The intense fighting in Delville Wood on 2nd September 1916 meant loss and misery for thousands of U.K. families.  No one suffered more than the already widowed mother of twins Frederick and Herbert Bindoff (21).  These ‘Tommies’ were part of the advance that cleared the German army from the wood – a dreadful place that stank of rotting corpses and where even torrential rain could not extinguish the burning trees.  An enemy shell took out both lads. Enough was found of Frederick to merit burial and his remains lie in a marked grave adjacent to the wood. It was said that Herbert was vaporized and so he is commemorated on the memorial to the missing at Thiepval. 

3rd September - A TRAGIC HERO

Captain William Allen was a highly decorated medical officer who was awarded the Military Cross (twice), the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross.  The latter was earned on the 3rd September 1916 when he rushed to help comrades injured during an enemy bombardment.  Despite falling shells and exploding ammunition the 24 year old doctor calmly treated and carried to safety each wounded man.  The war took a heavy toll on Allen who suffered multiple wounds as well as being blinded for 6 months by poison gas. Post war service in India, during which he suffered from dysentery and malaria, left his body “wrecked”.  Drug abuse and alcoholism contributed to his premature death at only 41 years of age and it has recently been suggested that he also suffered from a form of Parkinson’s disease.  Allen’s issues are said to have contributed to him becoming ‘a forgotten hero’.

5th September - SIDE BY SIDE

Lying in adjacent graves in Dartmoor Cemetery, Somme are George and Robert Lee.  They were gunners with A Battery, 156 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery but more significantly they were also father and son.  George (44) and Robert (19), from Peckham, London were killed on the 5th September 1916. 


During his first visit to the Western Front, Field Marshall von Hindenburg decided to abandon the Somme and move his troops back to a new, more easily defended position.  At a conference at Cambrai on 7th September 1916, he announced that the Somme was “of little importance”. Nevertheless the bloodletting continued unabated for a further 10 weeks with the number of lives lost (on both sides) rising to 1.2 million.

9th September - FIGHTING IN PYJAMAS?

On the 9th September 1916, men of the 1st Battalion, Gloucestershire regiment were engaged in a grim battle for possession of High Wood on the Somme.   At full strength they would have numbered around 1000 but after repeated attacks they had been reduced to only 96 fighting men.  Their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel A. W. Pagan was frustrated that he had been evacuated to hospital when he felt his duty was with his men.  He therefore, slipped a dressing gown over his pyjamas, bluffed his way past a curious military policeman and rejoined his unit at the front!

15th September - BAPTISM OF FIRE

At 06.20 on 15th September 1916, the British army unleashed its secret weapon – the tank.  These mechanical monsters had been smuggled forward during previous nights and before dawn on launch day, British planes buzzed over German lines and artillery guns boomed to drown the sound of their engines.  Perhaps bowing to pressure over unsustainable casualty rates, General Haig was hopeful that this ‘rather desperate innovation’ would effect a breakthrough.  However there were ominous signs that these prototypes were not yet ready for combat.  Of the 49 sent forward, 31 broke down or were ditched before or shortly after the attack. Six others got bogged down in craters, eight were hit by enemy shells and two caught fire but the surviving pair achieved success – they broke through the German lines.

17th September - BLOOD ON THE TRACKS

Captain J. Cottle watched a 28 ton tank engage an enemy machine gun, chattering from a shell hole in No-man’s land. He wrote; “Crushing and roaring on it went….the chatterer was still. A shapeless grey and red mass was caught in her tracks, pulled over the broad back and re-crushed”. Peering through a glass prism, the hapless tank drivers viewed with horror the fate of wounded men – friend or foe – who could not get out of their path. They were perhaps fortunate that the deafening roar of the engine rendered their agonizing cries inaudible!


News of the introduction of a new wonder weapon boosted morale among the populations of Britain and her allies.  But what did it look like?  The War Office refused to release any photographs and so it was left to newspaper artists to create images based on witness accounts.  However in letters home soldiers variously described tanks as ‘walking’, ‘crawling’, ‘itching’, ‘scratching’ etc. and this influenced images (as shown).  The first photograph of the tank did not appear in the press until the Daily Mirror pulled off a scoop 22nd November 1916.


Heinz Guderian, a WW1 German officer (and their tank strategist in WW2) agreed with Britain’s future wartime Prime Minister on one thing at least.  The tank offered Britain a war winning card but in September 1916 they threw it away.  They were not available in sufficient numbers and as yet they were unreliable. In addition tank crews had only basic training and tactics were rudimentary.


By the 22nd September 1916 almost every infantry soldier we had in reserve, and every gun and every available tank had been committed to the Battle of the Somme.  However victory had not been achieved and the consensus among Generals was that it was now unachievable.  British forces were now tasked with capturing positions on the uplands where they could spend the winter and prepare to resist anticipated counter which might come in the spring.  They did not know that the Germany army was already making plans to abandon the Somme and move to a formidable new position many miles away.



On 23rd September 1916, Germany ordered work to begin on a new defensive line which would (they hoped) would be impregnable.  Conscript labour, Prisoners of War and German soldiers began to dig ‘super’ trenches behind masses of barbed wire with concrete pill boxes and deep dugouts.  Fearing the growing strength of the allies and troubled by their own high losses at Verdun and the Somme, the new line would reduce the Western Front by around 25 miles and reduce by around 100,000 the number of German troops required to man them.  


26th September - HE WON A V.C. (AND THEN FLOGGED IT!)

On the 26th September 1916 Frederick Edwards was with the Middlesex Regiment trying to secure the high ground of the Thiepval Ridge. When a German machine gun halted the advance, the 21 year old showed complete disregard for his own safety to dart forward and bomb the position. Edwards was one of 41 Irishmen awarded the Victoria Cross but while the British Army considered them heroes, at home in newly independent Ireland views differed. After the war Fred moved to London but decent jobs were difficult to find and in 1928 he was forced to pawn his medal. When this was brought to the attention of a national newspaper they raised funds and returned it to him. However the next time he was short of cash he sold his V.C. for £180.  Nowadays a Victoria Cross might be expected to earn the seller around £250,000.

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Stories from the Battle Of The Somme - September