Gunner E. Earl: Cheshires on the Somme

+ 1916 +

Cheshires on the Somme

The Battle of the Somme, or the Somme Offensive, was a joint Anglo-French offensive launched in 1916, from 1st July to 18th November. Initial plans for the attack were formulated in December of 1915, at the Chantilly Conference, where Allied strategy for the next year was conceived. Simultaneous offensives on the Eastern, Western and Italian fronts were to be carried out, with the aim of starving the Central Powers of reinforcements along such a wide frontline of active battle.

Britain and France were to co-operate where their lines met, along the River Somme in Northern France. Sir Douglas Haig, the newly appointed Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, would have preferred a British attack to be made with clearer strategic objectives further North, in Flanders, targeting German U-boat bases along the Belgian coast.

Haig, however, was forced to concede to French wishes of an attack along the River Somme after the German attack on the French fortress city of Verdun in the South, on 21st February, with the intention of splitting British and French forces by the end of 1916. The Germans were fully aware that the materiel superiority of their enemies would ensure ultimate victory if the war was to continue past this point, whilst also understanding the symbolic significance of Verdun to the French and their unwillingness to let it fall into enemy hands. Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of German General Staff, is famously quoted as having been determined to “bleed France white” through the sustained attack on Verdun, hoping to launch another offensive against the British in the north later in the year to shatter the Franco-British entente altogether.

It was now paramount for a new Allied offensive to be launched to draw German reserves away from the Battle of Verdun, in order to relieve pressure on the French forces fighting there. This duty fell to the British, who were to now fight on the Somme with a substantially reduced allied French contingent focused to the extreme south of the battlefield. The bulk of the British force was made up of volunteers taken from the Territorials and Kitchener’s Armies of 1914, virtually inexperienced soldiers facing their first real test of the war. Haig was all too aware of this, and wanted to postpone the battle for as long as possible. In his second despatch, written after the end of the Battle of the Somme on 23rd December, 1916, Haig described the situation with which he was faced beforehand;

Subject to the necessity of commencing operations before the summer was too far advanced, and with due regard to the general situation, I desired to postpone my attack as long as possible. The British Armies were growing in numbers and the supply of munitions was steadily increasing. Moreover a very large proportion of the officers and men under my command were still far from being fully trained, and the longer the attack could be deferred the more efficient they would become. On the other hand the Germans were continuing to press their attacks at Verdun, and both there and on the Italian front, where the Austrian offensive was gaining ground, it was evident that the strain might become too great to be borne unless timely action were taken to relieve it.

The British attack was therefore to take place on 29th June, 1916, and was to be built on the bedrock of a 5-day sustained artillery bombardment on the German lines, aiming to obliterate their defences. Wet weather meant the bombardment was extended to 7 days, and the date of the attack postponed until 1st July. Once the bombardment was complete, the infantry would be tasked with mopping up duties; their aim was to march into the now empty German trenches and turn them around. To do this the British soldiers were loaded with extra pieces of kit, such as entrenching tools and sandbags, that were necessary to repurpose the captured enemy defence lines.

The Germans, in contrast, were also fighting on the Eastern Front against the Russians, and simply did not have the man power to mount sustained attacks. Therefore, they were committed to a policy of ‘unyielding defence.’ Barbed wire belts were increased in size and density, whilst extra trenches were dug, increasing their number from one line to three, with defensive points of significance being reinforced with concrete. With such a formidably fortified defence the German High Command welcomed the oncoming British 4th and French 6th armies, confident they would be repelled with ease. What the Germans were not counting on, however, was the sheer scale and ferocity of the oncoming attack; much like at Verdun, the Battle of the Somme became a materialschlacht, a phrase literally meaning a war of material, meaning the Germans would have to ensure their frontlines were substantially supplied if they were to have any hope of repelling the Allied attack.

 


 

The first day of the Somme Offensive is remembered as a disaster for the British Army due to the colossal losses it sustained.

The initial seven day bombardment was intended to destroy German defensive positions, such as barbed wire belts and trenches, and to kill those German soldiers occupying them. Nineteen mines were dug at key strategic positions and filled with explosives, and were detonated shortly before the infantry attack was set to begin, between 7:20 and 7:30AM. This time, during daylight, was chosen to ensure that the artillery was able to clearly observe its fire in support of the infantry.

To the North, the British 3rd Army was to carry out a diversionary attack at Gommecourt whilst the other sixteen British and French infantry divisions expected to capture the first day’s objectives with minimal German opposition. A large number of the British units attacking on the Somme consisted of Pals Battalions, those soldiers who volunteered at the beginning of the war in 1914. These soldiers were eager, and having witnessed the intensity of the bombardment on the German lines, were confident of victory.

The bombardment, however, was only partially successful. Over 1.6 million shells were fired over seven days, but due to inexperienced artillery crews, a shortage of heavy guns, and a large amount of these shells being faulty, the German barbed wire remained largely intact, and German soldiers were able to survive by seeking refuge in deep, often concrete dug outs. The Germans were also aware of when and where the Allied attack would come, through intelligence gathered from captured enemy soldiers, and by listening in to telephone calls.

The infantry attack followed the detonation of the mines and began at 7:30AM, with the artillery bombardment moving on to the German’s second line of defence. Those Germans who had survived the bombardment by seeking shelter returned to their trenches and manned their machine guns, ready to meet the oncoming infantry assault. The German barbed wire belts were constructed in such a manner as to ‘funnel’ attackers into narrow gaps, where soldiers are forced to bunch up to get through, making them easy targets for machine gunners.

Due to these unforeseen circumstances, the initial objectives on the first day of the Somme Offensive were not met. Rather than reaching the German second line of defence, British soldiers barely break out of the first, capturing instead small footholds, such as the 32nd Division capturing the Leipzig Redoubt, and the 34th Division capturing the Lochnagar Crater (created by a mine detonation earlier in the morning) just South of La Boisselle.

Further South, where the Germans did not expect the attack to reach to and the use of more effective French heavy guns, the Allied offensive makes substantially more progress. The 21st and 7th Divisions capture Mametz and cut off Fricourt, a heavily defended village which the Germans abandon over night. By 11AM the 18th and 30th Divisions have pushed on and taken their objectives, capturing the village of Montauban, while the French 20th Corps and colonial troops are also successful in securing their objectives for the day.

By the end of the day, the 1st July, 1916, was destined to live on in infamy as the worst single day in the history of the British Army. German losses totalled to around 12,000 casualties, the French with 7,000, and the British with a staggering 57,000, a third of whom were killed. Underestimating the capability of the German defenses to withstand bombardment, coupled with the inefficiency of British artillery, meant British soldiers were killed in their thousands in the fields of Northern France.

The Battle of the Somme would continue throughout the summer and into the Autumn, ending on 18th November, 1916, with total casualties on all sides equalling over 1 million men. Unsurprisingly, the battle is a source of heated debate and controversy; to some, it represents the futility of the First World War as a whole, a microcosm of the industrial slaughter of total war. However, by 1916 it was clear that the First World War would not end as a result of some climactic battle, and would instead be decided by means of attrition; which side could outlast the other in terms of manpower, morale, and industrial capabilities.

Although at the cost of the lives of many thousands of men for just a few miles of ground, the British Army at the Somme was able to deal their enemy a blow that it arguably never recovered from, with the German Captain von Hentig claiming “The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army.”

The Battle of the Somme was also a learning curve for the British Army, and proved vital in the development of the combined arms methods utilised in the final year of the First World War, and hardening those fresh Pals Battalions into experienced soldiers. The Somme also saw the debut of the Tank for the first time in history at Flers Courcelette and signalled further evolution in the waging of modern war, representing the desire of the attacking Allies to break out of the trenches and drive the invading German forces from occupied territory.

 


 

According to the Cheshire Regiment’s official history, the 9th Battalion, as part of the 19th (Western) Division’s 58th Brigade was “in reserve to attack on La Boisselle,” on the opening day of the Somme Offensive, in support of the 34th Division. This was to be the Battalion’s first engagement of the First World War.

Following the failure of the opening attacks, the 58th Brigade received orders to attack at 10:30PM that night, but due to masses of wounded men blocking trenches, and continual German shelling, only a few companies of the Battalion could be found. Some, such as “D” Company, were ordered to reinforce the Lochnagar Crater south of La Boisselle. By 9:40PM it was clear that it was now too late to carry out the planned 10:30PM attack, and it was not until 2:30AM on 2nd July that the Battalion was assembled in the old German front line and ready to attack. Concrete orders finally came at 4:00AM, ordering the Battalion to “bomb through” La Boisselle, “clearing all dug outs;” the order was carried out half an hour later.

Under their own covering fire, the men of the 9th Battallion charged across open land, with bombers sent on either flank to attempt to clear the way forward, but due to the “maze of trenches” and the carnage wrought by the bombardment of the last week, it was difficult for the Cheshires to keep direction.

By the next day, 3rd July, almost fully spent, and around 300 yards from La Boisselle, the Battalion consolidated their position and orders to resume the attack were received at 2:45AM on the 4th. Support was provided on either flank, the 57th Brigade on the left and the 9th Welch on the right, but the 9th Battalion was unable to make contact with either and continued attacking along saps (covered trenches). Any attempt to attack across the open was made impossible by the intensity of German machine gun fire and four belts of uncut barbed wire.

Intense counter attacks carried out by German bombing parties were repelled, and captured ground was held until 3:30AM on the 4th, following which the 9th Battalion was relieved.

The 9th Battalion remained at the Somme until its end, rotating in and out of the trenches and training behind the lines. The 19th (Western) Division, to which the Battalion belonged, was involved in further action at High Wood (20/07/16) and Poizieres Ridge (23/07/16), but records are unclear as to the role the 9th Cheshire Battalion played in these battles. We do know, however, that the Battalion fought again in late October/early November, in The Battle of the Ancre Heights, which was undertaken by British forces to capture German held high ground north of Thiepval, “crowned by the Schwaben and Stuff redoubts.” Details are scarce, with only information on “thigh deep” mud recorded in their own or the Brigade’s War Diary.


It is on the second day of the Battle of the Somme that my great-grandfather received his first wounding of the war, where his unit would have been attempting to capture La Boisselle. Despite only receiving a minor injury to his foot, Edwin was initially reported as Missing, and it was not until 6th July he was officially recorded as wounded.

 

Somme Missing
The 9th Battalion’s War Diary shows Edwin was listed as “Missing” after the unit was relieved at La Boisselle on 4th July.

 


His Field Medical Card describes his “Wound or Disease” as
G.S.W (shrap) Great Toe (L), indicating the great toe of his left foot had been wounded as a result of shrapnel from artillery. A record dating from around a week after provides more information, stating his injury was a Gunshot wound IX.3 great toe left phalange. This entry is filled out using the Army Wound Classification System of roman numerals; IX3 being a “Gunshot wound of the lower extremities. Simple fracture of long bones by contusion.” The record also has “Fricourt” and “02/07/16” written in the Observations Column, supposedly denoting the area Edwin was fighting in when he was wounded, however his unit was fighting North of Fricourt at La Boisselle, and this is potentially an administrative error.

The record also details that Edwin was transferred to a hospital ship in Calais on 09/07/1916, where he was treated for 4 days. Whether he returned to action before the end of the Somme Offensive is not evident.

 

Field Medical Card 1916
Edwin’s Field Medical Card from his wounding on 2nd July, 1916. This would have been filled out when he was admitted to a Field Ambulance as a casualty, accompanying him to the casualty clearing station and then base hospital.

 

Below is a picture postcard written by Edwin, seemingly following his wounding on 2nd July. The recipient is unknown, but the content of the postcard seems to indicate he was a fellow member of the 9th Battalion present with Edwin in the attacks of 2nd July.

 

Postcard Photo

Postcard Text
Hurry up! – old sport, there’s a suit to spare, your old pal is in the right foreground on crutches. Got the Yankee cap from the chaps serving the German guns by the railway – you remember them by the woods we stayed in when you left us to our fate. You were lucky but see what you missed. Ed.

 

The wood referenced could possibly be Becourt Wood situated directly behind the 9th Battalion’s point of attack on 2nd July. It is possible that after his wounding he was taken there, an area that is known to have been used by the medical facilities of the Army; for example, the 14th Field Ambulance were based here at the start of the Battle of the Somme, along with Advanced Dressing Stations. The rest of the Battalion was moved to Becourt Wood on 20th July.

However, his mentioning of a railway leads me to believe the wood in question could also have been Aveluy Wood, further to the North, that the main railway line in the area ran parallel to, along with the River Ancre. This wood, like Becourt, was also used for medical purposes during the Somme Offensive, whilst also having artillery present nearby. The mention of “chaps serving the German guns” could be in reference to German artillery captured by the British earlier in the war being used at the Somme.

Somme Map
A map of the Somme, showing Albert, where the 9th Battalion spent most of the 1st July, and La Boisselle, where they attacked in the early hours of the 2nd. Further North is Aveluy Wood, where it’s possible Edwin’s foot injury was treated.

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