The Military Army Blog

SOMME CENTENARY: How soldiers from the Ox and Bucks fought and died in the Battle of the Somme

WHILE July 1, 1916 marked the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, troops from the county first stepped foot on the now-infamous land nearly a year earlier. On July, 20, 1915, the British Army took over part of the line on the Somme, and this included the 1/4th Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, the county s territorial battalion. Two days later, on July 22, 1915, Pte Edward Whitlock from Banbury was the first British soldier to die on the Somme front, when killed in early morning shelling.

He was the first of some 2,000 from the regiment to fall on the Somme over the next 17 months. They are recorded in the Regimental Books of Remembrance in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and their names figure on many war memorials across the county. On June 24, 1916 there was an intense barrage of the German trenches before the main battle, which led to the word ‘Somme’ being embedded in the British psyche as a byword for sacrifice and waste.

The barrage included two days of gas attacks, driving many German soldiers mad, and as one stated: “The torture and the fatigue, not to mention the strain on our nerves was indescribable.”

The attack was then immediately preceded by the explosion of 11 large and eight small mines underneath the German trenches. At 7.30am on July 1, walking in straight lines as little resistance was expected, the first British troops were met with a hail of machine gun fire that mowed them down in their thousands. That day the British Army suffered 57,470 casualties with 19,240 killed, most of them from Kitchener s New Army battalions.

Extraordinarily none of the Ox & Bucks battalions were involved that day. However, by November 18, when the battle ended after 141 days of fighting, seven battalions had fought on the Somme, including the two which also took part in a disastrous diversionary attack to the north at Fromelles. Throughout that period, the battalions took part in some of the bitterest fighting, were withdrawn, received replacements, retrained and returned to the line several times, thus suffering a steady stream of casualties. Additionally, soldiers from the Oxfordshire Hussars were drafted into the infantry as reinforcements.

It is very difficult for anyone, 100 years after the Somme, to make sense of what occurred or understand those who made the decisions that led to such carnage. What we can do is remember those who suffered and died so terribly, marvel at their endurance and faith, and work as hard as we can to ensure that such horrors are never visited upon humankind again. That is a task for all of us and makes our promise on November 11 that ‘We will remember them,’ ever more relevant.

*Redcoats to Riflemen: A Short History of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire County Regiment by Robin Draper is available from the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum[1] in Woodstock.

References

  1. ^ Oxfordshire Museum (www.oxfordmail.co.uk)

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