their initial shock getting stronger by the minute. It did not take them long to understand the significance of the British plan. Not that they understood the battle of Gommecourt was a diversionary attack, but that these two divisions opposing were trying to encircle them. They had every intention to make sure that did not happen. Now the German artillery, behind Serre, ranged in, joining those behind the Quadrilateral to bombard no-man’s-land and the British front line.
Gradually the British troops began to run out of ammunition. Most of the senior officers who had set out in the morning were now either dead or injured. The afternoon wore on and the fighting continued… only the pockets of resistance were getting smaller.
There were now seventeen hundred men dead, two hundred taken prisoner and over two thousand wounded. Most of these were lying about on the battlefield. The Germans systematically raked these with machine gun fire making sure solitary resistance did not break out.
All around the wounded lay broken barbed wire, military equipment, and the dead, and dying. Their task was to somehow crawl from hole to hole skirting those areas of water that were too deep, keeping below the sky-line. This was the end to a bitter fight begun with such high hopes. By late afternoon the guns of both sides stopped firing. The odd man capable of crawling began to make their way back. Stretcher-bearers from both sides were moving about amongst the wounded. The badly injured were calling out, some for water others for comfort. The parties of first-aiders gave succour to either side not making a distinction. There were 4,749 casualties in the London Division alone out of nearly 60,000 that started out just over eight hours before.
The ground was pitted with shell holes filled with storm water and the debris of war. All around them was broken barbed wire, military equipment, and the dead and dying. Their task was to somehow crawl from hole to hole skirting those areas of water that were too deep, keeping below the sky-line.
As the afternoon wore on the fighting broke out again. Of the two battalions on the right flank there were only four officers and seventy men remaining of the main attacking force holding onto the German trenches. They were gathered together holding a series of shell holes and half built trenches. It was now touch and go whether there was going to be a total rout. One or two other smaller groups were making their way back passing the dead and dying giving hope to those remaining that they would be remembered.
The 46th Division, now back in their original front line positions had come to the conclusion their hope to link up with the 56th had to be abandoned. The first Company of the Sherwood Foresters had reached the German third line in the morning capturing several prisoners who in the end had to be released. Some of the men had reached the meeting-place surrounding the Quadrilateral.
Once the 31st Division had been driven away from Serre the German guns could now take up the battle against the 46th and swing round to the right enfilading the remnants in no-man’s-land. The 5th Lincolnshires who had taken over the front made another advance at midnight to give support to any Sherwood Foresters still holding out. They in turn were heavily resisted and lost many men.
Later still, when the light was poor, more stragglers started to drag themselves in. They were tired, hungry and distressed having got so far and not in the end succeeding. The Germans were again moving about in no-man’s-land not only finding their own wounded but directing their first-aiders and stretcher-bearers to find the English wounded too. This concern for the wounded was reciprocated. It was a seven to one battle, in favour of the Germans.
Occasionally, they would see and hear German and British stretcher parties swearing and cursing at the state of the ground picking up the wounded and staggering off. Those less wounded started to drag themselves in, they were tired, hungry and distressed, having got so far and not in the end succeeding.
Late in the evening a steady rain was falling. The cries and moans of the wounded could just be heard. Occasionally there would be the crack of a rifle shot. In the distance a flare goes up and a louder bang, of an artillery piece which shakes the ground. It was no easy matter for the retiring sections to melt into the ground.
On the 2nd July much effort was made to tidy up the front line and to collect the dead and wounded on both fronts. By the evening of the second day, about 21.00, the Leicesters were relieved by the London Rangers who moved over from the south.
What remained of the 46th Division marched back to Bienvillers au Bois shepherding the late comers still making their way back from the battle field. The Kensingtons were relieved that same night by the 8th Middlesex. Those who were left marched back to the old French trenches near Sailly au Bois relieving the 4th Lincolns in trenches on the north side of Foncquevillers.
The total casualties on the Somme were over 1,300,000 divided equally between allies and the Germans. The battle finally ended on the 14th November 1916, British losses were 400,000. The 56th Division suffered grievously. The figures speak for themselves. The attack on The Kern Redoubt was successfully taken the following year. The casualties on the first day of battle:
1st London Rifles 19 officers and 553 men
1st London Scottish 14 officers 544 men
1st Queen's Westminsters 28 officers and 475 men
20 officers and 400 men
1st Kensingtons 16 officers and 300 men
Lt General Rawlinson attacked with thirteen divisions on a front fifteen miles long north of the River Somme, and the French with five divisions on a front of eight miles mainly south of the river, where the German defence system was less highly developed.
The unconcealed preparations on the Gommecourt front and the long bombardment starting on the 24th June had given away any surprise. This was part of the battle plan envisaged by Generals Haig and Rawlinson. Later findings confirm that the Germans knew they were going to be attacked and had a good idea when, how, and why. Their knowledge and guesses confirms the deception plan was working which was in accordance with the wishes of the British General Headquarters and part of the grand strategy.
The more unsure and on-edge the Germans were made to feel - with numerous excursions to their front, the better. These diversions would help the main British attack - drawing away possible German attention, reserves, and resources. No General worth his salt would plan a campaign without such a plan in place. This was not cleaver but proper military thinking.
The German troops taking part in the defence numbered 24,000 men. They suffered 601 casualties, of those 185 were killed. Most of the attacking British battalions lost half their men… each battalion had about 800 men.
According to Fr-Hockley (see The Somme, Pub. 1966), ‘On the morning of the 1st July at 7.15, German observation stations reported a smoke-screen developing on both sides of the salient. Although the British bombardment had been intensified since 6.25, the German fire trenches - facing north-west, (the Staffords front), were not being shelled. Several German observers of the local 91st Reserve Regiment garrison came up from their deep dug-outs to see what was happening. To their front, the ground ran level to the Staffords lines 400-500 yards distant beyond the village of Foncquevillers; on their right the one-time Sucrerie.
Christopher Moore’s, Trench Fever, proclaims that by 09.00 the commander of the Staffords, Brigadier-General Williams, knew that any of his men surviving would not resume the attack – they had had enough – had been shot down like dogs.
The Fifth Leicesters who were there in support were told the artillery was being called for a further shoot, and that his job was to organise another wave attack. Major-General Wortley personally took charge realising that a firm hand was necessary - to see that it was carried out. The Sherwood Foresters were on the left, and Staffords and Fifth Leicesters on the right. It was to be a repeat of the morning’s attack, preceded by an artillery barrage, and smoke-screen, planned for a 12.15 start.
This new attack was delayed a number of times because the communication trenches were clogged up with the dead and wounded. Stretcher bearers were ferrying the injured away, and resupply parties struggling forward each jostling each other as they tried to get past. All along the 46th front collapsed trenches were under shell-fire. The previous heavy rain washed away the battered sides making the trench shallower.
At 15.30 the British artillery commenced their bombardment, and the few stokes mortars added their smoke-screen. On the left the smoke was so thin that Brigadier Shipley of the Sherwood’s ordered his men to stay where they were know that it would be slaughter if the attack went ahead. The Staffords seeing that the Sherwood’s were not getting out of their trench and shell holes refused to go forward, as did the Fifth Leicesters. It was stale-mate no-one moved…
The German artillery, being informed that the British bombardment had started up again and a smoke-screen created, prepared another shoot. Now they were fully alert thinking this was another attack. They redoubled their efforts sending down a shrapnel barrage which caused even more casualties to the wounded men. There were those huddling in shell holes - waiting for a chance to get back to their lines, and the sheltering advancing troops waiting for an inspired officer to lead them forward.
By 16.00, Lt-General Snow knew that the 56th were being slowly pushed back and the 46th stalled. He concluded the attack to link up was not going to happen so instruct the attempt to be called off and the original British front line re-established and remanned. The diversion had been made and achieved, but the hope of joining up - of straightening the line to eliminate the salient had to be abandoned. From now on there would be recriminations. Who was going to pay the price for failure was not so clear. Was it the plan, the planners or the poor bloody infantry?
Considering the attack had been purely a diversion and not meant to be a break-out the effort by the Territorials had been very costly. The Grand Plan to help the French was a noble one and its aim strategically necessary. However, war’s simple object to remove the enemy was not achieved. Rawlinson’s insistence on a lengthy bombardment - to soften German resistance, was an acceptable strategy, if it had been achieved. It wasn’t because the necessary weapons were not at hand. Haig had preferred a shorter preliminary bombardment and the adoption of skirmishing infantry tactics. This may have worked better but I am doubtful.
Haig’s deferment to Rawlinson’s greater experience and fears were in error. No front line soldier would ever limit artillery bombardment to his enemy given the chance. However, this presupposes that the artillery would achieve all its targets and purposes. In this instance the artillery failed miserably. Their expertise at reducing specific targets was pathetic, and their wire cutting skills hopeless. They were not up to the task. This was not necessarily their fault. They were not properly trained, nor did they have the proper weapons or shells.
These deficiencies should have been exposed before the battle by Rawlinson. It was after all his plan. The artillery’s goals were an integral part of this plan and had to be achieved. The gunners were quite incapable of backing the infantry although they thought at the time they were doing a good job.
The observers could see the targets putting up a shower of earth and smoke but this was simply surface material. The dug in and reinforced bunkers and weapon pits were hardly being touched. The Germans purposely alerted to the coming attack had retired most of his troops back to the rear trenches, some even to his third trench on the road. That the British had only 60 howitzers along the whole front speaks volumes for only howitzers are produced to project shells to fall vertically. A trajectory necessary to puncture dug-outs and penetrate the top cover to weapon pits. Brigadier Scott’s Presentation: Artillery Survey in World War 1, 22.01.2003, at Woolwich, maintains Britain was not prepared for war in 1914. The artillery had 18-pounder guns and 4.5-inch howitzers with which to raise gun positions and men in dug-outs. Such weapons are only suitable for targets in the open.
For the battle on the Somme, Rawlinson had only 105 heavy guns (Farrar-Hockley, The Somme, maintains 107 guns) and howitzers by the previous June: 36 x 60-powder guns, 8 x 6-inch guns, 40 x old 6-inch howitzers, 4 x 8-inch howitzers, 14 x 9.2-inch howitzers and 3 x 15-inch howitzers. Scott maintains: “The state of the maps were poor, and that using flash to bang to determine range was inaccurate”. (Lt-General Allenby commander of the British Third Army later authorized a flash spotting course) The battle relied upon air reconnaissance to locate enemy guns. (Commander Second Army ordered: “Counter-battery work must be a matter chiefly for the heavy artillery and that enemy gun location allotted to the Artillery Intelligence Officer and his assistants attached to each Group Commander.
This bought into being the start to official counter-bombardment systems. By 1st July each army had a flash spotting Observation Section of the then 1 Field Survey Company continuously manned connected to observation posts by telephone. However, it took some time for the spotting information to be passed up to the Corps Counter-Battery Officer and down to a gun battery.
According to Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds, C.B, C.M.G, Royal Engineers. (Retd.), p.s.c.) Official History of the Great War, Vol. 1, and the British guns fired 20,000 tons of metal from the start of the battle on the 24th which was in total 1,627,824 shells of all types. Christopher Moore maintains in Trench Fever, “Perhaps, one third was duds?” What is clear from official records is that most of the shot was shrapnel unsuitable to raise dug-in positions.
Owing to the dense and ridged infantry tactics, ‘The Wave System’ employed by Rawlinson, the losses were unnecessarily heavy. Rush and drop, cover and deploy, are the skills of a skirmisher using the terrain. Such tactics might have achieved more. In this instance, it would most certainly have been no worse and possibly better. Giving advancing troops the option of reaching a certain position using whatever tactics the situation demands on the day can have a better result, if resolutely carried out? It was in this that Rawlinson had his doubts. He believed the Territorial’s resolve and skill was wanting.
Rawlinson’s wave system relied on the artillery to lay down a creeping barrage before the leading troops - to make the enemy drop down below their parapet. It was timed to the minute and applied to precede the first wave.
For this part of the plan to work efficiently the following troops must follow precisely. They should not be too far forward to catch shot falling short nor to far behind to allow the Germans to pop up. There are a number of ways which would make the system defunct: if the Germans gunned down the first wave the second might not move forward to cover the gap, if the wire was not cut resulting in bunching up, if the terrain was shell holed, slippery, or coved by the dead and dying. Any or all of these would ensure the barrage would begin to be out of sync for the advancing first wave.
As a fundamental part of the battle plan – a way to get the troops to move forward, it was useless and bound to breakdown. In battle fatigues with normal webbing pouches for spare ammunition tirailleurs can move independently to meet with situations as they appear. If, as was so in this case, the forward troops are weighed down by carrying too much equipment freedom and flexibility of movement is placed in jeopardy. Supporting troops can bring forward any extra equipment that is needed allowing the time-table for keeping up with the creeping barrage to be met.
Rawlinson also wrongly believed the artillery would achieve its targets, and keep the German heads down. In this he was fundamentally wrong and guilty for not proving so himself. That what he was planning – the opposing guns to be eliminated and German troops to be cowered, was not possible using the weapons he had available nor were the Germans daft enough to place themselves where they could be shelled having been forewarned what was going to happen.
The smoke-screen was also a large part of the infantry tactic giving cover to those advancing and dismay to those fearing discovery and surprise. Again this weapon was not universally efficient and effectual. Rawlinson turned down the use of a night attack fearing uncertainty at best and chaos at worst… once again fearing the poor training of the Territorials. His battle plan was based upon his army’s lack of infantry expertise. Rawlinson and his Headquarters had failed to recognise the depth and strength of the German trench system; insisted on a 'wave system' of attack placing far too much reliance on his artillery - not understanding its obvious limitations.
Planning diversions are a major part of any battle. Their usefulness can be outweighed if there are too many casualties or loss of equipment. Rawlinson did tell his commanders not to take their attack too far, nor to go forward without making sure the German trenches to their front were abandoned, for there were no reserves or support for a follow-up. These flexible orders relying upon individual decisions made in the heat of battle are susceptible to hasty judgements, there is a tendency for commanders to become dogged – not give up. It requires a strong leader to pull his troops back.
The fault was General Snow who persisted in the attack. Rawlinson should have made sure his orders were obeyed. In the end, too much was asked of too few troops, relying on the unknown effects of prolonged shelling. The poor performance of the 46th Division can be attributed to bad preparatory work by the area commanders - to make sure the barbed wire had been rendered useless to the defender.
There are no references to suggest efforts were made to find out if there were gaps in the German wire, where, and how extensive, on the night before the battle. In the event that there were none, or, not in the correct places, Bangalore torpedoes used before the troops made the attack the next morning. This essential check, to ensure the attack had a chance, seems elementary. Then lane markers laid, and their positions marked on maps - for battalion commanders. Sniper teams, to give the attackers cover, an essential ingredient – also, to give the advancing troops confidence. The main aim of the attackers is to take the German front line – for that to happen the troops have to get there. The use of smoke, by shell, bomb and candle, to mask attacking weaves is essential - if there is a fear the attackers are being watched - who would prevent them reaching the line, or, if the smoke is too thick so the attackers cannot see the man next to them, it is useless.
Having smoke teams in no-man’s-land to ensure that a suitable cover given is a must if there is any prevailing wind, or there is a possibility the initial cover badly laid. The guiding tape-lines must be laid whilst it is still dark before the last shell has dropped. There is no point laying cable and tape in no-man’s-land if firing is still going on.
The new halfway trench dug on the 56th Hebuterne front should have been more successfully copied on the north, Raiding parties should have been sent out to create unease and uncertainty, and more attention should have been paid to eliminating the machine gun nests at ‘Z’. The North Midland's strength and vigour prior to the attack had been severely strained by marching backwards and forwards to practice at Lucheux and the ghastly weather. Both added to their misery.
It was a seven to one battle in favour of the Germans. Both the 46th and 56th Divisions remained on the battle-field until October. The fact that the attack at Gommecourt did distract the Germans in the end made very little difference to the failed effort of the main battle. The first days figures for casualties on the Somme were 57,470 men.
General Farrar-Hockley opinioned, ‘they had not failed at all’. Their task had not been to capture Gommecourt, perhaps the strongest position in the sector, but to divert upon themselves 'the fire of artillery and infantry which might otherwise be directed against the flank of the main attack near Serre' was a fact However, pressure could still have been mounted to ensure the ruse was believed… without the needless loss of the vast numbers of men. The point of all the attacks along the front was to take the strain away from the French. In this the battle on the Somme succeeded.
Martin Middlebrook maintains with hindsight that the battle should not have been waged at all due to both sides being locked in a stalemate… believing that it would have taken a genius and a brave man to have spoken out. That is true but leaving hindsight aside what occurred was unnecessary slaughter.
Rawlinson’s Wave theory was ridiculous as was his reliance on the artillery to take out the German guns, machine gun pits, and to break-up the wire. The infantry were badly handled. Riflemen were that days ‘sharpshooters, skirmishers, or tirailleurs. On the day the Territorial’s acted like Guardsmen without their irregular forward protectors.
Local area commanders should have made greater use of night patrols: to inspect the state of the wire, the shell holed landscape, and where best cover and entry could be found. Special units should have plotted where static machine gun nests were located, so that a sniper and his observer could remove each one early-on - at the start of the attack - when the first wave went forward. Barbed wire dealt with by Bangalore torpedoes, early on the first morning, to make sure there were sufficient gaps to prevent bunching up.
Local commanders given targets relative to the overall plan then told to get on and devise a solution suited to the local conditions. Constructing a new trench half-way between the front lines - into no-man’s-land, did give greater security and speed-up the attack. Laying on a smoke-screen to hide the advancing troops; bombarding the German trench system to keep the enemy heads down and inflicts damage; were helpful and did reduce casualties. Greater use of counter-battery work should have been practiced though.
Even if the two Divisions had met up the redoubt was too strong for the numbers used and the inability to keep the forward troops supplied with ammunition and grenades was a failing. Haig should have insisted on a shorter time spent on the bombardment and the rush and drop tactics of the skirmishers rather than Rawlinson’s wave system.
Battle for Gommecourt. This attack was to be a diversionary attack – to take away –enemy opposition, to the main Breakthrough Plan – an advance from Albert towards Bapaume… up the main road… to be made by The Reserve Army, of Sir Herbert Gough. [From the centre of the main British attack Gommecourt is some ten miles north].
General Snow stressed that, ‘no movement should be made towards Gommecourt until the German defences had been destroyed by the artillery, for there were no reserves for this part of the battle…’
Before the battle, Major General Hull was ordered to construct a completely new trench halfway across ‘No Man’s Land’, which was 800 yards wide. At night three thousand men were sent over to dig an assault trench only three hundred yards away from the German front line… The Germans observed all this activity but did nothing about it - keeping down behind the trench wall - sheltering from a huge barrage meant to achieve a distraction from what was going on. This new advanced trench was dug without any loss of life which was a fine achievement. The following night the trench was deepened and firing steps put in. This action, to prepare ‘No-Man’s-Land’ for an attack - to shorten the distance between the start-line of the battle and the first enemy trench, saved many lives. This very simple expediency, as were others like linking shell holes or pushing out a sap, involving the movement of the attacking troops closer to the enemy front line – to keep advancing troops below ground level for maximum period, not practiced sufficiently.
Battle of the Somme, Saturday 1st July, at 7.30am. That morning the weather was fine; the Battle of the Somme commenced. This was going to be biggest battle so far - conceived to take the strain off the French who were beginning to buckle at Verdun. The artillery had enveloped the German trenches with continuous fire. This provoked return fire.
The attack went in at 4.00am led by the 1st London Scottish who got into the German front line… the Kensingtons followed up, after being very patient withstanding the provoked German fire. The British barrage stopped, whistles blew, and section leaders shouted as long lines of men set off making sure they were in line… they walked through the gaps in their own barbed wire made the night before. As the remaining battalions advanced from the newly dug trench they joined the London Scottish by taking over nearly all the German trenches, which was their objective. At Gommecourt, the Kensingtons had achieved success, making use of the new trench dug before the battle, began a smoke screen to confuse the Germans… the whole front-line system had been taken. On the left, the hard-pressed North Midlanders had not reached the German front line. If they did not achieve their goal, the Kensingtons would be in trouble - be left stranded. Five hours later all the German trenches on the right flank of Gommecourt were in British hands. Part of the 169th Brigade, the Queens Westminster Rifles also followed up moving through the London Division to start the linking up movement with the North Midland Division moving down from the north. As this was happening some of the Cheshire Pioneers were constructing strong-points in the German trenches and turning the firing positions to face the German’s new front line. As the Westminster’s moved up between the Kensingtons and the Queens they were to start a bombing attack on the rear of the Gommecourt Garrison. Unfortunately the Westminster’s had received many casualties and there was no one to direct the attack. Leaving his pioneers second lieutenant George Arther lead the attack, though slightly wounded. Forcing their way forward the bombers got to within 400 yards of the German trench almost within reach of where they were to join up the
North Midland Division
The North Midlanders had fared badly had been forced back towards their own trenches. In the afternoon General Snow ordered the division to continue with the attack that would link up with the London division and the Westminster’s who were bombing their way towards them. The order to continue was unrealistic. Six battalions had started off that morning all had been driven back. They were ordered forward again but there were only two companies left. No offices had survived. The attack was called off.
The Germans, a Saxon Regiment, were on the alert they had been warned by the bombardment and their lookouts had raised the alarm. The machine gun started to hammer out their awful chorus. The long lines were easy targets. The Germans had seen the gaps in the wire and had laid down fixed lines of fire to cover then. Men bunched up to get through but the terrible machine gun fire flattened them.
Things on the left were going badly. The night’s rain had turned their trench into a morass some of the men were knee deep in mud all night long. It was difficult to get the men out in time. As they appeared in drips and drabs on the top, they were machine gunned down on top of others trying to get out. There were long rows of dead and dying men. In spite of the terrible fire, the men went on forward trying to keep in line at a steady pace. The German wire was supposed to be cut by the artillery fire but was untouched. Trying to get over the wire, the strands caught in their equipment or wrapped it round their legs.
At last, the facts began to be assembled. It was clear that the British High Command had failed even though in places it had achieved its objectives. On the first day the British Army suffered the biggest losses for any single day in the whole war. Figures can never tell the whole story but in this case the casualties were fifty-seven thousand, of which twenty thousand were killed or died from wounds. A whole generation of men were crippled... That kind of slaughter continued until the battle ended in the awful mud of winter. In all it cost over a million casualties, with three hundred thousand British, French and German dead.
The next morning the Kensingtons found they had reached part of their objective. The night had been spent in the German trenches taking it in turn to stand guard, which was an eerie sensation with all the cries for help coming from the wounded and the stretcher parties from both sides collecting up the bodies. It was in the original plan to size the German trench system on the right hand edge of the salient then link up with the North Midlanders who were coming from the opposite side. It was hoped to cut off the garrison of German defenders in the village. A company of the Kensingtons and a machine gun section of the London Scottish had crossed over No Man’s Land and reinforced the previous day’s troops. They were the last to do so. During the rest of the morning the Germans put in three attacks to evict the remains of the Division. Gradually the Londoners became weaker.
The Kensingtons were acknowledge to be part of a London force that was second to none – having the greatest period of training prior to setting off to France, and had been in the fighting force since the war had begun. The London force were mostly well educated pre-war volunteers from the commercial heart of London and many would have been made into officers in any other division. The advance the previous morning got off to a good start. In the first hour and a half the 168th Brigade, attacking from the newly dug trench in the middle of No Man’s Land, had reached every one of the German trenches in their objective.
A fifth of the attacking Londoners were either dead or wounded. By reaching the final trench, they secured for themselves a safe position. The rolling barrage had moved forward as had been planned and the Kensington’s and the other three battalions had moved up with it. The London Rifle Brigade was on the left of the right-hand division, Gommecourt Park with its wooded acres before the village was to their left. The German second Guards Reserve Division pushed back almost out of the salient but still holding Fricourt in the front line. What was left of the brigade entered the German trench, which was the first objective ready to repel any German foolish enough to try to take it back including part of the London Scottish machine gun section.
After a period of four hours the London Division was still in position, although the Westminster’s had returned to the First Objective line - along with the rest of the division - this still held to the original plan. This line was to the rear of the German Trench, which was in British hands. As explained, there were no reserves so to make a concerted effort to link up with the North Midlands more men would have to be found. The worst decision was to do nothing for the Germans were beginning to take stock and recover.
At last, information was beginning to get through to Head Quarters. The corps commanders controlling the diversionary attack at Gommecourt were determined to carry on with the encircling movement. Lieut-General Snow ordered the North Midlanders to repeat their attack that afternoon - to link up with the London Division…, which by then was being, counter-attacked… gradually being forced back to the captured German trench, behind them. Snow must have known that the diversionary objective had been achieved. Someone was turning this into a separate battle!
Although the London Division was being hard pressed it retained coherence, being in the German trench gave the men cover and time to sort themselves out. The Germans, on the other hand, over their initial shock, were getting stronger by the minute. It did not take them long to understand the significance of the British move, not that they understood the battle of Gommecourt was a diversionary one, but that these two divisions were trying to encircle them and join up… They intended to prevent that happening. The German guns were ranging in, joining together to bombard the position. Gradually the British troops began to run out of ammunition. Most of the senior officers who had set out in the morning were now either dead or injured.
The afternoon wore on and the fighting continued. By 4 pm there were only four officers and seventy men remaining gathered together holding the German front line trench… it was now touch and go whether there was going to be a total rout. Of the seven battalions to start out seventeen hundred men were dead, two hundred were prisoners and over two thousand wounded. Most of these were lying about on the battlefield. The Germans systematically raked these with machine gun fire to kill them off annoyed that now and again one of the wounded would start firing.
By evening, when the light was poor, stragglers started to drag themselves in. They were tired, hungry and distressed having got so far and not in the end succeeding. The Germans were moving about in No Man’s Land not only finding their own wounded but directing their first-aiders and stretcher-bearers to find the English wounded too. This concern for the wounded was reciprocated. There were 4,749 casualties in the London Division alone out of nearly 60,000. It was a seven to one battle, in favour of the Germans. The division remained on the Somme till October.
Battle of Guillemot, 3-6 September.[edit | edit source]
The Officer Commanding the Kensingtons was ordered to extend his line from the south corner of Leuze Wood and dig-in as close to the German trench as possible. During the night, the Kensingtons has moved out to attack the German trench. Unknown to them the Germans had reinforced that part of their line – which had been previously lightly held. A bombardment was laid down by the Germans on the British troops, as they surged forward. They fell back, to reform, and try again. The battalion had been fully up to strength at the start of the battle, they, with the help of a flanking French battalion, were to advance upon Combles as the Germans, it was believed, had left it unoccupied – the General Staff thought the Germans would be in retreat after such a bombardment… this was not the case!
The Kensington Commanding Officer split his battalion in two. Half were to take over the shell holes to their front and link them together – to form a trench. The other half battalion were to take over the old German trench and reverse the firesteps – to support the new trench being constructed. When all was quiet patrols were sent out to find out how strong the German position was and to take prisoners if possible. One patrol was to seek out the French battalion to find out what they had in mind – to link up the advance the next day. The patrols reported back that the German trench was strongly held with barbed wire entanglements firmly in place with no gaps. The French CO sent a detailed plan showing where their positions were and the extent of the numbers holding them. It was clear from the sketch that the French poison was not so advanced as previously thought. These plans and descriptions were sent back to the Brigade HQ.
The Kensingtons CO held back from making a daylight attack the next day. That afternoon the French flanking battalion attacked to be repulsed ending up back where they had started in the first place. As darkness fell that evening the Kensingtons moved out. The Germans became aware of movement to their front called down a heavy bombardment on the advancing troops. The Kensingtons retired to reform and strike out again. But by now the Germans were fully alerted and kept up a steady machine gun fire. Again the Kensingtons were repulsed. In the morning the regiment advanced again towards the trenches in front of Combles, they stumbled, upon uncut barbed wire, which had been hidden by the long grass. Very heavy fire from both machine gun and rifle was directed on them. A third of the regiment fell killed or wounded the rest fell back taking cover where they could. They started to try digging a trench to connect the shell-holes together. The Kensingtons tried again to take Combles that night but by then the Germans had reoccupied their trenches and fully alert to this possibility. The Kensingtons were again strongly opposed only this time they had the added trial of a German barrage. These shells straddled both the newly dug trench and their original positions…the Kensingtons were caught in the middle, where they huddled in shell holes all night.
The Commanding Officer was ordered to report to the Battalion Head Quarters where he was asked why they had failed to occupy the trench and conduct patrols to strengthen their position. He reported that he had not been ordered to do that in the first place and that his original orders had come from another brigade; he went on to report that his orders came via another brigade and that he did not know who was in charge of the operation. High Command ordered him to recommence the attack. After being berated by high command, the Commanding Officer decided to try again the next morning... The following day, on the Sunday, a third try was prepared. The morning dawned clear and sunny… again the troops were ordered forward.
After another tremendous bombardment, the artillery fire lifted to range onto the German second line trenches. The day’s rations eaten, before the shelling had stopped, was washed down with water. The feeling was that they might as well die with a full stomach rather than have to carry extra weight. It also stopped the men from thinking about the tremendous racket made by the shelling. Many were feeling quite petrified although there was nothing one could do to relieve the tension. Cigarettes were passed round and lit. It was clear that if one talked continuously it made waiting that much easier. The conversation was about nothing in particular just idle chatter. Overhead the Germans had raised balloons to observe the fall of their shot. The Royal Flying Corps were up taking pot shots of the balloons to try to bring them down. Some companies had moved forward into No Mans Land.
My father and his company climbed over the parapet and went towards the German lines. By moving rapidly, they reached the German trenches… there was not anyone about? It was not realised by the Allies how complicated and well constructed the German positions were… the Germans were below ground in deep dugouts Shortly afterwards the German machine guns went into action. They had been hiding in their deep bunkers perfectly safe. As soon as the British shelling had stopped to allow their troops to move forwards up they popped pulling their guns up on ropes. The trenches had been prepared to take the machine guns to give them fixed lines that covered their front. They continuously fired their guns putting down a carpet of fire mowing everyone down. My father found he was the only one standing either everyone else was dead or wounded. He immediately jumped into a shell hole where he found a few others who had survived. There they stayed whilst the machine guns continued to blast away. Eventually the fire lifted and my father found they were up against the German trench parapet. Organising an advance he lead his few men into the German trenches again only this time they knew they had to eliminate the Germans in their deep bunkers which they did with grenades. There was only about half the Kensington regiment left and most of the officers had been either killed or wounded. It was a gallant effort but again it failed…!
This battle continued long after it was realised it was a hopeless cause. Urged to maintain pressure on the Germans to relieve the French at Verdun these battles continued well into November. The ground resembled the imagine landscape of the moon. It was a shocking wilderness of mud, shell holes, flooded trenches and parts of bodies lying amongst discarded equipment. Four and a half months of turmoil had resulted in an advance of five miles. Both sides had lost nearly half a million men each. The Kensingtons were drawn back from the front to rest, shortly afterwards.