“I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”
- Sam Sutcliffe, circa 1974 (extracted from his Memoir)
Sunday, 22 October 2017
Somme Rewind 4 of 5: July 1 and the aftermath. FootSoldierSam was there: ”Nothing was gained in our sector. Many good men were lost.”
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir* in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The infamous 2nd Battle Of Passchendaele began (October 26-November 10), the climax of the Ypres campaign launched on July 31. Presaged by a British attack around Poelcapelle (22; 13 kilometres northeast of Ypres), the three-phase Allied onslaught started with Canadian forces at the centre of British and Australian support making gains behind a creeping barrage of artillery. Most of their objectives had been reached by the time they took a planned pause (28), but the Allies had suffered more than 15,000 casualties already.
Partly by way of diversion, with Pétain acting in accordance with Haig’s repeated requests, the French instigated the Battle Of Malmaison (October 23-November 1; in the River Aisne region near Soissons), following a six-day artillery bombardment, including gas shells, with a brisk six-kilometre advance which took control of the Chemin Des Dames ridge and pressed on (25-7) to capture Pinon and Filain villages.
On the Eastern Front where the German Army had dominated the Russians for some months they suddenly “retired” – for political reasons? (I haven’t encountered any explanation) – on a 20-mile front from Riga, Latvia, to the River Dvina (October 21-2). The Russians responded by moving back to the banks of the Dvina (24). Then the German Army withdrew from the Verder Peninsula, near Riga, too (27). Enigmatic…
Down in southern Austria/northern Italy, the 12th Battle Of The Isonzo (October 24-November 19) – also known as the Battle Of Caporetto – looked like becoming the most decisive of the dozen when combined Austrian and German forces drove forward 25 kilometres on the first day, using storm troopers and gas (chlorine and phosgene). They broke the Italian lines at Caporetto, Tolmino and Piezzo and soon (26) the Italians evacuated the Bainsizza Plateau so hard won in the previous edition of the Isonzo battles. The central Powers promptly retook Gorizia (on the current Italy/Slovenia border) and, moving further west, Udine (both 28).
Meanwhile, the British Army gave advance notice of its imminent interest in another go at Gaza by raiding Outpost Hill on the edge of the city (October 26).
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield. So they told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He took up the offer, though with an enduring sense of guilt. By December, 1916, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion, along with a bunch of other under-age Tommies until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches again… An interesting year ensued – four months of blizzards, a meningitis scare, special training in various northern locations, and then a few summer weeks stomping around Yorkshire on a route march… which in due course led him to hospital again, to recover from some lurking effects of trench warfare and prepare him for more (he was 19 on July 6 while in hospital). However, I’ve had to break off from the this-week-100-years-ago Memoir excerpts because my father didn’t write enough about his year “out” to provide 52 blogs. So, through to late October, before he returns to France and the Front from December onwards, I’m revisiting his previous accounts of historic battles as seen by an ordinary front-line Tommy. With Gallipoli concluded last month, this is the fourth of five edited episodes from his sojourn on the Somme, April-late September, 1916, when Sam was 17-18… ]
Last week, my father, just promoted Corporal Sam Sutcliffe, and his new Battalion, the Kensingtons remained (often hair-raisingly) involved in the Somme Front fighting through May and into June, 1916, which preceded the notorious July 1 when the Battle Of The Somme is deemed to have begun.
Gallipoli veteran Sam, lately and lamentably deprived of the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers’ bonded comradeship when the Army disbanded that battered Battalion rather than rebuilding it, became ever more impressed with the industrial efficiency of the Western Front war – after the harumscarum experience of the peninsula. Yet his darker side wondered whether the adversaries in France had constructed a war that would never end.
His new normality included regular night-time forays into No Man’s Land and, to his surprise, quaffing cheap champagne with the NCOs at their just-behind-the-lines base in Souastre (they did most of their frontline fighting at Hébuterne, opposite German-held Gommecourt, on the north end of the Somme Front). A good crowd, apart from a Sergeant who, in the frontline, cracked up and dug a hidey-hole in the side of a trench before being “sent away”. But that got Sam reflecting ever more on the mental pressures of the battlefield.
Here he’s following up on a sentence I quoted last week, “The expected thing was to never expose one’s feelings…”
‘… [but] occasionally, a man did just that and, if charged, would be court-martialed for showing “cowardice in the face of the enemy”. Around that time, I had the unpleasant duty of being Corporal-In-Charge of a small party of men assembled to march a prisoner from the hut in which he was confined to a court martial held in a farmhouse. Having rehearsed our part in advance, we marched the poor devil in, heard the prosecution and defence, marched him out while the court deliberated, took him in to hear that he had been found guilty, the sentence to be announced in due course, and marched him out.
I assumed he would be shot – because at that time it was customary to pass from hand to hand along the front line occasional notices from Army HQ listing courts martial and their findings. So you could read that “Private So-and-So was charged with showing cowardice in the face of the enemy and sentenced to death by firing squad. The sentence was duly carried out.” Those, roughly, were the words used. The list of cases would conclude with a warning to all about behaviour and discipline. Cheerful reading for men already coping with hardships and risks – often terrible trials of self-control.
These things, so very far removed from the cheerful volunteer spirit of 1914, made those early days seem like a chapter from a different war altogether. Now it was every man for himself and if Jerry doesn’t get you, General Haig’s red tabs(1) will. As we often said, it was all right for those bastards at Army HQ about 50 miles back. With their maps, plans, and schemes, battle was probably no more than a game to them, to be played between 10-course meals.
Indeed, solid rations such as bread, butter, cheese etc, were distributed through “the usual channels”, that is, a recognised pecking order as they passed from Division Headquarters, on to the Brigade, to the Battalion and finally to us, the Company. When, in the front-line trenches, the bread allocation they gave me to share out amounted to rather a small portion per man, I found it pretty disgusting – because I was handed my own Corporal’s ration for the day separately and that was a half-loaf. I questioned this with the Sergeant controlling the distribution, but he insisted this was all correct, since those responsible for others did more work and must be maintained in a fit state to do it.’
(1) “Red tabs”: staff officers identified by red tabs on their tunic collars, based at British Army HQ – Field Marshall Haig himself occupying the Château de Beaurepaire, Montreuil-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais department, about 60 miles from the Somme Front, March/April, 1916-April, 1919.
When my father returned to the topic of the court martial to which his squad had delivered the miscreant, he wrote that he’d known the accused in Gallipoli and disliked him, but was sad to see him end this way… Except that, a few years later, he saw the man in London, looking spry:
‘So they didn’t shoot him after all. But why not? When ordered to go over the top and charge, he’d run in the wrong direction and got several kilometres rearwards before they arrested him. Perhaps courts martial did not always send men found guilty to the firing squad and the execution lists we saw on the front line were adapted to scare potential deserters?
But if the authorities thought they would improve morale by implanting fear in already frightened men, they were very much mistaken. Any man who already had doubts about the top leadership and their conduct of the war would only be discouraged from doing his best by this propaganda-through-threats.’
Last week, Sam described a stint at Halloy, about 13 miles behind the line (i.e. to the west), where they dug replicas of the British and German trenches at Hébuterne/Gommecourt and rehearsed the big attack – without opposition and, as my father “windily” noted, in plain view of any German observers lurking or flying by. But now the day they all feared was approaching, time to leave the relative peace of Souastre (long footnotes in this blog fill in the background behind Sam’s one-pair-of-eyes account – read or skip them as you prefer, of course):
‘After a spell in that village, which appeared almost remote from the perils of war although within marching distance of the Front, we were once again to return to the trenches. Information circulated one afternoon, roughly 24 hours before we must depart(2). We had been training for a few hours each day but, on our last day in this comparative little heaven, we were freed of all duties except really necessary chores.
I strolled around the village noting the utter ruin of some houses and marveling at others’ apparent immunity from damage. The place was in a valley, fairly shallow, but the ridge on the western side shielded it from direct enemy observation, so only the odd plane would see anything worth reporting. Up to that time, at any rate, it had provided a very fortunate spot for troops who rested there, savouring something of its peacefulness.
As evening approached, I felt the sadness of leaving this unexpectedly cosy haven. A final sleep on the comfortable wire netting [bed], the packing up of all our bare requirements for survival up front, and our trek westward began.
In the last three or four kilometres we slowed, for then we moved in darkness, in two files, while giving complete attention to maintaining contact with one another. The mere thought of wandering alone in that black gloom with no road or track visible, no buildings, great holes here and there usually containing a foot or two of water into which one might topple… these things kept one keenly alert, as did the knowledge that, in this new era of the conscripted soldier, trust and faith in the good intentions of one’s comrades was dead or dying, and a man wandering away from his unit, no matter under what conditions, would attract suspicions of trying to “dodge the column”.
We found the section of trenches we took over in fine condition. The Engineers had installed their “revetting with expanded metal” system quite splendidly, as well as a sump under the duckboard floor of the front trench, perfect drainage, and so superior to the old, sloppy, mud floor on which we had often slithered.
The Regiment had formed a machine-gun unit by combining all the Battalions’ heavy machine guns and their gunners under the control of a separate authority at, I understood, Brigade level. They had become a force to be reckoned with by the enemy. Well behind our machine guns lay numerous batteries of field guns which fired 18-pound shells, and still further back the heavy howitzers whose shells tore great strips out of the atmosphere as they roared towards targets in Jerry rear positions – borrowed from the Navy, some of these big guns, to back up what was going to be a massive British attack.
Above us, at most hours of the day, droned one or two planes. They patrolled the length of the line, each doing a stint of observation. If our plane altered course towards Jerry’s line, perhaps to take a closer look at something of interest, pops and white blobs of smoke up there in the sky around it would indicate enemy resentment.
Occasionally a group of ten or more of ours, flying really high, would head towards some enemy target way back, forging ahead despite all anti-aircraft fire. Only if the Jerries sent up deterrent planes would real action occur, and then the aerobatics claimed every man’s attention. We felt great sorrow if we saw one of ours hit and descending, but cheers would ring out if one of ours shot down one of theirs. Rolling, zooming, looping – every tactic was employed and appreciated by the onlookers. Our pilots sometimes used the “falling leaf“ ploy to deceive an enemy into thinking they were beaten, then a sudden recovery and upward zoom might result in a volley from below wrecking the Jerry plane.
If one of our flyers had been ordered to take a look at some development, he would make constant attempts to get the photographs he needed. I saw one such who dived repeatedly despite becoming a target for all the machine guns in the vicinity – he was flying too low for the ack-ack guns’ angle. Eventually he started to wobble, but just managed to stay airborne and pass over our heads. He bumped down a few hundred yards behind us, some men climbed out of a trench near him and, while they struggled to free him and carry him off, German artillery found the range – our men barely got back under cover before a shell wrecked the plane. Later we learned that a bullet had penetrated the floor of the plane and passed through the pilot’s thigh. He lived, and that knowledge gladdened us after witnessing his display of determination.
Each day, the number of low-flying Germans increased. They just roared over our trenches and, heading towards our rear positions, vanished from sight. They never returned, which puzzled us, until we learned they used another route well beyond visibility from our positions. We got used to these forays and so, perhaps, did the people in the rear who surely should have paid close attention to these unusual tactics…’
(2) The British Army’s Somme attack had long been planned for June 29. The order to postpone until July 1 came through on June 27. The Kensingtons, ready to move out on the 28th, remained in Souastre for another 48 hours until 8.25pm on Friday, June 30. My father’s description of the dogfights and the German observer planes must come from his memories of the whole build-up period rather than that last 24 hours before the attack. During this postponement, one extraordinary thing happened to the Kensingtons; the Brigade command replaced their Commanding Officer! On the 27th, says the WD, “Major HWH Young of (7th Batt.) Leicestershire regiment arrived with his batman”. The following day, “Temp. Lt Col WHW Young” (I don’t know whether the change of rank was the diarist’s mistake or an overnight promotion) took over as CO from Lieutenant Colonel HJ Stafford who promptly “proceeded on leave to England”. Young’s notes, attached to the Kensingtons’ WD by the National Archive, say he was rushed in by car from Étaples on the 27th – to Stafford’s astonishment. So Young went to Brigade HQ to seek an explanation. He was told the Battalion, being City boys, were “not good at digging”. Perhaps seeking a clue as to how a change of CO might effect an improvement in this area by July 1, he asked about Stafford; the Brigadier said he “knew very little” of the ousted CO – who’d led the Battalion for five months. Young writes that he found this “an extraordinary statement”. Still, of course, he had to then try to get to know his officers at least, given they’d all convene on the battlefield within two days. Whether my father forgot this change at the top or the Battalion simply wasn’t informed about it I don’t know.
Now comes my father’s account of July 1. I’ve just let it run, leaving the lengthy, explanatory footnotes to the end for those who care to look at the wider picture too.
‘On the day – which followed a period of massive bombardment of enemy positions to destroy their barbed wire defences etc – our Battalion was to occupy the ordinary front line, and our most advanced trenches where my Platoon found itself. The support trenches behind us sheltered a kilted Regiment who would come through our line to start the infantry attack, at which our men in the front trench would advance over the German front trench – by then in the hands of the Jocks – and go on to take the German support trenches. Finally, from the advance trenches, we would pass over all those people and clean up and occupy the German rear positions.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Germans easily matched our artillery bombardment for several days before our attack. Their shells passed over us, the infantry and – not that we knew it at the time – caused massive destruction to our artillery, damaging guns, and killing or wounding their crews, thus rendering our bombardment less intense than expected. The low-flying German planes must have photographed all those so carefully camouflaged guns and calculated their distances from German batteries…
Meanwhile, enemy machine guns massed at strategic points and they stood their field artillery almost wheel to wheel, or so it seemed, and the whole area became an inferno of explosions and bullets.
When the kilted lads advanced, their numbers decreased alarmingly with every forward stride. Meanwhile, our own advanced position was being blown apart piecemeal; pockets of survivors lost touch with their leadership and the nearest NCO had to make decisions… If he could only see ahead that our first line of attack was destroyed before capturing its objective, that its members lay dead and wounded on the ground ahead or grotesquely draped over the enemy barbed wire which our bombardment should have destroyed, then when should he take his small force over the top?
Some small groups did from time to time go ahead until killed, wounded and captured. Some dedicated officers achieved marvels within limits set by the powerful enemy, but in the end this massively prepared attack failed.
Nothing was gained in our sector. Many good men were lost. Many normally strong fellows were reduced to trembling, inarticulate old-looking men.
Our beautiful front line had become an uneven shallow ditch for most of its length, the expanded metal revetments either lost under piles of blasted earth or just sunk deep down in shell holes.
The wounded men who could not walk or crawl back from No Man’s Land were, in many instances, simply left there for hours following the failed attack because of the mentally and physically exhausted condition of their comrades who had survived.
I saw a Scot who, though not wounded, just sat and shook. His head nodded, his arms flailed feebly, his legs sort of throbbed, his eyes obviously saw nothing.
One of our usually most happy and physically strong men was crying non-stop while violently protesting about something. He’d been buried up to his shoulders in earth and, even in that inferno, men nearby had paused in their advance to free him, yet he had this strange grievance.
So, possibly, nervous shock afflicted everyone there to a greater or lesser degree, even though fear no longer weighed on us as earlier in the day.
Most of the survivors were stunned into near speechlessness for a time, then the strong ones initiated reorganisation with a view to resisting the enemy counter-attack which would surely follow our failure…
But Jerry must have also lost heavily in both men and morale; the German artillery gradually became less active and communication between scattered groups on our side more easy to maintain, so a front of some sort was re-established which could resist if not stop an enemy attack(3)
During the hours of darkness, we began to receive assistance from the rear – food and the occasional tot of rum, anything which could be transported forward in the awful conditions prevailing. A gradual return to usefulness replaced the varying degrees of stupor and inertia which for many were the invisible wounds following many hours of explosion and upheaval, shattering to eardrums and nerves… and ruinous to pre-conceived ideas of what should be occurring according to plans worked out in grandiose HQ châteaux many kilometres away in the rear.
Meanwhile, the work of holding positions with a proportion of survivors, and allowing small parties to search for and bring in wounded men was organised by the remaining officers and the unshakeable RSM, who won praises from everyone who chanced to be near him during the battle(4).
Our Company – such as it was now, after its brush with hell — remained in what had been the front line. By dawn, most of us were ready to stop where we stood – crouched, rather – for under cover of dark we had searched for and found many wounded men, their chances of living diminishing with every hour in which they lay exposed with wounds untended.
We felt that our work was very valuable and the joy with which injured men greeted their rescuers was reward indeed. Perhaps the failure of the massive attack had left us with a sense of guilt which the intensive rescue work relieved.
So urgent was the need for rapid recovery of the wounded, that RAMC men from hospitals and dressing stations moved forward at night, having volunteered to join the search in No Man’s Land. They gave initial treatment and care during rapid removal to the appropriate medical centre further back. All this, of course, they carried out under risk from enemy guns, a new situation for hospital workers who would only have heard the odd long-range shell or a few rare bombs from aircraft explode. So shells bursting around them while they worked did cause them some excitement. They saved many lives.
In the front line – the model for all front lines until it went up in dust and smoke – our Company had some sort of cover still, but only in places, and much work would have to be done to make it suitable for occupation. That job wasn’t ours, so we kept watch and rested through the day after the battle, in usable sections of the trench or in large holes.
We were given two or three days rest a couple of kilometres back(5) and then returned to continue clearing up the mess – the first few nights devoted to recovering our dead mates, the living wounded having by then all been rescued. The identity discs we wore now became very important; each dead man having this link with the living could be identified and his death notified and a train of events set in motion to inform his family, finalise his service record, accord him a proper burial in a known cemetery, and finally secure for his nearest relative some sort of pension. The real difficulty was in regard to those so badly mutilated no way of identifying them existed.
One discovery out in No Man’s Land deeply affected me. While working in bright moonlight on search work, I looked down into a length of communication trench in the advanced system we had helped to construct and saw the rather large face of a very good chap I had worked with for a while in Egypt. He had gone to a different Battalion from our camp near Rouen. And here he was, long dead, eyes blank, but still the features unmistakable and formerly so familiar to me. Charlie’s large face was all the more recognisable because of his large nose. The moonlight no doubt concealed the ravages of injury and exposure – perhaps the shade and coolness of the trench bottom minimised them too…
As soon as possible, I guided two of the men doing recovery work to Charlie. I recalled then, as I do now, his special qualities. He was completely honest, stubborn about things in dispute, but usually found to be right about them in the end; Cockney in speech to an extent which, on first acquaintance led one to expect illiteracy, he soon made you realise your error — he handled sending and receiving Morse Code messages better than most. In fact, before the war he’d done that kind of work on the railways, but using a machine which emitted two musical sounds, high and low, instead of dots and dashes.
Of the many men whose poor bodies we found and saw cared for that night, Charlie was the only one whom I had known well in life. He had been one of us, and thus special to us, during our first experience of Army life… Recollection of Charlie calls forth a mental picture of him walking away from me… large head, broad shoulders, sturdy trunk, strong, slightly bowed legs — more like a Frenchman than an Englishman, nothing of the Cockney about his build or his gait. Goodbye, Charlie.’
(3) Something odd struck me, as maybe it strikes you, about my father’s account of July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle Of The Somme; it’s as if he’s not a participant, but a remote observer. This is very different to the way he writes about other battlefields – in Gallipoli earlier, and subsequent experiences on the Western Front, including his front-line account of fighting against the German Spring Offensive around Arras in March, 1918.
When he wrote his story, back in the 1970s, and I first read it, section by section, at his request querying anything I didn’t understand, one of my questions – I still have the handwritten sheets – was “[Writing about the Somme] you cover the general situation but, for once, don’t say what was happening to you – were you in the… advanced trench throughout and therefore a ‘spectator’?… you get personal again in the aftermath, recovering bodies etc, but there is this notable blank on what you were doing at the peak of the action…” He didn’t answer that question; but then he didn’t answer any of the other far more banal questions on that sheet either and I simply don’t know why not. So my speculation runs from “he just didn’t see that sheet of questions for some reason, to the events of that day so shook him that his usual total-recall memory registered very little bar broken fragments”, to “he did remember but it was so terrible he couldn’t bring himself to write down much of it”, to “he felt guilty that he could do nothing/did nothing to help his comrades”.
Knowing him, his strength, his capacity for bitterly candid self-criticism, and considering the one reference he made to “guilt” in writing this passage, in the Endnotes to the first edition of the Memoir I made what I called “a strong guess… that he and his Platoon, like others I’ve read about elsewhere, got stuck in their trench, cut off, no orders coming through, and never moved, just watched the carnage and tried to live through it – hence, the remote onlooker point of view”. Since then, the Kensingtons’ WD and Alan MacDonald’s Pro Patria Mori: The 56th (1st London) Division At Gommecourt (Iona) have put factual flesh on those bones so I’ll add here some detailed information/probabilities about what happened to my father on that day…
His A Company, marching Platoon by Platoon at two-minute intervals to minimise shell casualties, led the Battalion from Souastre via the Brigade “equipping dump” at Bayencourt (three kilometres due south, where they gathered ammunition, grenades and picks) to Hébuterne where they arrived at 12.05am on July 1. His Company moved into front-line trenches designated W47 and W47S facing Gommecourt. The 1/14th London Scottish (my father’s “kilted lads”) had reached their positions to the Kensingtons’ left at 11pm, June 30.
At 2.45pm the German artillery began a massive bombardment, wrecking trenches and killing men, to which the British did not respond until the pre-planned time, 6.25am. An hour later, says the WD, “our smoke started” – cover for an infantry advance – and the German barrage resumed maximum intensity. The London Scottish charged out into this maelstrom on schedule at 7.50am. Company A were supposed to follow up soon after with digging parties to construct a new trench through No Man’s Land to the supposedly captured German front line – which the Scots had actually achieved, at terrible cost. But the Kensingtons’ new CO, Colonel Young, asked Brigade’s permission to hold his men back because the German artillery made static work in No Man’s Land suicidally impossible –Brigade agreed, so my father and his comrades remained in their crumbling trench.
However, at 9am an A Company Platoon (not my father’s, I gather) did attempt a race through the smoke, shells and machine-gun fire to resupply the London Scottish with ammunition and grenades (“bombs” the infantry called them back then). The WD says they “disappeared” – not quite as stark as it seems, meaning they couldn’t get any message back rather than that they had all died. By 11.30am A Company was still sending parties across no Man’s Land with supplies for the London Scottish; it would take an hour to cover the 400 metres separating the lines, with heavy casualties suffered (I don’t know whether my father was one of the few men sent out in this way who actually made the return journey too; quite probably not, given the sense of grievous impotence his few words carry).
Pro Patria Mori summarises that by 1pm A Company’s CO Major Cedric Charles Dickens (grandson of the great novelist, killed at Bouleaux Wood on the Somme Front, September 9, 1916) had “spent 6 hours watching the trenches destroyed and his men maimed and killed by the thunderous bombardment of the German howitzers”; accordingly, he sent a message to Kensingtons HQ reading, “Shelling fearful. Trench practically untenable, full of dead and wounded. Very few men indeed left. Must have instructions and assistance.” He got no reply. Author MacDonald adds: “And it was under this ferocious bombardment that the Kensingtons were forced to stand, wait and suffer. Their frustration was intense… The bulk of their dead and wounded were being caused by an enemy they could not see, let alone reach. Somewhere, a few thousand metres behind some low hills to the east, teams of German gunners were pouring a continuous rain of high explosive onto the heads of the Kensingtons.”
At 1.35pm, Dickens sent another messenger back to HQ reporting he had about 50 men of A and C Companies in trenches W47 and W47S (including my father still). Colonel Young sent what he had left, as recorded in his own notes: “party of Signallers, servants and minor shell-shock cases collected and sent with Capt Harris” (Harris and his men didn’t connect with Dickens, but did end up in another part of the front line and assist in its defence).
At 3pm, another runner conveyed Dickens’s final message, quoted by MacDonald: “I have, as far as I can find, only 13 left beside myself. Trenches unrecognisable. Quite impossible to hold. Bombardment fearful for last two hours. I am the only officer left. Please send instructions.” The instruction was to withdraw and his group (by then probably not including my father who, I deduce, remained in the front line; see below) reached HQ in the reserve line 45 minutes later.
At 5.30 or 6pm the bombardment ceased on both sides. MacDonald writes: “Across the fields and in the shattered remains of the trenches on both sides of No Man’s land, hundreds of men lay wounded and dying. In their agony they now filled the air with their shrieks and moans.”
(4) Most of the remnants of the Kensingtons had straggled back to Hébuterne on the evening of July 1, and then, says the WD, around 9pm, the 1/8th Middlesex relieved them in the W Sector trenches, whereupon they “walked” (not marched) back to Sailly-au-Bois (3.4 kilometres west of Hébuterne) where they had to spend the night… in another trench. But my father clearly describes how, along with some others from A Company, he spent the first night after the catastrophe, and most of the day too, on the battlefield and, chiefly, in No Man’s Land before catching up with the Battalion. Well, not hard to imagine that in this particular “fog of war” the survivors pretty much made it up as they went along – and they obviously wanted to do something useful, even make amends, having been able to do little more than survive the day through sheer luck while many of their comrades fell wounded or dead.
The Kensingtons’ WD states that 24 officers and 525 ORs (Other Ranks) who went into battle and the casualty count (dead and wounded) was 17 officers and 310 OR (59% casualty rate). Pro Patria Mori adds that the London Scottish casualties numbered 14 officers, 575 ORs and 15 Medics (77%), the neighbouring Rangers (1/12th London) 17 officers, 447 ORs (58%), and 1/4th City Of Londons (Royal Fusiliers) 16 officers, 344 ORs (58%).
Incidentally, it’s a shame my father never named “the unshakeable RSM” – I can’t find any reference to him in the WD or Pro Patria Mori.
(5) On July 2 the Kensingtons moved back from Sailly to tents then billets in Souastre. Possibly they conducted their nightly searches for the dead – including Sam’s friend Charlie – in front of Foncquevillers (“Funky Villas”, 5.3 kilometres west of Souastre, 2.9 kilometres north of Hébuterne).
My father was 18 on July 6, 1916 – probably around the day he found Charlie. In the Memoir he makes no mention of his birthday.
All the best – FSS
Next week: Somme Rewind 5 of 5: Sam says “The stench of war was really beginning to get up my nose” – in the aftermath of the British Army’s notorious “worst day” he finally wangles his first home leave for 18 months (thanks to Lloyd George!), survives further scraps as the Kensingtons move south on the Somme Front until finally… the Army realises he’s still legally too young for the battlefield and offers him the chance of a break…
* In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.