Chapter Six. Eve of the Somme Battle..
AND now we pass on to working parties. There was no such thing as the old " fatigue parties," and the man who performed the duties of carrying, digging, &c., to the utmost of his ability was counted (and quite rightly, too) as having done as much to defeat the enemy as the man who went on patrol or took part in an attack.
The first of the five phases of an attack was "the organization of our trenches for the assembly of the attacking force," and this meant defensive work as well as new work in construction. There was the neverceasing duty of keeping trenches, entanglements, dugouts, &c., in a proper state of repair and sanitation. An additional holdfast to a revetment or a few minutes pumping every morning would probably save a whole fire-bay or dug-out from collapsing. The 31st Division commenced its organization of trenches immediately on arrival in the area, and the Sheffield and Barnsley Battalions played their part so well in this direction that there was always a great demand and a world of praise for " The York and Lancaster Working Parties." As previously mentioned, " D " Company, under Major Hoette, was a permanent working party from May 2nd to May 16th, and two platoons until the end of the month. The splendid work this Company did drew forth the following commendation: " H.Q., 94th Infantry Brigade. I desire to bring to your notice the keenness and industry shown by the Permanent Working Party of the 12th York and Lancaster Regiment during the past fortnight. (Sgd.) G. J. P. GOODWIN, Major R. E., " O. C. 223 Field Company." The Brigadier-General G. T. C. Carter-Campbell, D.S.O., commanding the 94th Infantry Brigade, informed the Commanding Officer (Lieut-Col. Crosthwaite) of his pleasure on receiving such a good report of the work done by the Battalion. Further honour was gained for the Battalion by Captain (then 2nd Lieut.) T. E. Grant, who, being appointed Brigade Pioneer Officer on May 2nd, showed so much zeal, enterprise, and fearlessness in superintending trench work that he was mentioned in dispatches by the Commander-in-Chief. The work chiefly consisted of repairs to damaged trenches, the opening up of neglected ones, and the digging of assembly and communication trenches. One or two communication trenches were converted into fire trenches. But quite early much road work had to be done in the district owing to the heavy rains and traffic. Before the " push " considerable attention was paid to the wire defences, and carrying parties were a daily and nightly feature. There appeared to be a never-ending stream of ammunition, bombs, grenades, rockets, lights, and Stokes' T.M. bombs between Colincamps and the front line. A week before the attack huge gas cylinders were emplaced in the line. The tasks were neither pleasant nor safe, and the officers as well as men often had to endure hardships. The Battalion's first experience in this sphere of labour almost broke all hearts, and folk who had called distasteful events " pin pricks " now said " sword thrusts " instead. On two or three occasions there were casualties in the working parties. On May Ist a party under Lieut. Ingold and Lieut. Storry was shelled at Ellis Square, one man being killed and three others wounded. On the 29th of the same month " D " Company's wirers came under machine-gun fire, one man being killed and two wounded. It was remarkable that more casualties did not occur. On May 1 10th, while the Battalion was resting at Warnimont Wood, Field-Marshal Earl Haig visited the area and watched the Battalion as it carried out " refresher " training. The day of the visit was a beautiful one, and the approach through the wood of the Commander-in-Chief with his brilliant cavalcade of staff officers, Lancers, and Guards was noble and inspiring. It was but a glimpse of a world's great man, but a glimpse never to be forgotten. Major-General R. Wanless O'Gowan, C. B., commanding the division, inspected the Battalion on June lst and complimented the men on their excellent conduct on the nights of May 15th and 16th. " There's a lot of work to be done," he said, " and you will be to the front when the great offensive commences. " The next interesting event was the Battalion's practice of communication with aircraft in operations. This took place on 3rd June, at Bus, and was very noteworthy, being a practical test of the theory of inter-communication between infantry and aircraft. On June 5th, the Battalion marched to Gezaincourt to practice the assault with the remaining brigade battalions. A week was spent in this village, and it was one of the happiest times ever spent in France by the Battalion. Gezaincourt, situated in the heart of a lovely valley, was close to Doullens, a great attraction from all points of view. The day's labour ended, the men flocked to Doullens, the first fair-sized town they had ever seen since their arrival on the miserable, ruined Somme, and " made hay while the sun shone." They were as youths to whom the evil day had come not. It was at this point that Major Clough was evacuated to the base, and thence to England, with a serious knee trouble. The Battalion was sorry to lose the genial Second-in-Command, for he had been associated with it since the commencement, and had done much valuable work, particularly in administrative directions. He was always sympathetic towards the men, and he was a man of Sheffield. In tabulated form 1 give the moves of the Battalion from the time of arrival in France to the end of June:
Officers who joined the Battalion were: 2nd Lieuts. C. C. Cloud, P. K. Perkin, E. M. Carr, E. N. M. Butterworth, J. Thompson, H. S. Lumb, Lieut. H. Oxley, 2nd Lieuts. C. H. Wardill, W. H. Rowlands, F. Dinsdale. The preceding pages, though devoted to the doings of a single battalion, show how methodically, thoroughly, and relentlessly the British prepared for the tremendous assault on the Somme. The blow about to be struck was to shake the enemy as he had never been shaken before, and to make him realize-probably for the first time-that the British land power was no longer to be treated with contempt, but treated as a most serious menace. The Somme offensive had been planned for some months, but the hour at which the stroke should be made was not known until the year had well advanced. It depended upon the Verdun battle. The French, in order to permit of the British Commander training and developing his citizen armies, hung on to the Verdun defences until their strength was almost on the breaking-point. True, they had inflicted enormous casualties on the enemy in this grim, prolonged struggle; but they, too, had lost heavily. And there seemed to be no ending to the German reinforcements and no limit to his madness to secure Verdun. He counted not the cost. In the early days of June, Marshal Joffre asked for relief. That relief was forthcoming. The British offensive was timed to commence on June 29th, the hour 7.30 a.m. In the forward area huge dumps of ammunition, equipment, and stores for every arm of the Service were rapidly formed. Wonderful transport work was performed. Day and night thousands of troops conveyed S.A.A., Stokes' mortar shells, "football " bombs, hand grenades and rifle grenades, rations and water to selected points in the trenches. Hundreds of gas cylinders were installed in the front line by carrying-parties and special brigades. Supplies never failed in a single direction. Indeed, the organization was well-nigh perfect. The duty of the 31st Division in the great offensive was to form a defensive flank for the remainder of the Fourth Army, which was to attack the German first-line system. In order to be in a position to form this flank the division had first to capture the village of Serre, and the taking of the village was considered essential to the success of the general operation. It was the duty of the 94th Infantry Brigade to carry this operation to a successful conclusion. The attack of the 31st Division was to be carried out by two brigades-the 93rd on the right and the 94th Brigade on the left. The 92nd Brigade, less one company, was in divisional reserve. The frontage occupied by the 94th Brigade was approximately to be 700 yards, extending from John Copse to the southern point of Matthew Copse, and this was to be shared by the 11th (S.) Battalion East Lancashire Regiment and the 12th (S.) Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, the former on the right and the latter on the left, the post of honour. Each battalion was to have an approximate frontage of 350 yards. The 13th and 14th Battalions York and Lancaster Regiment were to be in brigade reserve, 13th York and Lancaster Regiment on the right and 14th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment on the left. June 24th was described as " U " day, and the preliminary bombardment opened, the artillery commencing to cut the German wire. June 25th was "V " day, and the heavy artillery bombardment commenced. On the VIIIth Corps front three German observation balloons were destroyed on the afternoon by bombs from our aeroplanes. June 26th was " W " day. In the early evening MajorGeneral R. Wanless O'Gowan, C. B., spoke to the assaulting troops of the Battalion: " The local German reserves have already come up owing to the bombardment," he said; " but, unfortunately for them, they have run into a lot of deadly gas, which we have been letting off on the Fourth Army front. Never before have we had such a preponderance in all arms as now. We have superiority in numbers also. The village of Serre will be taken." June 27th was " X " day, and the gathering guns increased their roarings and aviators became exceedingly venturesome and annoying to the enemy. At every available opportunity there were discharges of gas and smoke along the whole line, and the enemy was severely punished. Raiding and wire-examining parties were sent out every night and Bangalore torpedoes were taken in order to cut wire. Several men of the Sheffield Battalion showed bravery and coolness whilst on this work, and the undermentioned were mentioned for valour on the night June 27th-28th, when hostile artillery and trench mortars were particularly active: Lieut. F. W. S. Storry (mentioned in dispatches). *Sgt. R. Henderson. Lce-Cpl. G. W. Jones. Pte. A. K. Rigg. Pte. G. F. Wagstaffe. Pte. J. S. Swift. Pte. J. H. Kelk. * Died of wounds. Eve of the Somme Battle. *Pte. H. Storey. Lce.-Cpl. A. Rixham. *Pte. T. E. Gambles. * Died of wounds. June 28th was " Y" day; but in the afternoon the order came that operations had been postponed forty-eight hours owing to the heavy rains; the trenches were in many places half-full of water, and enemy retaliation at certain points had badly damaged our line. So far as the divisional front was concerned, blown-in parts of the front line and communications had been repaired, but Rob Roy trench, which it was hoped to use as an assembly trench, was so badly knocked about and so thoroughly registered by enemy batteries that the idea had to he abandoned. There was still a good deal of water to be drained away. The terrific bombardment and general aggressiveness continued. Writing about the gun-fire, a German soldier said:
Another wrote in his diary thus:
An unknown German soldier spoke of British gas attacks as follows:
Our Air Service made a great impression, too. The following is an extract from a captured German document:
A further extract:
Such were the complaints of the individual enemy.