Episode 93: The Battle of the Somme Pt.5

1916 Somme Episodes

Last week saw the beginning of the attack and we also looked at the ill-fated attack by the British 7th Corps in their diversionary role to the north of the main effort by the 4th Army. This episode we will continue to work our way south as we discuss the attacks of the 8th and 10th Corps. These attacks, against very strong German positions around Thiepval and Beaumont Hamel would be quite disappointing, and the reasons for that disappointment will probably seem very familiar to long time listeners.


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Sources

The First World War by John Keegan
A World Undone by G.J. Meyer
Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson
Pyrrhic Victory by Robert A. Doughty
Zero Hour: First Day on the Somme by Andrew Roberts
The Somme by Lyn MacDonald
Through German Eyes: The British and the Somme 1916 by Christopher Duffy
Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front by Peter Hart
The British Air Campaign During the Battle of the Somme April-November 1916: A Pyrrhic Victory by Thomas G. Bradbeer
The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook
The Somme by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson
Three Armies on the Somme by William Philpott
The German Army on the Somme by Jack Sheldon

Transcript

Last week saw the beginning of the attack and we also looked at the ill-fated attack by the British 7th Corps in their diversionary role to the north of the main effort by the 4th Army. This episode we will continue to work our way south as we discuss the attacks of the 8th and 10th Corps. These attacks, against very strong German positions around Thiepval and Beaumont Hamel would be quite disappointing, and the reasons for that disappointment will probably seem very familiar to long time listeners.

The attack of the 8th Army represented the far northern end of the main attack and the corps had been entrusted to the care of General Hunter-Weston who we met on the Gallipoli front early last year. This was to be his first action in command of troops on the Western Front and under his command he would be launching 3 divisions into the attack. The first, and further north, was the 31st division which was one of the units made up primarily of Pals battalions that we talked about a few episodes ago. For the most part these particular battalions had been raised in northern England and while morale and confidence could not have been higher, their skills and experience left much to be desired. The other two divisions were the 29th and the 4th, both of which were regular divisions, or at least they ahd been regular divisions. The 29th, at this point with the nickname of The Immortal, had been heavily involved in Gallipoli and had spent the 6 months since the evacuation in January 1916 rebuilding and retraining in preparation for the next attack. The 4th division had been in France since the beginning and had their numbers replenished several times over as successive sets of replacements wasted away. The plan for these divisions had been moving against Hawthorn Ridge and the villages of Serre and Beaumont Hamel. This area was almost perfect for the defense because it was made up by a series of ridges and valleys that had been heavily fortified by the Germans. The 31st division was assigned the task of moving forward and taking the village of Serre and in the process pivoting to face the north. This would provide the northern anchor upon which the entirety of the British front would be based. The 4th and 29th Divisions were then given the task of advancing directly towards Hawthorn ridge and Beaumont Hamel. This was problematic because during most of the advance they would be in a valley that was almost entirely overlooked by the German defenses. Once they advanced through it they would then have to contend with the German second line on Beaucourt Spur. Advancing up this valley was dangerous, but the hope was that the creeping barrage would protect them, keeping the German's heads down as long as possible until the British were right on top of them. However, the divisional commanders wanted to quicken the speed that the artillery would advance, concerned that it was going to advance slower than the infantry could go and the troops would be held back by it. Because of this they increased the speed of the advance from 50 yards a minute to 100 yards. They also changed it so that instead of starting in between the lines it would instead start right on the German positions. This meant that not only would the artillery be quickly running away from the infantry, but it would also have a hell of a head start.

On the 29th Division's front was also the largest mine that would be used on July 1st, positioned under the Hawthorn Redoubt. This redoubt was in front of Beaumont Hamel and there was quite a bit of debate about the best use of this mine, which consisted of 40,000 pounds of explosives. Hunter-Weston wanted to set the mine off at 3:30AM, well before the main assault with the goal of seizing the redoubt before any other troops went forward. The Inspector of Mines, on the other hand, who was also the expert on the mines and what would happen after they exploded, advised the British commanders that exploding it so early was not the correct move. His concern was based on what had happened in previous uses of British mines. In these instances when the British had tried to capture the mine induced craters they had almost universally lost. The Germans were generally just faster and better and capturing the craters. If this trend held then a failure to capture the crater would also completely waste all of the work that went into it. Because of this he advised simply exploding it right at the beginning of the attack, and instead of making it a separate action just involve it in the general attack. This would hopefully maximize British strengths. After a lot of discussion it was decided to explode the mine ten minutes before the attack at 7:20. In hindsight, while this seems like a reasonable compromise it really had the same effect as doing it at 3:30, the troops assigned to attack the crater had to do so without the benefit of other troops on either side, and if they failed it would be a serious problem. Only 2 platoons were assigned to capture the crater, which was supposed to be enough, as with everything else for the British that was supposed to be enough, it would not be. The mine explosion would also be a sign for the heavy artillery to move their fire onto the next line of German trenches, leaving only the smaller guns to assist the infantry attack.

On the German side, they considered the area around Serre to be critical to their defense and it was one of the handful of really critical strongpoints that they had spent most of the last year making into a position that was as strong as possible. The entrenchements in the area were perfectly placed to repel the types of attacks that would be coming at them, and the fact that the heavy artillery would be lifted off 10 minutes before the attack started, and even the light artillery would be off of them by the time the infantry arrived just made it all better. When the fire lifted they quickly rushed out of their shelters which had kept them safe and moved into the line. They were easily able to man their positions and see that most of the wire was still intact. There were a few areas where it had been damaged, but that was definitely the exception. They also had time to move up some extra ammunition and shift infantry positioning based on what little damage had been done to their positions so far. When the British troops came into view, they were completely ready.

We start with the 31st Division, and on their front the attack was simply a disaster. The first wave went over the top and immediately ran into a solid wall of German fire. Here is Private Reginald Glenn, who was in the second wave. "The first line all lay down and I thought they’d had different orders because we’d all been told to walk. It appears they lay down because they’d been shot and either killed or wounded. They were just mown down like corn. Our line simply went forward and the same thing happened. You were just trying to find your way in amongst the shell holes. You can imagine walking through shell-pitted ground with holes all over the place, trying to walk like that. You couldn’t even see where you were walking! When you got to the line you saw that a lot of the first line were stuck on the wire, trying to get through. We didn’t get to the German wire, I didn’t get as far as our wire. Nobody did, except just a few odd ones who got through and got as far as the German wire . The machine-gun fire was all trained on our wire. Only a few crept along. I lay down. We weren’t getting any orders at all; there was nobody to give any orders, because the officers were shot down" There were a few British soldiers who managed to get across, usually in those few lucky areas where the wire had been cut. Any British soldiers who did manage to get across were quickly surrounded by German counter attacks and much like we discussed last week were either pushed out of the trenches or killed since no help was able to reach them. It was a very rough day for the 31st, and in total about 2/3rds of the men that they sent forward would not make it through the attack.

To the south of the 31st the 4th division moved forward, and it had the most success of the three 8th Corps divisions. They were still facing prepared Germans who were able to slowly traverse their machine guns over the advancing British units and they were also having problems with fire hitting them from Redan Ridge, behind the first German line, but in this areas some of the British used a tactic that was not also executed by other units. This tactic was to dig shallow tunnels out into No Man's Land and then right as the attack started the end of these tunnels were opened up and Lewis Guns were positioned to fire on the German positions from close range. We have seen this tactic used on the British front as well. Unfortunately this tactic, while it did help, did not prove to be the silver bullet that it was hoped to be. Since the infantry to the left and right of the Lewis Guns were having so many problems the guns had very little protection and this meant that the German infantry were able to focus on the guns and knock them out before sending small parties out to take over the tunnel openings. This also allowed them to close the tunnel openings completely which prevented the British from executing any other shenanigans. It was a good idea though, and it could have proved very beneficial if other things had went a bit better. While some of the 4th Division units were stopped before the first German trench, some did manage to take these first positions. Here is Lieutenant William Colyer, who commanded one of these units. "I must go on. That’s right; I have that firmly fixed in my mind. I can do no good by stopping here, and the idea of going back could not be entertained for a single moment. But it’s rather vague: where am I to go, and what am I going to do when I get there? I certainly never anticipated the extraordinary situation I find myself in now. I have lost touch with half my men in this cursed network of trenches, and in trying to get hold of them again, I have lost the other half. The whole attack as far as we are concerned seems to be completely messed up. Well, if I can’t find my own men, I must jolly well collect some others and go forward with them. Let’s have a look over the top and try and see what’s happening. I climb on to the firestep and look over the parapet. The same scene is there – a desolate waste being churned up by machine guns and shell fire. Shells bursting unpleasantly close too." It looked like, for a few hours, that the British units might be able to hold onto the first set of German positions but the failures of the other divisions made it difficult. While they held on long after the units of the 31st and 29th were pushed back to their start lines, and attempts were made to try and get them reinforcements and supplies, it just was not possible. And in what is becoming a broken record, these small units were eventually pushed back to their start lines.

On the 29th Division's front the crater that had been created devastated the German units nearby, but those further away were completely safe in their shelters. Here is an officer of the German 119th Reserve Regiment who was in the trenches nearby, but far enough way to be safe from the explosion "The ground all round was white with the debris of chalk as if it had been snowing, and a gigantic crater over 50 yards in diameter and some 60 feet deep gaped like an open wound in the side of the hill. This explosion was a signal for the infantry attack, and everyone got ready and stood on the lower steps of the dugouts, rifles in hand, waiting for the bombardment to lift. In a few minutes the shelling ceased, and we rushed up the steps and out into the crater positions. Ahead of us wave after wave of British troops were crawling out of their trenches and coming forward towards us at a walk, their bayonets glistening in the sun" The British soldiers who directly attacked the crater found themselves in a difficult position. They got to their side of the crater just fine, but were faced with the fact that the Germans were already positioned on the other side. This meant that they were in the unenviable position of having to try and attack through the crater, which was basically impossible given how deep and wide it was. They were not assisted by the main attack on either side since those attacks had the least success of any attacks on the 8th Corps front. Within minutes almost all of the British were pinned down well short of the German line. This problem was compounded when there were reports of great success in the area and more troops were sent forward on the right, in the belief that the German lines had already been taken. These troops simply found themselves in the same position, either pinned down in No Man's Land or killed.

The results of the attack of the 8th Corps was disappointing. Not only had the British failed to make any meaningful gains during their attacks they had also lost thousands of men. The 31st division suffered 3,600 casualties, the 4th suffered 5,752, and the 29th 5240. In the 31st the Pals battalions had been hit hard when they were committed due to their inexperience. In the 29th the units suffered casualties for the opposite reason, the desire to live up to the lofty expectations of previous campaigns pushed men forward when they had not business attempting another attack. At the end, experience did not matter against the German fire. In total there were 14,000 casualties in the 8th Corps, 50 percent of its nominal strength. What was even worse, and what would have trickle down effects for the entire front, was that the attacks failed so quickly. This cascading effect would allow the German artillery and machine guns on the southern end of the 8th Corps to turn their guns to the south to assist in defending against the attacks of the 10th Corps which was having its own special set of difficulties and they certainly did not need their task to be any more difficult.

The 10th Corps was stationed immediately to the south of the 8th Corps and they would be sending forward the 36th and 32nd divisions with the goal of capturing all of Thiepval Plateau. The goal was to take all of it in one go and then to consolidate their positions on the other side. It was absolutely critical though that both divisions succeeded simultaneously because if either of them failed then the other would be hugely exposed. The problem was that the German positions were strong, especially in the area of the 32nd division. This included the Leipzig Redoubt at the tip of the Thiepval Spur. This position had an excellent view of the surrounding countryside and immaculate fields of fire against No man's Land to the front, to the left, and to the right. On its flanks it was then both assisted by, and also assisted, other German defenses on other areas. On the main Thiepval ridge was Thiepval village which had also been fortified by the Germans. The British thought that they had taken care of the village through the use of the artillery since they had basically destroyed every building during the bombardment. Most of this had been accomplished quickly by the British guns, since the civilian buildings had little chance of withstanding a military grade bombardment. However, the Germans had taken the time to expand and reinforce all of the underground cellars and basements in the village. The rubble that was then laid on top of them from the buildings did little to hinder these positions, and maybe in some ways even helped them by providing cover for German infantry. Even under the best of conditions these positions would all be a hard nut to crack, and these would not be the best of conditions. Here as in other places the artillery would outpace the British infantry, leaving them to fight it out alone.

The attack of the 32nd division was helped by the fact that one of the Brigades took the initiative, under the orders of their commander, to crawl out into No Man's land before zero hour. These men were as close as they possibly could be without being hit by their own artillery. This position gave them a huge leg up on other British units and because of it they had at least some success. The other brigade did not follow their lead though, and while they tried their best to storm the German positions on Thiepval Spur and the Leipzig Redoubt the German machine guns proved to be simply too strong. They were fired on by the guns from the ridge, from the spur, and from the village, making it all but impossible. There were areas where the Germans were pushed hard though, one of the units hit hard was the Reserve Infantry Regiment 99 which was positioned on the ridge. These were the men hit hardest by the 97th Brigade and their pre-emptive move into No Man's Land. It was also here that the artillery had the most effect of anywhere on the 10th Corps front. This resulted in the 97th Brigade taking the first German positions quickly. However, even the most successful units soon ran into issues as, even when they had got through the first german line, they had to traverse 150 yards to get beyond it and to the next one, and then even more to their final objective. While in many areas the first sets of German wire had been destroyed and the troops had managed to get past it, these new and intact belts were now an almost insurmountable obstacle. As they tried to continue their push forward they began to lose more and more men, which just made them more vulnerable when the counter attacks came later. Again, no reinforcements were able to get across. The units that had advanced the furthest had to make a choice, they could not stay where they were, the positions were just too vulnerable to German fire from the flanks, so they either had to go forward or go back, and what was left of the 97th Brigade made another attempt to go forward. Here is Private Bentley Meadows to describe this attempt. "An officer suddenly jumped the parapet and shouted, ‘Come on the Seventeenth!’ I followed him with about twenty others. But we found the barbed wire impossible to cut through and he gave us the order, ‘Every man for himself!’" Thiepval village was the key to the German position, and from there it was possible to fire rounds at all of the British attacks in the area and all throughout the day the German machine guns in that village fire, belt after belt, hour after hour, from dawn until late in the evening. The results were thousands of British casualties caused by just these guns. The 21 machine guns inside the village had fired over 200,000 rounds between them and the infantry had also been heavily firing on the Brits with the average expenditure of ammunition for each man at around 350 rounds of rifle ammunition. This is impressive when you consider the fact that no German soldier carried this many rounds on them at any given time so it probably took several resupplies to reach that number. That the Germans were in a position to distribute that much extra ammunition says something about how much they truly dominated the situation. The British leaders were not helped by false reports coming from the front that made the British gains seem far more impressive than they actually were. This included reports that the British were already in Thiepval village and that it had been safely taken from the Germans. Because of this report the artillery fire was pushed even further away from the struggling infantry just at the time when they needed it the most. Now that the British had been stopped it was time for the Germans to begin launching counter attacks, after all, Germans gonna German, and that means counterattacks. In the hardest hit areas this was easier said than done though because of the number of German casualties. We go back to the 99th Reserve Infantry Regiment where Lieutenant Cassel describes his situation while trying to launch a counter attack on the British 97th Brigade "Only a few men, who were in the second trench, are left. Volunteers, amongst them Kühnel, begin to drive the intruders out, proceeding from the left from breastwork to breastwork, throwing hand grenades and slowly they succeed. Badly wounded ‘Tommies’ fall into our hands and their rations provide something to satisfy our hunger and thirst. But then we come to a part of the position where the enemy is able stop our advance by flanking machine-gun fire. I return to my company and give orders to restore communications between the various positions and to rearrange the groups to take account of the casualties." Just like their fellow soldiers to the north the 32nd would soon be pushed back off of their gains.

Lieutenant Colonel Ambrose Ricardo of the 36th Ulster Division "I stood on the parapet between the two centre exits to wish them luck. They got through without delay; no fuss, no shouting, no running, everything solid and thorough – just like the men themselves. Here and there a boy would wave his hand to me as I shouted a good luck to them through my megaphone. And all had a cheery face. Most were carrying loads. Fancy advancing against heavy fire with a big roll of barbed wire on your shoulder!" The attack by the Ulster Division was divided by the river Ancre and its river valley. They were in for a hard fight against the German positions there, including the Schwaben Redoubt. Here is Private David Starret of the Royal Irish Rifles as he describes the actions of his commander, colonel Crozier after the attack had started. "Between the bursts Crozier doubled to the Sunken Road, his batman making a bad second in the race. ‘The Tenth Rifles are wiped out!’ he shouted. We reached our own men. They had taken what cover the place afforded. Bernard has been killed. Crozier rallied what was left of the Tenth. ‘Sound the advance!’ he yelled, ‘Sound, damn you, sound the advance!’ The bugler’s lips were dry. He had been wounded. His lungs were gone. A second later he fell dead at the Colonel’s feet. Hine cut the cord and gave the bugle to someone who could play. Crozier was signalling the men on. He walked into bursts, he fell into holes, his clothing was torn by bullets, but he himself was all right. Moving about as if on the parade ground he again and again rallied his men. Without him not a man would have passed the Schwaben Redoubt, let alone reached the final objective." The Irish smashed into the German lines and actually managed to take the Schwaben Redoubt, a very strong German position. They attacked with such ferocity that in some of the German sectors every man had been killed, wounded, or captured. However, such a feat could not escape the notice of the German troops to the north. When they saw that the redoubt was in British, or I guess Irish, hands they quickly contacted the divisional commander in the area, he made quick work of ordering in a counterattack to retake the position. The Germans in this area were disorganized though, and even though they had the best of intentions it was hard to get together the units necessary for the task. The orders were sent for the attack to begin at noon, but it did not reach all of the units involved due to the fact that most of the telephone links had been destroyed during the earlier action. Even with these difficulties though, there simply were not enough Irishmen to defend their gains, regardless of their bravery. Slowly the Germans began to close in, and the Irish being totally isolated by this point began to give back some of the ground that they had taken. Slowly, and through the use of plenty of bombs the Irish were pushed further and further back. They continued to resist, even though they found themselves in the first German positions, with only No Man's Land at their back. Most of the officers and NCOs were slowly killed or wounded, but the men held on, and they managed, just barely to hold onto the first set of German trenches. They would lose them a little over 48 hours later, but they had done what fire other British units north of Fricourt had managed to do on July the 1st, they had made real gains, and they held them until July the 2nd.

The 10th Corps had lost 100,000 casualties, many of the wounded men found themselves trying to find a way to get back and away from the front. Gunner William Grant describes his situation "Each time we were coming back from the guns with empty ammunition wagons, we packed as many wounded on as we could, as we passed the dressing station on our way back, but a lot of them were too badly wounded to stand the jolting of the wagon, and preferred to go on their own." Reinforcements on the way to the front line, like the West Yorkshire Regiment, found it difficult to even try to move forward, so many men were trying to find their way back. While the men at the front had been fighting and dying, and the artillery had been following their orders, and the countless reinforcing units had been trying to find a way forward, in their dugouts all along the front officers had to deal with the fact that the attacks had been a failure. Here is Seargent Henry Coates, who was stationed near the southern end of the 10th Corps front as he recalls what happened when he went back to the command dugout. Inside he found his commander, a General, slumped in his chair and staring blankly at the roof. "He was like a man in a dream. It was terrible to see him like that. He was broken. He made no objection to coming with me. He didn't say a word. He just got up, very, very slowly and, in a break in the shelling, we went out."