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VAN STOCKUM: SOMME PART 1: Volunteers were called to bloody conflict

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In World War I, the Battle of the Somme River in France took the lives of one in five members of the British fighting force. One of them was my father. In the first of a 2-part series, we look at some of the men and plans that formed that battle.

By Ron Van Stockum

‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’

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 Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-1891)

 

The bloody Battle of the Somme, which commenced on July 1, 1916, has continued to fascinate me. My English father, Sgt. Reginald George Bareham, was one of 19,240 British soldiers – nearly 20 percent of the entire British fighting force – who were killed that day on the French countryside in one of the pre-eminent battles of World War I.

I was born a week later, on July 8.

That lifetime interest in this pivotal battle has been reawakened recently by a definitive study, Three Armies on the Somme, by British historian William Philpott, which describes the planning among the allies, Britain, France and Russia, that commenced more than six months before the battle and the bickering at the highest political level and within the high commands of France and Britain who were to conduct the attack on the western front while Russia was expected to attack on Germany’s eastern front, thus deterring any attempt by Germany to reinforce its western armies.

From those small details of a vast campaign comes much of the richness of Philpott’s story, and it provides much insight into the background and the history of the battle that took my father’s life.

 

Formation of The 11th Suffolks

In September 1914, a "Kitchener" battalion was formed in Cambridge, England, from volunteers who flocked to the colors after Great Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on Aug. 4.

My father, Reginald “Reg” Bareham, who was helping his father operate the historic farm of Sir Charles Waldstein in Newton, Cambridgeshire, had written in 1913:

“The farm work is going on as nicely as ever and we have every promise of a successful harvest. I am very often told I ought to get a better job, but I think it is my duty to stick to my people, and what is more I mean to do so, other people can please themselves. I think anyone who keeps steady and tries hard can always succeed in life.”

But he would not remain long on the farm. He was one of the first to answer the call for volunteers by Lord Kitchener, minister of defense, becoming a member of what was then called “Kitchener’s Army.” Often recruited by community or geographic area, these men were organized into battalions containing friends and neighbors, who called themselves “Pals.”

I have been in contact with Phil Curme of England, a historian of the 11th Suffolks, who has provided a plethora of information about my father’s battalion. He has walked the Somme Battlefield and many others, which he has described in a blog, available at walkingthebattlefields.com.

He has traveled widely in this endeavor, including visits to American Civil War battle sites. He writes:

“The Battalion conducted its own recruiting campaign. Specially selected officers and NCOs accompanied by drummers, buglers and recruiting sergeants, made excursions to [nearby communities]...”

Curme writes that there were four companies in the 11th Suffolks. Reg Bareham, living in Newton, seven miles from Cambridge, was undoubtedly a member of Company A, which included the recruits from Cambridge.

By December 1914, the battalion was given a choice of joining the Norfolk or the Suffolk Regiments. They chose the latter and were thenceforth known as the “11th Suffolks” or the “Cambs Suffolks.”

In January 1915 the battalion reached its full strength of 1,350, and in March their original blue uniforms were replaced by khaki, which were much more suitable for combat.

On May 19, 1915, their battalion left Cambridge for Ripon, Yorkshire, where they became part of the 101st Brigade of the 34th Division.

On June 24, 1915, my mother, Florence Freestone of Orwell, Cambridgeshire, 20 years old, married Reginald Bareham, then a sergeant. They had met at a dancing class in Newton. It was his 21st birthday.

He would have but one more.

They had a short honeymoon, after which he returned to his station near Warminster in southern England.

 

A note of honor

In December the 34th Division was ordered to mobilize for Egypt, but the destination was changed, undoubtedly because of the developing plans for the Somme campaign, and on Jan. 7, 1916, they sailed for France. They were not long delayed in moving into the British front lines north of the Somme River, with Sgt. Bareham serving as a platoon leader, a position normally occupied by a lieutenant. There was a great shortage of trained officers needed to meet the requirements of Kitchener’s expanding army.

On April 20, Bareham was presented with a “Card of Honour” by the commanding general of the 34th Division, an award for "Gallant leading of night patrols during March and April [1916]” against the Germans.

In those days, when few medals were given, this award could have been presented for heroic combat action not warranting the highest British decoration, the Victoria Cross (equivalent of our Medal of Honor), a belief supported in a message recently received from Josh E. Acton of the Central Library in Cambridge, England.

“I suspect that the Card of Honour may have referred to the MID [Mention in Dispatches],” he wrote. “Just over two percent of men serving in the First World War . . .were honoured in this way.”

 

A child’s impression

My mother told me years ago that she had torn this card up in grief, a piece of paper in exchange for the life of her husband.

I remember, as a child, holding in my hands a small canvas packet containing a section of German barbed wire, which my father, while on patrol, had cut from the defensive obstacles protecting the enemy trenches. This too, must have been discarded.

One can imagine Sgt. Bareham, with three or four carefully chosen members of his platoon, climbing silently up ladders and over the parapet of the British trenches, crawling through the British protective barbed wire and creeping through “no man’s land” toward the German trenches, also wired in, only several hundred yards away.

While cutting the wire to prove they had reached the enemy lines, he and his companions would have realized that the slightest sound would bring down pre-arranged fire from enemy machine guns sited along the wire.

 

Planning for a great Somme offensive

In late 1915, military and political leaders of Britain, France, and Russia had met for consultations, with the object of conducting in 1916 a massive attack on the Western front, which would break through Germany’s lines and bring the country to the negotiating table. Following additional strategic meetings in early 1916, the area of the Somme River was chosen for the attack.

It initially was contemplated that the well-trained French Army, having already gained much battle experience in stemming the German invasion, would be making the main effort. The British, a hastily recruited volunteer force, were not yet fully trained.

However, in February 1916, the Germans attacked at Verdun, in a vicious battle that continued for 10 months, at a terrible cost in French manpower and resources. Thus, France was rendered unable to play the major role in the Battle of the Somme that had been originally planned.

The Battle of Verdun is remembered for the “bayonet trench,” where bayonets still protrude above a dirt-filled trench. Legend and fact combine to support a narrative in which French soldiers, with their bayonets fixed, were buried by the earth thrown up by the explosion of an enormous artillery shell. It had been reported that when excavations were made after the battle, a body of a French soldier had been found below each bayonet. The bodies were removed, but the rifles with protruding bayonets, remained as a symbol of that tragic and bloody battle.

Many years ago I visited this Tranchée des Baionnettes, which serves as a reminder that more than 700,000 soldiers died during the battle at Verdun, about half German and half French. I was duly impressed.

Accordingly, it was decided that the main effort at Somme should be made by the fresh British forces, even though they were not yet fully trained.

The attack was to be made by 13 British divisions north of the Somme, 11 from the Fourth Army and two from the Third Army, and 11 divisions of the French Sixth Army just to the south of the river. They were opposed by the German Second Army of Gen. Fritz von Below. The axis of the advance was centered on the historic Roman Road that ran from Albert in the west to Bapaume, 12 miles to the northeast.

The Fourth Army, commanded by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, consisting of five corps, 11 divisions in all, was to make the main attack on a 14-mile front, astride the Albert-Bapaume road. The 11thth Suffolks Battalion was a component of the 101sts  Brigade of the 34th Division of the III Corps, which had the initial mission of taking La Boisselle, located on the south side of the road. La Boisselle was not finally taken until July 4, the fourth day of the attack.

 

Readying for battle

I quote extracts from the 11thth Battalion, Suffolk Regiment – Official War Diary – Records Office, Kew, London, England, with my personal comments highlighted within brackets:

 “Each Battalion will attack in 4 waves with 3 Companies. One platoon from each Company in each wave. 11 Suffolks will be known as D Battalion.”

[In my University ROTC classes in the 1930s, I was taught the old tactics: “The infantry platoon attacks in waves.” It was not until World War II, that attack formations were adjusted to the terrain, using defiles for protection and not necessarily covering the entire front. ]

“D Battalion [11th Suffolks] will pass through 10th Lincolns within two minutes of the barrage lifting. C Company will advance through Bailiff Wood along with B Co. C Company will consolidate Suffolk Redoubt and will call on D & B Co. if necessary....Selected men to push forward to see if Contalmaison has been evacuated.” [Contalmaison actually did not fall until 10 days later.]

“A mine will be exploded [Lochnagar] – All ranks to be warned that the concussion will be considerable.” Ten large mines were placed by tunneling under enemy lines.

The first two Bns [battalions] (15th Royal Scots and 10th Lincolns) will creep forward into nomans land under cover of the barrage ready to advance at zero hour. D Bn [Cambs Suffolks] will follow at 150 yards distance.) [All these battalions were in the 101st Brigade].”

 

Supplies and equipment

Here’s a list of what each soldier would carry for the attack, including my explanations for some of them:

  • Rifle and equipment.
  • 2 extra bandoliers of SAA (small arms ammunition).
  • 2 Mills bombs (hand grenades).
  • 1 iron rations (1 pound preserved meat, 1 pound biscuit, tea, sugar). During lulls in the battle, ways were found to brew tea.
  • 1 day rations.
  • Waterproof cape.
  • 4 sandbags. These could be filled with earth for defensive positions to hold and defend ground gained.
  • 1 gas helmet and pair of goggles. Both sides fired chemical shells during the attack.
  • 1 gas helmet pinned to shirt.
  • A box respirator (for those who have one).
  • A yellow triangle (inverted) on haversack. These were to identify front lines for aerial observers.
  • 1 pick or shovel, used to dig in for defense of ground gained.
  • Oilcan and bottle (to service rifle).
  • Field dressing (first aid).
  • No papers or orders apart from a 1/5000 German trench map.
  • Officers will carry a rifle and not a [swagger] stick. Also a very pistol. This was used to discharge signal flares.

The swagger stick

The only heirloom left by my father was his “stick,” which he left with my mother before he sailed for France. She called it a cane and occasionally used it for an auxiliary purpose. I was not a spoiled child, as I recall.

The swagger stick, a short metal-tipped cane, had been brought into use by a Marine Corps Commandant in 1956.

He obviously had been impressed by this British custom, but traditions are difficult to import. His replacement, hard-bitten Gen. David M. Shoup, hero of Tarawa, in a letter to his general officers, immediately prescribed a welcome change: “I consider the swagger stick to be an unnecessary item of encumbrance.” Swagger sticks immediately disappeared and Shoup’s prestige rose.

 

More orders to the troops

“Too much credence should not be given to the opinions of wounded men.”

In a previous column, I have written about an attack during the 1943 Bougainville campaign:

“The First Battalion found the route to its attack positions cluttered with stragglers, the flotsam and jetsam of war. Some were the wounded, quietly making their way back, as best they could. Others ejected loud, dire predictions about the fate in store for the reinforcing troops. Remarks such as ‘they look confident now; wait 'til they run into those forty machine guns,’ magnified the doubts of a thousand untested troops as they approached combat.”

"All officers to dress like the men. Badges of rank to remain and all must wear putties." This would provide identity to those in positions of authority, without marking them clearly as targets for the enemy.

"The use of the word ‘Retire’ is forbidden in 101 Brigade. If given it must never be obeyed unless it is in writing from an authorized person." Or, as Capt. Lloyd Williams, U.S. Marine Corps at the Battle of Belleau Wood: “Retreat, hell, we just got here!"

"Any officer, NCO or other rank found in possession of souvenirs will be liable to court martial. Arrangements will be made afterwards to collect and distribute souvenirs."

Picking up a souvenir would distract a soldier’s attention from the battle. In any case, as the bloody battle developed, the attacking soldiers had other interests of higher priority.

"Assisting a wounded man to the rear is a court martial offense."

A soldier might be motivated to help a wounded comrade, but he could also be looking for an excuse to get out of harm’s way.

 

NEXT: The battle ensues