The 8th Battalion Norfolk Regiment
1st July 1916
On 1st July 1916 the 18th (Eastern) Division and the 30th Division had the task of taking the village of Montauban. One of the men on the Worstead war memorial was killed in action on this day.
John Henry Roper was born in 1894 and was the son of Edwin and Mary Roper of Briggate. He also had a brother, Edwin (Junior), and four sisters, Dorothy, Annie, Jane and Evelyn. John is listed as a farm labourer in 1911.
At ‘Zero Hour’, the first Norfolk Regiment battalion to see action on the Somme, the 8/Norfolks, listed that they were positioned with the 7/Queens on their right and the 6th Royal Berkshire Regiment on their left. This is incorrect. To their right were half of B Company from the 7th Battalion the Buffs (East Kent Regiment) and then the 7th Queens Royal West Surrey Regiment. These battalions faced the German line opposite trenches known as Breslau and Mine.
To the right of the 7/Queens was the 8th East Surrey Regiment and a famous event that occurred with them is looked at in another blog.
But a lot of things happened in this one small area of the Somme front-line and we need to cover the initial phase first.
The 8/Norfolks were positioned astride the Carnoy/Montauban Road situated to the north west of Carnoy. To their right this area, which can still be seen today, can be made out by using a tree line, which is now recorded as ‘La Longue Haie’ (The Long Hedge) on a modern day French IGN map. On a trench map from 1916 this is registered as ‘Talus Boise’ (Timber Slope).
The first thing that happened in this area was that, at 07.28hrs, a mine was fired under a German position known as Casino Point and 2 smaller explosive charges, known as ‘Russian Saps’ also at the western end of the 18th Division’s area where it was known there were machine guns sited to fire on the flanks of the advancing troops.
Both the mines assisted the advancing troops, but they had not killed all the Germans in the garrison and this held up the advance of the 7/Buffs, 7/Queens and 7/Royal West Kents who lost many men as the Germans were able to pour fire into them. The Germans were also able to man their first support trench, which became their front-line and ensured that the trenches to the rear of this position were also manned. This meant that as the British barrage lifted there were around 300 Germans who were able to defend the area, but fortunately the German’s artillery was not able to pour heavy fire onto the area.
The explosion of the Casino Point mine had helped their advance where they along with the 6/Royal Berkshires had been able to advance and capture many German prisoners who had come out into no-man’s land. The war diary mentions that all resistance was ‘…cowed and at once surrendered. C Company on our right took around 30 prisoners from the west edge of the Mine craters.’
By 0740hrs Mine Support had fallen and the battalion had been lucky in that it had suffered no casualties at this point. Bund support fell at 0800hrs. They only met resistance at a place called ‘The Castle’ and Breslau Support Trench, which held the advancing Norfolks to their right.
‘The two assaulting companies on leaving BUND SUPPORT came under very heavy enfilade machine gun fire from the direction of BRESLAU SUPPORT and BACK TRENCH and suffered heavily, Captain B.P. AYRE being killed and Captain J.H. HALL being seriously wounded… There now remained no officer with the left leading company and two subalterns in the right leading company, which were reduced to about 90 and 100 respectively.’
However, the lead troops, under CSM A.F. Raven, made good progress and found the wire cut and the Castle soon surrendered leaving Breslau Support and Back trench to resist. But the 8/Norfolks continued onward making for their next objective, which was called Pommiers Redoubt. Although they were checked by three German machine guns these were soon silenced or seen to retreat when a bombing party managed to surprise and rush one of the crews.
By 0750hrs the 8/Norfolks had captured part of Pommiers Trench. However it was here that they could advance no further due to enemy fire from Breslau Support. ‘…a platoon from the Support Company, under 2nd Lieut G.E. Miall-Smith, and the Battalion Bombers, under Sergeant H.H. West had also been sent up to this point, this strong point fell and the garrison of 150 Germans and 2 Officers of a Bavarian regiment surrendered, and right leading company was then able to push forward in to the East portion of Pommiers Trench which up to then had not been taken.’
By now the other brigades in the 18th Division had either captured, or was close to capturing all their first objectives and the battalion then consolidated their position. They could not assist the 6/Berkshires in the capture of a position called THE LOOP and ‘B’ Company went assist ‘C’ Company. It was only until supporting elements of the 18th Division and the advance in Montauban by the 30th Division had cleared most of the German resistance that the 8/Norfolks could assist in the capture of the Loop which happened at 1500hrs when ‘B’ Company took this position allowing ‘C’ and ‘D’ to advance to Montauban Alley.
‘Owing to machine guns firing from this line and from N.W. of Montauban ‘D’ Company on the left suffered heavy casualties, and ‘C’ Company, led by 2nd Lieut J.H. Attenborough made repeated attempts to get into Montauban Alley, but did not succeed until a bombing party, under 2nd Lieut L.A. Gundry-White, gained an entrance by way of Loop Trench on the left. Unfortunately, just before this had been affected, 2nd Lieut J.H. Attenborough with C.S.M. J. Coe had both been killed in an attempt to get into this trench.’
John Haddon Attenborough was 24 and the son of the late George William and Elizabeth Sarah Attenborough, of South Ockendon, Essex and Jeremiah Coe came from West Lexham, both have no known grave and are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme.
But The advance of the 18th Division, along with the 7th and 30th Divisions to their left and right respectively cannot be underestimated. Their advances would pave the way for what was to come in the next few days and the Official History of the Great War makes particular note of the 18th and 30th Divisions.
‘As a result of the successes of the 30th and 18th Divisions, XIII. Corps had driven the Germans from the entire sector of the Alley was captured and the 8/Norfolks managed to make contact with the 7/Queens on their right and the 6/Royal Berkshires on their left. By now ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies were down to 70 and 80 other ranks with one officer in overall charge of them and ‘B’ company was sent up to support them. Montauban Ridge, allotted to it as the objective in the first phase of the battle. The corps attributed the success of its divisions to their training in open warfare; to thorough “mopping up”, so that no Germans sprang up behind the lines so shoot the attackers in the back; and to the preliminary ascertainment, by feints of where the German barrages would fall, and rapid movement of the troops over the belts of ground involved.’
But this all came at a high price and both divisions lost over 6,000 men killed or wounded on the first day. What is even more tragic is that from 07.30 to 08.30, in just one hour, the British Army sustained over 30,000 casualties. A great majority of these lay in no-man’s land with no real hope of being rescued, or tended to by medics, and many died of their wounds. By the end of the first day nearly 60,000 men had died or were wounded, a total of 20,000 were either killed outright, or died of their wounds. One of these men was John Roper.
I hold a record of part of his service history and that states that he died in the German trenches north of Carnoy. This further lists that he was originally buried in a position 2 1/4 miles north east of Carnoy, 2 1/4 miles south of Fricourt and 5 1/2 miles south east of Albert. Tragically, his grave was never located after the war and he’s now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
The medical services were pushed to full stretch in a very short space of time. The medics could only cope with 9,500 wounded men at a time but by nightfall they had had to deal with 10,000 cases and another 22,000 were on the way. The reason for this was that there was not enough ambulance trains to evacuate the wounded and many men who might have been treated, had they been evacuated, simply died in the open at casualty clearing stations with no medical aid. Many others died as the Germans fired their counter barrages.
Unofficial truces were held in certain sectors and in certain cases German and British soldiers helped each other to get the wounded in. However, these were only isolated cases and it was mostly British soldiers under the cover of darkness who had to recover their mates on their own. Other wounded soldiers made their way back to their lines on their own, some surrendered and went into German captivity. But, for the most part, men lay in agony with no help and many died lonely and painful deaths before aid could get to them. The lack of ambulance trains on the day almost certainly assisted in the casualty rate going up. This led to the serving Quarter Master General, Lieutenant General Maxwell, being recalled home at the end of 1916 for this failure.
One of the most chilling accounts I have read about the aftermath of the Somme comes from a soldier who took over the line from the survivors of the attack at La Boiselle.
‘The next morning we gunners surveyed the dreadful scene in front of our trench. There was a pair of binoculars in the kit, and, under the brazen light of a hot summer’s day everything revealed itself stark and clear. The terrain was rather like the Sussex downlands, with gentle swelling hills, folds and valleys, making it difficult at first to pinpoint all the enemy trenches as they curled and twisted on the slopes. It soon became clear that the German line followed points of eminence, always giving a commanding view of No Man’s Land. Immediately in front, and spreading left and right until hidden from sight, was clear evidence that the attack had been brutally repulsed. Hundreds of dead were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high water-mark. Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in the net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as if they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. Machine gun fire had done its terrible work. From the way the bodies were evenly spread out, whether on the wire or lying in front of it, it was clear that there were no gaps in the wire at the time of the attack ’
With a Machine Gun to Cambrai by George Coppard pages 82-83.
This later prompted Coppard to entitle the chapter I have quoted, ‘I’ve seen ‘em, I’ve seen ‘em, Hanging on the old barbed wire’. Which comes from a song sung by the troops and was entitled, ‘If You Want to Find the Sergeant Major’.
The final verse of the song states,
If you want to find the old battalion,
I know where they are, I know where they are.
If you want to find the old battalion,
I know where they are,
They’re hanging on the old barbed wire.
I’ve seen ‘em, I’ve seen ‘em,
Hanging on the old barbed wire,
I’ve seen ‘em, I’ve seen ‘em,
Hanging on the old barbed wire.
The 8/Norfolks remained in trenches to the west of Montauban and sent patrols from the along Caterpillar Trench and East Trench towards Caterpillar Wood. These patrols did not make contact with the enemy and by now the Germans were in full-blown retreat from this area. Although fire was received by German artillery it was noted as being at ‘extreme range and inaccurate’ by the Official History.
This is not backed up by the war diary that states that a 5.9 Howitzer was firing from the north of Longueval and this wounded two officers and 38 men over a two day period.
On the 2nd July the Germans attempted a counter attack around Montauban and the diary notes seeing S.O.S. flares going up and the battalion stood to, but their area remain quiet. What they had witnessed was the only serious German counter attack after the initial first day. Between 3 and 4 a.m. the German 12th Reserve and 16th Bavarian Regiments had attacked Montauban from the north and east. They were stopped by artillery from the 30th Division, although they were more successful in the French sector to the right.
On the evening of 3rd July the 8/Norfolks were relieved by the 8/Suffolks and moved into bivouacs in Carnoy. They spent the next few days clearing the battlefield and digging communication trenches before going to the rear lines and eventually ended up at Grovetown Camp near to Happy Valley. They were re-enforced by a draft of 240 Other Ranks and 10 Officers, who came from the 1st, 7th and 10th Battalion Norfolk Regiment.
The 1st July 1916 is looked at as a defeat where the cream of England was wiped out in one foul swoops. Certainly this is so in many sectors of that terrible battle. But we must also remember the success and the gains made between Fricourt and Montauban which would pave the way for the the next phases of the battle which other battalions of the Norfolk Regiment would take part in and I will be writing about them as the Somme 100th Centenary timeline moves forward.