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HERALD HISTORY: Insane slaughter on the Somme

THE First World War Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in human history. More than one million men were wounded or killed in the infamous offensive that took place around the River Somme in France between July 1 and November 18, 1916. To mark the centenary of the epic encounter between the armies of Britain and France against a determined German foe, Tamworth and District Civic Society is tonight (Thursday, June 23) screening the 1916 documentary film The Battle of The Somme.

Featuring actual footage shot during the battle, the film will be shown at Tamworth Parish Church with expert commentary by retired Tamworth GP Dr Geoffrey Noon, who is an Honorary Research Fellow in War Studies at the University of Birmingham and a founder member of the Western Front Association. Dr Noon will explain how men from Tamworth and district were involved in the battle which, for subsequent generations, has come to symbolise the insanity of trench warfare on the Western Front and the unspeakable carnage of World War One. By the end of the offensive, the British had suffered 420,000 casualties including nearly 60,000 on the first day alone. The French lost 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000.

Although young men from Tamworth and district fought in a number of regiments of the British Army, many were members of the 1/6th North Staffordshire Regiment which arrived in France to serve in the Great War in March 1915. The unit was made of territorial soldiers from Burton, Lichfield, Rugeley, Stafford and Uttoxeter, along with a Company of more than 100 men from Tamworth and district the Tamworth Territorials. Based at the Drill Hall in Corporation Street (now the Philip Dix Centre) the local men were persuaded to volunteer by ‘Your Country Needs You’ posters showing the unmistakable image of Secretary of War Lord Kitchener summoning them to arms to show their patriotism.

The Battle of the Somme came about because for a number of months the French had been taking severe losses at Verdun, to the east of Paris. To relieve the French, the Allied High Command decided to attack the Germans to the north of Verdun therefore requiring the Germans to move some of their men away from the Verdun battlefield, thus relieving the French. On May 9, 1916, the 1/6th North Staffords and the other units of 46 Division moved to Fonquevillers in the area of the River Somme in preparation for the offensive. It was from here that 46 Division would attack the German positions in the village of Gommecourt on the first day of the battle.

Senior British Commander General Douglas Haig amassed a huge army for the offensive, which was expected to result in a crushing victory for the British forces and lead to the end of the war. The plan was that after an intense seven-day barrage from the British artillery, the barbed wire and German trenches would be totally destroyed and that the attack would be a ‘cake-walk’. Just how backward Armyrats © military thinking was then is shown by the fact that the British put a regiment of cavalry on standby when the attack started to exploit the hole that they believed would be created by a devastating infantry attack.

During the week long artillery bombardment more than 1,738,000 shells were fired at the enemy lines. But the Germans had prepared well and when the bombardment started they moved into the relative safety of deep dugouts along the front line. When the shelling finally stopped, the Germans knew an infantry attack was imminent and they were ready and waiting. Prior to the attack at Gommecourt the weather was not kind to the 1/6th North Staffords. Due to heavy rain the trenches were in a very bad condition with it being reported that the assault trench was two to three feet deep in mud.

Then at 7.30am on July 1, 1916, the British front-line commanders blew their whistles and thousands of Tommies clambered ‘over the top’ of their trenches. A smoke screen had been put down, but the Germans were strategically positioned at their machine guns and immediately set about mowing down the Allied soldiers. Advancing across a 25-mile front, waves of Tommies were walking into a relentless hail of ferocious gunfire.

Those who managed to avoid being hit advanced only to discover that in many places the barbed was not destroyed by the bombardment and sufficient German forces remained alive to man the front line. Many of the British troops who reached the German lines lost direction and, unable to see any gaps in the wire, were easy targets for the defenders. It was carnage on a monumental scale. Records show that on this one day, July 1, 1916, there were 57,460 British casualties. Of these 21,292 officers and men were killed or missing presumed killed.

The attack at Gommecourt had resulted in 46 Division incurring 2,455 casualties. The 1/6th North Staffords suffered 326 casualties, 171 of who had been killed. A total of 17 Tamworth men were killed. Nine of them were either serving with the Tamworth Territorials or had a connection with this town. At least four other Tamworth Territorials were wounded during the attack. The nine men who died were: Captain John Masfen Stack; Second Lieutenant William Hutsby Heath; Sgt John Henry Charlesworth; Sgt Leon Stretton; Corp Sidney Robert Walton; Lance Corp Albert Thomas Weston; Private William Brentnall; Private John Butler; and Private Fred Greensmith.

A further eight men with a connection to this town and district were also killed serving with other regiments. These were Private Joshua Bailey (2 Duke of Wellington’s Regiment); Private William Bragg (1/5th Sherwood Foresters); Private George Herbert Farmer (1/8th Royal Warwickshire Regiment); Lance Corporal Ernest McDermott (8 York and Lancaster Regiment); Private William Joseph Meer (2 Lincolnshire Regiment); Private Walter Stevenson (2 Lincolnshire Regiment); Private William Henry Ward (2 Duke of Wellington’s Regiment); Private Alfred Wood (1/5th Sherwood Foresters). The following morning (July 2), British gunner George Coppard wrote. “We surveyed the dreadful scene in front of us it became clear that the Germans always had a commanding view of No Man’s Land.

“The (British) attack had been brutally repulsed. Hundreds of dead were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high water-mark. Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in the net.

“They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as if they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. Machine gun fire had done its terrible work.”

As well as being the single day of the Great War in which the British army was to suffer the greatest number of casualties, July 1, 1916, was also the single day that the most casualties from Tamworth and district were incurred. What makes the losses of the 1/6th North Staffords and the rest of 46 Division at Gommecourt most poignant is that they were taking part in a purely diversionary attack. The purpose was to ensure that German gunfire was not aimed at the main attack which was taking place a few miles south.

For that reason no attempt had been made to hide the fact that an attack at Gommecourt was to take place so the Germans simply had to wait for the attack to begin. The 46 Division suffered such heavy losses during the attack at Gommecourt that they were immediately withdrawn from the front line and for over two years they were not to be involved in any major action of the Great War. The losses of July 1 were replaced by drafts of officers and men, but it would appear that at this stage of the war only a small number of the original Tamworth Territorials were still serving with the 1/6th North Staffords, and few if any replacements came from the town.

The bodies of many of those who died in the battle remained on the wire or in ‘No Man’s Land’ until March 1917, when the Germans withdrew to better-fortified positions. Although some of the bodies were eventually retrieved and buried, due to the effects of exposure to the elements for such a length of time, their identity could not be established. It is for this reason that many of the men who were killed on July 1 have no known grave and are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, France.

In the course of the battle, 51 Victoria Crosses were won by British soldiers. 31 were won by NCOs and 20 by officers. Of these 51 medals, 17 were awarded posthumously 10 to NCOs and 7 to officers. By the end of the First World War a total of two officers and 26 men of the Tamworth Territorials would be dead, and at least 42 others would be wounded. Over recent years those who led the British campaign have received a lot of criticism for the way the battle was fought especially Douglas Haig. This criticism is based on the flawed plan and the appalling casualty figures suffered by the British and the French.

Instead of July 1, 1916, being commemorated as a glorious British victory, it is remembered as the British army’s blackest day. Many descendants of the men who served with the Tamworth Territorials during the Great War still live in Tamworth, and tonight’s showing of the film at St Editha’s Parish Church is a tribute to them and their comrades who served in this terrible conflict. In attendance will be the Mayor and Mayoress of Tamworth, Cllr Ken Norchi and Mrs Jean Norchi. Another special guest will be Mr Raymond Darkes of Dosthill, who believes that his father Frederick is shown in the film carrying a wounded compatriot.

Doors open at 7pm for a 7.30pm start. Tickets priced at 3 will be on sale at the door.

This article is based on information compiled by WWI researcher Bill Walton.

HERALD HISTORY: Insane Slaughter On The Somme