Gavin Davies, a member of the South Wales Branch, originally wrote this series of articles for The Glamorgan GEM, a local paper circulating in Barry, Llantwit Major, Cowbridge, Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan.

Gavin also gives talks about First World War and the American Civil War in South Wales in aid of the maintenance fund for the 38th (Welsh) Division Memorial at Mametz Wood and can be contacted on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

January 1916

During January the Western Front remained quiet although the Germans were building up for their grand offensive at Verdun. In the rest of the world the war continued.

In Mesopotamia a British force some 19,000 strong moved up the river but were defeated in the Battle of Sheikh Said on 9 January. The Turkish siege of General Townshend's army at Kut-al-Amarna continued and a week later Townshend warns General Felix Aylmer, the commander of the relieving army, that he only had enough food for about two or three weeks. In response, Aylmer attacked again but the Turks stopped his advance at the Battle of Hanna on 21 January. In Kut Townshend put his army on half-rations although the discovery of a store of barley helped his supply position; however his army still needed to be relieved quickly.

In northern Turkey the Russians advanced driving the Turks back to Erzerum. With the ending of the Gallipoli campaign Britain halted its submarine campaign in the Black Sea after sinking about half the Turkish merchant fleet. In Arabia Turkey would face more problems when Hussein, the Grand Sherif of Mecca, agreed to British suggestions that he should start a revolution.

The capital of German West Africa was captured by the Allies but the German forces retreated into an adjacent Spanish colony and went on fighting. In East Africa General Jan Christian Smuts took over from General Horace Smith-Dorrien and invaded the German colonies there. By the end of the year he had captured most of the German colonies but had not defeated the commander of their army, General Paul von Lettow, who started a long campaign of guerilla warfare.

In the Balkans the Serbian army is evacuated to Corfu while the last allied troops are withdrawn from Cape Helles in Gallipoli. In France Paris suffers its second, and last, air raid by Zeppelins which caused 54 casualties. In Britain Zeppelins try to bomb industrial areas in northwest and central England but did little damage. One of the Zeppelins, damaged by rifle fire as it crossed neutral Holland, crashed in the North Sea. A British trawler captain, worried that his smaller crew would be overwhelmed, refused to pick up the Germans. The British felt the 'baby-killers' deserved their fate; to the Germans this yet another example of British brutality.

Perhaps the most important event, in the longer term, was the start of the trials of 'Mother', the prototype tank. General Haig was so impressed that he ordered 40 (later increased to 100) almost at once.

February 1916

Col Driant had been worried for months. His regiment of Chasseurs (light infantry) was holding positions in the Bois des Caures near the French fortress of Verdun. Driant was worried about the strength of his trench line, the morale of some of the troops and about the removal of heavy guns from the forts to other parts of the front. He was so concerned that he used his position as a member of the French Parliament to warn the Government. However when the Minister for War raised the matter General Joffre brushed his enquiry aside. Indeed Joffre seems to have been more concerned about the Government getting information, which had not come from his headquarters. Nevertheless he did send a staff-officer to investigate and some moves were made to strengthen the defences.

On 21 February a shell from a Krupp 15" naval gun opened fire hit the cathedral in Verdun twenty miles away to start a nine hour bombardment by 850 heavy guns. It could be felt by troops in trenches in the Vosges 150 kilometres away. For the troops at Verdun it was like a physical assault. Corporal Stéphane said it was like a storm "in which the rain consists entirely of cobblestones, in which the hail is made up entirely of masonry blocks." When the barrage ended the German infantry moved forward to find out which French positions had survived.

On the 22nd the Germans bombarded the French lines until mid-day and then their infantry advanced with rifles, grenades and flame-throwers. The 10,000 men of the 21st Division attacked the 1,300 men under Col Driant's command. The French fought hard, where their positions had not been completely eliminated by the shelling, but by late afternoon Driant's last redoubt was nearly surrounded and the last few survivors fell back. Many, including Col Driant himself, failed to reach safety.

By 24th February the Germans had advanced three miles and the next day reached Fort Douaumont. Originally a major strongpoint in the Verdun defences by 1916 it was held by only about fifty men who were responsible for the one 6" gun. More by accident than design a party of Germans led by Sergeant Kunze scrambled down the defensive ditch and broke into the fort. Two more parties followed and the French were rounded up rapidly. Ironically it was not Sergeant Kunze but the two officers who had arrived later who received Germany's highest award for the capture of this key position.

General Herr, the French commander, considered falling back but was replaced by General Petain who, the following day, issued his famous order "They shall not pass." More importantly the new commander established the Voie Sacrèe, the road down which all supplies and reinforcements would flow into Verdun. It carried 23,000 tons of ammunition and 190,000 men in one week. Casualties were on a similar scale. During the first five weeks of the battle one German soldier died every forty-five seconds and French losses were even greater and most of the killing was still to come.

Could the war have been ended? Yes, Germany was willing to make peace provided it was allowed to keep the territory it had gained in Belgium and northern France. As Britain had entered the war to maintain Belgium's independence and as France could not have agreed to lose most of its coal and iron these terms were completely unacceptable. Millions more were to die because Germany was never willing to offer more reasonable peace terms.

In the British sector Lloyd George's army was going to war. The 38th (Welsh) Division had arrived in France at the end of 1915 and now it was being taught about trench warfare by the Guards Division in a quiet sector around Givenchy, not far from Armentières. As well as just holding the line this involved raiding the German trenches and the first unit to attack the enemy's trenches was the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers which had been raised in Carmarthenshire but, apart from trench raids like this the British sector remained quiet for the whole of the month.

In the east the Russian army continued an offensive into northern Turkey, capturing the old fortress of Erzerum. In Mesopotamia the Turkish siege of General Townshend's army in Kut-al-Armana continued while the last of the Serbian army was evacuated from Albania and joined the British and French troops around Salonika. The modernization of war continued. At sea the Franz Fischer, a British ship despite its name, became the first ship ever to be sunk by aerial action when it was bombed by a Zeppelin. In France the Royal Flying Corps formed its first single seat fighter squadron.

March 1916

At Verdun the Germans had taken Fort Douaumont in February; on the 1st March they attacked its neighbour, Fort Vaux. In three days fighting the French 33rd Infantry Regiment lost half its strength including the commander of its 10th Company who was recommended for a posthumous Legion d'Honneur. In fact Capitaine Charles de Gaulle was only wounded, his third serious wound, and was to spend the rest of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp. On 3rd March the German expressionist painter Franz Marc wrote "For days I have seen nothing but the most terrible things that can be painted from a human mind." The next day he was killed by a French shell. It was not only men who died; over 7,000 horses were killed on both sides by long range shelling in a single day.

The village of Vaux was to change hands thirteen times in the month of March. The fort remained firmly in French hands although reports of its capture reached one German general who was awarded Germany's highest honour 'Pour le Merite by the Kaiser for the fort's capture. The general's men, approaching the fort in column, were mown down by the French defenders. General Joffre's Order of the Day recorded the defender's feat, "You will be those of whom it is said - 'they barred the way to Verdun.'"

The attack on Verdun had started on the eastern bank of the Meuse. Now the front was to be extended; on 6th March the Germans attacked the high ground on the western bank named, with terrible appropriateness, 'Le Morte-Homme' although the name came, not from the war but from someone who had died on the hill in a snowstorm in the previous century. The high ground was taken after a heavy bombardment and one French Brigade was virtually wiped out losing over 2,800 prisoners. Three days later the Germans advanced again. The attack failed when their infantry moved into a killing ground covered by machine-guns from three sides and losing 2,400 men without making any gains.

On Verdun's only supply line, the Voie Sacree, an entire division of men were employed shoveling road metal to keep it usable. Down this sole line of supply 6,000 trucks passed every day carrying 50,000 tons of supplies and 90,000 men every week.

In an attempt to relieve the pressure on their ally the Italians launched the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo in the middle of March. After five days snow and rain made the mountains impassable and the battle was closed down. The marginal Italian gains were lost to Austrian gas shells and counter-attacks. The Russians also attacked near Vilna. Despite the fact that they had 350,000 men to 75,000 German defenders they gained only about two miles and lost 15,000 men.

The British sector of the Western Front remained quiet, that is to say the units holding the line only lost about one or two men per day. On man to die in March was Abraham Harris, whose real name was Abraham Beverstein. He had enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment in 1914, gone to the front with them in 1915 and, just before Christmas, been wounded when the Germans exploded a mine and bombarded the British line. He rejoined in January and in February the battalion was ordered to move up to the front line. Harris failed to go up with the rest of his unit and having been examined and pronounced fit for duty by the Medical Officer was ordered to go forward and warned that a failure to do so would be a serious offence. Again Harris went absent and was charged with desertion. He was found guilty by a court-martial and, on 20th March 1916, executed by a firing party. Was he suffering from shell-shock? We will never know. The court-martial was fair and, by the standards of the time, Harris was guilty but ....

In Mesopotamia the commander of the relief force, General Aylmer, was sacked for mishandling his troops but General Gorringe, who replaced him, failed to take decisive action and his army did nothing for the rest of March. In Kut-al-Amarna, General Townshend's army continued to hold on.

For some time the British volunteer system had not been producing enough men and on 2nd March all single men between the ages of 18 and 41 become liable to be conscripted. Britain also formed the Women's National Land Service Corps to boost agricultural production while the Germans, also facing manpower problems at home, deported 50,000 Belgians to work in Germany. The war spread; Germany declared war on Portugal when the government refused to release interned German ships. At sea U-68 was sunk by the Farnborough, a Q-ship, the first submarine to be sunk by a depth-charge but in the air Ernst Udet gained the first of his kills, he would have shot down 62 Allied aircraft by the end of the war.

A classic German book about the First World War Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger has recently been reprinted by Penguin.

April 1916

The war was to be decided at Verdun. The Kaiser had said so. On 9th April the Germans attacked on both sides of the River Meuse aiming at the crest of the Mort Homme and, opposite, Cote 304. The French 151st Infantry were put on alert. One of their company commanders, Second-Lieutenant Jubert, remarked to one of the other officers, "This'll calm us down. We were starting to get out of the habit of dying."

The German barrage started at 7.00 am. Under it observers said that Le Mort Homme looked like a volcano. The German infantry gained the crest and about 1.00 pm Jubert's men were ordered to counter-attack. About 100 strong they moved through the German barrage. Although heavy shells were falling they only lost one man and, reaching the crest, charged over open ground, past the bodies of dead Zouaves and light infantry and regained the trench. Now only 10 of the 100 men of the company were left. By 8.00 pm they were still holding it - unsupported. Indeed they were to hold for 30 hours under continual artillery and machine gun fire before being relieved by another unit. In the face of a defence like this it is perhaps unsurprising that General Petain, the French commander, said in his order of the day, "Courage, on les aura!" (Courage, we'll have them!)

In fact the Germans never got to crest of Le Mort Homme, they only took the edge of the summit. A few hundred yards further on and some feet higher, on the true crest, the line remained firmly in French hands. For the expenditure of seventeen trainloads of ammunition and several thousand casualties the Germans had gained nothing. For the next twelve days it rained. "Water in the trenches came above the knees. The men had not a dry thread on their bodies; there was not a dugout that could provide dry accommodation. The numbers of sick rose alarmingly ... " (Reichsarchiv) The German infantry suffered under the rain and French artillery fire from Cote 304 while more guns were assembled for the next attack.

On the British sector roads preparations for the planned Allied attack in June continued even though the Verdun fighting meant that the French contribution had to be reduced from forty-two to thirty divisions. There was some fighting on the British front; German gas attacks during April killed 89 men and incapacitated 500 more. In some sectors life was more peaceful. Second Lieutenant Barrie Pitt had a day off. He wrote to a friend, "[I] am sitting under walnut tree on the edge of this half-ruined village, blossoming cherry and pear trees near me ... a field of dandelions and daisies at my feet... n. Two days later his commanding officer wrote to Pitt's widow, " ... the Germans exploded a mine ... and we have been unable to find a trace of him since."

In Mesopotamia disaster loomed. General Townshend's troops were still besieged in Kut-al-Amarna. Food was running out and the British relieving forces were unable to make any progress to lift the siege. On the 15th aircraft dropped food to the garrison which was reduced to eating dead horses and then to taking opium to stave off pangs of hunger. A brave attempt to run food in using a paddle steamer ended when the ship stuck in Turkish steel wire defences eight miles short of the town. Of the commanders, Lt Cdr Cowley was executed by the Turks while Lt Firman died in captivity. Both received posthumous VCs. Three officers, including Capt T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) offered the Turks £1,000,000 in gold to release the garrison. Refusing the payment the Turkish commander said, "Your gallant troops will be our most sincere and precious guests." On the 29th General Townshend surrendered his13,OOO strong force.

German attempts to smuggle rifles into Ireland were thwarted by the Royal Navy and the Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement captured. Nevertheless on Easter Sunday 1,000 armed men seized the Post Office and other key sites in the centre of Dublin and the Irish Republic proclaimed. Battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles and Royal Dublin Fusiliers, supported by a gunboat in the harbour, moved to the attack.

On 151 April the Germans executed a Belgian lady, Gabriel Petit, for distributing the underground newspaper Libre Belgique and helping Belgians to cross the lines to join the Belgian army. She had been held for two weeks after being sentenced to death to try to persuade her to betray others; she refused. In Germany itself in the Reichstag (Parliament) Karl Kiebknecht declared that Germany was not free and that the people had not desired war; the patriotic mass of members were outraged. In the Balkans the Serbian Army moved from Corfu, where they had been recovering from the evacuation of their country, to join the British and French troops in Salonika. In Italy fighting continued in the mountains with the Italians making small gains in return for heavy casualties. In Britain Zeppelins bombed several towns during April hitting the east end of London no less than five times. Theoretically attacking docks and naval installations they killed more civilians that fighting men. In the Black Sea area the Russians captured Trebizond.

May 1916

General von Gallwitz's guns were going to obliterate Côte 304. Five hundred heavy guns opened fire on a front of a mile. They fired for two days and the night between; smoke and debris rose to over 2,000 ft. The French lost men killed, men buried alive and men who died of wounds because they could not be evacuated. Their machine guns were knocked out and no food or other supplies could be brought forward. Even so it took the Germans three days to secure Côte 304. As they dug in the troops' first demand was for an extra ration of tobacco to mask the smell of the corpses. Some 10,000 Frenchmen and an unknown number of Germans had died on the hill.

The capture of Côte 304 opened the way for attacks on Le Morte Homme and, by the end of the month, that position too was in German hands. The capture of the high ground on the west of the river had been costly but the way was now open for attacks on the main French positions to the east of the Meuse.

However the French were not going to sit tamely and wait for the attack. General Nivelle, now in command at Verdun, ordered his men to recapture Fort Douaumont. In one attack two companies of the 124th Regiment actually took the German trenches in front of the fort. However they had only their rifles and bayonets and were quickly wiped out when the Germans counter-attacked with grenades. Another battalion of the Regiment went to their support only to lose 500 men to the German artillery. An eyewitness wrote "The dead were piled up as high as the parapet." Twenty-one year old Second Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire of the 124th wrote in his diary, "Humanity is mad! It must be mad to do what it is doing. ... I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible." A day or so later he was killed by a shell from one of the two thousand or so German guns which were firing on the salient.

Since 1914 the British people had been waiting for a second Trafalgar but the German High Seas Fleet had remained in port. This was to change. In May Admiral Scheer sailed north hoping to catch part of the British fleet. What Scheer did not know was that the British had read his signals and that Admiral Jellicoe, with the Grand Fleet, and Admiral Beatty, with the Battle Cruiser Fleet, had already sailed and were coming south.

In the afternoon of 31st May the scouting forces met. Admiral Hipper, leading the German squadron, immediately turned south to draw the British battle cruisers onto the German fleet. Beatty followed and about 3.50 pm the firing started at a range of about nine miles. Ten minutes later HMS Indefatigable was hit by five heavy shells and blew up. Two of her crew of over 1,000 were picked up.

A shell penetrated the roof of a turret on HMS Lion, Beatty's flagship. Major Harvey of the Royal Marines, dying, with both legs severed, managed to give the order to flood the magazine saving the ship from certain destruction. He was awarded a posthumous VC. At 4.26 pm HMS Queen Mary was hit by a German salvo and exploded. The ship broke in two as a cloud of smoke rose 1,000 ft in the air marking the grave of over 1,200 men. "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships to-day," Admiral Beatty said. Moments later the German battle fleet came into sight.

The whole situation had changed. Beatty's task was now to lure the Germans to the Grand Fleet fifty miles away. His ships turned north; the Germans turned to follow. The battle continued with the Germans being hit so hard they disengaged. Now Admiral Hood's ships came into action. He had just congratulated the gunnery officer of his flagship, HMS Invincible, on the accuracy of his fire when, like the other battle cruisers, a shell penetrated a turret roof. The ship blew up; 1,000 men died.

As the Germans approached Jellicoe had deployed the twenty-four dreadnoughts of the Grand Fleet into a single, five-mile long line of battle. At 6.30 pm the German fleet, steaming north in line ahead met "the belching guns of an interminable line of heavy ships ... while salvo followed salvo almost without intermission ... and not one of the British dreadnoughts could be made out through the smoke and fumes." (German Official History) To continue would be suicide. The Germans turned 'like a well drilled squad', steamed away and were soon lost to sight. The British continued south keeping between the German fleet and its bases. Then, at 6.55 pm, Scheer turned and steamed east again straight at the centre of the British line. As the British broadsides crashed around his leading battleships he turned for the third time and vanished into the mist and smoke. After the battle Scheer claimed this was a deliberate move to surprise his opponent; few historians believe him.

Jellicoe continued south hoping to cut the Germans off from their home ports and finish them off the next day. Scheer had only one thought, to get home. His fleet turned east and managed cross behind the main British force losing only one pre-dreadnought battleship to a torpedo, although Admiral Hipper's flagship, SMS Lutzow, sank from accumulated damage. The Battle of Jutland was over.

"The spell of Trafalgar has been broken," claimed Kaiser Wilhelm on the grounds that British had lost more ships and men. However the British fleet was ready for sea within days while the Germans were only to leave port once more before the war ended. Meanwhile the British blockade continued to strangle Germany. Perhaps the best assessment was by an American journalist, "The German fleet has assaulted its jailor but remains in jail."

In Mesopotamia General Townshend's army had surrendered at Kut-al-Armana. Some 12,000 British and Indian soldiers set out on a march north to the prisoner of war. Men who lagged behind were beaten; men who could not march were killed out of hand. One-third of the army were to die, either on the march or in the camps before the war ended. Their commander was luckier. As befitted his high rank he was taken north by train, given a house and allowed to live comfort on an island off Constantinople for the rest of the war.

In the middle of May the Austrians attacked on the Trentino front. Backed by four hundred guns their initial attacks captured the northern peaks. Snow fell, preventing rapid advances, but by the end of the month the attackers had advanced about twelve miles, no mean feat when fighting in mountains 4,000 feet high, and were approaching Riva at the northern end of Lake Garda and had captured about 30,000 Italians.

At home German bombs killed a few civilians in raids on the East Coast and Scotland. 25,000 Belgian men and women were deported at an hour's notice to Germany to serve as agricultural workers. In response to American protests about unrestricted submarine warfare the Kaiser denounced the British blockade and said he would 'blow up Windsor Castle and the whole Royal family of England' before he would allow his own family to starve. Despite this bombast Germany agreed that it would no longer sink merchant ships without warning.

The South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association meets on the first Friday of the month in Cardiff. If anyone is interested in coming along please contact me on 01446 710669 for further details.

June 1916

"When the barrage lifts ... "

In June General Brusilov launched the first of the Allied offensives planned for the summer. On a front of 200 miles in Poland and Austria-Hungary, on both sides of the Pripet Marshes, 2,000 Russian guns opened the way for the initial attack. The Russians swept forward at the northern and southern ends of the front capturing 26,000 prisoners on the first day. Only in the centre, held by German troops, were the gains smaller. By the middle of the month Brusilov's men had captured the commercial centre of Czernowitz in eastern Austria-Hungary together with 192,000 soldiers and 400 guns, roughly one-third, of the opposing force.

In the Trentino the Austrian offensive was called off in the middle of June, partly because of an Italian counter-attack and partly because of the need to move men to hold the Russian offensive in the east. Overall casualties in the mountains north of Lake Garda were about 147,000 Italians and 81,000 Austrians.

In June Lloyd George and Lord Kitchener had planned a mission to Russia to improve relations with their ally and were to sail on a cruiser, HMS Hampshire. On 5th of June the ship struck a German mine, laid as part of the Jutland operations, and sank taking Lord Kitchener with her. Lloyd George survived because, at the last minute, he had gone instead to Ireland to deal with the aftermath of the Easter Rising.

At Verdun the Germans captured Fort Vaux. The final battle was fought out in the fort's underground passages amid the stench of decomposing bodies as gas and high explosive shells rained down on the superstructure. With only twelve gallons of water left the garrison released their last pigeon with the message "We are still holding out ... relief is imperative.u The pigeon, badly affected by gas, died. It was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, the only one of many thousands of pigeons on both sides to receive a decoration. Relief was, of course, impossible and the fort's six hundred men went into German captivity. Nearby twenty French soldiers, waiting with fixed bayonets to attack, were buried alive in a trench. The trench and the bayonets protruding from it are now a French National Memorial.

The Germans advanced but were halted outside Fort Souville, the last but one of Verdun's forts on that sector. If it fell the town would probably have to be abandoned. The French fought on. Their commander, General Nivelle, ended his Order of the Day with "lis ne passeront pas." ("They shall not pass."). The French Prime Minister himself visited General Haig to ask him to bring the planned British offensive on the Somme forward to relieve German pressure on Verdun. Haig said it was too late to change the British plans but that the barrage would open, as planned.

In the chalk downs of the Somme, scattered with villages and woods and cut by the beautiful little River Ancre, were two complete lines of German trenches, each about four hundred yards deep, protected by belts of barbed wire and well equipped with machine guns. The British planned to destroy the wire, the trenches, the guns and the men who manned them with a five day artillery bombardment after which the infantry would be able to advance without serious opposition and capture the town of Bapaume ten miles away.

On the twenty-fourth of June fifteen hundred British guns opened fire. There were to be problems. Bad weather prevented the Royal Flying Corps from observing the effects of the shelling and the bombardment had to be extended for two days. Over the next week 1,500,000 shells rained on the German positions. Although most of their troops were sheltering in deep dugouts thirty feet below ground and fairly safe it was a terrible experience. No hot food could be brought forward, it was impossible to

evacuate the wounded, men on sentry duty were killed, men underground went mad and had to be restrained by their comrades, even the rats went mad and had to be killed in the dugouts by hitting them with spades. But the German infantrymen survived and waited for their revenge when the final assault came.

On the British side the fourteen divisions which were to make the initial attack made ready. Two-thirds were Kitchener's New Army volunteers, the rest Territorials and the few survivors of the pre-war Regulars. Most were inexperienced but they had trained for months and were confident. Encouragement came from senior officers. The 8th Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, who were to attack Ovillers in the centre of the line, were told, "When you go over the top you can slope arms, light up your pipes and cigarettes and march all the way to Pozieres [2 miles behind the German front line] before meeting any live Germans." At a last dinner in a farmhouse senior company commander gave the toast, "Gentlemen, when the barrage lifts ... ".

In places raids, to check on the effect of the bombardment failed to get into the German trenches because of uncut wire. Other patrols reported that the trenches were heavily damaged and unmanned. Over the night of 30th June the battalions which would make the attack came up through the communication trenches to the front line. The Accrington Pals and the other Pals battalions from Yorkshire and Lancashire in the 31st Division moved up to the line of copses from which they were to assault Serre, although Privates Crimmins and Wild of the 2nd Bradford Pals, detailed to carry rations up to the front line, left camp with a bottle of wine and wandered off into a nearby field. The 'Incomparable' 29th Division which included the 2nd South Wales Borderers were to take Beaumont Hamel between Serre and the River Ancre. To the south of the river the 36th (Ulster) Division made their way into Aveluy Wood for the assault on Thiepval. In the centre of the attack the 34th Division, troops from Newcastle and East Anglia, formed up just outside the little town of Albert to attack up the old Roman road and take the village of La Boisselle. In the 30th and 18th Divisions battalions from Manchester Regiment, Liverpool, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Surrey took up positions opposite Montauban.

It was raining and the men were loaded down; with their weapons, ammunition, grenades, spades, barbed wire and other stores few carried less than seventy pounds and many carried more than eighty. That night they waited, sleeping as best they could, in the frontline trenches.

People who want to know more about the opening of the battle could read 'The First Day on the Somme' by Martin Middlebrook.

1st July 1916

"We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying."

For seven days the British artillery had pounded the German lines on the Somme firing 1,500, 000 shells. Then, at 6.25 am on the first of July the final, intense bombardment started. 250,000 shells were to hit the German lines in the next hour; the sound could be heard in London.

At 7.20 am the Hawthorn Ridge mine, 18 tons of high explosive, exploded under a German strongpoint (the explosion was filmed by Geoffrey Malins and is seen frequently on television). Eight minutes later two more large mines, each with about twenty-four tons of explosives, were set off on either side of La Boisselle. Several miles away a pilot felt his plane flung sideways by the blast and saw the soil hurled over 4,000 ft into the air. A soldier in the Grimsby Chums had his leg broken by the blast.

At 7.30 am the British guns stopped firing on the German front line and reset their sights to fire on the support line. The German guns also ceased fire so for a few minutes there was silence as the officer's whistles blew and the assaulting infantry of General Rawlinson's Fourth Army rose or climbed out of their trenches and advanced through the gaps in the British wire. Mostly they moved forward in lines at a steady walk, as ordered, although, weighed down by loads of over seventy pounds they probably did not have much choice.

On the extreme right, where our army met the French, the 30th Division took Montauban and advanced to their objective beyond without too much difficulty or too many casualties. Almost unbelievably the 1 st Liverpool Pals (17 Kings Liverpool Regiment) took all their objectives without losing a single man killed although a few of the wounded were to die. On their left Captain Wilfred (Billy) Neville's company of the East Surreys kicked footballs ahead of them as they advanced. The company took its objectives and the footballs survived; Billy Neville did not and is buried at Carnoy.

Next in line the th Division attacked the village of Mametz. Captain Duncan Martin of the 9th Devons had made a model of the ground while he was on leave and had predicted that if a machine gun firing from the Shrine in the corner of the Village's cemetery had not been knocked out by the bombardment the battalion would suffer casualties as it moved round Mansell Copse. As the Devons advanced the machine gun opened fire at 400 yds range; point-blank range for a competent machine gunner. The battalion took its objectives but 160 men, including Capt Martin, were killed. The dead were buried in the old front line trench in Mansell Copse with the sign, "The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it stilL"

In the centre the bagpipes played the Tyneside Scottish of 34th Division into action. Their objective was the village of La Boisselle. A few men of the division, aided by one of the mines, did get into the village; most were shot down by German machine guns as they moved forward to our front line trenches. The Division captured some trenches on the edge of the village but lost over 6,500 men.

The 36th (Ulster) Division stormed forward towards Thiepval shouting 'Remember the Boyne." They nearly broke through but could not be supported and German counter-attacks drove them back. Pte Billy Macfadzean, who had written home saying he would not dishonour the family name, did not go forward with the rest of his unit. As the battalion waited in the front line a German shell dislodged a box of grenades from the parapet. Two of the pins fell out. Billy pushed forward and flung himself on the grenades saving the lives of many men. His was the first, posthumous, Victoria Cross of the nine awarded that day.

The 2nd South Wales Borderers moved on Beaumont Hamel. White flares rose, the signal that the attack had succeeded. General de Lisle, the divisional commander, ordered the reserve battalions. To avoid the chaos of the communication trenches the Newfoundland Regiment advanced from behind the British line above ground. They were under machine gun fire for the whole way to the front line and on into no man's land. Eyewitnesses said they hunched their shoulders like men walking into heavy rain. They never reached the German lines but suffered over 90% casualties. General de Lisle wrote, "The attack only failed of success because dead men could advance no further." The white flares had not been a British signal but a German one calling down artillery fire.

Opposite Serre on the left of the attack the 31st Division, Pals battalions from Yorkshire, Lancashire and Durham advanced. The leading waves were cut down by rifle and machine gun fire, the supporting troops shot down by Shrapnel shells. "You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them. If only they had run, they would have overwhelmed us," wrote Musketier Karl Blenk of the 169th Regiment who were defending the village. Private Pearson, of the Leeds Pals, put it slightly differently, "We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying." A few men did get into Serre; their bodies were found when the Germans gave up the village in 1917, but the attack had failed completely. To the north a diversionary attack on Gommecourt, by two Divisions of the Third Army also failed with heavy losses.

What had gone wrong? Although the preliminary bombardment had been the heaviest ever fired by the British army it was not heavy enough to destroy the German defences particularly the deep dugouts and it had been spread over both German lines because General Haig wanted a breakthrough. The fact that about 30% of the shells failed to explode (or exploding as they left the gun, killing the crew) made things worse. Lloyd George, the Minister of Munitions, had paid too much attention to the quantity of shells and not enough to their quality. Secondly the Fourth Army HQ felt the infantry did not have sufficient experience to advance in rushes and should advance in rigid, controlled lines. General Haig had opposed this but, not unreasonably, allowed the Army Commander to have his way. The slow, rigid advance gave the German machine gunners time to get into action. Either error would probably not have been fatal; together they caused one of the worst disasters the British army has ever experienced.

Total casualties amounted to 57,500, the equivalent of the infantry of six full divisions or two for every yard of the front attacked. Of these 19,240 were killed. German losses are difficult to assess but probably amounted to about 8,000 of whom 2,200 were prisoners. Only on the extreme right had the attack gained its objectives; north of the River Ancre it had failed completely. On our right the French had done better taking most of their objectives. What were our Generals to do next?

The Imperial War Museum's 'Book of the Somme' by Malcolm Brown gives a very good account of both the disastrous first day and the rest of the five months of the battle.

Mid July 1916

"We are going to take that position and some of us won't come back."

In Mesopotamia Gen Sir Frederick Maude took commend after the surrender at Kut and started to build up a fleet of steamers to ensure his army could be properly supplied as it advanced on Baghdad. In Egypt a Turkish army started to advance towards the Suez Canal while in the north the Russians defeated another Turkish thrust near the Black Sea. In the Balkans Germany and Austria started to plan an attack on Romania which has joined the Allies.

Although the first day of the Battle of the Somme had been a costly failure on the extreme right of the attack the British had captured the German first line from Montauban to Mametz. General Haig decided that the Fourth Army should exploit these gains by capturing the German second line which ran along the top of the Bazentin Ridge. Before the attack could take place two woods which jutted out from the main line had to be taken or the Germans holding them would be able to cut down the attacker with fire from both flanks. The 18th (Eastern) Division went to capture Tr6nes Wood on the right; the 38th (Welsh) Division went to take Mametz Wood.

The 38th Division had been raised on the initiative of Lloyd George who, unfortunately, had used his influence to appoint friends to senior positions. Of the Division's three Brigades one came from North Wales with battalions of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers raised in Rhyll, Llandudno and the London Welsh. The other two Brigades came from South Wales with battalions from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the South Wales Borderers and the Welsh Regiment in L1andudno, Carmarthenshire, Swansea, Cardiff, Gwent and the Rhondda Valley. It had gone to France at the end of 1915 and been in the trenches for the first part of 1916 but this would be its first major battle.

115th Brigade was ordered to attack on ih July. The Brigadier's plan was changed by XV Corps who do not seem to have been aware of the enemy's true strength. At about 8.30 am the Cardiff City Battalion (16 Welsh) and the 1st and 2nd Gwent Battalions (10 & 11 SWB) attacked the Hammerhead, a part of the wood which projected to the east. They had about 500 yards to go over open ground. A planned smoke screen which should have covered the attack from fire from enemy positions on the right failed to materialise and the attacking battalions came under heavy fire from the Hammerhead and from machine guns on their right in Flat Iron Copse. None of the attackers got within 200 yards of the wood. Among those killed were Lieutenants Leonard and Arthur Tregaskis who had returned from Canada to join the Cardiff City Battalion; they are buried in Flat Iron Copse Cemetery. Two other pairs of brothers were to die with the Cardiff City Battalion in Mametz Wood.

General Home, the Commander of XV Corps, was displeased. The divisional commander, Maj Gen Phillips, was sacked and replaced by Maj Gen Watts from 7th Division. Under his command a second attack was launched on 10th July, this time on the southern face of the wood. Before the attack Lt-Col Carden commanding the 16th Royal Welsh Fusiliers from L1andudno addressed his men, "Boys make your peace with God! We are going to take that position and some of us won't come back. But we are going to take it." At 4.30 am the 113 hand 114th Brigades advanced.

By about 6.15 am the first objective, a ride through the wood, had been taken but casualties had been heavy; they included Col Carden who had been killed at the edge of the wood itself. During the morning reserve battalions moved up and the infantry advanced further into the wood in the afternoon after another bombardment. Most of the wood was taken by the evening although German positions at the northern edge held out until the following morning. Mametz Wood is about a mile long and perhaps

three-quarters of a mile at its widest; capturing it cost 38th Division about 4,000 casualties (600 killed, 2,750 wounded and 600 missing, most of whom were dead).

At one point the infantry came under fire from both German and British artillery. Captain Wyn Griffith sent a message back to stop the British fire. It got through and the fire ceased. That evening he was told that his younger brother Watcyn had carried the message and had been killed as he returned. In Up to Mametz he wrote, "So I had sent him to his death bearing a message from my own hand in an endeavour to save other men's brothers."

The way was now clear for the next major attack. In the night of 13th July six British divisions formed up, in the dark, on the slopes of Bazentin Ridge. At 3.15 am a hurricane bombardment hit the German lines and five minutes later the infantry stormed forward. The German position was in British hands as dawn broke. In fact the infantry could have gone further, the Germans were completely disorganised and had few reserved, but they were ordered to wait for the cavalry and by the time they reached the front the enemy had regrouped. High Wood, which could probably have been taken easily on the 14th fell two months later after bitter fighting with heavy losses on both sides.

The following day the, 15th July, the South African Brigade moved up to take Delville Wood on the right of the British gains. They took most of the wood and beat off a series of German counter-attacks, one by nine battalions - over twice their original strength. They left the wood four days later having lost about 3,000 of their original 3,150 men.

Another casualty of the fighting around Delville and High Woods was Major Billy Congreve VC who was killed on 20th July. His father Lt-Gen Congreve, commanding XIII Corps, had also won the VC in the Boer War. Billy Congreve had gone on leave before the battle and, on 1st June, had married Pamela Maude. In November, Pamela widowed and pregnant, went to collect her dead husband's decorations (the VC, 050 and MC - from King George V.

On the other flank of the advance the 1st Australian Division attacked Pozieres. It took two days of hard fighting to take the village that had been one of the objectives of the first day's assault. The advance to the German third line continued and it was not only the British who were suffering. A German soldier wrote home in July and described his position, "It is not really a trench, but a little ditch shattered with shells - not the slightest cover and no protection. We have lost fifty men in two days and life is unendurable. "

The South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association raised the money for the 38th Division's Memorial at Mametz Wood (the dragon was sculpted by David Peterson of St Clears). The Branch is still responsible for the monument and contributions to the cost of maintenance are always welcome.

August 1916

"It was exactly as though some invisible scythe had mown them down."

The Somme battlefield basked in summer sunshine. 'Not the weather for killing people', Harold Macmillan, later Prime Minister, wrote to his mother. Not that this stopped the fighting.

In mid July the British had taken Bazentin Ridge but had not been able to advance further. Fierce fighting, continued In High Wood for the whole month. It could probably have been taken by a quick attack as part of the capture of the Ridge with only light casualties in July. Now, the Germans were to hold out there for weeks.

On the right the 55th Division attacked Guillemont to broaden the front. On of the units involved was the Liverpool Scottish. The battalion attacked three times, failing each time to gain any significant ground so that, by the end of the day, ten of their twenty officers and ninety-six of their six hundred men missing. Captain Noel Chavasse RAMC, the Medical Officer, went out into No Man's Land, to search for wounded. In daylight this would have been suicide; even at night it was dangerous especially as Chavasse used a torch, shouted and blew on a whistle to try locate casualties. He also ignored volleys of rifle fire from the Germans and a bullet in his leg. He received the Victoria Cross for this incredible exploit.

On the left the 12th Division and the ANZACs attacked Mouquet Farm ('Mucky Farm') a strongpoint which defended the rear of the German positions around Thiepval and, as often as not, defended against German counter-attacks launched to recapture positions which had been lost. "The first principle of position warfare must be to yield not one foot of ground; and if it be lost to retake it immediately by counterattack, even to the last man." General Falkenhayn, German Chief-of-Staff.

Unfortunately, after General Rawlinson's imaginative dawn attack in mid-July he seems to have lost control of the battle during August. Hard fighting continued but most of the British attacks were small scale affairs and often badly prepared. Larger attacks, properly co-ordinated by Army and Corps Commanders given adequate artillery support would probably have produced better results and fewer casualties.

Many attacks failed, "[They advanced] shoulder to shoulder, like a solid bar. I saw our men get their machine-guns into action, and the right side of the living bar frittered away, and then the whole line fell into the scorched grass. Another line followed. They were tall men, and did not falter as they came forward, but it seemed to me they walked like men conscious of going to death. They died. The simile is outworn, but it was exactly as though some invisible scythe had mown them down." Clearly proving that British generals were all incompetent butchers? Well no; this is an account of the defeat of a German counter-attack by British war-correspondent Phillip Gibbs and, while British losses mounted steadily, reaching about 160,000 by the end of the month and scaring the politicians at home, the Germans felt they were under very severe pressure. One wrote home, "I stood on the brink of the most terrible days of my life. They were those of the battle of the Somme, it began with a night attack on August 13 to 14. The attack lasted till the evening of the 1Sh, when the English wrote on our bodies in letters of blood: 'It is all over with you'. A handful of half-mad, wretched creatures, worn out in body and mind, were all that was left of the whole battalion. We were that handful. "

The British pressure on the Somme had already brought relief to the French at Verdun. After the Allied assault on the Somme the German high command ordered their armies there to go onto the defensive. During August the French gathered their strength and regrouped.

In the East the Russians, under General Brusilov, continued to advance and by mid-August had claimed to have captured 375,000 prisoners, 400 guns and 15,000 square miles of ground. Unfortunately he had lost 550,000 men and while replacements were available they were getting progressively more disenchanted with the Czar and his government. Encouraged by Russian gains Romania, which had been determinedly neutral, now decided to join the Allies and invaded Transylvania.

In Egypt Turkish troops launched a surprise attack on a rail junction to the east of the Suez Canal but were halted without too much difficulty by New Zealanders. In Armenia the Turks launched an offensive which made some gains at the Russian's expense but most were lost to Russian counter-attacks.

In Italy the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo, the most successful Italian attack so far, ended with some gains and about 50,000 casualties on each side. In Salonika the Bulgarians pushed into northern Greece and captured Florina but the Allies held the attack and the front stabilised on the Sturma River.

At sea the German High Seas Fleet sailed to bombard Sunderland but a British submarine torpedoed one of their older battleships and the attack was cancelled. As the British Grand Fleet was at sea to catch them this may well have been lucky for the Germans although two British cruisers were also sunk by U-boats. Submarine warfare is, in fact, becoming steadily more important. In the Mediterranean U-35 returns to base having sunk thirty-five Allied ships, mostly by gunfire. This is the highest score of any submarine during the war. As a matter of interest Captain van Trapp (Sound of Music) was an Austrian submarine ace.

On the home front a Zeppelin attack on Britain early in August is defeated by bad weather and the efforts of Lieut Leefe Robertson who shot down a German airship. In Germany miners went on strike against inflation and food shortages. At the end of the month Gen Paul van Hindenburg with Gen Eric Ludendorff as his deputy replaced Gen van Falkenhayn as the German Chief-of-Staff. He immediately pressed for increased production of artillery and, more importantly, for unrestricted submarine warfare to counter the British blockade. With hindsight this was not a good idea.

September 1916

'A tank is walking down the main street in Flers with half the British army cheering behind it.'

In France the Battle of the Somme continued. Mines, flame throwers and blazing drums of oil helped the Black Watch and the 2nd Welsh to gain some ground in High Wood but the inevitable German counter-attacks recaptured most of it. On the right a series of attacks took the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy helping the French to advance on our right.

Then, on 15th September, came the next big push, an attempt to break through the German lines once and for all. Ten divisions attacked on a seven mile front helped by the latest wonder-weapon the tank. The problem was that the Mark I tank was mechanically unreliable, only about twenty-four of the fifty available actually reached the front, and slow, about 2 mph over broken ground and very vulnerable to artillery fire. Nevertheless those tanks which got into action were helpful in destroying wire and German machine guns posts. In the centre they certainly helped to capture the village of Flers although the famous headline quoted above is actually an example of early spin doctoring.

On the right the Guards Division attacked from Ginchy to capture the village of Lesboeufs. The villages are about a mile apart, a pleasant twenty minute stroll in summer. Even with tanks supporting them the Guards could only get about two-thirds of the way. Among the casualties was Raymond Asquith, the son of the then Prime Minister, who calmly smoked a cigarette as he was carried back so that his men should not know how badly he had been hit. He died on the way back to the dressing station. However Harold Macmillan, who was to become Prime Minister, survived not only a serious wound but the unpleasant experience of being nearly buried, twice, by the earth thrown up by German shells before he was evacuated. On the other flank the Canadians captured Courcelette. "If hell is as bad as what I have seen at Courcelette I would not wish my worst enemy to go there," one wrote. The battle had convinced General Haig that tanks were helpful and he placed an order for 1,000 of them; a point often ignored by those who insist that he was unimaginative and unwilling to learn.

The battle of Flers - Courcelette continued for about ten days. On 25th September the Guards Division attacked Lesboeufs again. Captain Gibbs of the Welsh Guards wrote "We are attacking at the same place that we left off the other day and I think we ought to go through well." Comments like this and those of Capt Noel Chavasse earlier in September who wrote home "It is nice to think that our heavy fighting is coming to an end. The Huns are beaten to a frazzle in front of us. We are feeling top dogs. There is nothing like the losses we had at first." While somewhat over-optimistic these comments do seem to reflect the views of the troops at this time better than the anti-war sentiments which became popular after the war.

September also saw the capture of Mouquet Farm (Mucky or Moo-Cow Farm to the troops) which together with the Scwaben Redoubt and Thiepval had been holding out since the 1st of July. The success of this attack on nearly impregnable positions was due to careful preparation, good training and excellent planning particularly by Maj-Gen Ivor Maxse commanding the 18th Division. The British army was learning its trade but the breakthrough General Haig was seeking was to remain out of reach.

It was in September that Private Henry Farr refused to go to the front line and was arrested, convicted of cowardice and executed. It seems probable that Farr was suffering from shell-shock and his case is certainly one of the thirty or so where, perhaps, some acknowledgement that they may have been unfairly treated because of the primitive state of medical knowledge of nervous diseases may be justified. However the vast majority of three hundred who were executed were undoubtedly guilty as charged making the recent decision to issue a general pardon inexplicable and somewhat insulting to the millions of men who did their duty and, in many cases, died or suffered permanent disability from doing it.

At Verdun the French, grimly holding onto the inner ring of forts around the town, faced a disaster when ammunition stored in the Tavannes railway tunnel exploded killing five hundred men who were resting there. One of the few eye-witnesses to survive wrote "a shattered body flew into me, or rather poured over me. I saw, three metres away, men twisting in the flames without being able to render them any help. Legs, arms, flew in the air amid the explosion of the grenades which went off without cease." Despite this, the French continued with their plans for a counter-offensive to regain the lost ground.

It was in September when Baron Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, reached the Western Front and gained his first victory while on Zeppelin raids continued and U-boats continued to sink allied shipping. The Italians launched the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo but, partly due to bad weather, were only made very limited gains. In the Balkans General von Falkenhayn started an offensive to drive the Romanians out of Transylvania (Dracula country) to prepare the way for a full scale invasion of Romania itself. In Salonika the French, supported by Russian troops, recaptured the town of Florina in Macedonia and prepared to advance to Monastir in Serbia. In Palestine Australian and New Zealand cavalry push the Turks about twenty miles back to the town of El Arish.

Those interested in the question of pardons for those executed in the First World War should read Blindfold and Alone (a Kipling quotation) by Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson the most authoritative study of the subject.

October 1916

'Rain fell in torrents, and the battle area became a sea of mud.'

On the Western Front the Battle of the Somme continued with the British still trying to achieve objectives which they had hoped to take on the first day of the battle. The Germans were still refusing to co-operate and recaptured the village of Le Sars, which the British had taken in September. It was recaptured five days later probably joining the many villages which were only identifiable by the reddish stain of the bricks in the mud.

To make things worse the weather had broken. The British Official History stated "Rain fell in torrents, and the battle area became a sea of mud. Men died from the effects of carrying verbal messages." A Canadian in a Field Ambulance wrote in his diary, "Dead lying all over, especially in pieces as shells persist in bringing them to the surface. Bodies in chamber all blackened from smoke bomb. One Tommy with arms around a Boche as in a deadly struggle." Some said the mud was worse than that found at Passchendaele in the following year; this does seem questionable but the Somme mud is notoriously sticky after rain.

The British army's learning process continued. The Newfoundland Regiment attacked at Guéudecourt behind a 'creeping barrage' where a moving curtain of shells preceded the infantry to stun the defenders. Even though men might be killed from their own shells falling short lives were saved as the defenders did not have time to get their machine guns into action before the assaulting infantry reached their trenches. Although the bad weather did allow the Germans to draw breath and regroup they were still under severe pressure from the British attacks, one of which produced over a thousand prisoners. However fighting was difficult and there were no major attacks in October.

At Verdun it was different. General Pétain had been replaced as the battlefield commander by General Robert Nivelle whose planned attacks would be organised in detail by General Mangin, nicknamed 'The Butcher'. Like the British the French were learning. Pétain had promised that the infantry would no longer have to go over the top singing the Marseillaise with no cannons behind them. For the October offensive they assembled 650 guns, half of them heavies (6" or bigger) including two 16" railway guns, and 15,000 tons of ammunition. The bombardment started on the 19th and continued for four days. Even Fort Douaumont was not safe from the enormous shells; finally the survivors of the garrison were forced to evacuate it even though the French were shelling the exits with poison gas. For the German infantry in their trenches it was a terrible experience except for one rather smart unit who observed that the French had withdrawn from their front line trenches, presumably to avoid their own shells falling short, and promptly nipped across no man's land and sheltered there.

Then the guns fell silent and the Germans heard the French infantry in their trenches cheering. Expecting the infantry assault the Germans brought down their defensive artillery barrage. The French ploy had worked perfectly. There was no assault but now the French gunners knew where the German batteries were. During the next two days the bombardment fell on the German gun positions so that, when the infantry did finally advance, 90 of the 158 batteries had been destroyed and many of the remainder had been seriously damaged. Surprise and deception were still useful weapons of war.

On 24th October General Mangin's eight divisions advanced behind a creeping barrage for two miles over the most heavily shelled patch of mud in the world (even French peasants could not reclaim the land after the war and it is now mostly forest). In a single day the French had recaptured Fort Douaumont itself and an area of ground which it had taken the Germans four and a half months to take. Moreover, while French loses were around 47,000 it does seem that the Germans lost more men; certainly large numbers of prisoners were captured.

The Battle of Verdun had lasted for ten months. At its end the front line was back where it had been in January. No one really knows what the casualties were. Probably French losses were somewhat more than the Germans but it seems likely that, on both sides, about 420,000 men died and a further 800,000 were wounded or gassed. Certainly after the war 150,000 unburied bodies, or parts of bodies, were found on the battlefield.

By any standards this was a clear victory. Certainly the French government thought so and General Joffre, the Commander-in-Chief, was replaced, not by General Pétain who had overseen the action, but by Nivelle. Doubtless this was partly due to the fact that Nivelle was extremely good at flattering politicians and telling them what they wanted to hear. Like many political decisions made for similar reasons this one would cause problems.

Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, an ace commander who had sworn he would 'raze London', led seven airships to attack London. Altogether they dropped over 200 bombs but 2/Lt William Tempest shot down Mathy's Zeppelin killing him and all nineteen crew. On the Western Front Oswald Boelcke, a German ace with over forty kills, was himself killed in a collision with another German aircraft.

U-boats continued to sink ships, including several off the eastern coast of the United States. In the Mediterranean the French liner Gallia, acting as a troop transport, was sunk with the loss of 600 lives. Cunard were also to lose their first liner when the Franconia was sunk.

Late in October the Ninth Battle of the Isonzo started. It was called off a few days later after the Italians had gained about two miles at the cost of 24,000 men. On the Eastern Front Russia was nearing the end of its resources. General Alexeyev warned the Tsar that there were only enough reserve troops for a further five months fighting, unsurprising as Russian casualties now totalled 4,670,000, while the censorship department reported that the troops were saying "After the war we'll have to settle accounts with the internal enemy." In Arabia Capt T E Lawrence arrived in Jeddah to act as a liaison officer with Arabs rebelling against Turkish rule.

In America President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected President having promised the people that the United States would remain neutral.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission's web site gives detailed directions to the locations of the graves of British casualties or the memorials where those with no known grave are commemorated.

November 1916

'The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army.'

In France the Battle of the Somme continued. Plans were made for a final large scale attack north of the River Ancre to capture Beaumont-Hamel and Beaucourt and eliminate German salient which had been formed by the British advances south of the river. Because the weather was poor General Haig made it clear that the attack could be cancelled if it did not improve. However the Army Commander, General Gough, was a 'thruster' and assured the Commander-in-Chief that his men were keen and raring to go. After several postponements the assault was finally made on 13th November.

On the left, opposite the village of Serre (one of the objectives of the 1st of July attack) the 31st and 3rd Divisions failed to gain any ground. However on the right things went better. The 51st (Highland) Division, 'Harper's Duds' to the rest of the army after their divisional sign and the name of their commander, captured Beaumont Hamel without too much difficulty and pushed the line a few hundred yards further east in the next few days. After the battle 2/Lt Norman Collins who, as an apprentice draftsman, had witnessed the bombardment of Hartlepool in 1914, was put in charge of a party clearing the dead from the captured ground. What made this an extremely unpleasant job was the fact that many of the bodies had been lying there since July and that rats were nesting in some of the corpses.

On the north bank of the River Ancre the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division attacked. The Division had been formed by Winston Churchill from fleet reservists who were surplus to the fleet's requirements. It had fought in Gallipoli but this was its first major battle on the Western Front and it would fight under a new, and rather unpopular, commander, Maj-Gen Shute who had been originally commissioned into the Welsh Regiment.

Machine guns in a concealed bunker cut down many of the sailors as they advanced through the German trenches but the survivors, under the inspired leadership of Col Bernard Freyburg, were able to consolidate a new line on the edge of Beaucourt village. In the Nelson battalion ten of the twenty officers who had gone into the attack were dead and nine were wounded. Two officers in reserve, Lieut Truscott and Sub-Lieut Edwin Dyett, who had been born in Albany Road, Cardiff, were sent forward as reinforcements. Truscott collected a party of stragglers from Beaucourt Station about 150 yds behind the front line, led them forward to the front line and took command of the battalion's survivors.

Dyett, however, got into an argument with another officer at the station and then said that he found such chaos he felt he should go back to Brigade Headquarters for further orders. He was not seen again until the 15th November when he was found waiting in Englebelmer when the battalion was finally relieved and returned to its base. As a result of this unsatisfactory behaviour he was placed under arrest.

During the next four days the British secured the village of Beaucourt and consolidated their new line. The Battle of the Somme ended officially on 19th November. British and Commonwealth casualties amounted to about 450,000 of whom perhaps 120,000 had been killed. The French lost a further 200,000. German losses are harder to assess because they were calculated in a completely different way and because the Germans deliberately understated them to avoid damaging morale on the home front. Most modern commentators put them at about 600,000, roughly equal to those of the Allies.

The territorial gains, a maximum of five miles, were not significant. However the inexperienced British volunteers had learned their trade and were on their way to becoming the highly professional army of 1918 while the Germans had been put under immense pressure, particularly by the British artillery.

German letters home make this point forcefully:

"When you read these lines, I shall no longer be among the living. I shall have breathed my last before the enemy on the Somme. I could not prevent Prussian militarism from driving me to death. Oh, from the very beginning, I had the sad feeling that I should not see my dear ones in this world again. You can form no idea what the poor soldiers have to go through here in this place and how cruelly and uselessly men are sacrificed: it is awful."

"We are here on the Somme in such an artillery fire as I have never experienced - indeed no one has in the whole war. Cover there is none, we lie in a shell hole and defend ourselves to the last man. He who comes out of this fire can thank God. It's frightful; such murder here. Day and night the earth quakes with the bombardment of the heaviest guns."

A German staff officer wrote, 'The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army' and it was partly to 'protect the troops from further Somme fighting' that the German's restarted unrestricted submarine warfare, a decision which would seal their fate by bringing America into the war.

The Somme was a British victory albeit one won at terrible cost. Some argue that the enormous losses prove that British generals were incompetent butchers however as Allied losses in the fighting in Normandy in 1944 were, proportionately, as heavy or even slightly greater this is clearly not the case. Casualties are, tragically, the result of politicians' decisions to make war.

During 1916 the French developed the idea of a 'creeping barrages', a curtain of shells, sometimes hundreds of yards deep, which moved slowly across the enemy trenches with the infantry following closely behind to fall on the stunned defenders before they could get their weapons into action. It worked and in the first two weeks of November the French, now under the command of General Robert Nivelle, recaptured nearly all the ground gained by the Germans since February when the battle had started.

Of course the ground itself was not worth much. A French staff-officer writing of the village of Fleury said, "The whole place has returned into dust, with the bones of the thousands of adversaries who rushed her pell-mell, a chaos of shadows in this village of shadows." Fleury, and eight other villages, was never rebuilt. The ground on which they stood had been sterilised by a litter of unexploded shells and polluted by decaying metal and chemicals. In one area diphosgene, a poison gas, had even killed the flies. French casualties seem to have been about 350,000 and German losses roughly the same.

On 1st November the Italians launched the Ninth Battle of the Isonzo. The battle ended three days later with 28,000 Italian casualties and no ground gained. In Salonika the Allies captured the town of Monastir in Serbia but the Germans and Bulgarians form a new line a few miles to the north. The Greek provisional government declared war on Germany and Bulgaria. At the end of the month Field-Marshall von Mackensen launched the second German invasion of Romania attacking on a thirty mile front on the River Danube. Three days later the advance linked up with other German troops and pressed on to attack Bucharest, the Romanian capital. In the Middle East the leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks, Hussein, the Grand Sherif of Mecca, was crowned King of Arabia.

Emperor Fran Joseph of Austro-Hungary, aged 85, died and was succeeded by the Archduke Charles. A German submarine sank the liner Brittanic. One of those who survived was a stewardess who had been rescued when the Brittanic's sister ship, the Titanic, was lost. Manfred von Richtofen scored his eleventh kill when he shot down Major Lanoe Hawker VC. At the end of the month a Zeppelin raid dropped two hundred bombs but two of the seven raiders were shot down. The following day a German sea-plane bombed Kensington wounding six civilians. This was the first raid on Britain by a plane rather than an airship.

Albert Ingham and Alfred Longshaw were found in civilian clothes on board a Swedish ship in Dieppe harbour. In civilian life they had both been clerks in Salford Goods Yard. In military life they were private soldiers in the Machine Gun Corps who had deserted when their unit was ordered to the trenches. Both were executed for desertion on 1st December. After the war Ingham's father had the words, "Shot at Dawn. One of the First to Enlist. A Worthy Son of his Father" inscribed on his son's headstone.

'Beaucourt Revisited' by Sir Alan Herbert, who served in the Royal Naval Division, is one of the outstanding poems of the war. Another poem attributed to him about General Shute is also memorable if for completely different reasons.

December 1916

'We shall put our trust rather in an unbroken army than in broken faith.'

'All quiet on the Western Front'. As usual December was a quiet month for the troops. Well, not entirely. At Verdun General Robert Nivelle, the new commander, launched a major attack. This produced 11,000 German prisoners and 115 heavy guns and restored the French line to about where it had been in January when the battle started. 'I can assure you that victory is certain', Nivelle announced to his men afterwards.

French troops on the Somme may not have been too impressed. An article in a trench newspaper described their Christmas: "On Christmas Day about twenty of us were crowded in a rotten sap captured from the Germans near Ablaincourt. We went in there twenty-four hours earlier, to organise that particular sector. Our men had covered nearly 40 kilometres on foot and had just spent four hours in the nauseating air of motor-buses. They had brought three days' supply of food with them which was supposed to last over Christmas night. For the evening meal, therefore, we ate what was left at the bottom of our bags ... those bags which still had something in them ... [The men were] covered in mud - there was no water to be had. These two army corps - the relievers and the relieved - had a truly wretched Christmas night, distressing too. ... For this third Christmas of the war there were certainly - at the front - several other thousands of squads who had nothing but shells to help them celebrate Christmas. "

In the last British attack on the Somme in mid November the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division had captured the village of Beaucourt. Sub-Lieut Edwin Dyett, born in Albany Road, Cardiff in 1895 had been sent forward as a replacement when all the other officers of his battalion had been killed or wounded. However although Lieut Truscott, who went up with Dyett, reached the front line and took command there, Dyett got into an argument with another officer and spent thirty-six hours wandering round the rear of the battlefield. He was finally found waiting at battalion headquarters when the troops were relieved and, unsurprisingly, placed under arrest while his conduct was investigated.

The Division moved back to rest on the Seine Estuary and Dyett waited. From letters he does not seem to have realised how long he had been absent and seems to have thought that he would not be charged. He was wrong. On 26th December he was court-martialled for desertion. (A soldier is guilty of desertion if he absents himself either with the intention of leaving the army permanently or of avoiding some onerous or dangerous duty.) The evidence established that Dyett had been ordered to go up to the front and that he had not done so. Why he failed was less clear. There are suggestions that he was confused and in his letters he admits he was of a nervous disposition and unsuited to front line service. He did not give evidence on his own behalf, perhaps because his solicitor felt he could not possibly explain his lengthy absence.

The court found Edwin Dyett guilty - it is difficult to see how they could have reached any other verdict unless they felt his nervous nature made it impossible for him to do anything 'intentionally' - and he was sentenced to death with a recommendation for mercy on the grounds that he was young, inexperienced and the circumstances were likely to affect a youth who did not have a strong character.

Death sentences had to be confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief so the file moved up the chain of command. Maj-Gen Shute, the Divisional commander, recommended mercy on the grounds the division had done well in the battle and that Dyett was young and inexperienced. Lt-Gen Macob, the Corps Commander, however, recommended that the sentence be carried out. The Army commander, General Gough, wrote "I recommend that the sentence be carried out. If a private had behaved as he did in such circumstances, it is highly probable that would have been shot." The papers reached General Douglas Haig at the end of the month.

On other fronts the war dragged on. In the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt Australian and New Zealand troops pushed the Turks back to EI Arish, only about twenty miles from the Palestinian border. In Roumania the Germans under General von Falkenhayn completed the capture of most of the country giving Germany access the country's granaries, a much needed asset in view of the British blockade. However a sabotage mission led by Col Norton-Griffiths MP, a civil engineer in private life, denied the Germans some valuable resources by destroying 800,000 tons of petrol at Ploesti. In the Aegean the French battleship Gaulois was sunk by a U-boat; as well as Gaulois U-boats and 167 merchant shops, 70 from neutral countries, their highest monthly score of the war.

In Mesopotamia General Sir Francis Maude, with an army of 48,000 men, 170 guns and 20 planes, started a new offensive to capture Baghdad. Although he was only facing about 20,000 Turkish troops bad weather meant that the advance was slow. In Salonika the Allies went into winter quarters while in Greece there was some fighting between Allied and pro-German Greek troops.

On the Home Front matters were more active. Herbert Asquith, who had lost one son in the fighting, tired and ageing was replaced as Prime Minister by David Lloyd George - the one person in the cabinet who had 'any aptitude for war or knowledge of it', according to Churchill. Lloyd George took over on 6th December just in time to respond to a speech by the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, which offered to open negotiations on the basis that Germany could keep most of its territorial gains. Unsurprisingly, Lloyd George, who had been made Prime Minister to prosecute the war with more vigour, rejected the approach saying, 'We shall put our trust rather in an unbroken army than in broken faith. '

A suggestion by the recently re-elected President Wilson that the Allied powers should formulate the terms on which they would make peace. Well meaning Wilson may have been; tactful he was not. A note saying that the United States were 'too proud to fight' was not likely to be popular in countries which had been at war for over two years and this approach led nowhere. Indeed one of Lloyd George's first moves was to set up a National Service department under Neville Chamberlain to co-ordinate conscription and produce more men for the front. In France Gen Joseph Joffre, the Commander-in-Chief was promoted to Marshall and replaced by Gen Ferdinand Foch. In Britain Admiral Jellicoe was succeeded by Admiral Beatty as commander of the Grand Fleet. In Russia Rasputin was murdered by aristocrats who felt he had too much influence at court. Some recent research suggests that the British Secret Service may have been involved in the plot.

Books about the Battle of the Somme include The 1916 Battle of the Somme - A Reappraisal' by Peter Liddle and The Somme' by Peter Hart. Books about the 11th East Lanes (the Accrington Pals) are also available from Pen & Sword Books and may be of interest to those who have seen a performance of The Accrington Pals.

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