1st July - HORRIFIC!

At 07.30 on 1st July 1916, waves of British infantry clambered from their trenches and lumbered across No-man’s land. They were laden with supplies (including picks and shovels) but encouraged by pipers, drummers or the yells of their officers, they advanced as drilled – in rows with their rifles held high - with the sun glinting on their bayonets. Within a few minutes they were shocked to hear the R-R-R of German machine guns (they had been assured that not even a rat could survive the bombardment!) and they began to tumble like wheat before the reaper. Over 100,000 men were committed to the attack that day and around 57,000 became casualties (almost 20,000 dead!). It was said of Kitchener’s army that it was 2 years in the making and 10 minutes in the destroying.

2nd July - SOMME PUNCH!

This is how the ‘News of the World’ reported the British offensive on the Somme. In the absence of reliable information they painted a rosy picture and assured their readers that the Kaiser had been given a bloody nose. They would soon be reporting on a disaster. Here is how a German machine-gunner remembered the first day of the Somme. “We were surprised to see them walking, we had never seen that before. The officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started to fire we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. We didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.”


51 Victoria Crosses were awarded for gallantry during the Battle of the Somme – 9 on day one! One of the most interesting recipients was Adrian Carton de Wiart. This gallant officer was no stranger to danger having already been wounded 8 times. He had lost an eye and a hand was so badly smashed that it had to be amputated. However he refused to be discharged or transferred to a desk job. On 3rd July 1916, he led his men through the fortress village of La Boisselle, pulling out the pins of grenades with his teeth and hurling them at the enemy with his one good arm.


One of the more bizarre stories relating to the opening day of the Somme offensive concerned the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment and a young officer, Captain Billy Nevill. While on leave Billy had purchased four footballs anticipating that these would give his men something homely to focus on during their advance on 1st July. The men were keen on the idea and on one ball they wrote ‘Great European Cup Final East Surreys v Bavarians, Kick off at Zero’ and on another they wrote ‘No referee’. When the whistles blew the footballs were kicked over and the men followed cheerily, perhaps hoping that they would collect the prize for being first to kick a ball into the German front line trench. The prize went unclaimed as 600 of the 800 who attacked became casualties. One of those killed was Captain Nevill in what a fellow officer described as “a massacre”..

5th July - BOY STORY!

On the 5th July 1916, Second Lieutenant Reginald Battersby was being treated for a thigh wound sustained in the first minutes of the attack on 1st July. Battersby was shot as he led over the Accrington Pals near the fortress village of Serre. At just 16 years old, he was the youngest officer to serve in the Battle of the Somme. The youngest soldier known to have fought on the Somme was Sydney Lewis who was a machine gunner at the age of 13. Commonwealth War Graves Commission records show that 118 boys under 17 died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Battersby survived the war.


Thousands of captives were brought back to British lines but their survival depended on which units and even which individuals they encountered. Soldiers of the Royal Fusiliers were unmoved when a German machine gunner stopped firing and waved a pre-prepared white flag. They were in no mood to show mercy. A soldier from the Manchester Regiment, shot one surrendering German to avenge his dead brother, and a second was killed because taking him back was too much bother. Groups of enemy soldiers might be ushered back into their dug-outs where grenades or fire was used to dispatch them. Some Somme survivors claim that they were under orders not to take prisoners while others argue that it was merely suggested.


It is hard to imagine the impact that the Somme had on families back home. 20,000 men had died on one day and telegrams had begun to arrive at family homes all over the U.K. The 8th July 1916 proved to be a catastrophic day for Mrs. Hobbs in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. For the remainder of their lives, her neighbours remembered the telegram boy cycling up to her door with not one but THREE telegrams. On the opening day of the battle, David, Andrew and Robert Hobbs were all killed when they went over the top with the Ulster Division close to Thiepval. To add to her misery she was also informed that her fourth son was missing in action. The bodies of her beloved sons were never found / identified and so they are commemorated with 73,364 other missing British soldiers on the Thiepval memorial. In a story, not unlike that told in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, her fourth son, Herbert was traced by the army and sent home in August 1916.

9th July - SING! SING!

On the 9th July 1916, commuters in Lille, France watched in stunned silence as train after train passed through their station pulling cattle trucks full of German soldiers. These were wounded men from the Somme heading back to the Fatherland for medical attention. The onlookers were somewhat confused at the sounds emanating from the carriages as they trundled by - the wounded men were singing! This was on the strict orders of the German high command who feared that the people in occupied France and Belgium might deduce that their army was not as invincible as propaganda suggested.


Brothers Harry and Thomas Hardwidge both served with the Welsh Regiment on the Somme. On this day in 1916, Tom (the eldest) was wounded by a sniper, and Harry went to his assistance. While Harry was giving his dying brother water, he was shot and killed. Both men were married with children and they lie in adjacent graves in Flatiron Copse cemetery.


The British government worked hard to ensure that the world was fed both positive stories about the British war effort and damaging stories about Germany. To create or amend news items, celebrity writers were hired by the War Propaganda Bureau. This included Owen Seaman (editor of Punch magazine) Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, H G Wells, Arnold Bennett, J M Barrie, John Galsworthy, G K Chesterton, John Masefield and even ‘Winnie the Pooh’ author A.A. Milne. So great was their ability to spin stories that Adolf Hitler considered that they contributed greatly to the Allied victory. Among their most famous creations were stories that the Germans were boiling the bodies of their dead to make tallow, and of course the famous claim from 1914 that the Kaiser had dismissed the B.E.F. as ‘that contemptible little army’.


On 14th July 1916, British cavalry went into action for the first time since 1914 in a charge at High Wood on the Somme. With flags fluttering from their lances and bugles sounding, their attack was described by some as ‘an inspiring sight’. Back in Britain, Lloyd George had expressed grave doubts on the value of cavalry charges against barbed wire and machine guns but this had simply provoked the ire of General Haig. It did not make him feel better to learn that this attack had been a disaster with horses and riders cut down. The lessons were not learned and in 1926 Haig wrote, “I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever…aeroplanes and tanks…are only accessories to the man and the horse and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse – the well bred horse – as you have ever done in the past.”


Two weeks into the Somme offensive and the fighting had evolved into a series of tactical battles aimed at capturing any prominent feature on the landscape. As the British front line edged forward, Delville Wood (nicknamed Devil’s Wood) became of strategic importance to both sides. The German commander General Erich von Falkenhayn issued the following order to his troops, “the enemy will not advance here, except over corpses.” The first attack into the wood was at 05.00 a.m. on the 15th July and a South African soldier recalled the scene, “enemy artillery brought to the wood an orgy of havoc and destruction. Counter-attack followed counter-attack, only to be broken down by our fire. But the shelling steadily thinned our lines – it was mechanical slaughter...We dug for dear life. Never did men dig as we dug, and by sunrise we congratulated ourselves on having produced a decent trench. But we were now totally cut off... The Germans saw they had us like rats in a trap.”


The battle for Delville Wood raged for 6 weeks and in all, around 90,000 British soldiers became casualties here. One of those was Arnold Ridley, who played pacifist Private Godfrey in the original ‘Dad’s Army’. During hand to hand to hand fighting in the wood the 20 year old was bayoneted in the groin, riddled with shrapnel and was battered on the head with a German rifle butt.  This made him prone to blackouts and since that his left hand was for a while virtually useless, he was given a medical discharge.  In 1918 he took up acting but his war injuries limited his opportunities.   Ridley also served in World War 2 and in 1940 was evacuated from Dunkirk.


The Germans threw everything at the British units in Delville Wood. In their counter attacks they used gas, flame throwers as well as bayonets. Hand to hand fighting was a feature of the combat in Delville Wood. Possibly the most terrifying feature however was the artillery fire as – at its height – an estimated 400 shells PER MINUTE fell on this half acre wood. A German officer commented that by the 18th July...Delville Wood had disintegrated into a shattered wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep. Worst of all was the lowing of the wounded. It sounded like a cattle ring at the spring fair....”


Harold Ackroyd was grey-haired, had poor eyesight, was slightly built, and walked with a stoop but the 39 year old was every inch a hero. On the 19th July 1916, his unit suffered 70% casualties during intense fighting in Delville Wood. At greater personal risk, Ackroyd left cover and crawled around the uprooted tree stumps to treat the wounded – British and German. Due to his “conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty” he was nominated 11 times for a Victoria Cross but he was only awarded the Military Cross. However a year later, during the Third Battle of Ypres, Ackroyd again performed his medical duties under fire and with great coolness and on this occasion there were 23 separate recommendations for the V.C. This time it was awarded but before the news reached him, he was killed by a sniper.


Three Victoria Crosses were awarded for exceptional bravery shown by British troops in Delville Wood on the 20th July 1916. Private William Faulds twice ignored heavy rifle and artillery fire to dash from cover to drag wounded comrades to safety. Corporal Joseph Davies (shown wearing a sling) took charge of a small group to fight off an enemy counter attack. When the Germans retreated he chased and bayonet several despite being badly wounded. Oswald Hill fought like a demon to scatter several of the enemy and took two prisoners before searching for and bringing in his wounded officer. It is worth pointing out that the fighting in this part of the wood was so confused that during their endeavours these brave men were also being shot at by other British units.


Wilfred Owen’s famous poem compares the passing of a young man at the front to one back at home - but men of all ages died on the Somme. The upper age limit to serve in the British army was generally 45 but many older men found ways to enlist. City stockbroker, Henry Webber lobbied the authorities to be allowed to serve alongside his three sons and became the oldest British soldier to die in World War 1. On the 21st July 1916, near the town of Albert, the 67 year old Transport Officer was mortally wounded by a long range German shell. Webber’s sons all survived.


On the 27th July 1916, Sergeant Walter Tull was engaged in battle near Delville Wood on the Somme. Tull a well known professional footballer (with Spurs and Northampton Town) fought alongside other celebrity sportsmen in the 17th Middlesex Regiment (Footballers battalion). However in both his sporting and military careers he was also fighting racism. In December 1916 he was returned to ‘Blighty’ suffering from trench fever and during his recuperation history was made. Tull became the first black man to become an officer in the regular British army despite a military law that expressly stated that officers could only be soldiers ‘of pure European descent’. He returned to service in the spring of 1917 and was killed in action in March 1918. News of his death was carried in U.K. newspapers as well as local and national sports magazines. In one obituary he was described as "an officer and a gentleman every inch of him".

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Stories from the Battle Of The Somme - July