THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME
About the 20th July the Battalion left Gouy en Artois for the scene of battle. To begin with this meant a three days' march to the entraining locality. The first day the Battalion got to Sus St. Leger where the night was spent, and by the end of the second day the Battalion was at Halloy. On the third day, after a long tiring march in hot weather along dusty roads, the Regiment marched into Autheux. After a few days here the Battalion entrained late one evening for the front, and next morning it detrained at Mericourt. The first sight that the men beheld on quitting the train was a prisoners' camp, in which were many Germans, living evidence of the activity a few miles in front. The Battalion was billeted in Mericourt for two days. Here there was every indication of activity. Having been on a quiet front for several months the men were not used to the whir of a busy railhead. All manner of vehicles, guns, and other impedimenta of war were in evidence, and everyone was surprised to see some of Merryweather's fire engines, which were probably required for pumping purposes.
On the 29th the Battalion left Mericourt for what was known as "The Happy Valley," outside Bray. During the march the soldiers saw a mile or two away an enormous column of smoke ascend. Something terrible had taken place. An ammunition dump must surely have been blown up. It was not a very pleasant prospect for those who were new to that kind of thing. The mystery of the column of smoke was never clearly elucidated. The Happy Valley was scarcely correctly named. The weather was exceedingly hot, there were no billets, and consequently the men had to bivouac. The Valley had one great drawback; there were no wells in the vicinity from which water could be drawn. Owing to this shortage, the watermen had a very onerous task as water was obtainable only at Bray, and thither the water carts had to go, making as many journeys as possible during the day, to obtain water for the thirsty troops. The Battalion in this locality was in touch with the French, from whom the officers managed to secure some of the French ration wine which proved very acceptable.
On the 30th the Battalion moved to a place by Fricourt, and pitched a camp which it left two days later for a bivouac area by Bronfay Farm, near Carnoy. From this place the officers went forward on reconnaissance. They saw for the first time Bernafay and Trones Woods, which then had achieved great notoriety. To the neighbourhood of these woods the Battalion sent forward night working parties. Only with the greatest difficulty did these parties get to their rendezvous, and little work was done on account of the intensity of the enemy shell fire.
In the evening of the 3rd August the Battalion paraded and marched towards the fighting, leaving behind a small percentage to form a nucleus should all its fighting personnel perish. The march was wearying. The enemy guns were active, the weather hot, and packs heavy. After a long trudge the Briqueterie was reached, a dangerous and dreaded spot, for it was periodically swept with shell fire. At last the companies got to their allotted stations in the reserve trenches. Many had not yet experienced the terrors of heavy shell fire, which by its very nature was intended to produce an unnerving effect. The next day started fairly quietly. On the right the men could see what was known as Death Valley. This was rightly so called. Being obscured from the enemy's view, it was a covered means of approach to the infantry positions in front, and afforded at the same time cover for the guns. On this account it was never free from shell fire, and was littered with corpses of men and horses.
In the afternoon the Battalion had to take over the front line in the neighbourhood of Arrow Head Copse in front of Guillemont. Passing along Death Valley the Battalion got caught in heavy shell fire, and sixty casualties took place almost immediately. It required a stout heart to march cheerfully forward when seeing one's companions who had gone a little in front coming back on stretchers, or lying dead alongside the path.
When the two leading companies arrived at Arrow Head Copse they manned trenches varying in depth from a few inches to three feet, which afforded little protection against shell fire. The dead, many of whom belonged to the Liverpool Pals Brigade were visible lying stark and numerous on the battlefield. The weary desolation, and the unmitigated waste of equipment, clothing, and life passes all description. This was the Somme battlefield, of which one had heard so much. To those who had seen much of the war, the thought came that nothing could be worse than this.
The next day was a day of incessant shell fire on both sides. On the British side it was the bombardment prior to the attack on Guillemont. The fire was terrific. The terrible concussions of the high explosive shells assailed both ears and nerves, and kept up a pall of dust over the trenches. The whizzing and swirling of the shells was incessant. Some whined, others moaned, and others roared like express trains. Light shells passed with an unearthly shriek. It was useless taking any notice of the lighter shells. They had come and burst before one realised what had happened. The heavier shells, particularly those that were timed to burst in the air, were very trying, and when they burst over Trones Wood the noise reverberated through what remained of the trees, and so became extraordinarily intensified. To expect the explosions of the shells knowing they were on their way and to hear them coming, not knowing whether they would be fatal or not, was the worst part of the ordeal. Such a condition of turmoil and torment must have been meant by the words of Dante in his description of Hell.
For two days in the sultry heat the Battalion endured the terrible strain of this awful shell fire, the men receiving no proper food and water being unprocurable. Then the Battalion was relieved and taken into support, where three or four days were spent, and on the 10th two companies moved to the Maltz Horn position. The next night the two remaining companies moved up. The devastation in the neighbourhood of Cockrane Alley was worse than at Guillemont. Here the men witnessed the full terrors of the stricken field. Living men dwelt among the unburied dead. Booted feet of killed soldiers protruded from the side of the trench. Here and there a face or a hand was visible. Corpses of dead soldiers with blackening faces covered with flies were rotting in the sun, and the reek of putrefying flesh was nauseating. Added to this the heat was overpowering, the artillery was firing short, and there was little or no water obtainable.
The Battalion was in touch with the French, and there were a few Frenchmen in the trenches with the men. On the 12th August the French attacked with great success and captured the village of Maurepas.
Between the two armies there was a wide broken in trench running from the Allied towards the German lines. For some time before zero the Allied artillery kept up an incessant barrage on the German lines. The shells fired by the French were noticeable by a much sharper report. At zero the French attacked on the right of Cockrane Alley, advancing at a run in small groups of from eight to twelve men, and they got a good distance without any casualties. Then one by one the Frenchmen commenced to fall, and on reaching the enemy line the French company immediately on the right of the Battalion met with strong resistance. None came back and it is thought that almost every man perished. Meanwhile the two companies of the Battalion attacked in waves on the left of Cockrane Alley. They got eighty or ninety yards without difficulty, when the enemy opened a heavy machine gun fire, and the ground being convex the attackers formed a good target. The Commander of the right company who led his company from the right so as to be in touch with the bombers in Cockrane Alley, though twice wounded, still continued the advance until he was shot dead. His example was emulated by the Company Sergeant Major who perished in similar circumstances. Meanwhile the bombers were endeavouring to work their way down Cockrane Alley. The trench became shallower, and on reaching a road it disappeared. As the bombers emerged on to the road they were shot down one by one. The enemy then turned their machine guns on to Cockrane Alley, and raked it with fire until it became a shambles. Most of the men of the two companies were casualties, and many were killed. A few stragglers who were able to take cover in shell craters managed to return later under cover of darkness.
What became of the wounded lying out between the lines was never known, as any attempt at rescue was impossible. As most of the stretcher bearers with the companies were themselves incapacitated through wounds the rapid evacuation of the wounded even in the trenches was impossible, and moreover the aid post at Headquarters was under heavy artillery fire, so that it was only at great risk to the bearers that the wounded could be cleared at all from the trenches.
For the French the day had been very successful. They had captured Maurepas, but for the Battalion it was a total failure. However, the work done earned for the Battalion the praise of the Corps Commander, expressed in an order published the next day, which was as follows:-
"The Corps Commander wishes you to express to the Companies engaged last night his admiration, and that of the French who saw them, for the gallant and strenuous fight they put up.
Had the ravine been captured by the French, there is no doubt our objective could have been realised. 13th August, 1916."
On the 13th the Battalion was relieved and the men, tired out, slowly wended their way down Death Valley to Maricourt, passing many corpses, and then to the bivouac area near Bronfay Farm they had left about ten days before. Many who had marched away in the fullness of their health and strength did not return. The next day a short move was made to Ville sur Ancre, one of the few villages which contained a shop. Shortly afterwards the Battalion moved by train to Ramburelles, not far from the coast. Of all the villages the Battalion had ever visited, this was perhaps the most insanitary. The men lived in barns almost on top of manure heaps, and in consequence of the heat the number of flies was great. Baths of late had been very few and consequently the men suffered considerably from lice.
Arduous training was the order of the day. Seven or eight hours each day were devoted to work, while what the men most needed was rest. They were exhausted after their late experience, and they were overworked by the excessive training. Many were further weakened by the fact that septic sores were very prevalent owing to the insanitary conditions among which the men lived.
At this period the Battalion routine orders, which were supposed to be issued early in the afternoon were, for some unknown reason, always received very late in the day and sometimes after ten o'clock at night. As the Company Commanders had then to issue orders it meant that much unnecessary waiting and work was caused.
At Ramburelles so as to evade the heat of the day the Battalion paraded at 7 a.m. for a four hours' parade, and then left off until late in the afternoon. This scheme worked well only in theory. A lot had to be done out of parade hours, which meant that the officers and men were very much overworked. Sunday brought no respite. The Sunday previous to leaving the place, the men were engaged on a work of supererogation until 8 30 p.m., digging bombing trenches which were never used.
While at Ramburelles seaside leave was granted to some of the officers, who were able to spend two or three days away from the Battalion and enjoy for a while the comforts of a seaside town. One or two, acting in the belief that the Battalion would not return to the fight for some time, postponed their trip, and on the very day that they arrived at Delville Wood they remembered that that was the day they should have been basking in the sun at Le Treport. Such is the folly of procrastination. On the 28th August the command devolved on Major P. G. A. Lederer, M.C., as the Commanding Officer had been evacuated sick. On the 30th August the Battalion marched by a tortuous route to Pont Remy, where it entrained and arrived next day at Mericourt. It eventually was installed in close billets at Dernancourt for a few days.
On the 4th September the Battalion marched to Montauban. On the march Major H. K. S. Woodhouse took over the command, and the officers were introduced to him during the dinner halt. Montauban was not a very pleasant place, particularly as the weather was rainy, and as the companies were distributed among the field guns they came in for considerable shell fire.
On the 7th September the Battalion moved up to the front positions between Delville Wood and High Wood. The shell fire in this area was terrific. The enemy guns never stopped firing day or night at the means of approach to the Battalion's position along the side of Delville Wood. At night the Battalion had to send working parties into the neutral ground between the lines to dig what were somewhat incorrectly known as strong points. When these were finished they were garrisoned by a platoon in each case. The small garrisons of these strong points were quite cut off during the day as no movement was possible on account of snipers. Food and water could only be brought up at night, and were a man wounded he would have to remain without attention until darkness. A prisoner was taken belonging to the 5th Bavarian Regiment, which showed that the Bavarians were in line opposite.
On the 9th there was a big attack by the British. The 16th Division attacked on the right in front of Delville Wood, and the 1st Division on the left, and consequently the Battalion was in the very centre of the fight. The garrisons of the strong points, being cut off as they were, did not receive news of the attack. Suddenly in the afternoon after a comparatively quiet morning the artillery on both sides became very active, both the British and German artillery developing intense barrages. To the men in the strong points this presaged an enemy attack, and the order was given to be ready to fire the moment the enemy should come into view. The members of these small garrisons knew there would be no hope for them, as they would soon have been surrounded and annihilated, and most probably all of them bayoneted. Fortunately the attack was by the British and these eventualities did not arise. The Battalion was relieved during the next two days and went into reserve at Buire sur Ancre. After a few days here it moved to a bivouac area at E. 15 a., outside Dernancourt. Though this was some considerable distance behind the front line the enemy forced the Battalion to evacuate this area by firing at it with a long ranged gun. In the evening there was a cinema show in the open, at which were shown pictures of the Somme Battle. It was very strange to see the soldiers keenly interested in the pictures of what shell fire was like when there were actual shells falling about half a mile away, and they had been shelled out of their camp that very afternoon. The British Army had made a successful attack on the 15th September, and on the 17th the Battalion went into line again at Piers, where two miserable days were spent in an incessant downpour of rain and very heavy shell fire. On relief it came back to the transport lines at Pommier Redoubt.
On the 23rd the Battalion paraded, leaving behind its surplus personnel and moved up to Flers for the attack. Orders were received the next day that the attack was to take place on the 25th, and that zero was to be at 12 35 p.m. The objective allotted to the "Ninth" was from Seven Dials to Factory Corner, which meant an advance of 1,000 yards. At 7 30 a.m. the barrage commenced and lasted for hours, and increased in intensity as the moment for the advance drew nearer. At zero the Battalion advanced in four waves, the distance between the waves being 100 yards. The first wave had to keep close to the creeping barrage of shrapnel. Of the last wave scarcely a man survived, as it came in for the enemy barrage which the leading waves had escaped. The bombers took an enemy strong point and fought their way along Grove Alley and got to work with the bayonet, inflicting many casualties on the enemy and taking several prisoners. This was the first experience the men had of advancing under cover of a creeping barrage of shrapnel and the first occasion that they saw tanks in action. The attack was a great success and reflected no little credit on the Battalion. Everyone of the Headquarters personnel present will remember the Advanced Headquarters being blown up and the signallers and runners sustaining many casualties. During the same evening two companies of another unit came to the trench occupied by Headquarters. They tried to enter the trench at the same spot and crowded close on each other. At this time the enemy suddenly dropped four 5.9 shells among the crowded men. Next morning forty seven dead were counted.
The next day the Battalion was relieved, and by small stages the remnants of the companies made their way to Buire sur Ancre. This was the Battalion's last time in action on the Somme, and it presented a very changed aspect to its first arrival on this battlefield. Companies were reduced to the size of platoons, and platoons to sections or less. During the battle about 650 casualties had been sustained, including fifteen officers dead. This was a large incision into the fighting strength, and it was a long time before these losses were made up.
For the Battalion the Somme Battle with its terrible holocausts, incessant shell fire and continuous slaughter, was at an end, but there was no respite for the weary soldier. There was to be no rest or period for recuperation. The Regiment was ordered to Ypres immediately. Tired and exhausted, the men were taken out of the Somme inferno, having lost many of their comrades, and with weary bodies and heavy hearts they faced the prospect of the untold terrors of the fatal city of Ypres.
The journey to Ypres was long. First the Battalion entrained at Mericourt in the afternoon of Sunday the 1st October. At midnight the men detrained at Longpré and marched to Cocquerel, arriving at 3 a.m. the next day. The men then bivouacked until reveille at 6 30 a.m. At 8 80 a.m. the Regiment was again on the march to Pont Remy, where it entrained for Esquelbecq, where it arrived at 9 30 p.m., and marched to billets at Wormhoudt. Two days were spent here, and this afforded the men the rest they so badly needed. The state of the Battalion can be gauged from the fact that at Wormhoudt only one company commander had a subaltern.