The 8th Buffs
18th August 1916
On 18th August 1916 my Great Grandfather, Private G/5203 Frank Smith, went over the top with the 8th Battalion Buffs (The East Kent Regiment) close to Guillemont.
By the 6th August 1916 the 8/Buffs were placed in the reserve to the north of Carnoy. They were positioned on the old front-line of the 1st July 1916.
At this point in time Haig was not happy that the recent attacks seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace and further pressure came down from on high, especially from the French, and he made his displeasure clear to Rawlinson. Therefore a new plan was put in place by Haig himself where the French and the British would look towards Guillemont and other positions all the way to the Somme River. This wide attack over a large frontage was designed to stop the Germans bringing both machine guns and artillery together.
However, with its maze of underground tunnels, dugouts and concrete emplacements, Guillemont was a veritable fortress and unquestionably a tough nut to crack. It was also a place of death and destruction and the famous German author Ernst Junger, who would serve there later on in August, had this to say about the Guillemont Front.
‘From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron. Hundreds of heavy batteries were crashing away at and around Combles, innumerable shells criss-crossed hissing and howling over our heads. All was swathed in black smoke, which was in the ominous under lighting of coloured flares. Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words… When day dawned we were astonished to see, by degrees, what a sight surrounded us. The sunken road now appeared as nothing but a series of enormous shell holes filled with pieces of uniform, weapons, and dead bodies. The ground all round, as far as the eye could see, was ploughed by shells. You could search in vain for one wretched blade of grass. This churned-up battlefield was ghastly. Among the living lay the dead.’
The 8/Buffs took over the line between Delville Wood and Guillemont on 17th August 1916. I often wonder what my Great Grandfather was thinking at this point. He had seen so much by this time having served on the Western Front from August 1915. He had been at Loos, had served around Ypres, and now he was on the Somme. The area he was in was decimated. Attacks around this area had failed. As Junger noted that in this area there was, ‘…nothing but a series of enormous shell holes filled with pieces of uniform, weapons, and dead bodies.’ The noise must have been indescribable and the area in a state of chaos. The 8/Buffs relieved the 12th Battalion Royal Fusiliers. What did he see as he moved past the men he and his mates were relieving? It haunts me to a degree because I know I would be terrified.
There are a number of accounts included with this research detailingc what happened to the 8/Buffs on 18th August 1916 and there is an interesting account from a witness who watched the advance that day. Second Lieutenant J.T. Godfrey, 104th Field Company Royal Engineers, was positioned in Trones Wood.
‘At 2.30 pm the row was terrific; every gun was slinging in shells as hard as it could lick; you had to shout to be heard by your next door neighbour; the whole earth and air seemed to vibrate, and the shells going overhead sounded like a hurricane going through a forest. Looking ahead, I saw the Hun trenches and the whole of Guillemont boiling like an immense kettle, with great spurts of earth for the bursting steam bubbles, and dust blowing away like brown steam. When the noise was at its height, up rose rows of infantry and went forward; almost instantly they were lost in the smoke and dust.’
What Godfrey had witnessed was a bombardment that had been going on for two days followed by an advance involving the 14th (Light) Division, positioned in Delville Wood, the 24th Division, facing Ginchy and Guillemont and the 3rd Division positioned to the east of Maltz Horn Farm. To their right was the French 6th Army who also attacked. The British put forward an attack involving around 9,000 men and they were to advance in front of an artillery curtain. This was designed to fool the enemy as to when the attack would go in. Unfortunately this did not work and all along the front the attack failed, except in one area.
The 17th Brigade were positioned just south of Delville Wood, running past Waterlot Farm towards Guillemont Station where they faced the German 125th and 120th Regiments. Here the 3/Rifle Brigade managed to capture Guillemont Station and part of the Longueval-Guillemont Road along with a large number of prisoners. The 8/Buffs had the task of capturing the southern part of the German line known as ZZ-Trench.
Their starting points were the following:
A Coy with Bn HQ in Bullen Trench
B Coy two platoons in Hatton Trench and the rest in Bosky Trench
C Coy Bosky Trench
D Coy Hatton Trench
From the Official History of the Great War:
‘Bombers of the battalion entered the German line on the Waterlot Farm road, and having joined hands with the 3/Rifle Brigade, bombed their way north-eastward to ZZ-Trench. The Buffs collected about one hundred prisoners and at the extreme north of ZZ-Trench obtained touch with the troops of the 14th Division.’
The 8/Buffs also captured and consolidated a position called Machine-Gun House, also listed as MG House on a trench map. Bullen Trench can be located as being behind Waterlot Farm and the war diary makes mention of the 3/Rifle Brigade being in New Trench. Both are listed on a trench map so it can be gleaned that Bosky and Hatton would have been between the two.
We can also pinpoint where B Company was under the command of Captain GULLICK.
‘C Coy with two platoons of B Coy in close support to attack the ZZ-Trench from about S18 D.7.4 to T19 A.1.7 and to form a strong point at the latter position… The remainder of B Coy to be at the disposal of Capt GULLICK. At 2.45 pm the attack commenced. The assaulting party (C Coy plus 2 platoons B Coy) under Capt GULLICK climbed out of their trenches and keeping also under the barrage successfully reached their objectives with very few casualties.’
Ernst Junger gives a graphic account of what he witnessed of the dead at Guillemont. He was positioned to the south-east of where Frank Smith advanced.
‘As we dug ourselves in we found them in layers stacked one upon the top of another. One company after another had been shoved into the drum fire and steadily annihilated. The corpses were covered with the masses of soil turned up by the shells, and the next company advanced in the place of the fallen. The sunken road and the ground behind were full of German dead; the ground in front, of English. Arms, legs, and heads stuck out stark above the lips of the craters. In front of our miserable defences there were torn-off limbs and corpses over many of which cloaks and ground sheets had been thrown to hide the fixed stare of their distorted features. In spite of the heat no one thought for a moment of covering them with soil.’
The whole area around Guillemont was contested for another sixteen days until it was finally captured by the 20th (Light) & 16th (Irish) Divisions on 3rd September 1916. By that time the entire village had been reduced to rubble.
In total the 8th Buffs lost 7 officers and 351 others ranks killed, wounded or missing. In that total was my Great Grandfather Frank Smith who was wounded in the leg and in the next blog we will see what happened to him and look at letters he wrote and other primary documents we hold in our family.