This account of the battle appeared on the webpage www.irishsoldier.org/sommetext.html but was removed from the web in 2009 for the site to undergo reconstruction.
On the night of the 30 June, 1916, the men of the 36th (Ulster) Divison moved into the trenches in Thiepval Wood in preparation for the Battle of the Somme the following day.
At zero hour - 07.30, 1st July, two of the three brigades of the Division, 108 and 109, spearhead the attack, with the third Brigade 107, in reserve. 108 Brigade would attack with two battalions on either side of the River Ancre plus the 15th Bn. Royal Irish Rifles of 107 Brigade. Their objectives were the railway station at Beaucourt and the machine-gun posts in St Pierre Divion. 109 Brigade would attack the most heavily fortified position on the German Front Line, the Schwaben Redoubt. As the battle commenced things went well for the Ulstermen, but then disaster struck. The fortified village of Thiepval was to be attacked and taken by the 32nd Division but after suffering very heavy casualties, the 32nd Division by-passed the village. Then the guns of the village were turned to the men of the 109 Brigade, inflicting very heavy casualties. Despite the terrible losses, 109 Brigade got a foothold on the Schwaben Redoubt but due to lack of ammunition and reinforcements, they were forced back to the first line of German trenches.
Meanwhile, 108 Brigade came under machine-gun fire at Beaucourt station and St. Pierre-Divion. Time and time again they re-grouped and each time they were decimated by machine-gun fire. Like the troops of the 109 Brigade they too were forced back to the German ‘A’ line trenches, where they remained until the following day.
107 Brigade was to pass through the two leading brigades and attack ‘C’ and ‘D’ lines and finally the village of Grandcourt. They too suffered heavy casualties but took ‘C’ line and awaited orders. The Divisional Commander, General Nugent, realised the situation was untenable, and ordered the attack stopped. However the order did not reach 107 Brigade and they made a last minute dash across open ground and despite terrible casualties, reached the trenches in front of Grandcourt.
As they reached the trenches, hand-to-hand fighting took place, but they managed to push the enemy out of the trenches. German reinforcements were rushed up and despite dogged resistance, the men of 107 Brigade were forced back to their own lines. Early the following morning, the observation post on Mesnil Ridge reported that there were still some of our troops in the German ‘A’ line trenches.
General Nugent ordered Brigadier-General Withycomb to assist and reinforce these troops. Withycomb gathered together the remnants of 107 Brigade plus two machine-guns, placing this makeshift unit under the command of Major Woods of the 9th Rifles. A third of the men became casualties before they reached their comrades in the enemy trenches, where they remained throughout the day. The Ulster Division was relieved on the night of the 2nd July by the 49th Division; 107 Brigade were relieved the following morning by the 48th Brigade. In two days of fighting, the Ulster Division lost 5,500 officers and men, killed, wounded or missing.
The Ulster Division was they only Division of X Corps to have achieved it’s objectives on 1st July 1916 and the men of the Division received many awards for bravery, including four Victoria Crosses.
Reference: The History of the Ulster Division, Cyril Falls
29th Division at Beaumont-Hamel
The 29th Division, after putting up a magnificent show during the Gallipoli Campaign, landed in France between 15th and 29th March 1916, commanded by Major-General H de B-de-Lisle.
Two Irish Battalions were amongst the Infantry, the 1st Bn. Royal Inniskillng Fusiliers and the 1st Bn. Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
On1st July, the 29th Division was asked to capture the village of Beaumont-Hamel, a German stronghold. It was placed to the left of the Ulster Division. British sappers had placed a mine beneath the Hawthorne Redoubt which was to be detonated at zero hour minus 10 minutes and hopefully breach the defenses of Beaumont-Hamel.
The British artillery barrage which proceeded the attack opened on the 24th June 1916 and lasted for a week. At 7.20am on the 1st July, the mine at Hawthorne Redoubt was detonated and sent a sheet of flame 100 feet into the air, but despite this barrage, the German machine-gunners were still in position when the 29th Division went over the top. A smoke-screen was laid down on the left of the Division, but even so, the British troops were cut to pieces.. the fighting was so fierce, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment sustained 600 casualties out of a compliment of 800 men.
"The 29th were magnificent, time after time they reformed and every time they were cut to pieces by machine-gun fire. They were regulars and they certainly lived up to the reputation that they gained in Gallipoli."
(The War Memoirs of T McClure, 15th Royal Irish Rifles)
The morning after the big offensive in, many places where the attack failed completely, unofficial truces lasted for a few hours. One soldier of the Worcesters (29th Division) crawled out looking for a friend who had been wounded. He got within a few feet of the German wire and found his comrade. Just then the mists cleared, there was a clatter of rifle bolts. Both soldiers looked up, expecting to be killed, when a sharp order was given and a German soldier leapt into the parapet of his trench and said in perfect English "You must not stop there with that man, if you want to come in then come along, otherwise you must go back to your own trenches." As the soldier hesitated, the German officer added: "We will look after your comrade." "I will go back to my own trench." Said the Tommy, but he did not stand up, he turned and crawled back to the British Lines.
References: Tommy goes to War, Malcolm Brown
Because of the fierceness of the fighting and the great loss of life on the 1st July, it gave the British great satisfaction to seize Beaumont-Hamel from the Germans in mid Novemberr 1916, as one of the last acts of the hard-fought Somme Campaign.
On the 30th June 1916, at 6.15pm, the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment (Accrington Pals) moved out of Warnimount Wood to begin the seven mile march to their front line position in front of the village of Serre. At 2.40 am the following day, the Battalion finally reached the front line trenches, but it was 4am before they were all in place. The journey from Warnimount Wood to Matthew Copse had taken almost ten hours. By 7.20am, 720 men of the Battalion were in position on a front of some 350 yards.
Both British and German shelling eventually eased off and the men slept or checked and oiled their rifle bolts.
The German observation posts were situated on the rising ground on which the village stood, overlooking the whole of 94th Brigades front and assembly trenches. They were also aware of the forthcoming attack as they could easily see the gaps in the 94th Brigade’s wire, and the white tapes – used to guise the infantry – laid on ‘No Man’s Land’. The enemy artillery quickly found the range of the assembly trenches and more German guns, not used until then, were brought up into the action and added to the barrage which pounded the East Lanc’s front line trenches.
At 7.25am, the second wave had entered the front trenches and were now lying in position 50 yards behind the first. In spite of the British Stokes mortar and artillery barrage, German shells and bullets poured into the battalion front line of assembly trenches as the 3rd and 4th waves awaited the signal to go. At 7.30am all four waves rose up and went forward, walking up the slope towards the enemy positions, continuing their advance in the face of German artillery fire and now heavy machine-gun and rifle fire.
As the men moved forward the machine gun fire from the direction of Gommecourt Park, on the battalion's left, quickly decimated the advancing troops and by 7.50am Lt-Col Rickman reported to 94th Brigade Headquarters that all ‘waves’ had gone forwards and that the heavy machine-gun fire was still coming from the North. At least two Maxim Machine-guns faced the battalion, which had now split into small groups each struggling to reach the German front line, some getting through the German wire and into the front line trench. By now, the battle plans had literally been blown apart and it was now up to the men to survive as best as they could. Communication lines had been destroyed, so further contact with the troops and HQ had to be made by a runner.
The original front line trench became untenable so the ‘line’ moved back to the trenches held by two companies of 13th York and Lancaster Regiment under the command of Captain Gurney, which was under heavy German shell-fire. By noon, the enemy machine-gun fire eased off and an area of approximately 700 yards by 300 yards was filled with some 2000 dead and wounded of the 11th East Lancs, 12th York and Lancaster’s and the supporting companies of the 13th and 14th York and Lancasters.
Despite months of planning, events were now out of division, brigade and even battalion control. The attack had failed, although there were reports of isolated parties of British troops in the enemy trenches, and in Serre village many men behind German lines fought for their lives, the wounded in ‘No-Man’s-Land’ struggling to get back to their own lines. Conditions in the front line trenches were vile, half demolished trenches and dugouts were filled with the wounded and dead and still the enemy shells exploded everywhere at the slightest movement.
On the evening of 4th July, the 144th Brigade of the 48th Division took over the 94th Division section of the line. At 12.30am on 5th July, one company of the 1st/6th Gloucester Regiment relieved the East Lancs. The few survivors of the 11th East Lancs left behind many of their dead on ‘No Man’s Land’ and made their way back to Colincamps and eventually on to Warnimount Wood.
During the fighting at Serre, 234 men of the East Lancs died – 131 of these have no known grave – and at least 360 men were wounded, many dying later from their wounds.
Reference: Accrington Pals, W Turner
On 4th July 1916, the British 4th Army produced an undoubted, spectacular success. After a small preliminary barrage, the attack was launched at 3.25am, and in contrast to previous daylight raids, caught the Germans entirely off-guard. 22,000 infantry plus supporting troops went over the top without alerting the enemy look-outs. Most of the troops belonged to the New Armies, although the officers were the same men who had been involved in the planning of the principal battle on 1st July.
The Infantry made some advances with the units from several divisions, including the 3rd and 9th who spearheaded the attack. With a few casualties the British captured most of the German front line trenches and began to advance on the second line, a total distance of 6,000 yards. The British now held the trench system from Bazentin le Petit to Longueval, which was a fortified village adjacent to Delville Wood.
Longueval could not accurately be described as a village; it was more like an inhabited wood and formed part of the Bois de Delville (Delville Wood) which had all but been stripped by the thousands of British artillery shells which had rained down on it. As troops of the Royal Scots cleared the woodland village, the South African Brigade advanced through Longueval and into Delville Wood on 14th July. The South Africans had to cross open ground and were faced with German machine-guns and sharpshooters concealed in the thick undergrowth and were being enfiladed on the right by a field gun.
Despite heavy casualties, the South Africans quickly reached the enemy’s third line of defences. Here they dug in and awaited the inevitable German counter-attack. For five days they withstood all that they enemy could bring against them. A large part of Delville Wood sloped down into the Bazentine valley where the main feature was a maze of German trenches close to the villages of Flers. These trenches dominated the left, right and rear of the South Africans who were well within range of the enemy’s machine-gun and rifle fire. They were also subjected to a constant artillery bombardment of shrapnel, high explosives and gas.
On 17th July, then Germans laid down an intense artillery bombardment, which continued all night. The following morning the enemy launched an assault on the British Lines. The main attack fell on the South Africans from three sides forcing them to fall back to rear trenches. Three days later the battle was still raging, with more German troops being pushed into the battle.
Just when it looked as though the South African Brigade numbered 121 officers and 3000 men and when they were relieved six days later, three officers and 140 men answered the role call.
Seventeen days after the South African troops went into action, Delville Wood was largely in British hands, but the rate of advance was slow, and by September fighting still continued round the wood. Between the 3rd and 8th September, infantry of the 24th and 55th Divisions gradually forced the enemy out to the northern edge of the wood.
On 15th September a new offensive was ordered against the enemy. One hour before the main attack the first tank to be used in the war was ordered into the wood to clear out the remaining German troops. After two months of some of the heaviest fighting on the Somme, Delville Wood was now clear of enemy and in British hands. This surely would not have been possible were it no for the bravery and tenacity of the South African Brigade.
Reference: History of the Great War, Hammerton
The attack on High Wood was spearheaded by troops of III and IV Corps; wheeling east from Mametz Wood, the villages of Bazentin le Grand and Bezentin le Petit were cleared in a matter of hours. Most of the village of Longueval and Trones Wood was taken in the same sweeping movement. The Corp commanders requested permission from the 4th Army HQ to carry on with the attack.
On 20th July 1916, preparations for the attack were complete. By 2100 hours communication cables were laid and columns of soldiers marched into the valley to prepare for the offensive. Reconnoitre squads came back with news that there was no sign of the enemy. General Potter of 3rd Division, Lieutenatnt-Colonel Elliott and Major-General Watts of the 7th Division decided to take a look for themselves. Moving slowly and carefully, the officers reached the edge of High Wood. No enemy troops were seen; anxious to take full advantage, these officers lodged a request with XV Corps to push ahead. Orders came back that they were to wait until the cavalry arrived. General Rawlinson and General Haig believed that cavalry was the key to consolidating any further advance.
Unfortunately, the Indian Cavalry did not arrive until later in the evening, having had to negotiate several miles of shell-churned earth. By the time they had arrived, reports had begun to filter back that the area between Longurval and Bezentin le Grand had been fully wrestled from German hands. It was decided to hold the cavalry back and wait.
Slowly, the Germans moved back into High Wood, amazed at their good fortune. In a day of confusion, the only orders that came were to wait until the following day, after the cavalry had swept through the wood and the surrounding areas. The Devon Horse and the Dragoon Guards, accompanied the infantry moving towards the northern corner of High Wood, led the charge. The timing, however, was poor; it was seven in the evening and the British were only now attacking twelve hours after their initial advance.
The cavalry, riding through a torrent of shell fire and machine-gun bullets, entered High Wood, killing a number of snipers and machine-gunners and taking thirty-two prisoners. Holding a thin line, the position in High Wood was consolidated by nightfall, the Germans answering back throughout the night with regular shelling and gunfire.
The 33rd Division was ordered to consolidate the wood, amidst reports from headquarters that the objective had been taken. Machine-gun bursts and the sound of German voices convinced the men otherwise. It was a terrifying night – all or nothing, as the men were ordered back out of the wood at sunrise. Further attacks took place over the next couple of nights; none, however, was strong enough to dislodge the Germans from their recently retaken positions.
High Wood was finally taken by the 47th Division, III Corps, on 15th September 1916, almost two months after it had been sitting open and available. Perhaps if the 3rd and 7th Division had been given permission to carry on their advance of 20 July, many thousands of lives might have been saved.
Reference: Somme, Lynn McDonald.
Guillemont and Ginchy
The great Somme offensive of July 1916 had originally been planned as an Anglo-French venture to smash a deep breach into the enemy’s rear; attacking Allied armies would then fan out and out-manoeuvre the Germans by striking their exposed flanks. However, with increasingly greater numbers of French troops being used in defense of Verdun, which had been under constant attack since February 1916, the French role in the Battle of the Somme was greatly diminished. Ironically, one of the aims of the allied offensives was to relieve German pressure on the French at Verdun.
On 1st September 1916, 47th Brigade of the 16th (Irish) Division was in the line, as reserve to the 20th (Light) Division. The 20th Division’s objective was to capture Guillemont, a Village north of the River Somme, between Albert and Bapaume. A brigade of the 20th Division ordered to attack Guillemont from the north was so weakened by casualties it had to be withdrawn and replaced by the 47th Brigade. It was on 2nd September, less than 24 hours before the attack, that the 47th Brigade was told to prepare for battle.
As the artillery bombardment began on the enemy emplacements, several of the British shells fell short of their targets and the waiting troops were subjected to a double bombardment. The 6th Battalion the Connaught Rangers suffered almost 200 casualties before they went into action. At noon, zero hour, the British guns opened an intense three-minute bombardment, preparatory to the infantry attack.
The left flank of the 47th Brigade’s assault was entrusted to the 7th Battalion the Leinster Regiment. They would attack south from the railway station, jumping off from specially constructed assembly trenches, 300 yards north of Guillemont. By 4am on the 3rd, the Leinster Regiment was in position, and remained ready for eight hours. At zero hour plus three minutes, the Leinsters sprang into the attack. They swiftly took the first enemy trench, then consolidated along the sunken road 500 yards of east of the village anticipating German shelling and machine-gun fire, but encountered no serious resistance. The 8th Battalion the Royal Munster Fusiliers passed through the ranks of the Connaughts and by 1.15pm were consolidating around the positions known as North and South Streets and established their headquarters in this village. At 2.50am the advance to Wedge Wood and Ginchy Road began. During the night of 3/4th September, the Germans mounted a counter-attack but were beaten off. Guillemont was captured at last, but at a huge cost – the 47thBrigade’s casualties were heavy: 1,147 out of 2,400 attackers. The 6th Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment had lost all 14 officers and over 300 men. The 8th Munsters lost 265 all ranks and Connaughts had been reduced to less than 400 officers and men. The Leinsters had 12 officer casualties and 219 men. Two of the men of the 16th (Irish) Division were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions during the taking of Guillemont; they were Lieutenant. J.V Holland, Leinster Regiment and Private. T. Hughes, 6th Connaughts.
The German garrison in Ginchy, a village a mile northeast of Guillemont, had resisted all attempts to capture it. On the evening of the 6th, IV Army HQ ordered fresh attacks for 9th September. It was hoped that this attack would secure the Combles - Leuze Wood Road – The Quadrilateral – Ginchy. The bombardment would start at 7am with the infantry going over at 4.45pm.
The 47th Brigade, of which the 6th Connaughts formed part, was to cover the flank of the 48th Brigade. The 8th Munsters and the 6th Royal Irish would advance in four waves, fifty yards apart. The would be followed at fifteen paces by a line consisting of, from left to right, two companies of the Connaughts, a half company of the 7th Leinsters, and a company of the 11th Battalion, the Hampshire Regiment. On the 7th September, Brigade strength was as follows:
6th Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers 290
8th Battalion Munsters 200
6th Battalions Connaughts 250
7th Battalion Leinsters 298
2nd Coy, 11th Hampshires 200
47th Machine Gun Coy 90
As the 47th and 48th Brigades were preparing to attack, orders were issued to hold back for two minutes, until 4.47pm, to allow the shelling of the German lines. But the 48th Brigade did not receive the order and began the attack on time. This caused the German counter-barrage to fall on the 47th Brigade as it waited to jump off, as soon as the first troops of the brigade, the 8th Munsters and 6th Royal Irish left their trenches, they were cut to pieces by close range machine-gun and rifle fire.
For the remainder of the day, the 47th Brigade beat off several enemy counter-attacks whilst coming under continuous shelling. They were relieved in the early hours of the 10th, and the Brigade counted the terrible cost. The 8th Munsters, 200 strong before the battle, had suffered 81 casualties. The 6th Royal Irish had lost their Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Curzon, their Adjutant and another officer killed, nine officers wounded or missing and 155 other ranks. The 6th Connaughts lost 92 out of the 266 who had assembled for the attack. The 7th Leinsters had four officers killed and another six were wounded or missing. Eleven officers of the 47th Brigade were killed; another six were wounded or missing. Total casualties for the brigade were 448.
The 48th Brigade also suffered heavily; the left lead-off battalion of the Brigade was the 7th Battalion the Royal Irish Rifles. They had suffered heavily from shelling during the long wait for zero hour. By 2pm on the 9th they could muster only 150 men. The 7th Battalion the Royal Irish Fusiliers were brought up from divisional reserve to reinforce them. At zero hour, 4.45pm, both Battalions attacked together. The 7th Rifles and 7th Irish Fusiliers reached the German front line within a few minutes. The enemy made a brief defensive stand on the outskirts of Ginchy but this was broken up by the 48th Brigade’s Trench Mortar Battery. At 5.25pm, the 8th and 9th Battalions the Royal Dublin Fusiliers passed through the village but they could not be supported and were forced back to the village, where they Brigade consolidated. But the cost was high: 82 officer casualties and 1,324 men, of whom 21 officers and 170 men had been killed.
Total casualties for the 16th (Irish) Division amounted to 643 killed, 2,851 wounded and 859 missing.
Reference: Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers, T. Denman