Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Battle of the Somme

100 years ago Field Marshall Haig determined on  great offensive that would push the Germans back from their positions. Bombardment of the German lines began on June 26th and continued for five days and then on July 1st, on the assumption that the Germans had suffered heavy casualties, Haig ordered the assault be the infantry and waves of men were sent over the top.

Unfortunately the assumption that the Germans would have wilted under the bombardment proved to be without foundation. The germans had dug trenches 15 metres deep and reinforced their positions with concrete. The five day bombardment had been wasteful and achieved nothing. This was as nothing compared to the waste of life on July 1st. The advancing British troops were literally mown down by German machine gunners. The losses were devastating. The Middlesex regiment, for example, sent out 740 men and lost 622 in the first 10 minutes. This information did not get back to headquarters in time and a second wave of men was sent out even as it was obvious that they would die in this carnage. 20,000 British soldiers lost their lives on that first day and a further 40000 were wounded. Even more astonishing as we read about it 100 years later was that Haig refused to listen to reports that the offensive was not successful and repeated the same tactics on July 2nd.

The fighting continued, albeit with more realistic caution by the generals. The battle continued for the month with virtually no change of positions but with massive loss of life. Some local men were involved in this battle and here are some reports at first hand from that terrible month.

Regarding their youngest son, 26 year old Sapper Albert Edward Sanders, Royal Engineers, Mr. and Mrs. C. Sanders, of 39, Oxford Street, Wolverton, have received the following letter from Captain F. A. Neill, Royal Engineers;
“I am deeply grieved to have to inform you that your son, Sapper A. E. Sanders, was killed in action on Monday night. Along with a section, he was engaged in wiring a trench captured from the enemy, when he was killed instantaneously by a shell which at the same time wounded two of his comrades. I had known your son 18 months, and during that time had many opportunities of learning his splendid capabilities. I feel that any sympathy I can offer you is so very small in comparison with your great loss, but I am sure you will find a great amount of consolation in that he died serving his King and country and doing his duty bravely and well. In him we have lost a good comrade. Will you please accept from all the officers and men of this company our deepest sympathy”
(Sapper Sanders was killed on Monday, July 3rd, 1916, and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France.) W.E. 1916 July 14th
§ Rifleman Thomas Nichols, of the London Rifles, was wounded in the right arm by a shell on the opening day of the advance, and is now in a Canadian Hospital in France. He is the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. H. Nichols, 37, Church Street, Wolverton, to whom he writes that he had to crawl back to camp under cover of darkness, hiding in a shell hole up to his knees in water. He was at one time Secretary of the Wolverton Hockey Club, and when he left for South America the members presented him with a cigarette case. However, after the outbreak of war he left his responsible post on the Central Argentine Railway, and returned home to enlist. W.E. 1916 July 14th
§ Mr. Edward North, of Green Lane, Wolverton, has received a letter from his son, Private T. North, of the 6th Battalion, Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, stating that in the charge at Fricourt, on July 3rd, he was wounded in the muscle of his left arm, and is now in Middlesex War Hospital. W.E. 1916 July 14th
§ Mrs. W. Morgan, of Wolverton, has received a letter from her husband, Company Sergeant Major W. Morgan, 2nd Battalion, Leinsters, stating that he was wounded in the back by shrapnel on July 6th, and is now in hospital. He has undergone his operation and is progressing favourably, the piece of shell having been extracted. A regular soldier, he has served nine years in the 2nd Leinsters, and was previously wounded at St.Eloi, in February 1915. W.E. 1916 July 14th
On Tuesday morning an intimation was received by Mrs. Young, a widow, that her son, Private John Young, King’s Royal Rifles, was missing. The information stated that he had been selected as one of a party to raid the German trenches, and that he had not returned. On Wednesday morning Mrs. Young then received the following letter, signed by Privates J. George and J. Sable;
“I am very sorry to have to inform you that your son Jack has been reported missing. He was one of a raiding party that raided the enemy’s lines on the 2nd July. I express the hope that the worst has not befallen him, and that he may be a prisoner, as some of his comrades are also reported missing, and we are all hoping that news will be received of them. Should this hope fail I would like to offer you my sincere sympathy. Jack was a son to be proud of and was well liked by all his comrades, and should he have fallen he died doing his duty to his country and those at home, like a true Englishman.”
Before the war, Private Young had been a member of the Church Lads’ Brigade at Wolverton. W.E. 1916 July 14th
§ Lance Corporal Arthur Stephenson, of the Oxon and Bucks Light Infantry, writes home to his mother, who lives in Windsor Street, Wolverton;
“I have had the misfortune to get wounded. It was only slight, and am very thankful, as it hit my head. I was on sentry at the time, and saw this German myself, and could easily have shot him. Up to now I have always given a German a sporting chance and remember many a time instead of throwing a bomb I have thrown a lump of chalk just to give a reminder that he could be hit. From now on I don’t care who and where it is if at any time I come across them they will be picking daisies up instead of drinking Lager beer in Berlin. I am all right and perhaps shall have rejoined my regiment by the time this reaches you. It was a near thing, but I don’t want you to worry, as I am quite well and only waiting to go out of the rest camp, which is not far from the firing line. I have had the luck to have new potatoes, cabbage, and roast meat for dinner, and am thinking I would like another scratch just to get a dinner like it again. It is a good bit of news I am letting you know - that your humble has been recommended for the Military Medal; four out of my Company counting myself. It might not go through, but am hoping it will as I deserve one and a rest after 23 months’ fighting and not scrounging, as many are doing at the present time.” W.E. 1916 July 21st
Lance Corporal A. Fincher, 2nd Bucks Battalion, was killed in action on July 19th. Aged 19, he was the third son of Mr. and Mrs. F. Fincher, of 43, High Street, Stantonbury, to whom Second Lieutenant Floyd writes;
It is with feelings of deepest regret that I write to inform you of the death of your son, No. 1477, Corpl. A.O. Fincher. He was killed on the night of the 19th inst., whilst in charge of a machine gun section, and will be missed very much, as he was a general favourite, and a very efficient N.C.O. He was in my platoon and I considered him to be one of my best N.C.O.s. Again tendering you my sincere sympathy.”
Two brothers are in the Forces. One was wounded a while ago in France, and the other is at Salonica. W.E. 1916 July 28th
Private Frederick Thomas Willis, of the Bucks Battalion, Oxon and Bucks Light Infantry, was killed in France during a heroic and desperate bayonet charge against the Germans on the night of July 19th. In a letter to the bereaved mother, 2nd Lieutenant J. R. Floyd writes;
“It is with feelings of deepest regret that I write to inform you that your son was killed in action on the night of the 19th inst. He was a very reliable and efficient soldier, never complaining if there was any hard work to do or if everything was not quite as it might have been. He was in my platoon, and I shall miss him very much. Again asking you to accept my sympathy, yours sincerely, J. R. Floyd, 2nd Lieut.”
Twenty three years of age, the late Private Willis had enlisted last November 11th and went with his regiment to France nine weeks ago. Before volunteering, he had been employed as a body maker in the Wolverton Carriage Works and being a man of exemplary character, he was well known and greatly respected in Hanslope. A devoted church worker, and a prominent member of the local branch of the Church of England Temperance Society, he was also a member of the band of church bellringers. B.S. 1916 July 29th
§ Mrs. Phillips, of 128, Windsor Street, Wolverton, has received a notification that her son, Private C. Phillips, has been severely wounded in the left leg and lower jaw, and is now in the 37th Casualty Clearing Station. Writing to his mother he says;
“I have been wounded, being hit between knee and thigh in about ten places. It is a nasty leg and done up in irons. I also got a piece in my jaw to make it worse, but still keep never minding.” W.E. 1916 July 28th (Charlie Phillips was a regular sight around Wolverton in the 1940s and 50s. He was postman and although he had a wooden leg, as a consequence of the above injuries, he gamely did his daily rounds. He also used a tricycle with a fixed wheel so that he could pedal with one leg.)
Regarding her eldest son, Private S. Bissell, of the Royal Warwicks, Mrs. S. Bissell, of 23, St. Giles Street, Stantonbury, has received the following letter from Private Arthur W. Jencock, of the same regiment;
“As Sam and I promised each other to write home if either of us got hit, it is my very painful duty to tell you that he got killed in action on Monday, July 17th. He was shot through the head by a sniper and died instantly, and we buried him behind our trench at night. I hardly know how to express my great sympathy with you, nor to tell you how greatly I miss him, as we have been the best of pals since we first came to France. He died as he lived, cheerful and playing the game. I am sorry I cannot tell you more, so will close - again expressing my greatest sympathy with you.”

Aged 23, Private Bissell had been in the Bucks Territorials for four years, and on rejoining was sent up from base with the Warwicks.  W.E. 1916 Aug. 4th

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