23rd June 1916 – The eve of the bombardment
The 4.5inch Howitzers of “D” Battery, 96th Brigade RFA, have been brought into new positions near Bercodel and made ready for action on 23rd June 1916, the eve of the bombardment.
Ammunition, rations and water have all been stockpiled over the previous seventeen days. Lorries and the light railway from Albert to Becord Wood were used to get all materials as close to the batteries as possible before being man handled into position.
In the coming days, 47076 Serjeant Frederick Sizmur Buckland of Mitcham will have to use all his training, experience, and skill to ensure his gun crew shoots effectively, accurately and to the detailed timetables set out by the battery commanders. Their targets are the German positions at Fricourt.
Serjeant Buckland was typical of Kitchener’s citizen army, a man with no prior military experience, an “Electrician’s Storekeeper”, before volunteering in December 1914 along with other men from various locations in the City and elsewhere. For example:
47015 a/Bmdr (later serj.) Ernest Shepherd MM, from Edmonton, volunteered on 2 Dec 1914, served in C/97th and D/96th Brigade RFA, wounded in 1917.
47031 Drv. Henry John Gutteridge, a carman from Hornsey, volunteered on 2 Dec 1914, served in C/97th and D/96th Brigade RFA, discharged unfit with Silver War Badge 01-May-1918, wounded in an accident.
47056 Drv. Sidney Arthur Peeke, a boiler tester from the Old Kent Road, volunteered on 2 Dec 1914, served in C/97th Brigade RFA.
47065 Drv. Alfred William Shuttleworth, a gardener from North Finchley, volunteered on 2 Dec 1914, served in C/97th Brigade RFA, lost a leg in the War.
47117 Sgt. George William Yenson MM, from East Ham, volunteered in early Dec 14, served in 97th and 94th Brigade RFA, discharged unfit 14-Feb-1919 with Silver War Badge.
They all served in Brigades of the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) that would form part of the 21st Division in one of Lord Kitchener’s New Armies which was given the “triple seven insignia”.
Frederick Buckland was 23 years old and unmarried, he had been born and brought up in Tooting, his family moved to Marlborough Road, Collier’s Wood, by the time of the Great War. Frederick’s Brigade had first crossed the channel from Southampton to Le Harve on 10th September 1915 in three boats. He was then in the all howitzer “C” battery of the 97th Brigade, 21st Division.
Frederick had already seen the full horror of war at the battle of Loos almost a year ago. After just two weeks in France, and with no trench or battle experience, both the 21st and 24th Divisions were thrown into the second day of the battle of Loos, a major British offensive, on the 26th September 1915. This would be a horrendous baptism of fire for the infantry of the 21st and 24th Divisions. Tasked with a frontal assault in daylight without the cover of gas or smoke, the troops attacked the second German line, a series of well prepared trenches which lay behind thick belts of barbed wire that remained uncut. The ground was mostly open and flat, offering little cover and already strewn with the dead and dying of the previous day. At hill 70 they were attacking uphill. Frederick’s battery, and the other divisional artillery offered what support they could, but were mostly firing at ill-defined targets. There was a lack of proper trench maps, officers sent forward to reconnoitre were snipped at, the artillery was not able to provide close support for the attacking troops. The 21st Divisions infantry were simply cut down by machine gun and rifle fire, which for some units came from three sides and even from behind. Of the two division, there had been twelve battalions making the attack, in all close to 10,000 men, and in the three hours, or so, of that day’s action the casualties were reckoned to be 385 officers and 7861 men. The men of Kitchener’s New Army had paid a heavy price.
Frederick’s battery commander Captain G.E. Heath and 2nd Lt. R. St. G. Brooks were both killed when retiring from a forward position in front of Loos, they were caught by machine gun fire, and five NCOs were wounded that day. Frederick’s battery continued to engage the enemy as best they could over the next two days, themselves coming under repeated heavy shell fire. Further casualties were sustained by the battery on the 28th, including a group of six telephonists who either all killed or wounded by enemy shell fire. The Battle of Loos would not end until 14th October 1914, but Frederick’s battery was withdrawn on the 1st of October and moved to the Armentieres sector were they remained until the spring of 1916.
At home, Frederick’s older brother Ciifford Harold Buckland volunteered on 8th November 1915 he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps in West London, but for reasons unknown he was discharged in a matter of days and there is no other record of him serving in the armed forces. His other brother, Francis George Buckland, was called up in third week of May 1916. He was among a small number of men from the Tooting area assigned to one of the Royal Garrison Artillery’s Siege Batteries, who manned the heavy guns on the Western Front. He would not be in France until 1917. He would be awarded a Military Medal later in the war.
In France, Frederick’s howitzer battery moved to Dernancourt, just south of Albert, in May 1916 and the 96th Battery was positioned at Bercodel, a little to the east of Albert. Orders were received from GHQ around 15th May for a re-organisation, Frederick’s howitzer battery, c/97, was to be interchanged with “D” battery of the 96th Brigade. Batteries of the 96th Brigade would spend much of May improving their positions, and especially the field telephone communications. It was obvious this was the build up to the “Big Push” on the Somme.
Now it was time to make the final checks and re-checks of plans, preparations and orders as originally laid out in detail in “96th Bde. Operational Order no.1” dated 16th June, 1916.
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Frederick and the men of his battery need to get as much rest as possible, a long day awaits them. The guns will in action at first light tomorrow ….