The Somme, May, 1916 – June 1917. Part 1

On March 27th an advance party, under Lieut. Aston, left Bristol for Southampton, embarking on the commandeered L.S.W. Rly. “Hantonia” at 1 a.m. on the 28th for Le Havre, which was reached after a severe crossing in a gale at 3 p.m.

After a day’s rest at No. 4 Rest Camp at the docks, the party entrained for Rouen, where the day was spent until 4 p.m., when the party left for Abbeville. From here, and by short stages through Doullens, Puchevillers, Bouzincourt, the party arrived at Albert, where strangely enough it was billeted at 76” Rue d’Amiens on April 2nd.

Without delay the advance party set to work on a position in the rear of the railway cutting west of Albert, at a point flanking both sides of Hennencourt-Albert road, with the Albert-Amiens road on the extreme right. During the next few weeks, while awaiting the arrival of the main body of the battery, guns and stores, the advance party made dug-outs and prepared the gun emplacements.

The main body of the Battery left Bristol on the 31st March and embarked at Southampton for Boulogne on the S.S. “Lydia”’ together with 69 Siege Battery, commanded by Major H. G. Carr, in whose Brigade the Battery were afterwards to serve. 69 Battery had trained with us at Lydd, and we met them several times later in the War. On the voyage, the “Lydia” kept close to the English coast and sailed without lights. We arrived at Boulogne at 1 a.m. on the morning of April 1st- “All Fools’ Day” disembarked at 7.30 a.m., and marched up to St. Martin’s Camp, where we stayed for just over a fortnight, awaiting the arrival of guns, ammunition column, etc. Whilst at St. Martin’s Camp, time was spent in fatigues at the docks, medical and kit inspections and a few route marches. Everyone was impatient for the arrival of the guns and stores, and these arrived on the 14th April on the S.S.  “Crown of Aragon” which had been delayed a fortnight owing to a report of hostile submarines in the Bristol Channel. It is a matter of interest that a sister ship to the “Crown of Aragon” was torpedoed and sunk off Boulogne within a day or two of the latter’s arrival with the equipment.

When the guns eventually arrived, fatigue parties were marched to the docks to assist in the unloading. While the work proceeded the party experienced the first air raid since arriving in France. Two days later the guns were entrained at the quayside under an escort, and on the 17th April the Battery left St. Martin’s Camp in lorries for Talmas, halting at Ruisseauville and Doullens on the way.

The Battery remained at Talmas for nearly a fortnight, during which time the guns arrived and the first mail from England was delivered. Here for the first time the battery was practised in drill and in mounting and dismounting our own guns and platforms. Most of the members of the Battery had only seen 9.2 howitzers in pieces “en route”  and it was a great advantage to have these few days at Talmas in which to learn how to lay the firing beams and mount and dismount the guns. Fortunately there were a few men in the Battery who had been in 10, 12 and 13 Siege Batteries (some of the earliest to be equipped with 9.2s), whose practical experience was invaluable to the other members of the battery.

Much friendly rivalry took place between the four sections over the speed in which the gun emplacements could be made, baulks laid and the guns mounted for action, and so proficient did they become that eventually only about one-third of the time specified in the drill book was taken to carry out this work.

Such keenness and zeal brought about fine results, and as subsequent events proved, the gun teams of 76 were always able to overcome their tasks, however difficult. A set of four excellent gun teams.

On the 21st April a further detachment was sent to join the advance party in Albert, and when paraded by the Battery sergeant-major were informed by him, “You men, you’ re going up the line and you ain’t coming back! ” This was not taken literally, of course, and caused much amusement.

The positions allotted to the left section were in two dummy haystacks on the left side of the Albert-Hennencourt road. These dummies had been previously occupied by guns of another battery, whose line of fire was more to the right than ours, and at night time it was necessary to lift the dummy stacks and turn them more to the left in order that they would fit in with the centre of the line of fire. These “haystacks” occasioned a good deal of swearing among the men at times, as it was necessary to patch them up after each shoot, and the remark, “We are supposed to be gunners, not ruddy farmers,” was often heard. The right section were in gunpits, dug out of a bank on the right-hand side of the Albert-Hennencourt road. Cutting into this bank, getting through the chalk seam, the safe disposal of the white chalk, and the consequent making of wire netting camouflage to screen the white pits from the air, caused a vast amount of work.

By May 11th everything was ready, with the guns mounted and ready for registration.

The last of the Battery left Talmas on the 1st May and most of the personnel were accommodated either in tents, dug-outs or huts at the battery position, and only a few were in billets at Lavieville. During the fine weather about this time, frequent bathing parades were held in the river Ancre, across the main road from Albert to Amiens.

The Battery was assigned to 25 H.A.G., commanded by Lt.-Col. C. W. Clark, and we became 10th Corps troops, under the command of Brig -Gen. H. O. Vincent of the 10th Corps heavies. The position allotted to us, however, was in 3rd Corps area, and as the batteries on each side of us were 3rd Corps troops, we were often visited by Brig-Gen. T. N. Perkins, commanding 3rd Corps Heavy Artillery, when he was visiting his other batteries in the neighbourhood. With his assistance we were able to draw much material in the way of pit props, corrugated iron, etc., from the 3rd Corps stores, in addition to a similar amount which we drew, as of right, from the 10th Corps, so that we were able to build extra good dugouts and huts.

The officers and B.C. staff having ascertained that the centre of our line of fire was approximately Thiepval, spent some time looking for O.P’s, but found that nearly every suitable position had been labelled “Reserved for 27 S.B” Certain observation posts were allotted to us, numbered 325, 326, 327 and 333, and the signallers were engaged in laying lines direct to Group Headquarters and to the above-mentioned observation posts. The construction of O.P. 325 fell to the lot of a working party from the Battery under Lieut. Starkey one wretched wet night. The O.P. took the form of a hollow splinter-proof box open at the bottom and half of the back with a slot in the front. This was then camouflaged with plaster of Paris to represent earth and placed in line with the rest of the parapet in a narrow communication trench close to “Jacob’s Ladder” north of Mesnil. The trench was afterwards christened “Bathside Avenue” as a reminder of Harwich.

Incidentally, this trip at night was the first near approach to the line that any member of the Battery had made, and the journey through the semi-ruined village of Mesnil, with the eerie glare of star shells and the occasional whistling of snipers’ bullets, gave the party an insight into what war really meant.

The other O.P’s were already built and lines of communication laid, including the line to 25 H.A.G. Headquarters at Bouzincourt, from which exchange we could be put into communication with 10th Corps Headquarters.

The first shoot was observed from O.P. 333, and a corner in the enemy trench in front of Thiepval was selected as the point on which to register the guns. As this was on the reverse slope from the O.P. extremely good observation could be obtained. The observation party consisted of Major Brent Clark, Capt. Cobbold and a small party of observers and signallers, who had their first experience of being definitely under fire, for they were greeted with a few whizzbangs. The shoot was carried out satisfactorily, and by this time the work in the battery position, including dug-outs and construction of cover, had been completed. Shooting regularly took place and many points in the enemy’s lines were registered.

About this time an additional officer, Second Lieut. R. W. Satchwell, was posted to us, and he remained with the Battery until he was killed in action on the 31st January, 1917. A French interpreter was also posted to us, and Staff-Sergeant Bottomley, from Vickers works, came to assist in keeping the guns in order and look out for any defects so they could be avoided in any subsequent marks.

It soon became evident that a big engagement would take place in the near future, as large numbers of troops were always on the move and more batteries came into position. Our immediate neighbours were 26 Siege Battery with 6 inch guns, and 69 Siege Battery with 9.2 howitzers, on our left fank, whilst on our right was 48 Siege Battery, which had only recently arrived from Egypt, and manned 8 inch howitzers. Across the Amiens road was a R.M.A. battery with 15 inch howitzers, whilst in front of us were many 4.7 gun batteries, 4.5 howitzers and eighteen-pounder brigades.

After the 19th May many targets were registered and several of these were shelled regularly by the Battery, which even at this early stage in its career was shooting in a very satisfactory manner.

One effect of our position being in 3rd Corps area, which was to the right of 10th Corps area, was that we were almost always firing to the left of the centre line of the guns. In course of time this caused all the guns to assume a tilt, and two or three firing beams were broken whilst the Battery was in this position.

Life in the Battery went with a swing, each man pulling his weight. Occasional trips into Albert, Bouzincourt, Lavieville and other nearby villages – where there were cafés – coupled with occasional games of football and cards – bridge for the officers, pontoon and nap for the men – together with the mail from home, all helped to keep up the spirit of the battery, which soon seemed to grow into a big family of good comrades.

Firing took place daily, and apart, from trench targets the Battery had the satisfaction of quietening enemy trench mortars. On June 5th the battery took part in an hour’s bombardment of enemy trenches at Thiepval from 11 p.m. to midnight, when the Border Regiment raided the enemy trenches and took 100 prisoners. The Battery expended 100 rounds on this occasion.

A quiet spell for the Battery ensued for some days, and time was occupied largely in making accommodation for and receiving heavy supplies of ammunition, and constructing a forward gun position in Authuille Wood to which to move if the offensive was successful. (This position, however, was never used, as we were required to hold our old position for a long time after the offensive began).

From 24th June a general increase in firing took place along the sector, and daily our guns were active, shelling strong points in Thiepval, notably the Château, machine-gun emplacements, and Mouquet Farm, an enemy stronghold which later on proved a great obstacle to our infantry. Enemy batteries became more active and responded. Albert was often shelled heavily in return for our fire, and many attempts were made to bring down a R.F.C. kite balloon some what in our rear. As we were almost in line, we very nearly got some of the bad shots, which fell at just a comfortable distance from our “A” gun. Hostile aircraft also became more active, and almost every day air fights took place above our heads.

During the evening of the 25th June, together with our flank batteries, 61, 48, 26 and 69, we began a slow bombardment. Firing continued at an increased rate from 4 a.m. on the 26th, and during the day we expended 520 rounds, and it was noticed on this day that further south the firing became much heavier, which seemed to predict “something doing”.

From 27th June the bombardment increased in intensity and our guns were tested to capacity, and one day “A” and “B” guns fired 130 rounds each between midnight and noon, and “C’ and “D” guns 125 each between 6 a.m. and noon, in spite of vigorous protests from our Staff-Sergt. Bottomley, A.O.C., who exclaimed bitterly, “You are not equipped with machine-guns” It was certainly asking rather a lot for a 9.2 howitzer, a gun that was made to stand only about 6 rounds per hour.

Originally it had been intended that the attack should take place on the 28th June, but the weather was so bad that it was put off day after day, until finally zero hour was fixed for 7.30 a.m. on July 1st.

During the period from the 28th to the 30th June inclusive we were continually in action, and could see large numbers of troops in lorries and on foot proceeding towards the front line, and many field ambulances going forward. These, with the ammunition columns of both heavy and field artillery, not only filled the roads, but created an animated and most impressive scene, and the cheerful spirit of all concerned seemed to bode well for the result of the attack.

Throughout the night of 30th June desultory firing took place along the line, and judging by the continual flares and Verey Lights in the sky, there was an alertness in the front line trenches.

The morning of July 1st broke fine and warm, and the gun crews were on their posts at an early hour, Standing by till at 6.30 a.m. the allied bombardment opened intensively. The 10th Corps, commanded by General Morland, which the Battery was supporting, consisted of the 36th, 49th and 32nd Divisions, was placed between the 8th Corps on the left and the 3rd Corps on the right, and had as objectives the German positions in the neighbourhood of Thiepval.

We were engaged on enemy trenches and strong points in and near to Thiepval and our bombardment lasted till 10 a.m. Zero hour for the infantry was at 7.30 a.m. and success was immediate : objectives were gained and held along the front upon which the attack was launched, chiefly to the south, except at Thiepval, a very strong point of the enemy, where stout resistance was met and our infantry had to fall back with heavy loss.

As the day wore on we were confronted with much of the toll of war in the shape of the continual stream of ambulances, and men slightly wounded, slowly making their way back to dressing stations. Though there seemed to us a great number of these, it was but a small proportion of the casualties, apart from killed, that the British Army sustained that day. We were consoled, however, by the reports received of successes, and these soon had a telling effect on all concerned, as great importance was attached to this Somme offensive, and we knew that at last we had got the enemy on the move.

At 9 a.m., however, we discovered that the Germans were not to be so easily driven back, for they set up a counter-attack which opened with a heavy bombardment, to which 76 and all batteries replied. In spite of these counter-attacks little or no ground was given, however. About noon Major Clark, accompanied by a signaller, “Dan” Rose, went forward, with the object of finding a new site in Thiepval, but had to return disappointed, as it was still held by the enemy.

Towards the evening things quietened down a little, and the ”breather” came as a welcome to the gun teams who had worked hard and exceedingly well. The following day was quieter, and we were cheered to receive a report from H.Q: commending the Battery on its good shooting.

The attack was continued throughout the following days, and much progress was made in the South, but 76 were still engaged in bombarding the neighbourhood of Thiepval, which still held up the advance and seemed likely to do so for a considerable time.

The fine spell of weather suddenly broke and heavy thunderstorms with much rain made conditions bad for a few days, and to some extent had an adverse effect on operations.

So far the Battery had been happily blessed with good health and no casualties, and everybody kept up with wonderfully good spirit, but the luck did not hold too long. Lieut. Ashworth was the first to be put out of action, being caught in a barrage on his way to the O.P. on July 5th. Happily his wounds were not serious, and after being taken to a dressing station he was able to return to the Battery the same evening, only to be evacuated to the base four days later on account of the bad shaking up he had received.

The only part of the German line in our immediate sector, which was captured and held on the 1st July, was a corner of the “Leipzig Salient” and targets were allotted to 76 and other batteries extremely close to this small corner, which, a few days after the 1st July, was being held by the 1st Wilts. Regiment, commanded by Col. S. S. Ogilvie. Complaints were made that some heavy shells from British guns had fallen in this small area, and one day a target was allotted to us in the German front line, just to the right of the small sector held by the 1st Wilts. The 1st Wilts were nervous that our shells might fall in their sector, so Capt. Cobbold was ordered to report to Col. Ogilvie ; firing was not to commence until he got into communication with the Battery and reported that every available man was under cover. When Capt. Cobbold pointed out on the map the target which the Battery had been ordered to engage, Col. Ogilvie particularly asked that it should not be attacked as a mine had been laid practically under the spot. However, it was found impossible to get in communication with the Battery as the telephone line had been damaged by shell firing, and as the 1st Wilts were shortly afterwards going “over the top” Capt. Cobbold returned to the Battery and no firing took place on the allotted target.

There was no evidence that any shells from 76 had fallen amongst the 1st Wilts, but shells from some British siege battery were believed to have done so. So far as is known 76 was never accused of firing into our own trenches, but as will appear later on in this history, we had to refuse to shoot with one gun which was so worn that we could not rely on its accuracy, though the amount it was worn was not sufficient to enable the ordnance officers to condemn it.