THE FIRST DAY OF THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME
I am sure that we watched or participated in the commemorations of the Battle of the Somme with a whole range of emotions. Try as one might I find it impossible to conceive the scale of the loss and its consequent impact. These after all were mostly men who had rushed to answer their country’s call in 1914, the remarkable cross section of British society that was Kitchener’s Army. For most it was their first taste of battle, they were ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances. In the words of one veteran; ‘We had no knowledge of what it would be like’. Each had to find their own way of coming to terms with what they were about to face.
It is only through the individual stories of the men, that I can begin to comprehend the Battle of the Somme, there are after all 57,470 stories and what follows is a personal selection.
We know that No. 4748 Private James Perkins 1st/6th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, whose grave we visited at Sucrerie Military Cemetery, was only 16 when he was killed on July 1st. He had lived at 20/24 South Road, Camp Hill, had enlisted in Birmingham, and his father James is listed as his next of kin. What is shocking to us is that he was not the only 16 year old to be killed on that day.
Second Lieutenant Henry Field also served with the 1st/6th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He had written to his mother some months earlier; ‘Thank God I don’t flinch from the sound of the guns’. On July 1st The Battalion reached their first objective near Serre, but came under continuous fire on both flanks and was forced to fall back to their original line. That morning 836 men had set out, and there were 457 casualties including Lt. Field who was killed. The official Battalion historian wrote, ‘July 1st- Ill-fated day. Wounds and death were the fruit of it, an accursed memory of horror…’
Field had attended Marlborough School and Birmingham School of Art. He wrote poetry and was also an artist. On the first Christmas of the war he had written;
Through barren nights and fruitless days
Of waiting when our faith grows dim
Lord thou hast been our refuge sure
Vouchsafe that we may see, dear Lord
Vouchsafe that we may see
Thy purpose through the aching days,
Field never finished the final line. He was 22 when he was killed, and is buried at Serre Road Cemetery No.2.
Jane Veevers (www.veeversresearch.co.uk ) joined the service in Coleshill on July 1st, which included a casualty vigil for the three men from Coleshill killed on that day 100 years ago.
One of those men was Private William Patrick Crewe, 9th Battalion, Devonshire Regiment.
Private Crewe is commemorated on the plaque at the Church of St Teresa and the Sacred Heart, Coleshill.
William Patrick Crewe was born in Birmingham on 31st December 1892, son of Mrs Catherine Crewe. He was sent to the St Paul’s Home, Coleshill, at the age of 5 in January 1897 by the Birmingham Board of Guardians because his mother was in the workhouse.
William remained in Coleshill until 27th April 1908 when he was sent to the St Vincent’s Working Boys Home on Moseley Road, Birmingham. He was discharged to lodgings in November 1909.
Upon the outbreak of war William enlisted in the 9th (Service) Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment in Birmingham (service number 12121). The Battalion formed part of Kitchener’s New Army and, after completing their training in the UK, first served in France on 27th July 1915.
The Battalion War Diary spells out the calamity that befell the 9th Devonshire’s in Mansel Copse, close to Mametz on July 1st 1916. It describes how three companies of the battalion stood up and started to advance, straight into the fire of a machine gun post situated in the base of a shrine in the corner of Mametz Churchyard. The Battalion Commanders had been told the Machine Gun post would have been obliterated by the artillery barrage.
Only half a dozen men of No 1 Company made it to the German trench. No.2 and 3 Companies did not fare much better. Eventually, Lieutenant Saville led No.4 Company along a fold of ground sheltered from the machine gun fire.
Survivors rallied, they got into the German trench, the French heavy guns gave support, the 8th Devon’s came charging in behind and Mametz was captured.
At the end of the day, the 9th Devon’s collected up their dead comrades and buried them in the trench from which they had started only that morning. There were 160 dead and with the wounded the 9th Devon’s had lost six out every ten men.
The 160 dead men were laid to rest and the trench was filled in. One of the burial party made a rough wooden cross and scratched an inscription on it. It read:
The Devonshires held this trench.
Private Crewe was killed in action on 1st July 1916 during the capture of the village of Mametz. He is buried in Row B, Grave 6, of the Devonshire Cemetery, Mametz, France. He was 23 years of age.
Buried alongside Private Crewe is Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson M.C. He was the youngest son of the Bishop of Ipswich, a talented athlete and a graduate of Christ Church College, Oxford. He was awarded the MC at the Battle of Loos, for holding a trench without reinforcements or supplies for 36 hours. He published his poetry under the name of Edward Melbourne and his work ‘Before Action’ is widely regarded as a premonition of death, as he had a detailed knowledge of the positioning of the German machine guns in the area they were due to attack;
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, O Lord.
By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
he laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncompromising eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this;-
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die , O Lord.
Sergeant Howard Victor Cashmore 1st/8th Royal Warwickshire Regiment enlisted with the 1st/8th T A battalion based at Aston Cross and was with the Battalion on summer camp when war was declared in 1914. The Battalion arrived in France in March 1915 and later became part of the South Midland Division. Sgt. Cashmore was killed on July 1st 1916 in the attack on the position known as The Quadrilateral, and to the Germans as Heidenkop. Despite terrible losses the Battalion reached their objective but in the evening, under heavy fire, they were forced to withdraw to their old front line. There were 588 casualties from the 1st /8th Royal Warwick’s on July 1st 1916. The land over which they fought is now the site of Serre Road No2 Cemetery, the largest cemetery on the Somme.
Sergeant Cashmore is one of 280 men from the 1st/8th and the 1st /6th Royal Warwickshire Regiment who have no known grave and are commemorated at Thiepval. We remembered them and the men who are also commemorated on the Sutton Coldfield Memorial when we laid our wreath on the monument in April.
Despite living in Little Green Lane in what is now Sutton Coldfield and being remembered on the Boldmere Church Roll of Honour, during their researches members of the Sutton Coldfield War Memorial Project , realised the Sergeant Cashmore’s name was not on the Sutton Coldfield War Memorial. I am proud that we were able to honour his memory.
In his award winning book ‘Into the Silence ‘Wade Davis examined the story of the expeditions to conquer Everest in the 1920’s. Most of the men had served in the First World War and their experiences were to shape the rest of their lives. In many ways the story of Arthur Wakefield is the most poignant. He had arrived in Newfoundland in 1908 after completing his medical studies in Edinburgh. It was a life of great hardship and he was one of only two doctors in the territory. Wakefield played a key role in recruiting and supplying rifles to the young men who flocked to St Johns to answer the call to arms. They left for England on October 3rd and spent a very wet and autumn and winter on Salisbury Plain.
For reasons that are not clear, Wakefield in August 1915 made an urgent request to transfer from the role of Medical Officer to the Newfoundland Regiment to the R.A.M.C. He was sent to 29th Casualty Clearing Station at Gezaincourt, S.W. of Doullens. There 50-60 casualties a day was the norm in the Spring of 1916, and that was a quiet time.
The Newfoundland Regiment were sent to Egypt in 1915 and from there to the Dardanelles for six months. There they were afflicted with cholera, dysentery, typhus and trench foot as well as the casualties inflicted by the Turks. After their withdrawal in January 1916 they eventually arrived on the Somme via Marseilles in April 1916.
On July 1st 1916 the Newfoundlander’s received an urgent order at around 9.30am to attack. This was one of a series of hastily organised attacks in an attempt to relieve the situation opposite Beaumont Hamel. They launched their attack from the British reserve trenches 300 yards behind the front line and as soon as they emerged the were cut down by the German machine guns as they attempted to negotiate the narrow gaps in the wire. That morning 752 men attacked, there were 684 casualties.
July 1st was the only day Wakefield failed to write in his diary. Casualties started to arrive at the 29th C.C.S at about 2.30pm and continued to arrive until 2,000 wounded and dying men surrounded the tents. Further convoys arrived at 9.30 pm and another at 4.00 am on July 2nd. Only a handful of Newfoundlander’s passed through the 29th C.C.S.
It was not until July 6th that Wakefield began to hear about the fate of the Newfoundlander’s many of whom he had brought into the world as a Frontier Doctor. He heard about the heroic action of Captain Duff who despite being wounded twice, with a handful of men, had reached the German trench with their grenades. He was killed by shellfire. By July 21st he had learnt the full truth about the fate of his beloved Newfoundlanders.
After the war Wakefield suffered from depression and nervous anxiety. He had been a deeply religious man, but after the Somme he never entered a Church again.