|German trench occupied by the 9th Cheshires, La Boiselle, July 1916|
For obvious and compelling reasons the popular focus on the Battle of the Somme is on the first day and Martin Middlebrook’s ‘The First day on the Somme’, published in 1971, remains a masterpiece of synthesis and compression - and empathetic understanding.
But what of the second day of the Somme?
What happened as the realisation of the previous day’s disastrous events dawned upon officers and men? How difficult was the tactical transition from breakthrough to coping with catastrophe?
This brief article is about one example of the impact on one Colonel and his battalion in one part of the battlefield. His experience, doubtless, was replicated all along the front where the attack had failed and, perhaps to some extent, even where there had been some success.
The attack by 34th Division to the north and south of La Boiselle had, indeed, been a catastrophe. By midday on 1 July the Division had lost over 6,000 men – the worst Divisional casualties on the first day of the battle. No men had been kept in reserve. In effect this meant that the 34th Division would have to be replaced and the attack continued by another, or other, Divisions.
19th Division, hitherto in reserve, was moved forward. However, a night attack by the Division, due to begin at 10.30 pm on 1 July, was cancelled because its 57th and 58th Brigades were not able to advance quickly enough. Communication trenches were blocked by walking-wounded and stretcher bearers and the ground above the trenches had been churned by shellfire and covered with the dead of the morning attack.
The War Diary entries by Lieut. Col. R. B. Worgan OC 9th Battalion Cheshire Regiment, 58th Brigade, 19th Division give an interesting account of the confusion in the battlefield. Having received the orders for the 10.30 pm attack at a conference of Commanding Officers, Colonel Worgan was actually unable to find his battalion!
‘... I hurried down to the line but could not find the battalion ... The trenches were very much knocked about & full of wounded & dead & the enemy was shelling them heavily. Eventually I came upon D Coy they had lost the battalion & had no officer with them.’
Having eventually found the OC D Company, he ordered him to ‘... reinforce the troops in the NEW CRATER.’ (Lochnagar). Colonel Worgan then went off in search of the remainder of his battalion and found ‘... A Coy with details of two Coys ...’ These he ordered forward ‘... to reinforce the troops holding the portion of the German line adjacent to the NEW CRATER’.
It was now too late to carry out the planned 10.30 pm attack. Instead Colonel Worgan put his soldiers to work repairing trenches.
At 2.30 am on 2 July Colonel Worgan ‘... got a message that the Bde Major wished to speak to me on the telephone, after some delay in finding the latter I got orders to attack the German front line without delay. The battalion were very scattered & detached & this was not easy to put into operation but within 20 minutes I had taken over the best part of it into the crater & German front line adjacent.’
He then received a report that there were actually too many British troops already in the German line so he kept one company back.
At about 4.00 pm Colonel Worgan got orders that 9th Cheshires, as part of 58th Brigade were to ‘attack La Boiselle and bomb through it blocking and clearing out all dugouts.’
However, it would seem from Brigade Order No. 55 that he received these orders half an hour after the attack should have started, with the Cheshires bombing the German communication trenches.
As a ruse, the 58th Brigade attack was preceded by a bombardment on Ovillers from 3.30 to 4.00 pm and a smoke screen released at zero hour – 4.00 pm. The deception succeeded and German artillery fired on Ovillers, but not La Boiselle, where a frontal attack was made by 6th Wiltshires and 9th Royal Welch Fusiliers. The attackers got across no man's land and captured the German front line trench with few casualties. The west end of La Boiselle village was occupied by the British by 9.00 pm. 9th Cheshires had, in the event, attacked to the right of La Boiselle, bombing their way into the German support trench.
Colonel Worgan had his misgivings: ‘At about 8.30 pm we had gone as far as our strength warranted, in fact we were holding the line rather weakly.’
I came across the War Diary of 9th Cheshires at the Cheshire Regiment Museum while researching materials for History teachers when I was their InSET (In Service Training) organiser some years ago. Extracts from this Diary and other documents were edited by me and published by the Museum in a pack entitled ‘The Great War – Extracts from the Archives of the Cheshire Regiment’.
|La Boiselle trench lines at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme|
WSW of the centre of the circle the Hohe Schwaben redoubt is clearly shown and, therefore, the location of the ‘NEW CRATER’ (Lochnagar).
Image: 'German trench occupied by the 9th Cheshires, La Boiselle, July 1916.' This is sometimes, I think incorrectly, captioned ‘11th Cheshires, Ovillers’.
Map source: thebignote.com