Battle of the Somme
Not everyone in the BEF is entirely content with the plans for the Battle of the Somme. General Hubert Rees will be in charge of one of the left-most attacking BEF brigades on Z Day. Working under General Hunter-Weston, it will be his brigade’s job to capture the fortified village Serre. Now, before we have his thoughts, I do want to point out that they are not representative of all the brigadiers at the Somme, and not even representative of all the brigadiers north of the Albert to Bapaume Road. They are rather well-known, but it’s important not to treat them as definitive. Nevertheless, they are important.
One of my criticisms of the general plan of operations was that the time allowed for the capture of each objective was too short. I had a severe argument with Hunter-Weston before I induced him to give the an extra ten minutes for the capture of an orchard, 300 yards beyond the village of Serre. I was looked upon as something of a heretic for saying that everything had been arranged for, except for the unexpected, which usually occurs in war. The short space of time allowed for the capture of each objective made it essential for the whole of my brigade, with the exception of three companies, to advance at Zero hour, otherwise they would not reach the positions assigned to them at the time laid down.
In twenty minutes, I had to capture the first four lines of trenches in front of Serre. After a check of twenty minutes, I was allowed forty minutes to capture Serre, a village 800 yards deep, and twenty minutes later to capture an orchard on a knoll 300 yards beyond. My criticisms on these points are not altogether a case of being wise after the event, I did not like them at the time, but I do not profess to have foreseen the result of these arrangements should a failure occur. A great spirit of optimism prevailed in all quarters.
There are quite a few similar statements about ludicrous over-optimism before the Somme to be found in various oral histories of the war. My untrained, unscientific eye thinks that a worryingly high number of them appear to be coming from men serving with Hunter-Weston’s VIII Corps. This might well just be my own selection bias, and the selection bias of the books I happen to have in easy reach at the moment. I’m not quite sure what the takeaway is just yet, whether it’s a comment on Hunter-Weston, or historians, or both, or neither.
At any rate, here’s something from someone who was with XIII Corps, due to attack Mametz Wood on Z Day, well to the south of Hunter-Weston. This is Sergeant Ernest Bryan of the 17th King’s Liverpool Regiment. No, I’ve looked and I can’t easily find out who this offending brigadier was; most orders of battle list only divisional and not brigade commanders.
I asked the Brigadier if it was possible to put our equipment on his brigade-major, and he said certainly. I got two Lewis gun privates to put everything on him. Bombs in the pockets, sandbags, spade, kit, rations, extra ammunition round the neck, all of it. Then I said “how do you feel, Sir?” and the major said “It’s a hell of a weight.”
So I said, “You haven’t started yet! You forgot the rifle, you’ve got to put that up. And how are you going to carry it? Slung over your shoulder? You can’t, you’ve got to have it in your hand ready for action. You can’t take it in your left hand because in that you’ve got a pannier of water which weighs 46 pounds…”
This lecture goes on for some considerable time.
“There’s a farm field at the back of here that’s just being ploughed. Try walking 100 yards and see how you feel. And that’s a playground to what we’ll all have to go over.”
He said, “You feel very strongly about this.”
I said, “Wouldn’t you, Sir? Wouldn’t anybody?
Better writers than me have successfully drawn portraits of a group of senior officers before the Somme who are making assumptions that do not appear to have been grounded in battlefield realities.
Haig and the cavalry
With most of the important details sorted out, General Haig is attending to a last-minute question. The BEF has ended up creating a vast reserve formation of six divisions (three infantry, three cavalry) which is now being called Reserve Army. It’s under the command of thrusting cavalryman General Gough, a man so optimistic that even Hunter-Weston (in a letter to his wife) is commenting that he perhaps lays it on a bit thick. Once the Z Day fighting goes well, it will be Reserve Army’s job to move up, assist with breaking the German Second Line, and then send the cavalry up the Albert to Bapaume road to exploit the situation. Haig pays visits to Gough and General Rawlinson today, as his staff arrives at his Advanced Headquarters.
I thought [Gough] was too inclined to aim at fighting a battle at Bapaume, forgetting that it was at the same time possible for the Enemy to attack him from the north and cut him off from the breach in the line! I therefore insisted on the offensive move northwards as soon as Bapaume has been occupied.
I told [Rawlinson] to impress on his Corps Commanders the use of their Corps cavalry and mounted troops, and if necessary supplement them with regular cavalry units. In my opinion it is better to prepare to advance beyond the Enemy’s last line of trenches, because we are then in a position to take advantage of any breakdown in the defences. If there is a stubborn resistance put up, the matter settles itself.
If cavalry is in fact completely obsolete in this day and age, then the Chief has just convicted himself of being a hopeless donkey. If only it were that simple. More soon.
Anyway, let’s get a bit closer to the sharp end; it is “X” Day for Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler.
Cold, with heavy rain all day. Hunland is changing aspect very fast under the intense bombardment. All the little well-known woods are disappearing. The Hun trenches have become merely one vast shell-ploughed field. Artillery gets curious targets nowadays. I spent three hours in thinning a blackthorn hedge round a rather important spot. It proved a tiresome and difficult shoot.
Plenty of strips of land up near the German First Line are now transforming into the desolate, dead landscapes that popular culture associates with the Somme battlefields.
Let’s duck out of the Western Front for a moment. Something else is happening to Emilio Lussu; all I have to say about this is “why couldn’t it have come a month later when things are less busy?” Another patrol has gone out; this one has ambushed and killed an enemy patrol. Captain Canevacci is nowhere near the general and he’s just killed some of the enemy. He is very happy, and very well-refreshed with brandy.
He stopped next to the body of the [enemy] corporal, and he said to him, “Hey, my friend, if you had learned how to command a patrol you wouldn’t be here right now. When you’re out on patrol, the commander, first of all, has to see…
Before he can warm to his theme, there’s an interruption. Voices nearby? The company sidles over to get a look at the source of the sound.
Two squirrels were jumping along a tree-trunk. Quick and nimble, they chased each other, hid, chased again, hid again. Short little shrieks like laughter marked their encounters each time they launched themselves against each other. And every time they stopped in a circle of sunlight on the trunk, they stood straight up on their hind legs. And, using their paws like hands, appeared to be offering each other compliments, caresses, congratulations. The sun dhonr on their white bellies and the tufts of their tales, which stood straight up like brushes.
One of our sharpshooters looked over at the captain and muttered, “Shall we shoot?”
“Are you crazy?” the captain answered. “They’re so cute.” [And he] went back to the line of dead bodies.
“The patrol commander must see and not be seen…” he said, continuing his sermon to the Bosnian corporal.
The men who left to fetch the food last night haven’t come back. 4:30am, first attack on Thiaumont and Hill 321. 9am, second attack. All around us, men are falling. There are some only five metres from us in shell-holes, yet we can’t help them. If you show your head, you get a burst of machine-gun bullets. Incessant firing. The Boches counter-attack; we drive them back by rifle fire and grenades. My company is rapidly diminishing. We are about sixty left now. In the evening, we are really at the mercy of an attack. Still no relief.
“They have taken the bridge and Second Hall. The Watcher in the Water took Oin. We cannot get out.”
Lieutenant JRR Tolkien has finally been called out of Etaples to join his battalion, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. They will begin the Battle of the Somme in reserve, which means they can expect to wait a week or so before going into action. He spends the day travelling forward towards Rubempre, the rear-area village which is currently hosting these men of Kitchener’s Army. In their last stint of front-line duty they suffered badly; they have a new commander, Lt-Col Bird, and four other junior officers are leading small reinforcement-drafts forward to them.
As some men suffer in the heat of battle, and others prepare to face it, still more, like Robert Pelissier, are quite happy to be getting out of it for a while.
We’ve left Alsace, for good probably. We left the trenches about midnight, sneaked our way in the dark to a safe place where the machine guns couldn’t get us, then climbed over the Vosges, reaching the highest point about 9am, then kept on: pretty tired and wet (poured great guns) and hungry but pretty glad to be in France once more and away from the yaw-yaw and nicks-nicks of the Alsatian patois. Then we came down the French side of the Vosges and paraded in grand style through one of the summer resorts of the region. Summer resort minus the squash bugs, aeroplanes being fond of the place.
Away from the great battles, the rhythms of Army life carry on.
Enemy aeroplanes approached during the morning, but were driven off by our scouts. A large boxing contest took place at night between the Fifty-second Division, Fifth Mounted Brigade and the Scottish Horse Brigade. In the evening the General Officer Commanding Third Section distributed the prizes.
Jolly good for morale, what?
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