The Fighting Warwicks and South Staffs
A heavy haze overlaid the Somme Valley early on July 1, 1916, but as the morning strengthened so the mist vanished. The clear sky beckoned the sun, which waxed in strength as the hours went on. After a week of thunderstorms, heavy rain, cloud and high winds, at last it looked set for a fine day of weather. A fine day that would become ingrained in the consciousness of the British people as the worst of days; a fine day that would witness the deaths of tens of thousands of fine men; a fine day when the youth of whole towns and districts were slaughtered; a fine day that became a bloody, tragic and shocking day from which so many families would never recover.
For a week beforehand, the mighty forces of nature had seemed to battle with the destructiveness of mankind. The clashing clouds that had rent the air had been overwhelmed by the booming of a massive British artillery barrage. It had begun on June 24 and by 7.30 a.m. on July 1 over 1.5 million shells had been fired from artillery of all types. The British high command had invested much in its policy of pounding the German front-line trenches, believing that it would kill, wound or cow the defenders into submission.
These expectations of Lieutenant General Rawlinson, General Officer Commanding the British Fourth Army that launched the offensive at the Somme, and General Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander-in-Chief of all British forces, were dashed in a devastating way. Parts of the German front-line were indeed destroyed but the expected obliteration along a sixteen mile front failed.
The British had only 467 heavy guns that could fire the high explosives so essential to badly damaging the German defences; and what is more, of the 12,000 tons of shells fired a mere 900 tons were actually high explosives. Moreover, these guns were spread out along the length of the front and were not concentrated on particular targets; whilst two thirds of the shells fired by the British artillery were shrapnel, much of which was of substandard American manufacture and did not explode. Designed to maim, shrapnel was all but useless against strong earthworks protected by barbed wire that was so thick that it kept out the light.
Standing in the trenches were a few regular divisions that had survived Mons, Ypres and other fierce battles, but the majority of the divisions were made up either of Territorial battalions of former part-time soldiers, or else of volunteers who had harked to Kitchener’s call to fight for their country and who had joined up with their pals and chums in their scores upon scores of thousands. Whatever their background, the 120,000 British troops awaited the dreaded order to go over the top unaware that the Germans had mostly withdrawn for protection into 30 foot deep dugouts. They would emerge from these to mow down the advancing British.
Amongst those girding themselves mentally and emotionally for the forthcoming fray were the men of the 1st Battalion the South Staffordshire Regiment. Like their comrades in other regiments, they must have been heartened by the ferocity of the British barrage whilst yet feeling sorry for those huddled below it. James P. Jones, the historian of the regiment, captured its immense power.
The shell fire at the Battle of Loos had exceeded anything done in previous wars, but even that, big as it was, was merely a trifle compared to the opening of the Battle of the Somme.
No such colossal expenditure of shells had ever been attempted before, much less dreamt of. The very earth rocked with the violence of the concussion, and the noise was so deafening that it was difficult to hear men shout even a yard away; yet, strangest of all, a lark singing overhead was heard clear and distinct, and was much commented upon by the men.
Tremors from the booming guns behind them and the bombing ahead of them poured back into the British trenches and rushed up into the bodies of the soldiers. With five minutes to go before the attack, officers warned their men that Zero Hour was imminent. Finally the officers blew their whistles and with bayonets fixed, the Tommies scrambled up and out of their trenches into an inferno of machine-gun fire and shells.
As they began to march or run across the devastated, cratered landscape of No Man’s Land, the British artillery laid down a creeping barrage – but the Germans machine gunners now came up from their concrete shelters and began a withering fire. It was backed up by a heavy artillery bombardment. The official German account stated that despite this “the strong, usually young, and well-armed British soldier followed his officers blindly, and the officers, active and personally brave, went ahead of their men in battle with great courage”.
In too many places the coils of barbed wire had not been blown away. Thousands of men, pierced and held fast by the barbs, were mown down by the Germans. Here and there gaps had been made, but as the British troops funnelled through them they were cut down. It was horrific. Both the 1/6th Battalion and 1/8th Battalion of the Royal Warwicks suffered terribly.
Territorials, they had been based at the drill halls in Thorp Street, Birmingham and at Aston and now at the Somme they were moved to the Serre sector and attached to the 11th Infantry Brigade (4th Division). Here they were part of an attack in which the 93rd Brigade (31st Division) and 94th Brigade (31st Division) were ordered to take Pendant Copse and reach as far as the German-held Pendant and Flank Trenches.
These Brigades included the Durham Light Infantry and Pals Battalions such as the 1st Bradford Pals, the 1st Leeds Pals, and the Accrington Pals that were later to become renowned for their bravery and mourned for their heavy losses. The heroism and suffering of the Royal Warwicks were as great.
They were deployed to the right flank of the northern battalions and moved forward with the Heidenkopf Redoubt, or the Quadrilateral Redoubt as it was called by the British, to their immediate right. This strongpoint was a trench packed with machine guns that pushed out from the German line down a slight slope and into No Man’s Land. Four hundred yards across its front, it gave the Germans the opportunity to fire across the flanks of the advancing British. What is more, there was no cover between the Quadrilateral and the British trenches.
The History of the 1/6th was written six years after the war and it was heavy with the sense of loss still felt by the survivors of that assault. The entry for July 1, 1916 is stark: “Illfated day. Wounds and death were the fruit of it, and to those who outlived it an accursed memory of horror. Imperishable courage inspired every fighting man, but where was the Victory?”
At 7.30 a.m. the 1/8th Battalion Royal Warwicks “leapt forward from the front line”. They were followed seven minutes later by the four companies of the 1/6 Battalion but “already we were decimated by shells and venomous machine guns that nothing could silence”. Valiantly the 1/8th managed to take their objective, the German front and support lines, and was bolstered by the survivors of the 1/6th. The two battalions heroically went on and “reached the third line and the near edge of the grisly quadrilateral”.
Private George Leonard was one of those who survived that dreadful run across fields that were like “a colander of shell-holes” and across which “the Germans were raking every inch with machine-gun fire. We hopped from shell-hole to shell-hole firing as we went. One minute there were 50 men round me. The next only a dozen. It was a miracle how any of us got through.”
The Great War veteran remembered that his mate, Harold Bowne, “got one in the thigh and I remember him saying: ‘I’ll get ‘em for that’. He dashed on up the ridge and we never saw him again. The Jerries came running out of their dug-outs and I had to use the bayonet. That’s something I’ve tried to forget ever since, but it’s like boxing – and I used to be handy with my ‘donnies’. Once you are in the ring somebody’s got to win. They hadn’t worried about the holes blown in the barbed wire by our artillery. They just trained their machine-guns onto the holes – then waited for us to come through them. Getting back was the longest half an hour of my life.”
Part of the Quadrilateral was also taken, but to the left of the Royal Warwicks, the 31st Division was hung up below Serre, whilst to the right the 4th Division had been unable to reach its goal of the Munich Trench. This meant that German troops remained on each flank of the Royal Warwicks. Isolated and surrounded on three sides, they fell back on the Quadrilateral.
By 11 a.m., three and half hours after the Battle of the Somme had started, the British were in a dire position, as was made plain in the 1/6th history: “2nd Lieut. J. G. Cooper was the only officer of the Battalion left untouched, and a dwindling handful of men of the 6th and 8th was left amongst heaps of dead and dying to man the quadrilateral against counter-attacks from both flanks and the pitiless cross fire of the German machine guns. It was useless to remain, impossible to go forward.”
A German report emphasised how “the stubbornly resisting opponents were pushed back step by step. Over and over they settled down again, barricaded themselves behind sandbags, installed machine guns and small mine throwers, so that they could only slowly be moved with hand grenades.”
As evening fell, the Royal Warwicks withdrew. It was desperate and slow. With the Colonel and second in command of the 1/6th badly wounded and all the company commanders dead or wounded, Captain J. L. Mellor, the Adjutant, led “the poor remnants of the Battalion back”. It took half an hour to return to the British lines. As those who lived to tell the tale of the 1/6th that day recounted, “four Companies of heroes by sunset were reduced to the strength of two weak platoons”.
One of those left behind was Brigadier General C.B. Rouse, commander of the 11th Brigade. He had moved his headquarters into the German trenches taken by the Royal Warwicks. As he lay mortally wounded he praised his men: “I did not before think much of the Territorials, but, by God they can fight”.
On the following morning in what had been a country lane the roll call was taken. Of the 1/6, only 95 men out of 850 answered their names. Only 25 of those survivors were not wounded. The 1/8th could only muster 47 men out of 600. One of those who had been killed was Private John James Perkins from South Road, Camp Hill. He was just 16 years old. Another was Private Henry Woodward from Moseley. He was 15 years old. His body was never found and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme along with 73,356 others.
The losses of the 1/5th and 1/6th Battalions of the South Staffordshire Regiment were also grievous. They too were Territorials, with the 1/5th recruiting in Walsall and the 1/6th in Wolverhampton. On that doom-laden day of 1 July the two battalions were part of the 46th (North Midland) Division. With the 56th (London) Division) it was ordered to attack Gommecourt, an enemy salient that bulged out from the German lines into No Man’s Land, in a diversion to draw German troops away from Serre to the south. The two divisions attacked to the north and south of the heavily fortified village and aimed to link up behind it – thus cutting off the Germans. The plan failed.
After the Great War, a committee of the officers of the 1/6th wrote up the battalion’s war history. At the time even the commanding officer, Lieutenant J. H. Thursfield, was unaware of the reasons for the attack: “was it merely a blind to cover more important operations proceeding elsewhere, or was it thought that the capture of this stronghold would weaken the enemy’s position further south and be necessary if a general advance were to take place?”
Whatever the intention, the Battalion went ahead with its task and trained hard in the preceding months. A few days before June 29, originally the date for the start of the Somme offensive, the 1/6th joined with their North Staffordshire fellows to dig an advance assault trench. This was needed because although the British line mostly was 250 yards from the German front, it fell away to the left.
Engineers taped out the new line and detailed preparations were made for the new trench and communication trenches leading to it. Protected “by a large covering party comprising the greater part of the 5th South Staffords”, the two other Staffordshire battalions set to. The work was to be completed in one night.” Silence was essential in the darkness, “since the slightest sound of digging would have given the position away, and, owing to the close proximity of the enemy, made the task impossible.”
Fortunately the night was fine, the ground was easy, “and within half an hour every man had dug himself in, and by the time the troops had to withdraw in the morning a continuous line had been formed, from four to five feet deep, with the necessary communication trenches”. The new line, however, was not completed and the next night work began again: “a sharp look-out was kept by the troops holding the sector, to see whether the enemy would take any action when he found, as he was bound to do, that this new line had been formed”.
Conditions were bad. It rained heavily and the trenches were almost waist-deep in water. The best that the troops could do “was to bale the water out with their steel helmets. Rain was pouring in torrents, and from the exposed position in the front line it was difficult to keep telephonic communication with the artillery.”
Then at 12.20 a.m. “the enemy guns opened, and for a quarter of an hour or so a heavy fire was directed on our working parties. Those who were not prevented by the depth of water managed to take cover in the new trench; others who were caught in the open suffered heavily.” The Battalion “lost many good men, and we had received proof of the strength and accuracy of the enemy artillery”.
The delay in the start of the Battle “was unfortunate for us. Our artillery preparations were such as to leave no room for doubt in the enemy mind that an attack was contemplated, and each day’s delay detracted from the element of surprise.” In fact the enemy replaced its troops with the 2nd Guards Reserve Division. Thus the British aim was achieved of drawing crack German soldiers away from the south.
As Zero Hour approached, the four companies of the 1/6th each had a frontage of 75 yards, and were disposed in four lines of platoons which were to follow at 80 yards distance. The 6th North Staffords were on the left and the 1/5th South Staffords behind. More than a dozen waves of various units were positioned from the line back, “and it was anticipated that they would follow one another so as to cross the advanced trench at intervals of one minute each. The assaulting troops were heavily equipped, especially the fourth wave, which was detailed to carry a supply of bombs packed in loads for two men to carry.”
At 6.25 a.m. an intense British bombardment began, but “the enemy replied vigorously, both with his field guns and howitzers, and revealed the true strength of his artillery. His machine guns were also active, and directed an accurate fire on the parapets, more especially where the communication trenches led from the front line to the advanced trench.” One of these machine guns was in the north-west corner of Gommecourt Village and could not be silenced and it “must have been responsible for a large number of the casualties in the advance”.
Shortly before 7.30 the attack was launched, but:
the enemy’s fire was intense, and from the very start casualties were heavy. The smoke screen, after settling down, drifted parallel with the front instead of towards the enemy, with the result that when halfway across No Man’s Land the assaulting waves came within full view of the enemy. On reaching the wire men looked in vain for the openings they had expected. It had been cut by our artillery, but no guns could remove it, and it remained in such masses as effectually to prevent a passage. However, one gap had been made and some of D Company “managed to gain a footing in the enemy’s front line, but were soon outnumbered and fell”. The bombers under Lieutenant Flaxman also made for the gap but the wire “prevented them from getting to grips, and they were shot down in the open”. On the right flank C Company engaged the enemy “but they could make no headway and suffered heavily. For the rest, those men who passed through the barrages and escaped the machine-gun fire could make no progress past the enemy’s wire.” As for A and B Companies they found no gaps.
Many men died horribly. Caught on the barbed wire they were cut apart by German machine-gun fire. Casualties were severe. Out of the total of 239, most occurred within a few minutes of the beginning of the attack, and “represented a large proportion of the fighting strength actually engaged in the attack.”
Of the “platoon commanders few escaped. Lieut. Harley and Lieut. Dickinson were both shot down at the German wire, and Lieutenants Flaxman, Johnson and Page were killed in a similar manner. Lieut. Adams was shot through the knee, and in crawling back to our lines was sniped continuously, one bullet striking the magazine of his revolver which he wore at his side.”
Elsewhere in the Battle of the Somme, the 1st Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment was prominent in one of the few success of the day. It was part of the 7th Division, made up of mostly of Regular Battalions which had experienced hard fighting since the early days of the war. Their target was the village of Mametz.
Three large mines and several smaller ones were exploded in front of the German positions just before Zero Hour. According to James P. Jones, the regimental historian, when the whistles blew to attack “on each flank from Fricourt on the left, to the country towards Montauban on the right, a long line of bayonets surged forwards. A lively machine gun fire and shrapnel greeted them” but the 1st Battalion never faltered.
Amazingly the men covered over 1,200 yards in about 30 minutes. The first platoon into Mametz was led by 2nd Lieutenant S. Potter. He led a rapid advance that swept through the village and dug himself and his men in on the farther side. Although surrounded by the enemy they maintained their position under heavy fire until noon, when the rest of the Battalion finally succeeded in joining them. Second Lieutenant S. Potter was awarded the D.S.O. “for conspicuous gallantry”, as his citation read. His achievement was “of great tactical importance. Later he took part in another assault on another position which was taken owing to his personal gallantry and fine leadership.”
There was a large number of Germans in the village and the rest of the Battalion “advanced as if on parade, they swept forward in regular lines, and to one who followed their track the regularity of their advance was astonishing, for the dead lay aligned as if on some parade.” Many prisoners “were found in their dug-outs, men dazed and bewildered with the awful hell of the bombardment they had endured. They said it was not war, but murder. They forgot what they had done when they held the whip-hand with their artillery in the earlier days of the war, and did not like the dose of their own medicine they had to swallow in this attack.”
A trench called Dantzig Alley ran through the middle of Mametz. The defenders put up a strong resistance and German counter attacks were launched supported by heavy shelling and machine guns fire. These were held off. Dantzig Alley was captured, cellars and strongpoints were taken, and slowly the village was secured so that by the middle of the afternoon most of Mametz was in British hands.
The heat was intense, and the men’s tunics were black with sweat, but “at about 1 p.m. the 1st Battalion surged forward again, and Lieut. C. de Trafford led a most gallant attack on ‘Bunny Alley’, a trench just in rear of Mametz, clearing it and taking about 200 prisoners”. The price was high. Only eleven out of 21 officers who had gone over the top was left; whilst 300 other ranks were dead or wounded.
By the end of the first bloody day of the Battle of the Somme, British casualties totalled 57,000 men; 20,000 of them were dead. The Battle went on for another 140 days. Tens of thousands more British and Empire troops died. Over 73,000 have no known grave and are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. Amongst them are the names of 604 men of the South Staffordshire Regiment and 1,803 of the Royal Warwicks.
But that was not the end of the Battle of the Somme as the 1/5th Battalion the Royal Warwicks found out. Before the outbreak of the Great War, Mitchells and Butlers had been approached by the officers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment Territorials to assist in the promotion of a Brewers’ Company. They had done so and when war was declared the Company was part of the 5th Battalion. It was mobilised swiftly and sent to France in March 1915.
One of those who joined the Territorial Company when it was set up was the chairman’s son, Owen – later Captain Owen Butler. Another was M & B’s chief travelling salesman, Frank Townley. During the war, Sergeant Townley rose to become Regimental Sergeant Major. In 1916 he took part in the attack at Ovilliers, part of the Battle of Bazentin in the second period of the Somme offensive.
From July 1, the British had been repulsed in their attempts to take the village and on 15 July it was the turn of the 1/5th Royal Warwicks to be sent forward under cover of darkness. There was no preliminary bombardment. Led by the nineteen-year old Lieutenant Charles Carrington, the Warwicks crossed 1,000 yards of ground and took over trenches behind Ovilliers.
Surrounded on three sides by the enemy, three companies of the 1/5th valiantly held off enemy counter attacks and were relieved as night fell. B Company, however, was isolated. Doggedly its men continued to cut off the Germans in the village, allowing other British troops to press in from the flanks. At last on July 16, the remnants of the enemy garrison, 124 soldiers and their two officers, surrendered. Sergeant Townley won the Military Cross for his bravery in this action. Just under two years later he also won the Distinguished Service Medal.
The Somme offensive ended in mid-November 1916 but its name and that of places like Delville Wood remain ingrained in the memory of the British people as symbols of both the futility of war but also the bravery of men on both sides of the conflict.
First published in the Birmingham Mail’s First World War supplement.