VAN STOCKUM: SOMME PART 2: The day nearly 20,000 died

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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 last of a series, we look at the battle that unfolded on July 1, 1916 and what went wrong.

By Ron Van Stockum

On June 24, 1916, a tremendous and sustained artillery bombardment by the allied armies of Britain and France commenced the Battle of the Somme, the pivotal conflict in World War I, where 19,240 died on the first day, including my birth father, Reginald Bareham, a member of the 11th Suffolks. This barrage on the German army foretold not only the unfolding of that battle but a sequence of events that changed both the world and many lives forever.


This assault  culminated in a crescendo of fire during the hour preceding the full attack, and its military purposes were precise: (1) to create gaps in enemy barbed wire for use by advancing troops, (2) to kill enemy troops or keep them in their trenches or dugouts until their lines could be overrun.

As the attack commenced, fire would be lifted to supporting trenches in the rear to reduce the effectiveness of counterattacks by the Germans, which were sure to come. Counter battery fire also was directed against enemy artillery when it could be located by the primitive observation aircraft of the time.

When at 7:28 a.m. on July 1 the supporting artillery fire ceased, there was a silence that settled over the front, a quiet so still that one solder claimed he could hear birds singing.

Then all hell broke loose, with the explosion of mines that had been placed by the British tunneling under enemy lines, the largest of these the tremendous Lochnagar Mine, consisting of 60,000 pounds of explosives, not far from the trenches occupied by my father and the men of the 11th Suffolks.

Huge chunks of earth blew into the sky and then fell to the ground, leaving behind a crater that has been described as the largest ever made by man in anger, approximately 300 feet in diameter, with a depth of 90 feet.

The troops had been advised to remain in their trenches for at least a minute in order to avoid being injured by falling debris. Some remained a minute or two longer, thus providing additional time for the defenders to recover.

An aura of optimism permeated the ranks of the attacking British units. They had been assured that the prolonged bombardment preceding the attack had overwhelmed the defensive forces, destroying their machine-gun nests, caving in their trenches, and cutting great gaps in their defensive wires. They had reason to be assured, because for seven days 12,000 tons of shells had passed over their lines to land in the German positions.

However, they would not have known that two thirds of the shells fired were shrapnel, capable of destroying personnel in the open and damaging enemy wire but not capable of penetrating enemy bunkers that in some places were 30 feet deep. Another problem for the attackers was that the British artillery lacked the accuracy necessary to bring fire upon German trenches closer than 300 yards from friendly lines. In many cases, the German lines were 200 to 300 yards distant and relatively undamaged.


A participant’s account

One of the best sources of details of the attack of the 11th Suffolks, called The Cambridgeshires, is John Garth’s, Tolkien and the Great War. J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford scholar, later famous for his Lord of the Rings, participated in the Somme Campaign. One of his closest friends, Rob Gilson, a Cambridge scholar, served as a lieutenant in the 11th Suffolks, the battalion in which my father also served. Garth’s book contains dozens of references to this battalion and to Gilson.

Lt. Rob Gilson and the Cambridgeshires spent the night before the attack a thousand yards from the German lines in the vicinity of the Becourt Wood. Heartened by the weeklong bombardment, the troops were convinced that the attack on the morrow would be a walkover. Their spirits rose even further the next morning with the issue of a ration of rum to spike their tea.

I quote from Tolkien and the Great War:

“. . . at five, Gilson marched his platoon out of the wood along the trenches. Dressed not as an officer but as one of the men, so he would not be instantly shot down, Gilson, like everyone else, carried sixty-six pounds of gear. The Cambridgeshires arrayed themselves in trenches to the rear of another unit. . . . Gilson’s platoon . . . was in his battalion’s fourth and final wave.

“For the first time in a week all the guns stopped. In No Man’s Land, long ranks of men rose from where they had been crouching on the ground. The skirl of bagpipes started up nearby. The British artillery lengthened its aim so the infantry could safely enter the German front line.”

Precisely at 7:30 a. m. on July 1, Zero Hour, the infantry attacked.

“Gilson waited for The Cambridgeshires’ 3rd wave to leave,” Garth wrote. “He checked his watch, and at two and a half minutes after zero hour, blew his whistle and waved his platoon forward some four hundred yards up to the front line.”

Then Gilson spread his platoon along perhaps 100 yards of trench, and waved them up the ladders. What they confronted was surprising and devastating. They were met by machine-gun bullets and artillery shells from an enemy they had thought had been destroyed.

“No Man’s Land was up to six hundred yards wide here, but soldiers from the foremost three waves of  Cambridgeshires had begun to fall within the first hundred,” Garth wrote.


Deadly conflict

Gilson did not live to see the full scale of the disaster that day. Nor did my father, serving in the same battalion that day.More than 500 of the Cambridgeshires were killed or wounded. Of the 16 officers of the battalion, Gilson and three others had died, two more were never found, and only one emerged unhurt.

No man's land was dotted everywhere with bodies. A dozen of the Cambridgeshires made it across to the edge of one of the enemy redoubts but were caught in the blast of a flamethrower and died horribly. Others made it behind the German lines but were hopelessly cut off.

Later in the day, the German machine gunners strafed No Man’s Land methodically, in zigzags, to finish the wounded and stranded volunteers of Lord Kitchener’s volunteer armies.


More details from the battle

Similar narratives may be found in 11th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment – Official War Diary – Records Office, Kew, London, England. I quote extracts from one private’s recollections:

“The long line of men came forward, rifles at the port[a position in which the rifle is held diagonally in front of the body with the muzzle pointing upward to the left] as ordered. Now Gerry started. His machine guns let fly. Down they all went. I could see them dropping one after the other as the gun swept along them. The officer went down at exactly the same time as the man behind him. Another minute or so and another wave came forward. Gerry was ready this time and this lot did not get as far as the others.

"Then during the afternoon Jerry started shelling no man’s land in a zigzag fashion to kill the rest of us off. As each shell landed they gave a burst of machine gun fire over where it fell, to catch anyone who should jump up.

“A very large shell fell some yards to my left. With all the bits and pieces flying up was a body. The legs had been blown off right to the crutch. I have never seen a body lifted so high. It sailed up and towards me. I can still see the deadpan look on his face under the tin hat, which was still held on by the chinstrap. He kept coming and landed with a bonk behind me."

It is apparent that the scene described was all too typical of the attack along the entire line. Following the attack on July 1, the commanding general of the 101st Brigade sent the following message to the commanding officer of the 11th Suffolk Battalion:

"Dear Colonel Somerset....their courage was magnificent as in spite of wave after wave of being mown down they fearlessly pressed forward towards their objective.....no troops could have done better....go down in posterity as one of the gallant actions of the war."


The bigger picture

At the same time, the French Sixth Army, south of the Somme, attacked. Their attack progressed as planned, with few casualties, with the initial objectives being reached, within an hour. Likewise, the right flank corps of the Fourth Army, separated from the French by the Somme, achieved initial success.

But the situation was far different for the divisions of the Fourth Army, including the 11th Suffolks, who were attacking farther to the North.

Because the artillery had failed to accomplish its preliminary task, the German defenders emerged from their deep bunkers, relatively unscathed, set up their machine guns, and confronted the attacking British. By all accounts they were astonished by what they saw.

British soldiers were advancing in long lines, wave after wave, walking as if on parade, instead of rushing forward, as might have been expected. The defending machine gunners, firing weapons that could discharge 600 rounds a minute, traversed their weapons to sweep the British lines with devastating effect.

Troops in one wave were cut down as if from a scythe, only to be replaced by a succeeding wave, still walking deliberately forward to certain death.

Some of the British troops, stepping over their fallen comrades and threading their way through the German defensive wire, reached the enemy trenches, thus achieving their initial objectives. However, exhausted physically and mentally and decimated, they were unable to withstand German counterattacks and were forced to withdraw after darkness fell.

The British had gained only a few hundred yards of ground, and for that had paid an enormous price. The Germans, too, had incurred heavy losses, though less than those of the British. The war of attrition continued and the Battle of the Somme was not to end officially until more than four months later – on Nov. 18.


What went wrong

Military historians have compared the success on the French side of the Somme with the debacle by the British on the north. Reasons given for this disparity include:

  • The superiority of the French artillery crews, as well as the guns themselves. The French had developed their techniques so that supporting fire could be delivered within 100 yards of their front lines, thus being able to destroy close enemy trenches without dropping shells upon their own forces.
  • The insufficient training of the British troops, composed almost entirely of those volunteers who had answered Lord Kitchener's call early in the war. The British were still relying upon volunteers at the time of the attack. Thus, the undertrained British attacked in simple and vulnerable formations, inadequately coordinated with artillery fire.

On the contrary, sharing a border with a hostile country, the French had imposed universal conscription –a draft – many years before. I have in my possession the mobilization book of my late father-in-law, Marquis Antoine de Charette. He was conscripted into the French Army Reserve in 1901 at the age of 21 and joined his preassigned unit upon the outbreak of the war in 1914.

It also appeared that in view of the French’s continuing commitment at Verdun, the Germans had correctly anticipated that the main push would be made by the British Fourth Army, north of the Somme.

Accordingly, they had thinned out their forces opposing the French in the south in order to thicken the defenses against the British to the north.

A study of the terrain and routes available to the attackers might very well indicate an advantage for the French. I recall, in the Pacific campaigns of World War II, units trumpeting their arrival at their objectives, while adjacent units were held up by more difficult terrain and by more significant opposition. War is certainly not an exact science.

Regardless of the equipment they carried, their accoutrements, their artillery support or their state of training, the British, the French and the Germans proved that the Infantry was still the “Queen of Battle.” There was no lack of courage on either side of the line that day.


FOOTNOTE: Life in the trenches

"During duties of four to eight days on the front line, the average day would begin with a ‘stand to,’ when soldiers would fix bayonets, man the trench's firestep (from where shots were fired) and ready themselves for a possible enemy attack. It might then be accompanied by what was called a ‘morning hate,’ during which either side would fire off shells and machine guns in case the enemy was lurking in the mist.

On the line, illness was a constant worry and medical supplies at the first-aid posts might be unsanitary. Snagging a finger on barbed wire could be extremely dangerous – if it turned gangrenous a man could lose not just his finger but part of his arm. Trench foot became so prevalent...that men were split into pairs, with each being responsible for the state of the other's feet. Fleas and lice were rampant, and the anti-infestation powder almost as uncomfortable."

Shane Hegarty in “Somme” – The Irish Times