Somme Offensive

Source: Battalion Records 

” … As the preparations for the great Somme offensive of July, 1916, proceeded the work of the Battalion became more dangerous and difficult. At the end of June the ground in front of the firing trench was reconnoitred by patrols, while the rest of the Battalion rehearsed behind the lines the method of attack. Night work in “No Man’s Land” was hampered by bright moonlight, and there were several casualties among the wire. The trenches were also subjected to a heavy shell fire. In spite of these obstacles 2nd Lieut. Turner carried out successful reconnaissances in broad daylight as far as the enemy’s lines, and obtained very valuable information. For this he eventually received the Military Cross.

This bitter day’s work cost the Battalion very heavy casualties in killed, missing and wounded. The officers killed were Lieut. R. S . Payton (in charge of the Lewis guns), 2nd Lieuts. J. W. Lygoe, H. L. Greenwood and H. L. Hodes. Those reported as missing but believed to have been killed included Capt. H. S. Matthews, a member of a well-known Birmingham family, 2nd Lieuts. S. H. R. Hewitt and R. Whitbread.

After gathering up the dead and wounded, the Battalion was relieved and received the consolation of a complimentary message from the General on their gallant attack. The gaps made in the ranks by this expensive effort were made up by drafts of men who had good physique but little training- the first instalm
ent of men recruited under Lord Derby’s Scheme.

Another attack on the same enemy trenches at the end of the month failed. C and D Companies were badly cut up on this occasion. It is sufficient to add the commanding officer’s comment : “The spirit of our men during the heavy bombardment previous to the attack, during the attack and immediately afterwards was and still is excellent. From all sources I hear that the attack was carried out with the utmost dash and that everything possible was done.’’

Albert – before and after bombardment. Images sourced from postcard collection

It is interesting to note that on this occasion the 14th Battalion was relieved by the 15th, and that the 16th were in neighbouring trenches, although attached to the 95th Division. The battered Battalion retired to a rest camp to reorganise. The drafts received here included a few old soldiers, but mostly consisted of men who had only had two or three months’ training. A little later they were reinforced by nearly two hundred Territorial cyclists, who were well set up, sound men, who had been previously employed in night patrol along the East Coast of England. They had had very little infantry training. Consequently the few remaining officers of the old Battalion were busy bringing the comparatively raw material up to the required standard of efficiency for offensive work.

The special training included a route march to a charming little village situated in the midst of a rich corn-producing district. The inhabitants gave “Les Anglais” a cordial welcome, and the Battalion thoroughly enjoyed the respite from the desolate, Hun-strafed trenches. Here the Battalion was strengthened by drafting in some war-worn men from the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Worcestershire Regiment. The influence of the officers and the congenial surroundings soon revived the spirits of the Battalion, and all ranks were made quite happy by two days’ leave to wander over the neighbouring parts of France, Paris alone being out of bounds. This was followed by three weeks’ comparative rest and an enjoyable trip to Le Treport.

Refreshed in body and mind, the Battalion returned to the battle area where they had gained their first experience of trench warfare. They took over some front line trenches near Maricourt towards the end of August, and at once began to prepare for an attack on the position over against them, between Falfemont Farm and Wedgwood. This was part of an offensive in which High Wood, Givenchy and Guillemont were among the objectives. With the French Army on its right, the Brigade was told off to take the Farm, in advance of the main attack, in order to save the French from being enfiladed. A battalion of Scottish Borderers started out in gallant style, but were held up by machine-gun fire before reaching the Farm. Therefore the Birmingham men had to advance without any support and subject to a withering fire from the Farm and the neighbouring gun pits. They went ahead well for a time, although they realised that they had been set a desperate task and were losing heavily. The concentrated fire from machine guns and rifles hidden in the enemy’s position entailed heavy losses on A Company, which still continued to advance undauntedly. B Company, on their left, suffered almost as severely, but, struggling on, managed to occupy and hold the front trench of the position, just south of Wedgewood. The rest of the Battalion also behaved magnificently, but their efforts were in vain.