On the Eve of the Somme

The Norfolk Regiment Battalions

30th June 1916

Sidney Smith0004

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.

smeall

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.

Schwaben

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.

IMG_4088

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.

Wiltshires

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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