The 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment
21st-27th July 1916
The 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment had been positioned around Arras and although they had seen action, namely when the Germans had attacked their positions in May, they had not seen anything like they would on the Somme since they had fought at Mons in 1914.
The 5th Division moved to that sector after the battle commenced and were in support of the 7th Division, who were facing Longueval, by the 16th July. On 21st July the 13th Brigade were ordered to attack High Wood. At 6.30 a.m. “D” Company advanced in four waves, occupying the line which ran from the south-west corner of High Wood.”C” Company occupied a trench north of Bazentin le Grand and “A” and “B” Companies remained in the old German front line.
At 8.45 a.m. they relieved the 1st Battalion West Kents in the firing line which ran from the south west of High Wood running eastwards to Longueval. Here they remained and carried out work constructing a new trench and could not be relieved on the 24th July due to heavy German bombardments which were mixed with high explosive and gas shells. Eventually they were relieved and ended up at Pommiers Redoubt. Their relief was short lived because they moved to their start line where the 15th Brigade had been ordered to attack and capture Longueval.
The battalion had to advance to their start lines through gas and a terrific bombardment which took them five hours and they did not reach positions facing the village until 2.30 a.m. on 27th July. The British opened their advance with a barrage that started at 5.10 a.m. but the Germans replied with a terrific counter barrage that decimated ‘A’ Company who could only muster one platoon forcing the battalion to bring up ‘C’ and ‘D’ Company who simultaneously supported ‘B’ Company in the advance on the village along with the 1st Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment with the 23rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers on the 1/Norfolks’ right.
The German counter barrage stopped ‘C’ Company from advancing in a direct line and they had to move to the right. But the initial German trench which ran towards High Wood was soon captured. But German strong-points in the houses around the village caused the battalion a number of issues as they advanced up the road that ran north towards Flers. This road was known as North Street to the British.
The after action report for the battalion noted,
‘No opposition was encountered until they had advanced 75 yards north of the church. There was here off to the right a very strong redoubt in which was a small house and cellar… The left centre of their line had advanced a little beyond the redoubt and killed several Germans trying to escape through the wood.’
Much of the German resistance came from the left of North Street but resistance was also met from German machine guns and snipers holding the sunken road situated to the north-west of the village and a German strong-point that had been left behind. The Germans also launched a counter attack from the high ground to the south of Flers. This attack was stopped by British and German artillery falling short forcing them to fall back.
By now only one officer was left to command both ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies. This was Lieutenant Windham who took command of what was left of them as they advanced to the west of North Street.
‘B’ Company had initially advanced with no opposition until they came up against heavy resistance from a redoubt by the church and had to be assisted by ‘D’ Company who helped with bombing parties in order that the redoubt was cleared. This was captured with 100 Germans inside it.
The war diary noted that,
‘The prisoners taken belong to the 8th Brandenburg Regiment and the 12th Guard Grenadiers. Those who had been at Douamont said that the artillery was worse at Longueval.’
The advance was supposed to go 3oo yards north of Longueval but this could not be met and the battalion along with the Bedfordshires consolidated a line at the northern edge of the village and the British artillery which had supposed to assist the battalion in further advances moved on leaving the infantry without any support.
The C.O. of the battalion, Colonel Stone, noted in the after action report,
‘In order to make certain of my advance I ordered A and B to go through to the olive green line and then let C and D pass through them to the red line, but these orders were sent out after arrival in Longueval and Company Commanders were unable to give out fresh instructions to their platoon commanders owing to the heavy artillery barrage.’
The hardest fighting was described as being in the north-west end of Delville Wood where the Germans were able to fire on the Norfolks from High Wood and the Switch Line along with a number of strong points out of the wood which could also fire on the battalion.
The endeavours of the battalion along with the other battalions that took part in this advance were noted by the Brigade Commander,
‘The Brigadier-General wishes to express to all ranks of the Brigade his great admiration at the magnificent manner in which they captured the village of Longueval yesterday. To the 1st Norfolk Regiment and the 1st Bedfordshire Regiment and some of the 16th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who were able to get into the enemy with the bayonet, he offers heartiest congratulations. He knows it is what they have been waiting and wishing for for many months. The 1st Cheshire Regiment made a most gallant and determined effort to reach their objective and failed through no fault of their own. The way in which troops behaved under the subsequent heavy bombardment was worthy of the best traditions of the British Army. The Brigade captured 4 officers and 159 other ranks.’
Losses for the battalion were high. 11 officers were killed or wounded and 257 other ranks were killed, wounded or missing. In total the war diary notes that with the fighting in front of High Wood and the capture of Longueval the battalion lost 429 officers and men. Between 21st and 28th July 1916 a total of 98 officers and men were killed in the fighting around this area. Many of these men have no known grave although a few are buried in the cemeteries in the area including London Cemetery.
This action would not be the last time that they saw service on the Somme and they would serve in the trenches around Longueval until the end of July. At that time the 5th Division was sent out of the line to reorganise. But they would go back to the Somme and we will look at that in September.