On the Eve of the Somme

The Norfolk Regiment Battalions

30th June 1916

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2nd Lieutenant Sidney Smith, believed to be the officer sat 2nd right, who served in the 7th Battalion Norfolk Regiment.

Tomorrow marks the 100th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of Somme.

On 26th May 1916 Lieutenant Sidney Smith, who was serving in the 7/Norfolks, wrote to Edwin Winch the Chief Constable of Norwich City Police. In the letter he noted,

‘I am now about 28 miles from the firing line. I can hear the roars of cannon. …wherever you go you see camp after camp full of troops but I think they will be wanted and practically every man in England to end the war.’

Certainly Lieutenant Smith was correct when he noted that the troops in France in Flanders would be wanted.

1916 started as a year of optimism for the allies. They had hoped to launch simultaneous offensives from three sides in a bid for victory over Germany and her allies. The mistakes made in 1915 were not to be made in 1916. However, this was shattered when the Germans struck first when they launched an offensive at Verdun in the French sector.

French was replaced by Douglas Haig in December of 1915. He was a distinguished cavalry officer and had commanded an infantry corps in 1914 and then had become an army commander in 1915. He was also a devout churchgoer and believed he had God on his side. His first job was an instruction given by the British government that he must plan for an offensive. The plan called for the British army to relieve the French at Verdun, to inflict heavy casualties on the Germans and to put the British Army in a favourable position for victory in 1917. The 4th Army, under the command of General Sir Henry Rawlinson, was given this task.

This would be achieved by attacking the German trenches along an 18-mile front and would involve 120,000 men. The main thrust would come between Montauban in the south, cutting through the old Roman road from Albert to Bapaume and then moving north through the River Ancre ending where the British lines faced the Germans at Serre. Haig also ordered the commanders of the 1st and 2nd armies to mount threatening moves against the Germans. This would keep the Germans guessing as to where the main attack would come from. Finally, the 3rd Army’s commander, General Sir Edmund Allenby, would attack Gommecourt to the north of the 4th Army in a diversionary attack.

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An Official History map depicting the front-line for 1st July 1916.

Once a breakthrough had been achieved three cavalry divisions under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Hubert Gough would break out with infantry divisions held at the rear and exploit the 4th Army’s success, taking the German second and third lines in one great push.

All this was to be aided by a massive artillery bombardment. This would last for five days and nights before the attack. Every available artillery piece would be used for this. It was believed that this bombardment would wipe out the Germans. The plan devised that the German barbed wire be destroyed and the German trenches caved in and their strong points smashed. With this achieved the German defenders would be too stunned to fight leaving the infantry to mop up the survivors. They would then outnumber the defenders by seven to one. It would be easy to cross no mans land and take the German defences all the way to the French town of Bapaume. The bombardment would also continue after the initial attack. As the infantry advanced on the first German trench line the bombardment would move onto the next one.

Unfortunately, it would not be as simple as all this.

By 1916 Haig was not satisfied with his predicament. He had preferred to have time to plan the British offensive with the French fighting alongside, which had been set for August of 1916. Although the French would attack on the right of the British, it would only be along an eight-mile front with seven divisions and not the forty that had been promised before Verdun. He was also under enormous pressure to attack as soon as possible and he had confided in his commanders that he did not expect victory in 1916.

This region of France is named after the River Somme and the department the river is located in. The British sector lay in the extreme northeast corner and the river actually flowed through the French sector of the battlefield. Before the arrival of the British in July in 1915, the Somme had always been considered a quiet sector of the front.

In 1916 that all changed. The British high command held the firm belief that there should be no cushy areas within their sector. They organised night patrols to attack the German defences and to take prisoners, thereby keeping the Germans on their toes. This filled the Germans with resolve and they strengthened their trench systems.

Using the ‘defence in depth’ method this meant a series of front line, second line and third line trenches. All interspersed with machine gun posts and barbed wire. In total, this meant that they built up to four reserve trenches behind their front-line. All the trenches were then tied into nine fortified villages and specially erected redoubts.Much of this had been learnt in 1915 when the French had attacked German positions at Serre. The whole sector had learnt from this and had bolstered their defences.

All these areas had woods linked to them and the whole area was laced with machine gun posts, some 1000 of them. These had the firepower to put out 500 rounds a minute and were the equivalent of 40 soldiers firing in unison.

They also differed from their British counterparts in the way the trenches were constructed building their trenches in well-drained soil. In fact, the whole area is chalk down land meaning that ditches did not have to be dug for drainage and the whole area is covered with rich soil. The area is very open and there are no hedgerows to speak of. The British trenches were poor in comparison. Some of the German dugouts went down as far as 40 feet in depth. They had electricity, water, ventilation and were well constructed. These dugouts and often had two to three entrances and exits. The Germans also held the high ground all along the Somme allowing them the luxury of being able to look over their British counterparts. This would also have a deciding factor on what was to come.

On the 24th June 1916 the largest bombardment of the war so far started. There were no shortages of shells as there had been in the battles fought in 1915. For every 50 feet of earth there was one gun placed pointing towards the German line. The British gunners would fire more shells in the bombardment, in one week, than had been fired in the first year of the war.

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Shells landing on the Schwaben Redoubt on 1st July 1916. IWM Image Q11.

The bombardment had a strict regime. Every morning would pour fire on the Germans for 80 minutes seeing every gun-firing non-stop. The bombardment would then continue all day. At dusk half the guns would fall silent and heavy machine guns would take their place to harass the German rear. The Germans were surprised by this immense bombardment. But, for the most part, they remained safe in their deep dugouts with only single sentries on duty to warn of attack.

More importantly and alarmingly, the shells designed to destroy their dugouts and wire had many failings. The ammunition designed to destroy the German wire was not doing its’ job. These shells were filled with shrapnel balls. They had to have the fuse set just right. If it were too short it would explode harmlessly over the wire, if it were set late the shell would hit the ground and the earth would take the impact.

The shells designed to destroy the German dugouts were equally inadequate. Alarmingly the British did not possess enough big guns with which to do this and the ammunition stored for the attack had been rushed through the factories. This had resulted in up to one third of the shells being duds. This enormous barrage could be heard as far away as England and in one week the British guns fired 1,508,652 shells.

The Germans, deep in their dugouts, knew that an attack was imminent, but when?

A young German private kept a diary of the barrage in his sector. It shows that apart form the terrible noise most of the German soldiers were safe.

‘10 0’clock Veritable Trommelfeur (Drumfire). In twelve hours they estimate that 60,000 shells have fallen on our battalion sector. When will they attack? Tomorrow, the day after? Who knows?’‘It is night. Shall I live till morning? Haven’t we had enough of this frightful horror? Five days and five nights now this hell concert has lasted. One’s head is like a madman’s; the tongue sticks to the roof of the mouth. Almost nothing to eat and nothing to drink. No sleep. All contact with the outer world cut off. No sign of life from home nor can we send any news to our loved ones. What anxiety they must feel about us. How long is this going to last?’

Private Eversmann, 143rd Regiment of Infantry (Killed on the first day of the Somme).

Many commanders were ordered to send out parties into no-man’s land to report on the progress of the bombardment. These reports varied and many led the high command into false optimism.

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Herbert Cooper from Worstead.

Evidence of the ferocity of this bombardment can be found in a letter written by Herbert Cooper from Worstead who was serving in the 8th Battalion Norfolk Regiment. He wrote to his sister on 26th June 1916.

Dear Sister,

I now write a few lines in answer to your letter. Hope they will find you and the boys quite well, me being the same just now. You must excuse paper and bad writing as we are in the midst of a terrific bombardment, no doubt it’s heaven in Blighty.

By now what’s taking place all along the line looks impossible for anything to live through this lot but no doubt some of us will see it to the end if we are lucky.

Well, I got the photo of the little boys all right, they are just taken so very grand, I don’t think anymore. I hope you have heard something of George by this time, I haven’t. Well I must finish this letter rather quick as nearly impossible to write at all with so much explosion going on all around you everywhere, it’s enough to drive us all off our senses.

Now I will close with love to all.

From Brother John
XXXXXXXXXX

I’ve never seen anything of you husband although I know he’s so very far from where we are.

This furious tirade of shells must have been quite heartening to the men who were there in the front lines to witness it.

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Troops of the Wiltshire Regiment waving their helmets as they march along the Acheux road to the trenches, 28th June 1916. IWM Image Q 740

I will be posting a number of blogs about this on 1st July 2016. But before I finish this blog I will document where each battalion of the Norfolk Regiment who were serving on the Western Front was positioned prior to this battle.

The 1/Norfolks who were part of the of the 15th Brigade of the 5th Division were at Wailly near Arras and were about to go into the line there.

The 7/Norfolks who were part of 35th Brigade in 12th (Eastern) Division were at Franvillers prior to moving to Henencourt where they would be in when the battle started.

The 8/Norfolks had spent much of their time in the area that they would eventually fight in. They were part of the 53rd Brigade part of the 18th (Eastern) Division and this division would have a very long and prestigious career on the Western Front. As noted in Herbert’s letter they were in front-line trenches facing the German strong-point at Montauban. They were due to go over the top on 1st July 1916 and we will look at them on 1st July 2016.

The 9/Norfolks were part of the 71st Brigade in the 6th Division and were supplying a working party of 8 officers and 400 men for a working party around Camp K near Ypres.

By the end of the campaign in November 1916 all of them would have fought there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A 100th Anniversary Blog (Following Footsteps)

The 8th Battalion Buffs at Ploegsteert

28th June 1916

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Victor George Le Feaver and Edward James Williams now lie in the Berks Cemetery Extension and who were both killed in action during a trench raid on 28th June 1916.

After the Battle of Loos my Great Grandfather’s Regiment, the 8th Battalion Buffs, had spent most of their time around La Panne and around Ypres.

Eventually they would end up going in and out of the line around Ploegsteert Wood, which had earned the nickname ‘Plugstreet’ by the troops who first took up residence there.

This area was generally considered a quiet area by Western Front standards and was used to train inexperienced troops or to put in units who had suffered terrible casualties to recover their losses.

On 23rd May 1916 the war diary records the first inkling that the battalion would be carrying out an operation to infiltrate the enemy’s trenches.

‘Colonel Lucas was informed by the 17 I.B. that we were to make a raid with a party of 2 officers and 50 men on enemy’s trenches during one week in June.’

Trench Raid

A trench map of the area where elements of the 8/Buffs would carry out a trench raid on 28th June 1916. The raid went in at the road to the left of the position known as Back Shed.

Trench raids were an integral part of trench warfare and were carried out all through the war. However, they could have dire consequences for the men who faced each other across no-man’s land. They evolved in 1915 and were popular with the high command that would send orders down the line to carry them out.

Depending on the unit who was carrying them out depended on how successful they could be but where you were could also have a bearing on them. Many units, friend and foe, operated a ‘live and let live’ policy. So in those sectors that were considered quiet it could be to the detriment of living a cushy life if you launched one. In a book written by the historian Tony Ashworth, who has studied this type of warfare, one veteran put it like this.

‘If the British shelled the Germans, the Germans replied, and the damage was equal; if the Germans bombed an advanced piece of trench and killed five Englishmen, an answering fusillade killed five Germans.’

From Trench Warfare 1914 – 1918 by Tony Ashworth

For other units who wanted to be recognised as elite regiments the trench raid was one way of showing their commanders that they were eager to engage the enemy and promotion could quickly follow for officers who led them, this type of officer is what Tony Ashworth has termed ‘Thrusters’. Men who went on them were often trained and therefore spent time away from the line and were given extra rations so there were perks to going on them.

They were planned and implemented for a number of reasons but the main ones were to capture prisoners or to gather intelligence. However, they were also used to keep the enemy on his toes and darkness would often be a time of fear for both sides as they tried to guard against them. For the attacker it was a time of abject fear as they attempted to infiltrate the enemy’s lines without being spotted and many of the raids ended in failure before they even got within sight of a trench. As already stated they often incited the enemy to punish their attackers and it was not uncommon for both sides to launch a retaliatory raid to restore their honour or to exact revenge.

There is no operation order present in the war diary to state how this was planned and for what reason. However, it is almost certainly to gather intelligence and to capture prisoners. Therefore, for the rest of May and the first part of June B’ Company along with other men from the 8/Buffs as well as supporting units such as the signallers from the battalion trained for the raid.

However, as the war moved into June 1916 and prior to the day the that the raid was launched the Germans decided to attack the British lines with gas. This occurred on 17th June 1916 and the first inkling that something was happening was when an alert for gas went up.

The Buffs official history had this to say about this attack:

‘On 17th June, about midnight, there arose a cry of ‘gas’ and the S.O.S. signal went up from the Royal Fusiliers who were on the left of the Buffs and, almost at once, a brisk bombardment broke on our front-line. The gas itself arrived three to four minutes after the warning and lasted half an hour. However, it missed our companies in the front line, but spread somewhat over the reserve companies in the front-line, but spread somewhat over the reserves and headquarters.’

Luckily this attack did not amount to a full scale assault and the Buffs only had two men slightly gassed. On 22nd June the main part of the battalion moved from Bulford Camp, via Bailleul, to St Jeans Capelle where they were billeted in farms. However, the raiding party of 2 officers and 100 men were left at Petit Pont Farm to continue practising the raid which they continued to do up to 27th June.

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The position where the 8/Buffs infiltrated the German Line. This is looking at the position towards the German line and Back Shed would have been in the field on the left.

Then, on 28th June 1916, the raid went in. The Buffs official history stating:

‘On the 28th June, then, a detachment of the Buffs under Lieuts. Anderson and temple, to prove the value of the rehearsals, carried out a raid on the German trenches at a point known as the Ash Road Barrier, which is near Ploegsteert. The men moved out in two parties so as to be in a position outside our wire at 11.31 p.m., at which moment an intense bombardment commenced, directed on the points to be assaulted. Under cover of this the men crept forward, the guns lifting fifty yards at a time. Unfortunately the thing failed as a surprise, but Anderson’s party succeeded in entering the enemy’s front-line trench and then, after a bomb engagement, the raiding party withdrew successfully, bringing back with them all their wounded and some much treasured trophies for the folks at home. The left party found the enemy’s wire in front of them still uncut and it withdrew when the recall signal sounded leaving one dead man. Lieut. Hall commanded the covering party, and Captain C.D. Gullick the whole operation. Three officers and a hundred men went over the top. Four men were killed and twenty wounded, and it is possible that the German loss was about the same.’

This account, as well as the reports in the war diary, conflict what actually happened in relation to the men killed. However, it can be ascertained by other means that the 8/Buffs lost three men killed that night. They were Private, G/9134, Victor George Le Feaver, aged 22, the son of John and Ellen E. Le Feaver, of Stile Bridge, Marden, Kent. Private, G/5421, Charles Mann was the husband of Florence Mann, of No 1 Row, 102 King Street, Great Yarmouth. So even though this blog relates to my Great Grandfather’s regiment we can link this story to Norfolk as well.

The final soldier to be killed was Private, G/4178, Edward James Williams who was the son of Rose Ellen Williams, of 5, Primrose Hill, Beach Street, Deal. Both Le Feaver and Williams now lie in the Berks Cemetery Extension but Mann has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate.

This is probably due to the fact that the after action reports that one man was shot when he shone a torch into a dugout. Mann’s body would not have been picked up by his comrades and so would have been buried by the Germans. Le Feaver had been in Flanders roughly the same amount of time as Walter and his service record survived the Blitz so we know he landed in France on 19th May 1915. Williams had served since 25th November 1914 and Mann since September 1915. His service record also survived and he also left a daughter who was almost two.

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One of the panels that commemorate the men from the Buffs who fell in the Ypres Salient which includes Charles Mann from Great Yarmouth.

After this the 8/Buffs, along with the rest of the 24th Division, headed towards the Somme where they would see action in August 1916 and we will look at their experience in that month.

Norfolk Pals

The Raising of the Norwich City Royal Engineer Field Companies

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The officers of the 34th Division Royal Engineer Companies.

Three Royal Engineer Field Companies were formed by the Lord Mayor of Norwich, John Gordon-Munn M.D., in February 1915. These were the 207th, 208th and 209th Field Companies. These companies came under the overall command of Colonel A C McDonnell

They are rightly 3 ‘Pals’ units and evidence shows that many men joined up together to serve in them. The prime example of this is seven police officers from Norwich City Police. These were William Thomas Green, Harry Hazel, William Jinks and Herbert James Whitehand, William Sawford Andrews, Henry Crisp and Arthur Bell. All of them initially served in the 208 Field Company.

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A recruitment poster which asked for certain trades for the Norwich City Royal Engineer Field Companies.

We can ascertain this because, first of all their service numbers were between 85503 and 85666. These service numbers were sequential you can see that they are just 47 digits apart between Jinks & Hazel joining up. Perhaps spurred on by these men joining up three other police officers from Norwich City Police joined the 208th Field Company. On 8th June 1915 William Sawford Andrew enlisted, being given the service number 85549 and on 14th July 1915 Henry Crisp joined up with his service number being 85595. Finally Arthur Bell enlisted on 14th August 1915 being given the service number 85666. The most important piece of evidence that we have for all of this are the Norwich City Police Records which are now held in the Norfolk Constabulary archives which record the exact date they all joined up on.

Moving away from the police element of this story we now come to a man from my village, Worstead. He also joined up at that time and made friends with two others. This was Henry Scott who was given the service number of 84958. His friend George Shepherd was given the number 85029 and Samuel Nash, a Cabinet Maker who is recorded on the 1911 Census as living with his wife Mary at 9 Winter Road in Norwich, was given the number 85060. So again their numbers are quite close together.

Lastly we have 85704 Albert Statham. Albert had served as a pre-war Norfolk Regiment Territorial and had served in the 1/4th Battalion. But he chose to join the newly formed Royal Engineers units and would go on to serve as a Signaller. This was more than likely because he was working as a Postman and is recorded as living at 49 Havelock Road in Norwich.

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Albert Statham seen whilst on active service with the 34th Signal Company.

The three field companies would go onto serve with the ill-fated 34th Division and by 15th January 1916, the whole of the division were in France. Their first experience of battle was terrible and we will look at that on 1st July 2016.

The Norfolks in Essex Farm

A Norfolk Regiment Centenary Tale

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The graves of Alfred Knights and William Mason who are laid to rest side by side in Essex Farm.

Within a well trodden cemetery on the outskirts of Ypres there are three men who now lie ‘In Flanders Fields’.

If you visit Essex Farm Cemetery you will almost certainly visit Private Valentine Joe Strudwick, perhaps the most famous underage soldier to come out of WW1 who was 15 when he was killed in action on 14th January 1915.

You will definitely visit the Advanced Dressing Station next to the cemetery where John McCrae wrote his famous ‘In Flanders Fields’ poem. And perhaps you will stop by the Victoria Cross holder, Thomas Barratt of the 7th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment, who was awarded his VC posthumously for supporting a patrol in no man’s land by killing enemy snipers and covering the retirement of the patrol. Tragically soon after reaching safety he was killed by shell-fire, he was 22 years old.

But what about the stories of other men who are now laid to rest? Perhaps you would like to visit three others?

Essex Farm was located on the western end of Bridge No 4, which crossed the Ypres-Yser Canal, to reach the ADS. Here in June 1916 two men who served in the Norfolk Regiment were evacuated to the ADS where they died. Another man, almost a year later, was also laid to rest here in June 1917.

Private 16393 Alfred John Knights was born at Lakenham on 15th December 1893. He was educated at Carrow School and he is listed as living at 6 Cozens Road in Norwich working as a Labourer in a printing works in the 1911 Census.

He enlisted at Haverfordwest in Wales on 11th November 1914 joining the 9th Battalion and went across to France on 14th October 1915 as one of the replacements for losses the battalion had incurred at the Battle of Loos. Alfred was 22 when he was killed and was the son of Arthur and Emma Jane Knights.

Laid next to Alfred is Private 14850 William Mason who was born at St. James in Norwich and who enlisted in Norwich. Looking at the 1911 Census this is most likely William Edmund Mason who was born in 1882 and who lived at 37 Leonard Street in Norwich where he worked as a Bricklayer. William initially served with the 7th Battalion when he landed in France on 30th May 1915 but must have been sent to the 9th Battalion some time after it landed in France on 31st August 1915. William was the son of Abnor and Lucy Mason and was 34 when he was killed.

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Alfred Knights

On the night that Alfred and William were killed the battalion provided 17 officers and 565 other ranks for working parties. The war diary records that both were killed on 1st June 1916 although Alfred is listed as having been killed in action on 2nd June.

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The 9th Battalion’s war diary for June 1916.

The third Norfolk Regiment man is Sergeant 12719 Eli Theodore Cox who was the son of Mrs. E. Cox of Red Cottage at Greenfield near Ampthill in Bedfordshire. He was more than likely one of the large number of men from outside Norfolk who were sent to the battalion in August 1914 to make up the numbers. Certainly the fact that he enlisted at St Paul’s Churchyard on 28th August 1914 and was in Norwich on 29th August suggests this was so. He landed in France on 30th May 1915.

The 7th Norfolks were not in the Ypres Salient when Eli was killed in action on the night of the 9th/10th June 1917. They were positioned around Verquin. So how did he end up in Essex Farm? Luckily his service record survived WW2 and it notes that at the time of his death he was attached to the 173rd Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. A letter dated 3rd July 1917 confirms he was attached to that unit when killed. Eli was 23 when he died. The service record records that he died from a gunshot wound to the head.

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The letter confirming Eli Cox was serving in the 173rd Tunnelling Company when he was killed.

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Eli Theodore Cox’s grave in Essex Farm.

So June 1st 2016 marks the Centenary of the death of Alfred and William and I also thought it fitting that we also remember Eli’s passing on this day as well. Alfred and William are buried in graves II. T. 15 and 16 and Eli is now laid to rest in grave II. V. 11.

So if you do go to Flanders Fields and visit Essex Farm perhaps you could stop by and say hello to Alfred, Eli and William?