An account of operations in which the 175th Brigade. R.F.A. was engaged
A.A. Laporte Payne
July the First.
At dawn on 1st July, as an intensely interested spectator, I watched our infantry pass down the narrow communication trench by our post to the front line. It was a gloriously fine morning after rain. In single file they went steadily by, silently save for the sound of equipment knocking against the trench and of their feet on the soft earth, burdened with rifles, belts on ammunition, bombs, picks, shovels, iron-rations, water-bottles, haversacks, gas-bags and tin helmets – nearly all to die or to fall wounded in the valley below.
At intervals there were halts as they were held up ahead. Hardly a word was spoken. Some by slight nervous movements showed signs of strain, but most were steady-eyed enough. Then they were gone.
Photo 1 & 2. We began to bombard at 6.25 a.m. At 7.28 a.m. the large mine under Y Sap, which stuck out irregularly from the la Boisselle salient, was blown up by 40,600 lbs of ammonal. For the purpose a gallery had been mined, 1030 feet in length, the longest ever driven in chalk during the war. It was the only operation that went ‘according to plan’ on this morning.
Photos 3 & 4. At 7.30 a.m., to the second, our infantry rose out of their trenches and began to move across the valley that was No-man’s-land.
By our barrage we covered the first attackers on the left of the 34th Division. The first to move were the 20th Northumberland Fusiliers (1st Tyneside Scottish Lt. Col. Sillery). They went up the hill towards the trenches that lay back from and to the north of la Boisselle. This village stuck out in a menacing way like a high bastion into No-man’s-land. Yet it was ordered that it should not be directly attacked, but left isolated and surrounded.
This battalion was followed by the 23rd Northumberland Fusiliers (Lt. Col. Lyle), and then by the 25th Northumberland Fusiliers (Lt. Col. Arden).
Orders laid down that each battalion should advance in extended order in successive waves at 150 paces distant. They went, as ordered, slowly, upright, and heavily laden with kit and arms.
Their objectives were Contalmaison and beyond, even up to Mametz Wood, an advance not far short of 4000 yards; their task, the capture of two strongly fortified villages and no less than six lines of trenches protected by strong wire-entanglements. They staggered out into that death-trap, Mash Valley, towards the slopes beyond and the enemy.
Immediately I felt rather than heard the terrific noise of machine-gun firing. It came like a continuous blast of innumerable hard blows, such as I had never before heard. Bullets cracked about the horizontal slit we used for observing and threw spurts of earth into it. Shells began falling along the trench outside.
Below us we could see the infantry slowly crossing in successive waves. It was as if we occupied our assigned place on the circular gallery of some old Roman amphitheatre, into whose vast arena the combatants, like Gladiators, were now issuing to engage in the most costly spectacle ever staged. Only they had no chance.
Photos 5 & 6. They surmounted the first terrace in sight, which contoured the hill-side from south to north and looked as if it once been an open road, as it had, to meet a deadly fire. Some few, not already dead or wounded, fell back stung by innumerable and invisible machine-guns.
Others went on; but the lines thinned fearfully. Yet on, over the second grass-grown terrace they went. But now the waves hardly existed; and here they left many more, as they topped the rise to meet a cruel fire from traversing machine-guns ahead in rear of the front line or in enfilade from the hidden and undamaged-guns in the flanking village of la Boisselle.
As our barrage, which now seemed so tragically ineffective, lifted, and those gallant few that survived of the first waves, passed the German front line, the trench appeared to be almost deserted. Then, as those leaders went on as ordered up the hill, the enemy could easily be seen coming out of their dug-outs in the front line, which had been deep enough to escape our light field-gun bombardment; and, filling their trenches they stopped and flung back the succeeding waves. So it was that our first wave, after they had passed on towards the enemy support line, were cut off and either annihilated or driven as survivors to exist lurking in shell-holes, until they too finally died even after several days. So far as I could see no quarter was given, and the wounded were persistently shot.
Those conspicuous features of No-man’s-land, the terraces, which contoured the hill-side, formed a natural shelter and refuge for men assaulting or wounded. They ran or crawled under the banks to escape from the ceaseless and deadly fire, where at least they were under cover from the front. But the shelter of the terraces was fatally deceptive. The higher, a bank close to and running almost parallel with a field track, turned up the hill to enter the enemy’s lines, and so exposed its length to enfilade fire from Ovillers, which had by now successfully resisted the first assault of the 8th Division. The Germans in Ovillers had the target of their lives. The dead lay thickest there. Photo 15
The lower terrace could just be enfiladed by the point of the Salient at la Boiselle. Instead of affording shelter these deceptive terraces became fearful death-traps. And Mash Valley itself, a far too wide No-man’s-land, formed as it were a bay almost surrounded by the withdrawn front line of the enemy and the forward flanking salients. Such was the foreseen result when those field fortifications were so cunningly sited and devised in 1914.
By 9.20 a.m. we were firing far ahead into Mametz Wood, at a range of about 6,600 yards. Then we dropped a little to afford a protective barrage on ‘the Crimson Line’, so appropriately was it named. At 10.15 a.m. we lifted 500 yards to allow officer patrols to enter Mametz Wood. But no one was there to be protected or to enter the wood.
After the struggle about the front line, in which the remainder of the troops became involved, had ended in complete collapse, the battle, so far as we were concerned, was over.
It was quite clear that the attack had failed, and that special arrangements made for surrounding and ‘moping up’ the trenches in la Boiselle, had proved hopelessly inadequate.
The three battalions were practically wiped out. Their dead in ranks lay thick in No-man’s-land, where they had been caught chiefly by fearful enfilade fire from la Boiselle while they were yet crossing so wide an open space.
Such was the result of leaving this fortified village unattacked. The Staff had hoped by overlapping and surrounding it to capture the place without a frontal and direct attack. Defenders in this stronghold had not been neutralized by a sufficiently strong bombardment of heavy or lachrymatory shell, and the smoke screen was a complete failure. By so trying to avoid a lesser evil our troops had encountered a greater.
On our left, too, the attack on Ovillers failed even more miserably, and the fire from there assisted in the slaughter. That battlefield that day was the most terrible thing I have ever seen. Photos 5 & 6.
Colonel Sillery died at the head of his battalion, having penetrated well beyond the Boche front line. Previous to our arrival on the Somme I had spent many days with him in the trenches as his Liaison Officer. Colonel Lyle of the 23rd was also killed, and Colonel Arden of the 25th was wounded.
It was found later that one officer and a handful of men, of the 103rd Brigade, actually reached Contalmaison, our final objective, before being killed; but they approached from the south of la Boisselle. How they ever got so far no one who survived ever knew.
They were brave, those men, and some knew what was in store for them. On the south of the village Lt. Col. F.C. Heneker led over his 21st Northumberland Fusiliers, and was also killed. He was an exceptionally fine soldier and good fellow. I had known him for some time, and on the evening before the attack he had visited us in our O.P. to have a last look over the ground. As he was leaving I shook hands with him and, wishing him good luck, said I should see him “over the other side tomorrow”. His quiet reply was to the effect that they could never get through in the face of those defences.
Of our two Forward Observing Officers both were immediate casualties, Hickman being killed, and Crombie, of D Battery, seriously wounded as he scrambled out of our trenches.
On our immediate front our casualties were:
20th Northumberland Fusiliers 26 Officers. Total 631.
23rd “ 18 “ “ 640.
25th “ 18 “ “ 491.
A total of 1762 for three battalions attacking. Not all went up to the attack, a certain number were retained at the transport lines and elsewhere. But in effect the first two battalions were wiped out.
The casualties of all three brigades of our Division in this operation were 6591, the highest ever suffered by any division in one attack. On this day alone on the British front nearly sixty thousand men had fallen.
At the Boche, at this time, neglected counter-battery work, our gun-line fortunately escaped heavy shelling; but the Observation Post was not so lucky. There we were shelled continuously, and crowded out with terribly wounded and distressed men, who had crawled up from No-man’s-land and sought the shelter of our dug-out steps. For them we could do nothing when our supply of first-aid material was exhausted. Water, too, soon gave out. In the dug-out the single candle snuffed out every time a shell landed on the roof. There were no doctors or stretcher-bearers near us, and we could not leave the post.
South of la Boisselle our troops were to some extent successful and managed to capture portions of the enemy’s trenches; but to the north, with one notable (Ulster Division) and two small exceptions, we failed miserably with fearful losses. La Boisselle itself was just at the point in our line where partial success and complete failure had met, and here we suffered the heaviest casualties.
So we were left with an empty front line, and a No-man’s-land in which our dead lay in ranks of shapeless bundles, or more thickly under ghastly terraces.
But not all of them were dead.
The wounded were left out where they could not be seen, in shell-holes, behind ditches, in long grass, or where no one could get at them. The less seriously wounded, fearful to move, crawled, where they could, to the fatal shelter of the terraces or craters; for to be seen was to be shot, and there they congregated, patiently waiting, but vainly, for stretcher-bearers.
Here and there a man would rise suddenly and run for safety elsewhere; but most seemed bewildered and to have lost all sense of direction. In the midst of little heaps of dead, an arm, now and then, feebly waving, a hand feebly beckoning, a wounded man’s last desperate attempt to tell his comrades he was still alive and worth bringing in; but daylight and those deadly machine-guns across the valley forbade any succour, even if stretcher-bearers could be found.
Our trenches seemed deserted and empty. All that beautiful summer afternoon we watched in helplessness, and too soon we were ordered to bring our gun-fire down once more on the enemy’s forward lines, regardless of what lay there.
As evening came and the sun sank behind us over Albert, the valley below lay so clear in the sunlight that all it held stood out in dreadful relief, making our realisation of its meaning all the more oppressive. But for occasional shelling and the sudden stutter of a machine-gun it seemed so quiet after the morning’s din.
Then when the sun at last sank, cries of wounded, like yelps of hurt dogs, and the horrible odour of a battlefield drifted on the night air up the hill towards us.
What little we could, we tried to do; but in the immensity it was as nothing.
And so for weeks the battlefield just there was left.
That night we posted a sentry at our dug-out entrance in case we were surprised, and slept for an hour or so.
So ended the greatest effort and greatest loss that the British Army has ever experienced in any one day.
In England, to our later astonishment, the attack was hailed as a “famous victory”. It was, indeed, – a triumph of the courage of men given an impossible task.
It is now known that the 34th Division, twelve battalions strong in the first assault, attacked three battalions of the German 110th Reserve Regiment (28th Reserve Corps, Second Army, F. von Below), on a similar frontage. On the whole front of attack thirteen British Divisions assaulted four and a half German Divisions.
An official German report, referring to our portion of the front, records, “The British soldier, however, has no lack of courage, and once his hand is set to the plough he is not easily turned from his purpose.”
With considerable numerical superiority, with courage, and with determination –
Yet we failed!