22rd June 1916 – The “Big Push” is coming …
The massed forces of the BEF are poised to launch the Somme Offensive, the infantry assault is planned for the 29th June, just a week away. The much anticipated “Big Push” has finally come.
The theatre of operations is bounded by Gommecourt in the north and the marshy banks of the languid snaking Somme river in the south.
It will be the biggest operation conducted by the British Army in its entire history as they attack with twelve divisions over a 20,000 yard front (approx. 12 miles) from Gommecourt in the north to Maricourt in the south. Beyond Maricourt, two French divisions to the north of the Somme and three to the south of the river will support the British attack.
The men of the B.E.F. on the Somme comprised a mixture of the remains of the pre-war regular army, the Territorial Force and of Kitchener’s New Army with its many Pals battalions, recruited from the same places and occupations.
Men from Mitcham were among the “Regulars”, “Terriors” and the “Pals”. They filled the ranks of the gunners too. The 56th (London) Division, an entirely Territorial Force, was at Gommecourt. With them were:
Frank Roffey, Private in 2nd London (Royal Fusiliers), from Byegrove Road, off Collier’s Wood High Street.
Herbert John Albert little, Private 1st/9th London (Queen Victoria’s Rifles), brought up in Tooting, family in Ashbourne Road, Mitcham, in war years.
Lewis Farewell Jones, Major “D” company C.O 12th London (The Rangers), born in Hampstead, family home “Brenley”, Cedars Avenue Mitcham.
The 29th Division was at Beaumont-Hamel, with them were:
Isaiah Lemon, Private in the 1st Bn. Border Regiment, from 6 Everitts Place, Phipps Bridge Rd, Mitcham.
Victor George Stokes, Private in the 1st Bn. Border Regiment, from Church Street, Mitcham, near the “Bull” public house.
Charles Edward Gibbs, Private in the 1st Bn. Border Regiment (awarded MM in 1917), from Pitcairn Road, Mitcham.
The 8th Division was at Ovillers, with them were:
Henry Stewart Jackson, Lt. 8th King’s Own Yorkshre Light Infantry, family home “White Heather”, Graham Road, Mitcham.
Frederick William Hawkins, Private 2nd Middlesex, husband of Elizabeth Mary Ann Hawkins, of 7, Western Road, Mitcham.
The 21st Division was at Fricourt, with them was:
Frederick Sizmur Buckland, Sergeant “D” Battery, 96th Brigade RFA , born and brought up in Tooting, family lived at 75 Marlborough Road by the time of the Great War.
The 18th Division was a Carnoy, with them were:
Walter O’Keefe, L/Cpl 7th East Kent (Buffs), from Marian Road, Lonesome, Mitcham.
Betram Joseph James White, Private 7th Royal West Surrey (Queens), family home 5, Westfield Rd., Love Lane, Mitcham.
Frederick Charles William Bass, Private 8th East Surrey, married with a son, family home in Collier’s Wood.
There were many others …
The plan for a joint Franco-British offensive on the Somme had its genesis in the Winter conferences of 1915, and soon after on 19th December, Sir Douglas Haig took command of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and on the 30th December, Gen. Joseph Jacques Cesaire Joffre, was made C-in-C French Army. The British Army had taken over the “Somme sector” from the French as the impact of their defence of Verdun was felt. This life or death struggle had been raging since 21st February 1916 and the imperative to relieve the pressure at Verdun was never greater than in May and June 1916. French involvement in the Somme attack was steadily scaled down as they suffered terrible casualties at Verdun.
General Rawlinson took over the planning of the Somme offensive which he envisaged as a limited “Bite and Hold” operation designed, as he put it, to:
“kill as many Germans as possible with the least loss to ourselves”.
He proposed, in the absence of explicit instructions from above, a limited advance taking objectives of local tactical importance, well prepared by his artillery, which could then be easily defended against the inevitable German counter-attacks. General Haig viewed his plan as too conservative and wanted both an expansion of the front to be attacked and to a greater depth. Under pressure from his superior, Rawlinson successfully held out for a prolonged artillery bombardment. He argued the need to deal with the barbed wire, dugouts and strong points that stretched across the two lines of German trenches to be taken in the first waves of the infantry assault.
The plan that emerged required the British divisions to take in one bound the first and second German lines from Serre to Pozieres and a position east of the villages of Contalmaison and Montauban at the southern end of the British line. The troops of the French 6th Army were to advance either side of the Somme river to positions also midway between the first and second German lines. The attack at Gommecourt was conceived as a diversion to the main thrust.
The date for the start of the offensive was set for Thursday, 29th June 1916 with the bombardment due to start on Saturday, 24th June.
The Germans had been on the Somme for two years and had steadily turned the rolling chalk downs and woods of the Somme into a formidable fortress, expertly taking advantage of high points and natural contours, with trenches fronted by thick belts of barbed wire. They had built deep reinforced dugouts interconnected by underground passages and many machine gun nests were placed in concrete bunkers.
Trench Barat, Opposite Gommecourt Wood, March 1916© IWM (Art.IWM ART 4837)
click to see full size
In places, attacking troops would have to pass through interlocking fields of fire from three sides, while subjected to an artillery barrage.
As the plans were passed down the chain of command, those with doubts, or criticism, were regarded as unwelcome voices. Dissent was subdued, confidence was to be instilled, as the plan developed a life and momentum of its on. The largest ever British Army, swelled by Kitchener’s volunteers, was supported by a huge quantity of artillery pieces, 1072 light and 442 medium and heavy guns. The prevailing attitude was epitomised by General Rawlinson:
“nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it.”
The die was cast …