The Military Army Blog

Bygones: Waves of Sherwood Foresters went over the top to death

THE dawn of a warm summer’s day and the blowing of whistles started what was to become known as the Battle of Albert and which heralded the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. Men from Derbyshire were heavily involved throughout the five months of this brutal battle, largely through their membership of one of the many battalions of the Sherwood Foresters[1] formed during the First World War[2]. The combined Anglo-French infantry attacked on the south bank from Foucaucourt to the Somme and from the Somme north to Gommecourt, two miles beyond Serre. Visibility was excellent on that morning of July 1, which was not good for soldiers hoping to surprise their enemy. At 7.27am, the Sherwood Foresters began discharging smoke into no-man’s-land to give their advance an element of concealment. The 139th Brigade, made up of Sherwood Forester territorial battalions, divided with the 1/7th Robin Hoods in the first attacking wave with the 1/5th to their right. The 1/6th would move in support of this two-battalion attack and the 1/8th would act as a reserve.

But crucially there was no plan for a diversion or a shell attack, which left the Sherwood Foresters very exposed. The 139th Brigade was to attack in five waves. Three minutes after the smoke began to drift across no-man’s-land, the first wave went over the top, closely followed by the second wave and the emerging third wave. The first three waves contained 600 to 700 men. They all disappeared into the mist, many never to return after being mown down by German machine gun fire but the Sherwood Foresters represented by the Robin Hoods were already committed. The gaps in the British barbed wire were insufficiently wide forcing the men to huddle together unnecessarily in certain areas as they tried to get through. The first wave was virtually wiped out but some men from the second and third waves reached the German front line trench, and a few even pushed on to the German second line trench.

According to the regimental war diary: “Only about 12 men reached the German second line; they found the wire was sufficiently cut to enable them to get through; this small party was in the second line until the smoke cleared, and finding that they were not supported by any other of our men and that a number of Germans were approaching them from dugouts, they fell back on the German first line trench, about five reaching it.”

To make matters worse, the British artillery was adding to the list of Allied dead and wounded by shelling near to where the men had charged. It was total disaster for the first three waves and a further extract from the war diary reads: “In this trench were about 24 of our men who had been endeavouring to make some sort of fire position; before this could be done, the Germans made a bombing (hand grenade) attack, both from the right and the left; our men were unable to offer much resistance, their rifles in some cases being muddy, and having no supply of bombs, eventually those that were left retired and took shelter in shell holes, immediately west of the German wire, remaining there until dark.”

The fourth wave managed to reach the German trench but they had not been much use to the first three waves because of the German machine gun fire. In letters written after the battle, some of the soldiers refer to the terrible conditions they endured in the trenches including “wading through water up to the waist” and “up to our knees in mud”, describing the scene on July 1 as “worse than Dante’s inferno, worse than hell fire”. The fifth wave, which should have had an easier time if the first four had been successful, found the going very slow as it marched forward and reached the second trench just as the German artillery opened up again. Withdrawing was unthinkable and abandoning the waves ahead would be unforgivable leaving those in charge in an almost impossible dilemma.

So, as the fifth wave climbed over the parapet to rush through the explosions and thousands of shrapnel fragments, several shells landed squarely amongst them. The commanding officer made it across no-man’s-land, only to get a bullet in the head as he looked over a small bank to see what was happening. Most of his men had not even made it as far as no-man’s-land and lay dead or wounded within their own lines. It was still only 7.55am. The German bombardment continued through to 9.30am and no further advancement was possible and many more men were dead or injured. Overnight, some soldiers who had survived managed to make it back to Allied lines. But many hundreds more were unaccounted for as July 2 dawned, lost dead or dying in no-man’s-land.

In total, around 424 Sherwood Foresters officers and men had been killed on the first day of the Battle of Somme about half of the soldiers who had set out on that bright summer’s morning. There followed a series of battles right through the five months of the Battle of the Somme, involving various battalions of Sherwood Foresters, which were being hastily regrouped and reformed to make up for the early losses. Many of the missing men are now recorded on memorials at one of many Somme battlefield cemeteries that were established after the war. They also contain the graves of many unidentified soldiers killed in action or who died of their wounds.

The battlefields of the Somme today contain many thousands of graves for the identified and unidentified remains of those killed in action or who died of their wounds. The land on which the British cemeteries and official memorials are situated was given by the French government for those soldiers buried or named there to remain in perpetuity. Some of the British and Commonwealth cemeteries contain a small number of battlefield burials for the graves of soldiers buried close to where they fell in action. Others are large so-called “collecting” or “concentration” cemeteries, where the remains of identified and unknown soldiers have been brought together from smaller cemeteries or individual plots.

There were nine battalions of the Sherwood Foresters during the period of 1914-1918. As the new Kitchener armies were raised in 1914, the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th (Service) Battalions were formed. These were followed by the 15th (Bantams), consisting of men under 5ft 3ins who were considered too short until numbers of men were low, 16th (Chatsworth Rifles), 17th (Welbeck Rangers), 18th (Bantams) and 19th and 20th Battalions.

The 9th took part in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign and later moved to France and took part in several of the main offensives, including the battle of the Somme between July and November 1916 and 1917, gaining a reputation for stubborn fighting qualities.

Notably,Captain John Leslie Green was given the Victoria Cross as part of Royal Army Medical Corps attached to 1st/5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters at Gommecourt on July 1.

References

  1. ^ Sherwood Foresters (www.derbytelegraph.co.uk)
  2. ^ First World War (www.derbytelegraph.co.uk)

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