The Kensington Rifles/Wasted effort on the Somme

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Chapter III: Wasted effort on the Somme

The Germans had launched a massive attack on the French Line at Verdun on 21st February, 1916. Although the battle was still raging and the French had lost almost half a million men it was continuing. To alleviate the strain on the French it was decided that the British should make a strong attack on the Somme. Although the battle has been given the name of the Somme in fact it was the Battle of Ancre. The battlefield lay between Gommecourt in the north and Maricourt in the south. On the north of Ancre lies the village of Beaumont Hamel and Serre. The Somme is the name for a French administrative department taken from the name of the river, which runs through the region. The part protected by the British Army was the northeast corner overlapping into the next department call the Pas de Calais.

This region of France formed part of the old province of Picardy; an old Roman road linked its cathedral city Amiens and two smaller towns of Albert, northeast of Amiens, and further still Bapaume. The region was crossed by two rivers the Somme and the smaller Ancre. The Germans were defending their gains. The Allies intent upon pushing them back. The former, constructed deep secure trenches and dugouts whilst developing small villages into miniature forts. The latter, believed such tactics opposed to aggressive behaviour laid scant regard on such wasted effort - their policy was, mobility and attack. What was typical, the Germans held the high ground… not only could they observe what was going on but knew that any attack had to be made uphill! Our main concern is the northern end of the front line, in a beautiful village called Hebuterne. There a few cottages lined the road with tall stately trees behind which lay orchards and gardens. As in all villages a fine old church with a tower and several farmhouses. The main employer in the village was the owner of the brick built mill, now used as the battalion headquarters with all the usual staff – cooks, runners, signallers etc. The village lay between the British 3rd and 4th. Armies, opposite the salient village of Gommecourt, its chateau and Park, wood, famous tree - the Kaiser Oak, and cross-roads. In parts of the front line, the German trenches were only fifty feet away.

Hebuterne was now a ghost of its former past – it was in ruins. Even though the village and church had suffered terribly the tower still stood proudly silhouetted against the sky. As with all points of interest the Germans had the church entrance well within their range, and even though the entrance had been sandbagged it was a dangerous place to be lingering. The attack on the Salient of Gommecourt was to be a diversionary attack made by two encircling flank-divisions; both made up of Territorial’s, the 46th North Midland, to the north and the 56th London Division [Territorial Force] to the south. The first stage of the encirclement was to size the German trenches to their front… the second stage was for each division to make a turn inwards around the back of Gommecourt and cut the resident German garrison off. In itself this is a simple exercise not complicated by many divergent goals.

The 56th London Division was probably the most highly trained territorial division in the British Army. Its four component parts had seen a lot of action already losing few men… maintaining a high proportion of their original pre-war volunteers. The men were in the main were well educated, working as managers and office workers in London’s business sector. Each of the Battalions prided themselves on their core construction representing a particular part of London.

Within the London Division were three Brigades, each comprising of four Battalions. Company Sergeant Albert Kearey was in the 1/13th London Regiment [Kensington’s], the other three Regiments were: 1/4th London Regiment [Royal Fusiliers] 1/12th London Regiment [Rangers], 1/14th London Regiment [London Scottish]… These four Regiments made up the 168th Brigade commanded by Brigadier General G C Loch, with Captain Neame, VC, as Brigade Major and Major L C Wheatley as Staff Captain. They in turn were a fourth part of the 56th [London] Division. The 1/5 Cheshire’s acted as the Divisions Pioneers. In overall command was General Haig. The Third Army led by General Allenby, its VII Corps by Lieutenant General Snow, and the 56th London Division [167th and 168th Battalions] by Major General Hull.

Battle of Loos, 1916[edit | edit source]

After the battle of Loos, the Kensingtons settled down for the winter, for it was quite impossible to continue the ‘battle of the trenches’ in the conditions found in France. The British Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, was replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig. During the Christmas period the troops were allowed to move about the front behind their barbed wire entanglement. The Germans did exactly the same. Within seven weeks the Germans were to launch their massive attack on the French at Verdun. Once again the attackers gained ground quickly pushing the French almost out of the city. French reserves were ordered up to stem the tide. Marshal Petain appealed to the British to attack to relieve the pressure on them. It was decided to launch a joint attack and the British Commander Haig chose the Somme in late June as a likely area and time to achieve success; it was to be known as ‘The Big Push’.

The 56th London Division was in training. The first months of 1916, allowed the new replacements to become used to their comrades and form a bond with them. In dribs and dabs each Company filled the Hebuterne sector on the left of the Somme front - at Gommecourt. In all, there were to be 120,000 infantry engaged in the Somme offensive.

Battle for Gommecourt, July 1916[edit | edit source]

This attack was to be a diversionary attack – to take away –enemy opposition, to the main Breakthrough Plan – an advance from Albert towards Bapaume… up the main road… to be made by The Reserve Army, of Sir Herbert Gough. From the centre of the main British attack Gommecourt is some ten miles north. General Snow stressed that, ‘no movement should be made towards Gommecourt until the German defences had been destroyed by the artillery, for there were no reserves for this part of the battle…’ Before the battle, Major General Hull was ordered to construct a completely new trench halfway across ‘No Man’s Land’, which was 800 yards wide. At night three thousand men were sent over to dig an assault trench only three hundred yards away from the German front line… The Germans observed all this activity but did nothing about it - keeping down behind the trench wall - sheltering from a huge barrage meant to achieve a distraction from what was going on. This new advanced trench was dug without any loss of life which was a fine achievement. The following night the trench was deepened and firing steps put in. This action, to prepare ‘No-Man’s-Land’ for an attack - to shorten the distance between the start-line of the battle and the first enemy trench, saved many lives. This very simple expediency, as were others like linking shell holes or pushing out a sap, involving the movement of the attacking troops closer to the enemy front line – to keep advancing troops below ground level for maximum period, not practiced sufficiently.

Battle of the Somme, Saturday 1st July, 1916[edit | edit source]

That morning the weather was fine; the Battle of the Somme commenced. This was going to be biggest battle so far - conceived to take the strain off the French who were beginning to buckle at Verdun. The artillery had enveloped the German trenches with continuous fire. This provoked return fire.

The attack went in at 4.00am led by the 1st London Scottish who got into the German front line… the Kensingtons followed up, after being very patient withstanding the provoked German fire. The British barrage stopped, whistles blew, and section leaders shouted as long lines of men set off making sure they were in line… they walked through the gaps in their own barbed wire made the night before. As the remaining battalions advanced from the newly dug trench they joined the London Scottish by taking over nearly all the German trenches, which was their objective.

At Gommecourt, the Kensingtons had achieved success, making use of the new trench dug before the battle, began a smoke screen to confuse the Germans… the whole front-line system had been taken. On the left, the hard-pressed North Midlanders had not reached the German front line. If they did not achieve their goal, the Kensingtons would be in trouble - be left stranded. Five hours later all the German trenches on the right flank of Gommecourt were in British hands. Part of the 169th Brigade, the Queens Westminster Rifles also followed up moving through the London Division to start the linking up movement with the North Midland Division moving down from the north. As this was happening some of the Cheshire Pioneers were constructing strong-points in the German trenches and turning the firing positions to face the German’s new front line. As the Westminster’s moved up between the Kensingtons and the Queens they were to start a bombing attack on the rear of the Gommecourt Garrison. Unfortunately the Westminster’s had received many casualties and there was no one to direct the attack. Leaving his pioneers second lieutenant George Arther lead the attack, though slightly wounded. Forcing their way forward the bombers got to within 400 yards of the German trench almost within reach of where they were to join up with the North Midland Division.

The North Midlanders had fared badly had been forced back towards their own trenches. In the afternoon General Snow ordered the division to continue with the attack that would link up with the London division and the Westminster’s who were bombing their way towards them. The order to continue was unrealistic. Six battalions had started off that morning all had been driven back. They were ordered forward again but there were only two companies left. No offices had survived. The attack was called off.

The Germans, a Saxon Regiment, were on the alert they had been warned by the bombardment and their lookouts had raised the alarm. The machine gun started to hammer out their awful chorus. The long lines were easy targets. The Germans had seen the gaps in the wire and had laid down fixed lines of fire to cover then. Men bunched up to get through but the terrible machine gun fire flattened them.

Things on the left were going badly. The night’s rain had turned their trench into a morass some of the men were knee deep in mud all night long. It was difficult to get the men out in time. As they appeared in drips and drabs on the top, they were machine gunned down on top of others trying to get out. There were long rows of dead and dying men. In spite of the terrible fire, the men went on forward trying to keep in line at a steady pace. The German wire was supposed to be cut by the artillery fire but was untouched. Trying to get over the wire, the strands caught in their equipment or wrapped it round their legs.

At last, the facts began to be assembled. It was clear that the British High Command had failed even though in places it had achieved its objectives. On the first day the British Army suffered the biggest losses for any single day in the whole war. Figures can never tell the whole story but in this case the casualties were fifty-seven thousand, of which twenty thousand were killed or died from wounds. A whole generation of men were crippled... That kind of slaughter continued until the battle ended in the awful mud of winter. In all it cost over a million casualties, with three hundred thousand British, French and German dead.

The next morning the Kensingtons found they had reached part of their objective. The night had been spent in the German trenches taking it in turn to stand guard, which was an eerie sensation with all the cries for help coming from the wounded and the stretcher parties from both sides collecting up the bodies. It was in the original plan to size the German trench system on the right hand edge of the salient then link up with the North Midlanders who were coming from the opposite side. It was hoped to cut off the garrison of German defenders in the village.

A company of the Kensingtons and a machine gun section of the London Scottish had crossed over No Man’s Land and reinforced the previous day’s troops. They were the last to do so. During the rest of the morning the Germans put in three attacks to evict the remains of the Division. Gradually the Londoners became weaker.

The Kensingtons were acknowledge to be part of a London force that was second to none – having the greatest period of training prior to setting off to France, and had been in the fighting force since the war had begun. The London force were mostly well educated pre-war volunteers from the commercial heart of London and many would have been made into officers in any other division. The advance the previous morning got off to a good start. In the first hour and a half the 168th Brigade, attacking from the newly dug trench in the middle of No Man’s Land, had reached every one of the German trenches in their objective. A fifth of the attacking Londoners were either dead or wounded. By reaching the final trench, they secured for themselves a safe position. The rolling barrage had moved forward as had been planned and the Kensington’s and the other three battalions had moved up with it. The London Rifle Brigade was on the left of the right-hand division, Gommecourt Park with its wooded acres before the village was to their left. The German second Guards Reserve Division pushed back almost out of the salient but still holding Fricourt in the front line. What was left of the brigade entered the German trench, which was the first objective ready to repel any German foolish enough to try to take it back including part of the London Scottish machine gun section.

After a period of four hours the London Division was still in position, although the Westminster’s had returned to the First Objective line - along with the rest of the division - this still held to the original plan. This line was to the rear of the German Trench, which was in British hands. As explained, there were no reserves so to make a concerted effort to link up with the North Midlands more men would have to be found. The worst decision was to do nothing for the Germans were beginning to take stock and recover.

At last, information was beginning to get through to Head Quarters. The corps commanders controlling the diversionary attack at Gommecourt were determined to carry on with the encircling movement. Lieut-General Snow ordered the North Midlanders to repeat their attack that afternoon - to link up with the London Division…, which by then was being, counter-attacked… gradually being forced back to the captured German trench, behind them. Snow must have known that the diversionary objective had been achieved. Someone was turning this into a separate battle!

Although the London Division was being hard pressed it retained coherence, being in the German trench gave the men cover and time to sort themselves out. The Germans, on the other hand, over their initial shock, were getting stronger by the minute. It did not take them long to understand the significance of the British move, not that they understood the battle of Gommecourt was a diversionary one, but that these two divisions were trying to encircle them and join up… They intended to prevent that happening. The German guns were ranging in, joining together to bombard the position. Graduary the British troops began to run out of ammunition. Most of the senior officers who had set out in the morning were now either dead or injured. The afternoon wore on and the fighting continued. By 4 pm there were only four officers and seventy men remaining gathered together holding the German front line trench… it was now touch and go whether there was going to be a total rout. Of the seven battalions to start out seventeen hundred men were dead, two hundred were prisoners and over two thousand wounded. Most of these were lying about on the battlefield. The Germans systematically raked these with machine gun fire to kill them off annoyed that now and again one of the wounded would start firing.

By evening, when the light was poor, stragglers started to drag themselves in. They were tired, hungry and distressed having got so far and not in the end succeeding. The Germans were moving about in No Man’s Land not only finding their own wounded but directing their first-aiders and stretcher-bearers to find the English wounded too. This concern for the wounded was reciprocated. There were 4,749 casualties in the London Division alone out of nearly 60,000. It was a seven to one battle, in favour of the Germans. The division remained on the Somme till October.

That August 1916 the Kensingtons were relieved by a Yorkshire brigade. They had been on the Somme further south, they were to take their place. Why there was this desire to alter the battalion’s position was never made clear. The destination was Abbeville for a rest period, before taking their place at the front… the Battalion had been withdrawn to re-equip and to train the new intake coming from the call for volunteers. The Commanding Officer was relieved to take over a battalion of Cheshires. In his place a Captain from another battalion, was made up to Major to take command. On the 3rd September, at 4 am the Kensingtons marched from Millencourt to the railway station at St. Riquier there to board a train to take them to Corbie. By mid-morning the battalion arrived, offloaded, and marched to Daours where, they were told, billets had been reserved for them. As they marched along orders were received that they were going to the wrong place – that they should be heading for Sailly-le-Sec. Halting the battalion, each company was ‘about turned’ and the whole moved off in reverse order following the road back through Corbie to reach their correct destination at about three in the afternoon… shortly afterwards their kit was delivered from Millencourt by the battalion transport. Even though the battalion had had a number of weeks at Millencourt to train and get to know the new replacements there was still a lot more to impart. These new intakes were not long out of training camps in England.

Now the Kensingtons were up to strength for men, but for officers, there was a shortage [there were only 23 in the battalion]. Again my father was asked to take a commission – to take over command of his company, but again he refused wishing to retain his status and respect by his men. It is difficult from this distance to understand fully his thinking. He believed that his men were being led badly - by inexperienced officers. This should have been his opportunity to do something about it. As it was it was he who was giving the orders to his company for the sub-lieutenants relied upon him. Perhaps it was this that controlled his thinking?

At Sailly-le-Sec the battalion were housed in tents. On the 6th orders were received [Operation Order No. 60.] to obey all future commands from the 15th Brigade, the Kensingtons had been lent to the 15th Brigade and ordered into line based on Chimpanzee Trench - between Maricourt and Trones Wood. Late that afternoon, the battalion were gathering up supplies of ammunition, rockets, grenades etc., stockpiled in preparation in Chimpanzee Trench by the 300 existing troops lead by Major Deakin. Clutching their extra loads the battalion made its way into the advanced frontline positions, relieving the 7th Irish Fusiliers who were to form a reserve south of Angle Wood. Contained in the orders were additional instructions to try and extend the position in an easterly direction, digging in as close to the German trench as possible, whilst pushing out patrols into Combles to back-up the French who were also adopting a more aggressive stance.

The Brigade H.Q. command post was positioned in Chimpanzee Trench where the brigadier was installed. The Advanced H.Q. held the battalion signallers, and artillery spotters. It was the first battle the battalion was to experience using tanks to accompany the advance… It was clear that H.Q. had no real idea what the Kensingtons were to face – whether their trench was held by the Germans, in what numbers or what the state of play was in Combles? The orders had not been written without any understanding of the true position. The condition of the trenches was bad… it had been raining and the ground was under water. The battalion had to carry their loads in single file pushing their way past the troops who were already there. The guides provided to settle the men into line had only been there the day before and were unused to the exact location of the position.

The day before the 7th Irish Fusiliers had attacked the Germans on the understanding that the position was only lightly held. Unfortunately the ground to the front was strongly guarded by barbed wire entanglements that had been hidden by the abundant growth of standing corn. The Germans had covered the area well with fixed lines covered by machine guns. The Fusiliers had lost 350 men. The survivors had hidden in shell holes. It was these holes that the Kensingtons joined together to make a forward position ready for the advance the following morning.

Now the tanks rolled forward for the first time. How the troop rejoiced in their inclusion thinking that they would grind away the confounded barbed-wire. Spending the night at the Citadel Camp after the exhausting march from Bray. The same afternoon the King rode by with a large number of staff officers. The Kensingtons were making for Fricourt after staying the night at Citadel Camp. Once there proceeded to off-load their packs and take up battle equipment. They were to relieve the 7th Royal Irish Fusiliers in trenches close to Falfemont Farm and Leuze Wood and the Warwickshire Regiment. Men from the 7th guided them in single file, officers leading, past a wood on to a rough track past wounded men going the other way. It was almost pitch dark as they made our way along keeping our free hand on the shoulder of the man in front. Occasionally there would be a blinding flash and thunderous crack as our artillery fired over our heads. Stretcher cases were trying to make their way past slipping and sliding with their charges groaning with pain. The men travelled for about seven miles taking fifteen hours to complete. Eventually slid down a narrow track with steep sides into Angle Wood Valley. On the right was an embankment the top showing the stumps of Wedge Wood?

The Kensingtons were on the extreme right of the British Army next to a French battalion. The two valleys running off the hill held an abandoned French machine-gun post with piles of empty cartridge cases. All this time the battalion was filing into position with the remnants of the Royal Irish Fusiliers going back - taken out of the line…? The RIF had got as far as the corn fields that had concealed the German trench and barbed wire, in front of Combles… After suffering enormous casualties - losing half their strength, they now needed rest and their numbers making up.

On the left of the ridge there was a trench full of dead German soldiers. They were Prussian Guards without their outer uniforms just wearing their white vests. The bodies were stacked up on top do each other making it difficult to make a way through them. At last we reached the shell holes that had been linked together taking over from the remaining Irish Fusiliers. Our immediate job was to try and reform the trench system.

Battle of Guillemot, 3-6 September, 1916[edit | edit source]

The Officer Commanding the Kensingtons was ordered to extend his line from the south corner of Leuze Wood and dig-in as close to the German trench as possible. During the night, the Kensingtons has moved out to attack the German trench. Unknown to them the Germans had reinforced that part of their line – which had been previously lightly held. A bombardment was laid down by the Germans on the British troops, as they surged forward. They fell back, to reform, and try again.

The battalion had been fully up to strength at the start of the battle, they, with the help of a flanking French battalion, were to advance upon Combles as the Germans, it was believed, had left it unoccupied – the General Staff thought the Germans would be in retreat after such a bombardment… this was not the case! The Kensington Commanding Officer split his battalion in two. Half were to take over the shell holes to their front and link them together – to form a trench. The other half battalion were to take over the old German trench and reverse the firesteps – to support the new trench being constructed. When all was quiet patrols were sent out to find out how strong the German position was and to take prisoners if possible. One patrol was to seek out the French battalion to find out what they had in mind – to link up the advance the next day.

The patrols reported back that the German trench was strongly held with barbed wire entanglements firmly in place with no gaps. The French CO sent a detailed plan showing where their positions were and the extent of the numbers holding them. It was clear from the sketch that the French poison was not so advanced as previously thought. These plans and descriptions were sent back to the Brigade HQ.

The Kensingtons CO held back from making a daylight attack the next day. That afternoon the French flanking battalion attacked to be repulsed ending up back where they had started in the first place. As darkness fell that evening the Kensingtons moved out. The Germans became aware of movement to their front called down a heavy bombardment on the advancing troops. The Kensingtons retired to reform and strike out again. But by now the Germans were fully alerted and kept up a steady machine gun fire. Again the Kensingtons were repulsed.

In the morning the regiment advanced again towards the trenches in front of Combles, they stumbled, upon uncut barbed wire, which had been hidden by the long grass. Very heavy fire from both machine gun and rifle was directed on them. A third of the regiment fell killed or wounded the rest fell back taking cover where they could. They started to try digging a trench to connect the shell-holes together.

The Kensingtons tried to take Combles again that night but by then the Germans had reoccupied their trenches and alerted to this possibility. The Kensington’s were again strongly opposed only this time they had the added trial of a German barrage. These shells straddled both the newly dug trench and their original positions…the Kensingtons were caught in the middle, where they huddled in shell holes all night.

After being berated by high command, the Commanding Officer decided to try again the next morning... The following day, on the Sunday, a third try was prepared. The morning dawned clear and sunny… again the troops were ordered forward. There was only about half the regiment left and most of the officers had been either killed or wounded. It was a gallant effort but again it failed…!

The Commanding Officer was ordered to report to the Battalion Head Quarters where he was asked why they had failed to occupy the trench and conduct patrols to strengthen their position. He reported that he had not been ordered to do that in the first place and that his original orders had come from another brigade; he went on to report, that his orders came via another brigade and that he did not know who was in charge of the operation. High Command ordered him to recommence the attack…

After another tremendous bombardment, the artillery fire lifted to range onto the German second line trenches. The day’s rations eaten before the shelling had stopped washed down with water. The feeling was that they might as well die with a full stomach rather than have to carry extra weight. It also stopped the men from thinking about the tremendous racket made by the shelling. Many were feeling quite petrified although there was nothing one could do to relieve the tension. Cigarettes were passed round and lit. It was clear that if one talked continuously it made waiting that much easier. The conversation was about nothing in particular just idle chatter. Overhead the Germans had raised balloons to observe the fall of their shot. The Royal Flying Corps were up taking pot shots of the balloons to try to bring them down. Some companies had moved forward into No Mans Land.

A Kensington Company climbed over the parapet and went towards the German lines. By moving rapidly, they reached the German trenches… there was not anyone about? It was not realised by the Allies how complicated and well constructed the German positions were… the Germans were below ground in deep dugouts Shortly afterwards the German machine guns went into action. They had been hiding in their deep bunkers perfectly safe. As soon as the British shelling had stopped to allow their troops to move forwards up they popped pulling their guns up on ropes. The trenches had been prepared to take the machine guns to give them fixed lines that covered their front. They continuously fired their guns putting down a carpet of fire mowing everyone down. The Company Sargeant Major found he was the only one standing, either everyone else was dead or wounded. He immediately jumped into a shell hole where he found a few others who had survived. There they stayed whilst the machine guns continued to blast away. Eventually the fire lifted and my father found they were up against the German trench parapet. Organising an advance he lead his few men into the German trenches again only this time they knew they had to eliminate the Germans in their deep bunkers which they did with grenades.

This battle continued long after it was realised it was a hopeless cause. Urged to maintain pressure on the Germans to relieve the French at Verdun these battles continued well into November. The ground resembled the imagine landscape of the moon. It was a shocking wilderness of mud, shell holes, flooded trenches and parts of bodies lying amongst discarded equipment. Four and a half months of turmoil had resulted in an advance of five miles. Both sides had lost nearly half a million men each. The Kensingtons were drawn back from the front to rest, shortly afterwards.