From Somme to Soissons

The Capture of La Boisselle
1st – 4th July 1916

The Cheshire Regiment’s 9th Battalion, as part of the 19th (Western) Division’s 58th Brigade, was stationed in the reserve on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme in support of the 34th Division, who were to attack the village of La Boiselle. At 10:00AM the men of the Battalion gathered in their allotted positions in the TARA-USNA line, between the Tara and Usna Hills East of Albert, as the right front Battalion of the 58th Brigade. Here the men were kitted out with “tools and bombs.”.

At 7:00PM the Battalion’s Commanding Officer, Colonel R.B. Worgan, was personally dictated orders during a Brigade HQ meeting to attack North-Eastwards at La Boiselle at 10:30PM. The 9th Battalion was to take up positions from LOCHNAGAR ST. to INCH ST. in the order of “D”, “C”, “HQ”, “B”, and “A” Companies. However, whilst moving through DUNDEE AVENUE, verbal miscommunication resulted in only parts of “B” and “D” Company, under Lieutenants Ward and King respectively, making their way to the correct positions. The remainder of the Battalion erroneously made its way to Bécourt Wood, where they fell under the command of a Captain Jackson.

Worgan headed to the front line in search of his men, eventually coming across both Lieutenants Ward and King with the portions of their Companies. Ward explained to Worgan that due to masses of dead and wounded men from the first wave blocking communication trenches, and continual German shelling, only a few companies of the 9th Battalion had been able to make their way to the front lines. Worgan ordered the two Lieutenants to remain where they were and went in search of the rest of the 9th Battalion. By speaking to wounded men, he discovered that around 60 men of the 34th Division were holding a crater where a 60,000lb mine had been detonated that morning, along with another 200 holding the adjacent German trenches. Upon receiving this information, Worgan sent Ward and King with their Companies to reinforce the crater (which was named Lochnagar Crater by the British troops) and the adjacent German trenches which had been captured earlier in the day.

By 9:40PM it was clear that it was now too late to carry out the planned 10:30PM attack, and, having reported in person to Brigade HQ, Worgan returned to the front line and ordered “consolidation to be put in hand at speed.” Crookenden’s History of the Cheshire Regiment describes the carnage of the front lines that evening,

“Every shell-hole held a killed or wounded man. The whole area was littered with all the debris of battle, with equipment, clothing, timber, stores, and dud shells.”

At 2:30AM on 2nd July, the following morning, Worgan received telephone orders from Brigade HQ to once more prepare to attack. Within 20 minutes the C.O. had gathered the scattered components of the 9th Battalion at hand and had them assembled in the front line. The portion of the battalion under the command of Captain Jackson arrived at around 3:30AM, having come from Bécourt Wood, and was quickly put to work repairing the line. Shortly after Jackson’s arrival, at 4:00AM, new orders came from Brigade HQ; the 9th Battalion was to attack the German front line without delay. Following a short period of preparation, the attack was launched in the “deathly quiet” dark at 4:30AM. Reports were sent back that the attack was successful, but there were too many men present in the captured German trenches, so “C” Company was withdrawn and moved to reinforce the crater.

At 4:00PM the 9th Battalion received orders to “bomb through” La Boisselle and clear all German dug outs found there. Those men in the crater were brought back into the German line and once assembled the Battalion advanced into the open under covering fire from Lewis guns, heading deeper into the German lines. Bombers were sent on either flank in an attempt to clear the way forward, but due to the “maze of trenches,” and the carnage wrought on the landscape by the bombardment of the last week, it was difficult for the Cheshires to keep direction. Some of the men used a Russian sap, a shallow tunnel dug beneath no man’s land, to move forwards until it was eventually clogged with the bodies of the dead and wounded. Others ran into unexpected obstacles, such as “a deep and wide” German communication trench, which delayed the advance. By 8:30PM, almost fully spent and around 300 yards from La Boisselle, the 9th Battalion consolidated their position.

Orders to resume the attack on the German’s second line were received at 2:45AM on the 3rd July, with support to be provided on either flank; the 57th Brigade on the left and the 9th Welch on the right. However, by 3:45AM the Cheshires were yet to make contact with troops from either flank and were forced to continue attacking along saps. Attempts to attack across open ground were made impossible due to the intensity of the defending German’s machine gun fire and four belts of uncut barbed wire. In response to this dogged defence a bombing party, led by a Lieutenant Watts, headed straight down a sap into the German second line, “working to the right and left.” Watts’ party was making satisfactory progress until a German counterattack, also utilising bombs, drove them back to their starting position. By this point the Cheshires were exhausted; the Battalion’s war diary tells how “our men were so tired that the enemy could easily out-throw them.” Yet despite this disparity in condition between defenders and attackers, Watt’s and a Captain Symons were able to organise a solid defence and drive back the Germans at around 6am. The Battalion was relieved at 3:30AM on 4th July, having spent the rest of the day prior fortifying their position in anticipation of further counterattacks.

The 9th Cheshire Battalion withdrew and by 6:30AM had returned to their original starting positions from two days before, the TARA USNA line. Here they spent the rest of the day sleeping and carrying out necessary roll calls. After 2 days of fighting, the Battalion had suffered 305 casualties. As per the Battalion’s diary, 3 officers had been killed and 10 were wounded, whilst 25 other ranks were killed and 235 wounded. The remainder of the casualties were those 34 men listed as missing, one of whom was my great-grandfather, Private Edwin Earl.

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.

Born in 1898, Edwin was 18 years old in 1916. Two years earlier, in Birkenhead, he signed up to join the Cheshire Regiment and by the commencement of the Battle of the Somme he had been stationed in France with the 9th Battalion for almost 12 months. As a machine gunner in the Battalion’s “C” Company, Edwin was heavily involved in the fighting at La Boisselle. Armed with a Lewis gun, he and his team were expected to provide suppressing fire in support of advancing infantry. Based on the available information it is reasonable to assume that Edwin and his Company followed the route to the frontlines of those men who initially ended up at Bécourt Wood, before assembling in the Lochnagar Crater in the early hours of 2nd July. During the attacks later that day, as the Cheshires pushed deeper in the German lines, Edwin was wounded twice and evacuated from the front line.

Edwin’s 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. 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, denoting the general area Edwin was fighting in when he was wounded.

These two documents, however, do not tell the full story of Edwin’s wounding at La Boisselle. Some weeks after the commencement of the Somme Offensive the Birkenhead News, a local newspaper, published a short article on Edwin that includes further information. Before receiving wounds to his toe Edwin first suffered a “nasty wound in the right knee” as his Company occupied German frontline trenches adjacent to the Lochnagar Crater. Despite this he was able to continue fighting with his unit late into the night. “Heavy hand-to-hand fighting” followed, in which Edwin received another wound, this time to his left foot. This second injury is described as a gunshot wound that passed through his boot.

From the conflicting information provided by the aforementioned documents and the Birkenhead News article, it is unclear whether the wounding to his foot came from a bullet or from shrapnel. As noted above, at the time of his wounding Edwin’s Company was involved in fierce fighting in and around the captured German trenches near La Boisselle, and it is quite possible he was wounded as a result of artillery fire or grenades thrown by German bombing parties attempting to recapture ground in counterattacks.

As a result of these wounds Edwin was withdrawn from the line and was mistakenly recorded as missing until this was rectified on 6th July. He was then sent to a hospital ship at Calais where he was treated for 4 days before returning to England to be operated on in London, following which he spent at least 5 weeks recovering. Following this it is likely he spent time with the Cheshire Regiment’s 3rd Battalion, which remained in England as a training unit. He was later transferred to the 1/4th Battalion of the Cheshires in March of 1917, which at this point in the war was stationed in Egypt.

Edwin’s brother, Harry, was also injured during the Battle of the Somme. Both were featured in the Birkenhead News.
Harry was saved by his steel helmet when he was struck in the head by a piece of shrapnel at the Somme. As a stretcher bearer, he was attempting to bandage a wounded comrade in no man’s land when he was hit, resulting in the two men spending 14 hours in a shell hole sheltering from artillery, before making their way back to the British lines under cover of darkness. He recovered from his wounds at a hospital in Derby.

A photograph of Edwin taken in Birkenhead in 1916 after his wounding on the Somme. The vertical line on his left sleeve is a Wound Stripe; from 6th July 1916 onwards soldiers who had been wounded since the beginning of the war were awarded this dress distinction

The Battle of Soissons
Chantilly, 23rd July 1918

Just under 2 years after his wounding on the Somme, having spent over a year fighting in the Middle East, Edwin returned to France in June 1918. A letter detailing a machine gunner moving quarters, most likely taken from the Birkenhead News, could quite possibly have been written by Edwin himself on his return to France. Place names in the letter had been censored, but are filled in with pen, leading me to believe the letter was indeed Edwin’s and he filled in missing information after the fact. Details regarding travel dates and times also line up roughly with info found in the 1/4th’s war diary for the week commencing 1st July 1918 onwards.

It is quite possible that the “Pals” mentioned are another Battalion of the Cheshires, perhaps even Edwin’s former comrades of the 9th.

“We have changed our quarters, but are still many miles from the firing line. I believe that the nearest part of the line is just under thirty miles away. The ‘Pals’ have been resting quite close to this place, but they moved away a few days before we arrived. We left our training ground about 10 p.m. on Sunday, and as the nearest railway station was over 10 miles away, we had quite a long route march before reaching it. We entrained at 2:30 a.m., on Monday, and the machine gunners were lucky enough to travel in carriages, instead of the first-class cattle trucks.

We reached Amiens at noon. It is a fine town, the prettiest, as well as the largest place I have yet seen here. Tramcars were rattling past, and business was very brisk, in fact, it wasn’t a bit like war time. Pretty girls were giving us the ‘glad eye,’ and throwing flowers at us, so that I felt quite young again. Many were the wishes that we should be billeted close to Amiens but we kept on marching, and left it miles behind. Again we are in a country village, miles from anywhere, but it is a better place than the last one.

I was inoculated again yesterday, so have got two days’ light duty. I am not expecting to see any fighting this month, but then we never know what is going to happen, and may make a move any day.”

The 1/7th Cheshires, like the 1/4th, had travelled from the Middle East to France and joined the 102nd Brigade of the reconstituted 34th Division, which was now part of the 30th French Corps. Edwin’s expectation of seeing no fighting in July was unfortunately incorrect, as both Cheshire Battalions fought later that month in the Battle of Soissons, as part of Allied counterattacks following the final major German offensive on the Western Front.

The Allied operation was an attack on a ridge overlooking the countryside between both the Aisne and the Ourcq rivers, with the aim of cutting off the German salient that had been created during the earlier Spring Offensives. By this point the deadlock of the trenches had been broken, and the French GHQ specifically requested assistance from the 34th Division which consisted of Battalions with no prior experience of fighting in Europe. This new form of warfare on the Western Front meant units used to the more open battles of the Middle East would be invaluable in taking the fight to the Germans in a rapid and effective manner.

The attack began on 18th July, North of Soissons, with the 10th French Army assaulting the West side of the salient and successfully driving the defenders back 5 miles. The 34th Division was then ordered to attack on 23rd July, having relieved a French Division in the line two days prior near the commune of Parcy-et-Tigny. The task ahead was a difficult one for the men of the 1/4th Battalion; there had been no time for preliminary reconnaissance of enemy positions to be carried out, and with a lack of organised trench systems with which to orient an attack, the German positions “were never more than approximately known till they had been captured.”

The initial plan of attack was for the 1/7th Cheshire Battalion to advance on and capture Reugny Wood, after which the 1/4th Battalion would leapfrog them, passing through the wood and securing the commune of Hartennes. Following an initial mix up involving signalling rockets, orders to attack were eventually received via telephone and carried out at 7:40AM. The initial advance was held up owing to the fact the battlefield itself was a stretch of corn fields surrounded by forests. The 1/7th Battalion’s war diary details how heavy fire from German machine guns and artillery slowed down the advance considerably, whilst Crookenden’s History describes how the tall stalks of ripe corn forced Lewis gunners to fire their weapons from the hip. Allied failures on the flanks further compounded the Cheshires’ arduous progress and, having advanced around 1,200 yards, the two Battalions were forced to dig in, finally coming into contact with one another and French forces during the night.

Despite their proclivity for open warfare, the 34th Division’s lack of familiarity with combat on the Western Front did have its drawbacks. The men of the 1/4th Battalion’s experience of gas attacks was limited and as a result were slow to recognise gas shelling until it was considerably too late. On 23rd July the 1/4th Battalion suffered 280 casualties, 184 (around 65%) of which were caused by gas shells. Edwin wrote a letter regarding his experiences of the Battle of Soissons which was later published in the Birkenhead News. In it, he describes his experience leading his platoon’s Lewis gun team:

“That night we heard that an attack was to be made next morning. There was a terrific bombardment in progress by the French ’75’s and the Yankees had got into action several batteries of guns, which had been captured in the earlier stages of the successful counter-offensives, and they had a huge dump of Krupp gas shells to supply the guns.

The attack was made at dawn, and we met with stern opposition from numerous machine-gun nests, firing from cornfields and even from positions up in the trees of the various woods to our front. I was leading my team, being No.1 on the gun, and somehow the platoon lost direction, and entered an old 1914 trench to move over to the right. This trench was full of dead and wounded, and was still being heavily bombarded. Here I lost touch with the remainder of the platoon, and got up to look for them. Immediately, I went down with a bullet in my foot, so I handed over to No.2 and took cover under a stranded tank.

The next thing was to get to the dressing station. Gas was everywhere and helpless wounded were quickly overcome by the fumes. After four direct hits on the tank, I decided to ‘hop it’ and trust to Providence. How I got through it and back to the dressing station I don’t know, as I have not been able to put my foot down since. My foot swelled up as soon as my boot was off.”

Edwin made his way to a field dressing station for immediate treatment, before being transferred to the Mixed Hospital of Orleans on 25th July, (‘mixed’ meaning that the hospital functioned as both a civilian and military hospital), where he was placed in Bed 26 of the hospital’s “St Paul Room.” Here he was treated for his wounds which, in a surviving inspection certificate for entry to the hospital, are described by the attending French physician as being “smelly,” perhaps a sign of infection on account of it having been inadequately treated for two days as he made his way to Orleans. Another French document details that no X-Ray was required, and the last two toes of his left foot were amputated. Edwin himself wrote about the extent of the damage to his foot, claiming that his two toes “had evidently been smashed up,” but claims that at the time of the operation “I did not know I was to lose them both, though I guessed as much.”

He was released from the Mixed Hospital 3 days after admittance on 28th July and travelled back to England, where he was admitted to a hospital in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. A picture postcard written by Edwin shows him and other wounded men in the grounds of this hospital. It isn’t clear who the postcard was written to, but it seems likely it was addressed to a comrade from his unit:

For Edwin, the war was over. By July 1918 he had been in the Cheshire Regiment for almost four years, serving on the Western Front and in the Middle East, and had been wounded at least three times. He was officially discharged from the Army on 2nd May 1919, and received a disability pension due to his wounding at Soissons.

By the Armistice and the end of the First World War, the Cheshire Regiment had raised 38 Battalions and 8,413 men had lost their lives. Edwin undoubtedly suffered during the war but can be regarded as one of the lucky ones who made it back home. He died at the age of 80 on 4th November 1978.  

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