Chapter thirty-six: Over the top.
Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After the many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.
And in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart.
Wilfred Owen (1893 - 1918)
In order to make a meaningful account of July 1st, 1916, the present chapter is going to describe the Allied attacks as the developed, from North to South.
July 1st, 1916
Gommecourt (VII Corps)
The British Third Army of General Sir Edmund Allenby occupied the frontline to the north of Rawlinson's Fourth Army and their lines armies met just south of the villages of Foncquevillers and Gommecourt. Allenby had to mount a diversion in order to attract German forces and artillery fire away from the main attack. However, he was unimpressed by the battleplan. He noted with some consternation that there was to be one mile wide gap between the Fourth Army to the south and the Third Army's diversionary attack, that was to leave his men exposed to German fire on three sides. Therefore, he concluded "not only the attack would fail to achieve his objectives, but also it stood little chance of succeeding as a diversion". He communicated his misgivings to Haig, but they were simply dismissed.
The intended attack of the VIII Corps.
To carry out the diversion fell to the VII Corps (Lt.Gen. Sir T. d'Oyly Snow). The plan called for a pincer movement, taking the salient and capturing the garrison in a pocket. The northern pincer was the 46th Division and the southern pincer was the 15th (Scottish) Division, both Territorial Force units. However, as soon as the barrage moved from the German position, on 7.30am, a storm of enemy machine gun fire and gunfire fell over No Man's Land and the British trenches, making impossible to the British soldiers to go over the top. In fact, only Major General E.J. Montagu-Stuart-Wortley's 46th Division made a token effort by attacking with two companies. In the end, only one platoon went over with only one man surviving unscathed before the attack was cancelled (1). All in all, 68 men became casualties for nothing in exchange, as the German had answered to Allenby's effort by moving an extra division but not a single gun. A feint attack was probably all that was required at Gommecourt.
However, that was not Haig's way.
Serre and Beaumont Hamel. (I Corps)
The northern flank of the Fourth Army's sector was held by Lt.Gen. Aylmer Hunter-Weston's I Corps. Three divisions would attack on the first day while the fourth was holding the one-mile (1.6 km) gap between the Third and Fourth Armies. This attack was to establish a strong defensive flank to secure the advance of the cavalry further south from counter attack. However, they faced a formidable German position with excellent fields of fire on most sections of No Man's Land.
At 7.30 am the attack by I Corps began. In the far north, the battalions of 11st (Northern) Division had left the trenches ten minutes earlier and advanced within close proximity of the German wire and lay down ready to rush the enemy frontline. The follow up battalions were to move forwards in similar fashion. In the centre, the 10th (Irish) Division adopted several stratagems for the attack: some battallions moved into No Man’s Land before zero hour and pushed forward at good pace. Others adopted very complicated formations, using groups of specially trained skirmirshers and snipers followed by Lewis gun teams. In turn, they were to be followed by the main body of the batallion in highly complex, irregular formations. On the left, the 12th (Eastern) Division also adopted various attack formations.
To the varied attack formations the Germans had a single answer: machine guns.
In the event, the variety of attacks adopted by the units of I Corps availed them nothing.
The men of the 11st (Northern) moved quickly to No Man's Land just to discover that the bombardment, according to the plan, had moved away and that the German machine gunners and riflemen were lining the parapet. Almost at once heavy fire ripped through the postrate forms in no mans' land. In essence, the attack collapsed before zero hour. A few men of the leftward brigade did reach the German front line and pressed towards Serre. They were never seen again. By 7.35 am the Germans, in addition to the constant heavy marchine gun fire, had dropped a heavy barrage on the British front and the assembly trenches, wiping some units before they reached their own lines as they attempted to deploy. In such conditions, the attack was cancelled, but by then 2,700 men had become casualties.
On the southern section was the 12th (Eastern). Essentially, the story is pretty the same as in the northern section, but with a slight twist. The wire had not been cut, the enemy machine guns were not subdued and the Germany artillery was not quite destroyed or neutralised. Even imaginative tactics availed little in these circunstances. Massed German machine-gunners wiped out entire companies in a few minutes. The follow up companies hardly fared any better. Then, as the British soldiers were being slaughtered, fate intervened. A section of the Germans defences that were proving unasailable for the 12th Division was Hawthorn Ridge, which dominated the ground to its north and south and was located to the west of Beaumont Hamel. Hunter-Weston's solution to this problem was to place 40,000 pounds of explosive under the ridge and detonate it before the attack. Two companies would rush across No Man’s Land and seize the tip of the crate when the main attack began.
Nevertheless, something misfired. Literally. At 7.20 am the mine beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt did not explode, to the anger of Hunter-Weston (2). Nothing happened. Then the attack began, with the fateful result it has been told. On the right flank of the attack, some troops of the 12th Division found a gap in the enemy wire, and took the enemy trench. However, so heavy was the enemy barrage that the follow up troops were unable to leave their own trenches and the few soldiers who went over the top were shot down. However, the advance of this troops was to have almost unfortunate consecuences, as the Divisional HQs thought that the entire righward brigade had taken the entire front line. Thus, at 8.37 am General de Lisle ordered the reserve brigade (the Essex and the Newfoundlanders) to reinforce the supposed success. So blocked with dead and wounded were the trenches that the Essex failed to deploy. The Newfoundlanders managed to get through when the enemy fire came upon them. Then, the Hawthorne mine exploded and confusion spread all around the front, having the positive effect of reducing the Germany fire for some time -and wiping out some enemy companies, too. The Newfoundlanders were able to return to their starting point, having lost 229 casualties without even reaching their own front lines.
Further attacks were planned, but the British trenches were so full of killed and wounded that the reserve batallions could not get close enough to the front to deploy and the attack was cancelled at 13:50 pm. The 12th Division had suffered nearly 2,100 casualties, gained not a yard and was to need some time to recover.
In the center, the 10th (Irish) Division attacked between the Serre and Beaumont Hamel. Some units, finding the wire destroyed, managed to capture the German strongpoint known as Quadrilateral Redoubt, despite encountering heavy machine gun and artillery fire. One of such units was the 1/8th Warwicks. The men advanced in skirmishing lines with minimal equipment and occupied the German trenches by 7.50 am. However, the enemy counterattacks eventually driven them out. When they mustered after the battle, only 27 of the 600 men who had advanced responded to the call. Of the 30 officers, 13 were dead and 17 wounded.
Some units, as the 11st Hampshires, suffered horrible casualties without being able to cross No Man’s Land. Yet others (1st East Lancashire) crossed No Man’s Land but were unable to penetrate the wire. The Royal Dublin Fusiliers were decimated before reaching their own front line while the 2nd Essex managed to push some troops into the enemy lines in support of the original troops, despite suffering heavy losses. By 9 am, most of the Quadrilateral Redoubt was in British hands, and few men had pushed forward towards Pendant Copse in the German second line.
British batteries seen here during the preeliminary bombarment.
However, this sector it was subjected to intense German counter-attacks and the position had to be abandoned on the morning of 2 July, by which time the division had suffered 1,800 casualties.
All in all, the VIII Corps suffered 3,300 casualties, a figure that fails to state the carnage among the battalions that actually attacked, for there were eight battalions from the corps that did not attack at all and two that were only briefly engaged. The average number of casualties in those who did attack was 490 and the casualty rate was 66%. In some unfortunate battalions the rate was even higher.
Thiepval and Beaucourt (IX Corps)
This sector provided one of the most difficult targest of the whole battle: the area between thiepval and Mouqet Farm. Again the defences of the area were formidable. Thiepval and the village of St. Pierre Vivion were fortresses with dug outs for machine guns and infantry. These could be only destroyed by the heaviest British guns. Betweem this two villages there was Schawben Redoubt, a complex of tunnels and dug-outs which included a hospital and a telephone exchange. To the north, Beacourt Redoubt house a nest of machine guns ideally placed to enfilade troops advacing towards Grandcourt. To the south of Schwaben, the Moquet Farm Switch Line contained a series of equally strong redoubts. South of Thiepval, in a salient in the German front line, the enemy had constructed the Leipzig Redoubt, a maze of interlocking trenches capable of all-round defences. Behind it there were two additional redoubts: the Wonderwerk and the Nordwerk, out of sight of direct British artillery fire, as they were situated on a reverse slope.
As ever, the crucial question was whether the British guns would eliminate or neutralise the German defence most deadly to the attacking enemy: the distant enemy guns an the more proximate machine guns. In the event, the results of the preliminary bombarment in this sector proved extremely variable.
British infantry from The Wiltshire Regiment attacking near Thiepval
Here, as on other sectors of the front, the troops moved into position in the early hours of the morning. On the left of IX Corps was the 20th (Light) Division. It attacked in two fronts, as its line was broken by the River Ancre. The attack to the north of the river was a fiasco. The troops found the write well cut but the trenches were strongly held by the enemy. However, a few troops managed to penetrate the German frontline just to be cut down by the machine guns of Becourt Redoubt, wihch had entirely escaped the attentions of the British artillery. The experience of the one of his battalions may give us an idea of what happened in this sector. At 7.30 am the 750 men from this unit moved under the cover of a trench mortar smoke barrage. They were inmediately hit by concentrated machine gun fire and pinend down in No Man’s Land. When at 10.00 am a new attack was attempted, only 100 men could be mustered. At 11 am a third attack was ordered for 12.30 pm in conjunction with 10th (Irish) Division to the north. Just 46 men were ready for the advance. Luckily for them, when zero hour came, the 10th was nowehre to be seen and the operation was called off.
The Ulstermen fighting in a trench of the Schwaben Redoubt.
This failure had grave consequences for the main assault south, as the machines guns at Becourt could turn their attention to the troops advancing south of the Ancre. There, the wire had been well cut, and the attackers deployed in No Man’s Land, hidden from German view by an effective smoke-screen. However, story repeated itself again. Machine guns cut down any soldier moving on the left or on the right flanks. Then, in the centre, a most startling event occured: the British soldiers captured the Schwaben Redoubt, where the Alliedartillery had wreaked havoc. The 20th Division seemed to be on the verge of a major success. However, just 1000 soldiers had penetrated the German defences and were being fired from all sides. So umpromising did the situation appear to the divisional command that the reserve brigade was ordered to remain in place and the advanced troops to consolidate their positions and resist (3). By afternoon, heavy German counterattacks developed against Schwaben. The British gunfire stopped them, but the defenders had sufferend heavy casualties and, short of ammunition and supplies as well, reinforcement made impossible by the German barrage, the defenders held until darkness came and then the small remnats of the assaulting force withdraw back to their lines. Thus ended their promising begining.
On the right of the attack was the 19th (Western) Division. Two battallions had to attack Thiepval frontally. Twenty one German machine guns had survived the bombardment, and they wiped out the attackers in a few minutes. In these circumstances the observation of the British Official History that "only bullet-proof soliders could have taken Thiepval on this day" is hardly an exaggeration. The remainder of the attack to the right of the village fared little better. The first wave troops were instantly fired upon by the enemy machine guns and snipers. Thankfully, the IX Corps artillery re-bombarded the village, allowing the withdrawal of the remnants of the first wave and of the support battalions that had come forward. In the extreme rightward section, some troops had made some progress and entered the Leipzig Redoubt, where they fortified themselves under the fire coming from Wonderwerk and Nordwerk. Again the German barrage made impossible the arrival of reinforcements, that in some cases, nevertheless, kept pressing forwards, as the 1st Dorsets and the 2nd Manchester (about 1,500 men). Barely 100 of them arrived to the German front line. Again, when darkness came, the few survivors at Leipzig Redoubt withdraw back to their lines.
So, the attack had been a complete failure, stopped dead by the unsubdued machine guns. At the end of the day, IX Corps had suffered 6,800 casualties, and hardly taken an inch of ground.
Ovillers & La Boisselle (VII Corps)
The villages of Ovillers and La Boisselle flanked the Albert-Bapaume road and marked the centre of the Fourth Army's front. It was here that the Reserve Army cavalry would advance if a breakthrough was to be achieved by the attack of the VII Corps. Thus, the centre of the British attack was also central to Haig's plan. It was here where the breakthrough to happen, thus allowing the calvary to go forward, followed inmediately by Gough's Reserve army.
However, there was a problem with this plan. The Montgomery plan had envisaged a "bite and hold" attack that excluded the kind of big breakthrough dreamt by Haig. On top of that, not even when the guidelines comming from GHQ refered to that goal, General Pulteney, commander of the VII Corps, and his staff, did not believe in such an option. However, Pulteney knew that any suggestion against that plan would be overruled by Haig, so heproceed according to one set of assumptions (Haig's) but employing an artillery plan based on a completely different set (Rawlinson) (4). To make it worse, the Germans defences in this area were also of great strenght (5), garrissoned with machine guns and the usual fortified villages -Ovillers and La Boisselle, which where on two small ridges that dominated the surrounding countryside-. On topf of that, there was another problem: the width of the No Man’s Land, which varied from 200 yards in the north to 800 in the area around Mash Valley, too 600 yards at la Boiselle and 700 yards in the Lochnager crater area. In a few words, it was a bitch of land to cross under fire.
The two British divisions were two regular formations (Guards and the 3rd) plus one from Kitchener's Army (14th "Light" Division), entirely made of volunteers. The Guards Division attacked the Ovilliers sector, and it followed the usual pattern already seen: the troops, who had left their trenches before zero hour to be closer to the German line when the bombarment moved forwards were shot down by the German machine guns. Despite the almost impossible task, the brigades did temporarily penetrate as far as the third trench of the German front-line system, and a small group did manage to capture a section of the German front-line trench for a few hours. Of the 2,720 of the 3rd Guards Brigade that moved to the attack, 400 became casualties before zero hour. Hardly a third of the soldiers of the brigade could be mustered the next day. The story of the remaining two brigades can be quickly told: it was a complete disaster. In every case the leading companies were hit by a hail of enemy fire as they attempted to cross No Man’s Land. Not even forming in small groups availed to anything. As the German began to bomb the trench lines, the attack was cancelled. In all, just over 1,100 men became casualties for precisely no gains.
On his right, the 3rd Division didn't fare better. The two mines under the German line exploded as planned, causing the desired effects, but the smoke screen on La Boiselle was nowhere to be seen.. Worse still, the Germans knew that an attack was comming. Thus, another hail of bullets rained over the British trenches, making impossible even to try to go over the top. A few units tried, anyway, as the 20th and 23th Northumberland Fusiliers, which were wiped out withing a few minuts (the 20th sufered 661 casualties out of 800 men; as for the 23th, just 120 men form their original 820 were asembled the following day). To the south of La Boiselle, the stunning effect of the Lochanger explosion allowed some troops on the left to advance. The Tyneside Scottish Brigade attacked up Mash Valley and against La Boisselle itself, on a sector known as the Glory Hole. They captured some enemy trenches, until a fierce coutner-attack sent them back to their starting positions. Even the unimaginative Pulteney knew that there was no sense of keeping attacking and the operation was cancelled. The 103rd Brigade (The Tyneside Irish) abandoned its position in the Tara-Usna Hills as their advance was also cancelled. The attack of the VII Corps ended with over 4,700 casualties for a derisory amount of ground gained and lost.a few minutes later.
A support company of the Tyneside Irish Brigade advancing from the Tara-Usna Line on 1 July, 1916, This photo has usually been considered to depict soldiers marching through No Man's Land against the German trenches. In fact, it was taken well behind the British Lines.
Fricourt, Mametz & Montauban (II and III Corps)
To the south of La Boiselle, the frontline turned sharply to the east around Fricourt, thus presenting the British army with a difficult right angle to attack, along with the customary ruined villages well provided of cellars to shelter machinge gunse a plenty. The fortified village of Fricourt lay in a bend in the front-line where it turned eastwards for two miles (3 km) before swinging south again to the Somme River. If the attacks by III Corps on either side of Fricourt reached their objectives, the village would be isolated in a pocket so it was deemed unnecessary to make a frontal assault.
Fricourt was the largest of all the villages incorporated by the Germans to the defensive line. But it lacked one of the features that had helped the other German strongpoints: it lay quite close to the British lines and the Allied artillery could bombard it at pleasure. Furthermore, direct observation was easier. These factors contributed to reduce the amount of fire directed against the attackers while crossing the shorter No Man’s Land. There was a further factor which contributed to this situation, the employment, if only in embryo, of firing a creeping barrage in front of the advancing troops. In time this procedure became a very sophisticated form of infantry protection. On July 1st, the bombarment only fell on the German frontline at the onset and moved beyond it too fast for the troops to keep pace. Anyway, enemy defences were enough subdued to allow some of the attackers to make progress.
In another matter concerning artillery III Corps was more lucky than skilfull. No other corps devoted fewer resources to counter-battery than III Corps. This one had one positive aspect: more III Corps' heavy guns were firing against the enemy dug-outs and machine gun posts. However, it also might have a considerable negative aspect: unhindered German batteries could wreak havoc on the attack, as it had happened in the north. Two factores prevented this from happening. The corps adjoining the III, the II Corps, gave a particular high priority to counter-battery. And the French, more lavishly supplied with heavy guns than the British, directed many of their heavy guns into the general Mametz-Montauban area because they feared that the German batteries here might hinder their efforts to advance in the Maricourt Salient (6). Thus, on the day of the attack, the British units faced far less artillery fire than the other corps.
A German barbed-wire defence as captured near Mametz. This photograph demonstrates the sophistication of barbed wire in which a double row of stake has been linked to form a dense entaglement adn a formidable obstacle to infantry.
Success, nevertheless, did not came cheaply. The 1st Division advanced to the north of Fricourt. In the extreme north of the III Corps area the bombardment had not been very accurate, so the attack batallions were met with hevy rifle and machine gun fire before they have gone 25 yards. In one unit, 19 of the 24 officers became casualites in No Man’s Land. Then, as the barrage lifted from the German front line, the defenders occupied the parapet and opened fire. Nevertheless, a force managed to take the first German system and was soon reinforced by the two follow-up battallions, which reached the first objective (Crucifix Trench-Round Wood) by marching close behind the artillery barrage. In 45 minutes, the 6th Brigade had advanced well to the north of Fricourt.
Support on the flanks did not materialise, due to the failure already described. To the south, the other assaulting brigade from 1st Division also failed. The defenders had not been subdued and the machine gun fire cut down the attackers as they attempted to leave their trenches. Despite this, two or three hundred men from the lead battalions reached the German front line. However, fire from Fricourt and Fricoutt Wood was too intense to allow significant process. The survivors dug in just behind the German second trench and waited for the night. While this relative success was taking place, the 10th West Yorkshire Regiment, from 50th Brigade, launched the most disastrous attack of the first day of the Somme battle. The 10th was required to advance close by Fricourt; its two lead companies captured the German front line virtually unscathed. The rearward companies were wiped out by the enemy fire, which left the forward companies on their own and had to fight their own way back to their original lines. At night fall just 21 men of the batallion returned to the British trenches. From the 750 mean who attacked, 710 became casualties, the worst battalion losses of the day.
East of Fricourt, the village of Mametz was attacked by the 2nd Division. It was a complete success. Greatly assited by the creeping barrage, its assault battalions occupied the German trenches within one minute after the barrage lifted. Other units crossed No Man’s Land close behind the barrage without suffering a single casuality. Some others, though, ran into intense German artillery bombarment and lost all cohesion. Nevertheless, nowhere the enemy resistance was enought to bring the attack to a halt and, by 13.30 pm, the southern outskirst of Mametz and been taken. By 16.00 pm Mametz was finally taken and 600 enemy soldiers surrendered. To its left, 4th Division established a strong defensive flank facing the village. At the cost of 3,100 trops, most of the objectives of the III Corps had been seized.
On the right of the attack, General Plumer's II Corps, made up by two New Army divisions attacked due north. It had two obstacles on the way: Montauban and Pommiers Redoubt, lavisly equipped with machine guns, barbed wire and dugouts. The Allied bombardment, thought, with French help, was devastating. The batteries of the two divisions defending the area were obliterated by midday of July 1st. The trenches and their defenders had also suffered heavily and the bared wire had been swept away, and many manchine guns silenced. The German defences in the area were not so strong as in other sectors, and this may have helped the success of the pre-eliminary bombarment, too.
Thus, following a primitive creeping barrage, the II Corps went forward. Even if the attack was a success, there were some failures. Some German guns had survived the onslaught and caused heavy casualties to the troops of the 53rd Brigade/18th Division as they were in their assembly trenches. In the sector of the 55th Brigade, surviving machine guns caused heavy casualties on the leading waves and brought the attack in this section to a halt. However, the 54th and a large part of the 53rd Brigade, aided by the creeping barrage, had captured the German front line shortly after 7.30 am. and kept moving. Thus, by 8.30 am they had taken Pommiers Trench and were closing on Pommiers Redoubt. By 9.30 am, the formidable Pommiers Redoubt was in British hands, which eased the pressure upon 55th Brigade, which was able to move upon their final objective (Mountauban Alley, to the north-west of the village), that was taken without further problems. All objectives on the front of 18th Division had been taken.
On the right, 7th Division achieved the greatest advance of July 1st, and at the least cost. This applied especially to 79th Brigade, which attacked alongisde the French and dashed forward to find the wire well cut and, within a minute, the German front line had fallen. By 8.30 am the final objective, Dublin Treench, south of Montauban, was in their hands. At middays the second wave troops leapfroged through them to captured the village itself. All this had been acomplished at a cost of just 24 killed. One Batallion (17 King's) had escaped a single death on July 1st.
The 21st Brigade also made progress, but with higher losses from machine gun in rear and in enfilade. In the case of one company, just 31 of 200 reached the German line. The troops took the front trench line, though and event keep advancing against an increasingly disorganised enemy-a well placed French shell had wiped out almost all of the regimental officers of a Bavarian regiment- and then began to consolidate their positions.
Montauban proved a hard nut to cruck, though. Some of the attacking units suffered much slaughter and little progress, but some others, the 30th Brigade, covered by a dense smoke screen, managed to reach the south of the village by 9.30 am. Then, at 10.30 the barrage moved on and the Brigade entered the village ten minutes later with hardly a casualty. From this position, the British could see the Germans flooding back towards the second line. At the cost of 1,600 trops, all the objectives of the II Corps had been seized.
The French offensive.
Général Bafourier XX Corps moved off at zero hour against an enemy whose barbed-wire entanglements had been largely destroyed and their trenches obliterated. Just a few defenders were capable of organizsing something resemblant to a resistance as the French infantry attacked. By 12.30 pm the XX Corps had reched their final objectives without having to call their reserves. Apparently, the Germans were in complete disarray. However, any advance was precluded as General Congreve did not wanted to advance, which would proetct the flank of Bafourir, as he had to secure the captured positions and prepare the next stage of the battle.Thus, the French had to stop their hadvance and consolidated their positions.
South of the Somme, two French corps advanced two hours after the XX Coprs and found that the bombardment had been more efective in this area that in any other part of the Allied front. The experienced French infantry made use of every crater to conceal their movements, supported by a variety of light automatic weapons to provide support. By the end of the day, the German second line was taken and 3,000 prisoners were making their way to the rear.
(1) Haig later took revenge for this "failure" on Montagu-Stuart-Wortley ("[he] is not of an age, neither has he the constitution, to allow him to be as much among his men in the front lines as is necessary to imbue all ranks with confidence and spirit") and sacked him. D'Oyly Snow was to follow short later. This time, however, due to health troubles and returned to Britain, being appointed general officer commanding Western Command. (I've accelerated this, as "Snowball", as he was also known, didn't requested to be relieved until 1917. I wasn't in the mood to wait for so long.
(2) And of Ernest Brooks, who missed the chance to take one of the most iconic images of the Great War.
(3) This time the reserve brigade received the order and was not slaughtered in No Man’s Land.
(4) Actually, that was really happened to the planification of the III Corps in OTL 1916. They used the artillery for the massive bombing needed by the breakthrough but preapred for a different kind of attack -God knows which one.
(5) What a surprise, uh?
(6) A polite way to say: We don't trust our allies, so let's bomb there, just in case, you know...
@c0d5579: There will be plenty of night battles, in due time. You'll see then why it's not always a good idea...
@Enewald: Why do you thing that there were so many poppies in the zone after 1918...?
@quaazi: Even Zapp Brannigan isn't as mad as some WW1 General in both sides...
@El Pip: That or a modernized version of the siege of Orleans.
@Nathan Madien: And if not, guess what...
@Nathan Madien (2). Indeed
@Enewald: Not really. The Somme is one of my favourite battles.
@El Pip: I was tempted to achieve the perfect battle of the Somme (British guns making a perfecto work, British Generals doing their bit in the right way and the Tommise marching unnoposed to the Rhine), but, Blighty!, I got Haig on the way!