On 1 July 1916 the British Army launched a major offensive on German positions established on the chalk uplands of the Départment of the Somme. These positions were linked around seven villages which had been turned into veritable fortresses from Serre in the north to Maricourt in the south.
Neither the place nor the time was of British choosing. The Commander-in-Chief General Sir Douglas Haig would have preferred ground further to the north and had argued that the recently recruited ‘New’ Volunteer Army was not ready for such an operation. However the French were under intense pressure at Verdun. That battle which commenced in February 1916 which has been called the ‘graveyard of the French nation’ was ‘bleeding’ France to death. The French argued that the British must do something to help relieve the pressure on Verdun and draw some of the German fire power.
In the days before the battle an artillery barrage without precedent covered the German lines, the guns stood almost wheel to wheel for sixteen miles. One and a half million shells poured out and it is said the noise of the barrage could be heard in London. At 7.30am on 1 July the British, confident of success moved across No Man’s Land only to be caught in a hail of machine-gun and rifle fire. The Germans had dug deeply into the chalk and constructed huge shelters, from which they emerged relatively untouched by the barrage. In addition through faulty manufacture by unskilled labour or lack of training by the gunners, it is estimated that half a million of the shells did not explode and that the German wire had not been cut sufficiently for the British to get into the German trenches.
Trench mortar position during the Somme battle. TAYLOR LIBRARY
British 6 inch howitzers moving to positions along the Albert-Fricourt road during the battle. It is estimated that half a million shells failed to explode and that the German wire had not been cut sufficiently for the British to get into the German trenches. TAYLOR LIBRARY
1 July 1916 was the greatest disaster ever suffered by the British Army: 19,240 were killed and 35,493 wounded and into these shattered remains the 38th Welsh Division came marching from St Pol to the battle for Mametz Wood. Although Mametz Wood will be forever associated with the 38th Welsh Division it was not entirely a Welsh affair and it is important to understand the action in the days leading up to their involvement in the capture of the wood. The original intention was to attack the wood from the south-west and this task was to be undertaken largely by the 7th Division who would be supported on their left by the 17th Division.
The 17th Division came into the line at Fricourt relieving its own 50 Brigade which had already been in action attached to the 21st Division. All these divisions were part of the British Fourth Army, XV Corps with headquarters at Heilly which was commanded by Lieutenant-General H S Horne.
At 9.00am on the evening of 1 July, Brigadier-General R B Fell commanding 51 Brigade was summoned to the 17th Division Headquarters and rode over to Meaulte on his horse. There he met Major-General T D Pilcher commanding officer of the 17th Division who told him he was intending to withdraw 50 Brigade after the losses they had suffered that day and replace them with 51 Brigade. However it was also his intention to put Brigadier-General W J T Glasgow commanding the ill-fated 50 Brigade in charge of Fell’s 51 Brigade as he had already seen the ground.
View of the ground over which 8th South Staffordshire’s and 7th Lincolnshire’s attacked Fricourt.
Major-General Pilcher, however, was not prepared for the state in which he found Brigadier-General Glasgow who was quite ‘broken down’ over the losses he had witnessed among his men that day and after talks lasting into the early hours of 2 July it was finally agreed that Brigadier-General Fell should remain in command.
Map 2. The capture of Fricourt 2 July 1916.
After the disastrous scenes of the first day the night of 1/2 July was relatively quiet. During the night the Germans began to withdraw from the village to a new defensive position called Railway Alley which linked on the left to Lozenge Trench. Patrols of the 7th Division entered Fricourt unopposed in the early hours of 2 July and together with patrols the 8th South Staffordshire Regiment (17th Division) captured about one hundred men of the German 11 th Reserve Regiment. It was the information obtained from these prisoners about German movements that persuaded Major-General Pilcher to order an immediate attack. Patrols of the 8th South Staffordshires gallantly led by Lieutenant Turney made good progress flushing out pockets of Germans and were reported to be in Lozenge Trench by noon, but reported that the 7th Lincolns had not occupied Railway Alley which was an extension to the right of the trench they held. The 7th Lincolns Battalion diary records they did not move forward until 12.15pm (the original time of the attack). Battle patrols, led by Lieutenant Kimber and Lieutenant Barrett advanced, supported by four companies. Having taken some prisoners they were held up at 2.10pm at Rose Cottage. The Germans still had machine guns positioned in Fricourt Wood and it was over 3 hours later at 5.20 pm before the 7th Lincolns were able to report its capture during which they lost one officer killed in action, Captain Dickinson, and 19 other ranks wounded.
Later that night as darkness fell bombers of the 10th Sherwood Foresters attacked Railway Alley which was well wired and strongly held and entering it from the left hand end fought up a distance of 200 yards of the trench.
7 Lincoln Regt
My Dear Mother and Tess
In a very great hurry I pen these few lines to you and hope that they will find you Al. I am enclosing a cheque for two pounds which I am sending rather earlier than usual in as much as I may not be able to write or send to you for a few days. We are going to do probably a little hard work and in the course of the next few days I must beg of you to remember me in all your prayers and pray for our safe journey and success and ask all friends the same favour. If you can afford a mass or two for me I can assure you I can do with all the benefits reaped from them. Don’t let this letter worry you too much and the only help you can give me is not to worry but to pray for my safety. I am going to do my duty so you mustn’t worry Write to me as usual and I shall let you know as soon as I can how I am getting on. I went to Holy Communion and I am fairly well prepared. I am feeling perfectly fit and only hoping all will be well.
Remember me in your prayers and look on the bright side of things and hope for my safe return. I will write to you as soon as I can I only hope that this letter won’t upset you. I thought I should let you know in case I shouldn’t be able to write for a short time. Give my very best love to all and remember me to all old friends. Now don’t worry because I shall write as soon as I can. I have arranged for all my money and things should anything happen and everything goes to you. I think this is all so will conclude with heaps of love. Your affectionate son Cyril.
Remember always I am only doing my duty and this should make you feel more settled. If God spares me all will be well. Goodbye ‘til I write again. Cyril
Last letter written by Lieutenant Barrett prior to the attack on Fricourt village 2 July 1916. The fears of a man about to attack the German lines comes through in this communication home.
Fricourt after it had been captured by 17th Division, TAYLOR LIBRARY
Map 3. The position at midnight 2/3 July.
That morning the 7th Division had been ordered to patrol forward at 7.30am north of Mametz village. Enemy movement was seen in Bottom Wood and the 2nd Queens assisted by the 1st South Staffordshires took a heavy toll of retreating Germans. Of about 200 all were killed or wounded with the exception of about ten who got away. By 11.00am the 2nd Queens were in Cliff Trench and by 2.00pm in White Trench. A machine gun and several prisoners were taken and later two 77mm field guns were also found nearby. Work immediately commenced on digging in. The trenches, especially White Trench was only partly dug and while work progressed the German shelling continued. The 21st Manchesters came up in support and at 10.30pm repulsed a small counter attack.
Thus at nightfall on 2/3 July the objectives set for the first day had been achieved and on the right British troops of the 7th Division on Fusilier Ridge overlooked the southern end of Mametz Wood.