THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, 1916

A continuation of the story of Jimmy Astin MM.

We know that Private James Astin was at the Battle of the Somme, with the 1st Battalion. He is quoted as being there in his newspaper interview. Using this we can place him at the Battle of Albert n the 1st of July 1916. Details of what happened that day are in this extract from the The History of the Lancashire Fusiliers 1914-1918 Volume-1 Page 137.

After leaving Gallipoli and Egypt they embarked for France landing at Marseilles on the 29th March 1916 moving to the western front. The 1st Battalion … moved to the Beaumont Ramel district (when) it came to France. From 15th to 29th June, the majority were at Mailly Wood, practising the next attack. “C” Company, and the 10% battle reserve, took over a portion of the line on 23rd June and carried out a series of patrols and raids. They tried to discover the state of the German wire at the various stages of the preliminary bombardment and whether the enemy was manning his front line.

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Part of a map contained in the British Official History [Crown Copyright]. The Somme offensive was begun by the British Fourth Army (red) and the French Sixth Army (blue), attacking the German Second Army (green). The map shows the position of the front line just before the start of the offensive.

The Attack on Beaumont Hamel, 1st July

1st and 2nd Battalions

The Lancashire Regiment were in the 29th Division, part of the VIII corp.

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British Objectives, Somme, 1 July 1916.                                                                         Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=379489

To the north of the River Ancre, and just to the left of the ground where the Salford battalions (32nd Division) fought on 1st July, lay another important objective, the Grandcourt-Serre ridge. This was the goal of the VIII Corps, in which the 1st and 2nd Battalions were serving, in the 29th and 4th Divisions respectively. The distance from the British front line to the ridge was about two thousand yards, and the plan of attack allowed the troops three hours and twenty minutes to cross it. The Germans had protected the ridge by a very formidable series of defences, many of which lay in valleys out of sight of British artillery observers and were consequently not touched by the long preliminary bombardment. The most deadly of these was the strongly fortified village of Beaumont Hamel, lying in a salient of the front system, which could cover with flanking fire all the ground to be crossed by the 29th and 4th Divisions. It stood right in the path of the former, the 4th being immediately on the left of the 29th.

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Battle of Albert 1916

One of its outposts was Hawthorn Redoubt, under which a large mine had been prepared. After much controversy, it was decided to explode this mine at 7.20 a.m. on 1st July, ten minutes before the attack was to be delivered. The unfortunate effect of this decision was that the Germans, who had been warned by the seven days’ bombardment that a big offensive was imminent and were uncertain only as to the day and hour of its launching, rightly interpreted the explosion as the signal for the attack and thus had ten minutes’ grace in which to man their trenches and make their final preparations. These were helped by the fact that all the British heavy artillery had to stop firing on the front trenches when the mine blew up so as to avoid the risk of hitting the parties seizing the crater. When the troops of the 29th Division came to leave their own trenches, their only covering fire was a thin barrage of 18-pounder guns, Stokes mortars and machine guns.

Before the battle, on 29th June, the main body was addressed by the Divisional Commander, Major-General H. de B. de Lisle, who said: “To you has been set the most difficult task-that of breaking the hardest part of the enemy’s shell.” That evening they went up into the line.

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British infantry on the Vaux-sur-Somme road, 1916. Imperial War Museum image Q69969

The battalion’s objective was the village of Beaumont Hamel itself. Between this and the British front line lay a sunken road. between ten and fifteen feet deep and running north and south, shallow at its northern end but overhung and lined with trees at the southern. Tunnels had been dug from the British front line to this natural trench, and one of these was opened up on the night before the attack, whereupon at 3.30 a.m. on 1st July “B” and “D” Companies, with the Brigade Bombing Company and eight Stokes mortars, occupied the sunken road.

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Stokes Mortar Team iwm Q35290

Battalion headquarters moved thither at 7 a.m., at which time the Germans began shelling the road with field guns, having apparently noticed the communication trench made by the tunnels. Hot breakfasts were issued to all ranks; and several photographs were taken in the sunken road by Mr. Malins, the official photographer. Officers were dressed like the men. The latter each carried 120 rounds of ammunition, two days’ rations and two bombs; the leading companies carried fifty shovels and ten picks each; each platoon carried two trench bridges; and men of the rear companies carried engineer stores. Few could get much sleep before the attack owing to the incessant roar of the bombardment.

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Image © IWM (Q 754) – The mine under German front line positions at Hawthorn Redoubt is fired 10 minutes before the assault at Beaumont Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916.

At 7.20 a.m. the mine below Hawthorn Redoubt exploded, and “B“ and “D” Companies lined up for the attack while the 86th Stokes Mortar Battery opened a hurricane bombardment. At 7.30 a.m. the leading sections of those companies moved forward and “A” Company began to leave the front line to support them.

The first two lines of  “B ” and ” D ” Companies had not moved many yards when enemy machine guns opened fire. Their third and fourth lines were almost annihilated as they left the sunken road, and only a few wounded, including the two company commanders (Captains G. P. Nunneley and C. F. Wells), succeeded in crawling back into it. “A” Company also suffered heavily in its advance to the sunken road, but Captain E. G. Matthey managed to reach its northern end with a few men and to push on a short way before he fell mortally wounded.

“C” Company was caught by machine– gun fire as it left the front line, Captain E. M. Dawson and Company Serjeant-Major Nelson being hit as they stood up to give the order to advance. One platoon was blocked by wounded in the communication trench leading to the sunken road. But Second– Lieutenant W. R. B. Caseby and about sixty men reached the latter, though they were so encumbered with coils of wire and tools that many of them rolled down its steep banks and half an hour’s delay resulted before the remnants of “A” and “C” Companies could be reorganized for a further advance.

Serjeant Caulfield, a Lewis gunner, spotted a German machine gun firing from behind some debris in the village and pointed it out to Lieutenant-Colonel Magniac, who ordered two Lewis guns to engage it. But no sooner had they opened fire than they were shelled by field guns, one gun being hit-a tribute to the quickness and accuracy of the German observation. The machine gun, however, did not again fire from the same position.

At 8.15 a.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Magniac ordered the Stokes mortars to open a rapid burst of fire, under cover of which Caseby was to lead forward some seventy-five men who had been collected, with a view to gaining a footing in the northern end of the village, where the ground was higher and promised a good field of fire. The party dashed forward with great bravery, but were caught by machine-gun fire as they topped the crest a few yards from the sunken road and were mown down, only Caseby, Lieutenant I. Gorfunkle and about ten men reaching the German wire.

It was by then evident that the battalion could not succeed in its task and, though the brigadier issued orders for a further attack at 12.30 p.m., with an artillery bombardment, he immediately countermanded them on learning that Lieutenant-Colonel Magniac had by now only about seventy-five men and one officer in the sunken road and some fifty in the front line and elsewhere, while over one hundred wounded lay in the road. He ordered Lieutenant– Colonel Magniac to reorganize his battalion, make sure of holding the sunken road and watch his left flank. But before this fresh order arrived, an attempt was made to comply with the original message, Captain E. W. Sheppard doing very useful work in trying to collect unwounded men; and at 12.30 p.m. Major Utterson advanced with the only men he could collect, some twenty-five in all, with the intention of attaching to himself the unwounded men in the sunken road and pushing on to the German lines. Actually, he and four men alone survived to reach the road.

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Battle of Albert. Roll call of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, on the afternoon of 1 July 1916, following their assault on Beaumont Hamel during the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. © IWM (Q 734)

The afternoon was spent in trying to organize the road for defence. German shells caused more casualties; and snipers killed a good many of the wounded as they moved or tried to put on their field dressings. At 6 p.m. the sunken road was evacuated except for a party of one officer and twenty-five men detailed to hold it during the night. After dark all available stretcher-bearers and other men searched for wounded. Throughout the night wounded men crawled in and about midnight Second-Lieutenants G. R. Spencer, I. Gorfunkle, G.R. Craig and Caseby came in with about twenty men, having spent the day in a small hollow just short of the German wire, too weak in numbers to force their way through, but able to make a useful contribution to the battle by keeping up a flanking fire towards Hawthorn Redoubt.

The day had cost the battalion many casualties: 7 officers had been killed and 14 wounded; of the other ranks, 156 were killed, 298 wounded and 11 missing. The brigadier in his report recorded his opinion that he did not think that any troops could have taken the German line as held that day. Indeed, it was not captured until I3th November, 1916, and then only by two brigades, with the help of special artillery preparation and a new method of using gas.

Captain C. F. Wells, who, though wounded early in the day, remained with his men for six hours until compelled by weakness to retire, received the Military Cross, as did Captain G. P . Nunneley and Second-Lieutenants W. R. B. Caseby and E. W. Sheppard. Military Medals were awarded to Serjeant V. C. D. Froude, Corporal T. ~IdIanus, and Privates W. Brain, G. W. Capon, J. A. Dickenson, J. Richardson and J. Wilson.

The battalion remained in the front line, strengthening the defence of the sunken road, until 3rd July, when it was ordered to move to some rear trenches which were so devoid of shelter or means of cooking that Lieutenant-Colonel Magniac asked that it should be allowed to stay where it was. A small party was eventually sent to the rear trenches as originally ordered, the remainder going back to bivouacs at Auchonvillers, where it was shelled by 5.9 inch guns. On 4th July the whole battalion marched to Acheux Wood, ” a very depressed force.”

 

Private Jimmy Astin was in there somewhere, and was very lucky to survive the 1st of July.

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