…out of 12 Company Officers who led men into action, seven were killed and five wounded; that the NCOs found themselves face to face with a situation which has seldom occurred in the whole history of the British Army…
Following withdrawal from Guillemont, the Battalion spent time recovering at Mansel Copse and received replacement officers including a new Battalion bombing officer 2nd Lieutenant Thomas Cartman. On the 2nd August 1916 the Battalion marched to Grovetown Camp and entrained for Longpre. From there they moved to Airaines, Berquette, Pierierre where 90th Brigade was inspected by the Army Commander on 9th August. They then reached Bethune on the 11th and remained there until the 3rd September. The 17th Manchesters were billeted in the girls school to the east of the town. Former Adjutant and temporary Commanding Officer Major Macdonald left the Battalion for the 30th Divisional School.
During this time, specialist training continued. Arthur Bell reported further perilous grenade incidents.
“At a lesson some time later, conducted by an officer of our own (Lieutenant Alan Holt), a similar accident occurred with rifle grenades, lives were lost (three I think), and the lieutenant himself was injured in the foot. It had been he (Lt. Holt) who, one night, when, after much marching, I was on sentry duty go – more than half asleep standing up – challenged me and told me the consequences of being asleep on my post. I learn from the official record that he subsequently gained the M.C. [Military Cross]. Mr Middlebrook’s book shows that he was alive at the time of writing.” (1)
Arthur’s alleged infraction of being more than half asleep could have held serious consequences if it weren’t for the favour of Alan Holt. A Court Martial could have awarded the death penalty at the extreme level. Albert Andrews recounted one of his fellow 19th Battalion men “…charged with being asleep on duty: the Officer said he was, he said he was not. Anyway he got 15 years for it, which was later reduced to 7.”
Privates Robert Shaw 8857 and Joseph Wilcox 8930 died on 18th August 1916 by the “accidental explosion of a rifle grenade”. Alan Armstrong 9168 died the next day. Casualties of the MANCHESTER REGIMENT 04/08/1914 to 31/12/1916
Joseph Wilcox of I Platoon was the son of Hannah Wilcox, of 241, Manchester Rd., Walkden, Manchester. He was 22 when he died and he is buried in the Bethune Town Cemetery. Robert Edward Shaw of II Platoon is buried next to Joseph. Alan Armstrong was 29 when he died. He was the son of Emily Armstrong, of 18, Yates Terrace, Calrows, Elton, Bury. Alan is buried in Chocques Military Cemetary. Chocques was at one time the headquarters of I Corps and from January 1915 to April 1918, No.1 Casualty Clearing Station was posted there. Alan’s brother Private J Armstrong had been killed at Gallipoli on 11/6/15, serving with the 1/8th Manchesters.
Private Harold Bretnall of III Platoon had been promoted to Lance Corporal on 8th August 1916. His service record shows he was accidentally wounded on 18th August. Harold had been trained at the Trench Mortar School in December 1915, which makes it likely he was part of fatal accident during rifle grenade training. After initial treatment in the field, Lance Corporal Brentall was transferred to Wimereux Hospital later in August and then returned to Home Depot in Manchester in September 1916.
Private Harry Hudson of D Company was another man presumed injured in the accident. Harry was a former pupil of Arthur’s school Manchester Warehouseman and Clerks Orphans’ School
Arthur Bell formed a funeral party that may have related to his bombing comrades.
“Some of us at that time were given a Military Funeral drill – slow march, reversed arms, bowed heads, and a ceremony was held at a nearby cemetery.”(1)
Lieutenant Holt’s correspondence with his family provides a clear insight into the events of earlier assaults. His injury in the rifle grenade accident brings these reports to a conclusion. During the month of July, Alan Holt’s letters had changed. From initial envy of the men who attacked Montauban, he wished for a Blighty on 12th July and finally he was ‘more the worse’ for successful surgery at the end of the month.
During August some new subalterns arrived at the Battalion and various postings took place. This included 70 Other Ranks being permanently attached to the 30th Divisional Mining Company. This probably included any miners who had enlisted in the Battalion, possibly Tyldesley miners 9313 Joseph Farmer (9314 Richard Owens had been killed at Montauban), who had been friends of Albert Hurst in E Company.
Towards the end of the month Lieutenant Colonel Grisewood took back command of the Battalion from Major Whitehead, after a temporary command of the Brigade. He was subsequently admitted to 96th Field Ambulance and Major Whitehead resumed command on 1st September.
On 3rd September Henry Coates resumed his post as RSM and the Battalion moved to new billets at Le Touret. In the next few days working parties served the front line. At some stage during September a German shell ignited an ammunition store. Adjutant 2nd Lt Robert Mansergh and Private Albert Hall were awarded the Military Cross and Distinguished Conduct Medal respectively for dealing with the fire and assisting the wounded. It is possible one of the wounded was 8320 Private Frank Williams of A Company who died of wounds on 4th September.
The Battalion was in Brigade reserve until the night of 8th September when they relieved the 16th Manchesters in the Festubert right sector, remaining there until the 14th, when they moved into the Festubert village line. The War Diary describes A Company’s position in the village as “Scattered Posts”. These were 16 places in the line. Arthur Bell recounted the experiences of the marshy fields providing a variation on previous trench defences. Walls of sandbags were used to create the defensive positions.
“We received some of their minewerfere by air at Festubert, where there were no trenches because they would have been water logged. So we had breastworks, and when we heard the shout “minnie” we looked up and watched in which direction it was coming and ran along the back of the breastworks, away from it.” (1)
Private Bell reported some intriguing munitions in use.
“About this time, I saw a catapult of our own which reminded me of “The cloister on the Heath.” It was wound up be a crank – had a metal spring, and it could throw a bomb or a stone at least a hundred yards. The whole thing was very mobile.” (1)
On the 16th September the Battalion was relieved by the 12th York’s and Lancs. By the 21st the Battalion were at Montonvillers where they remained until the 4th October. Various Brigade and Battalion training took place including further bombing classes. Major Macdonald and some junior officers had returned for duty with the Battalion on 17th September. On 28th September seven further men joined from base.
By the 6th October the Battalion were at Fricourt Camp. Preparations were underway for an attack on a system of trenches in front of the village of Flers and on the 10th, at 6.15am the Battalion relieved the 26th Royal Fusiliers and the 12th Kings Royal Rifles north of Flers at midnight. The Battalion spent the night of the 10th in Factory Trench, North Road and Gird Trench with its HQ at Factory Corner.
At 11.30am on the 11th October, the Battalion took over the line from the 2nd Bedfordshire’s on the left of the Brigade front. B and D Companies had taken over the front line with A Company in support in Gird Support Trench (See plan below). C Company had occupied with fatigues and took over the line from B Company . The War Diary recounts heavy German bombardment on the line and B Company had suffered a number of casualties. Brigade and Battalion orders were issued for an attack the following day. (Courtesy Kingo – MRF)
The strategic intention was for the Fourth British and Sixth French Armies to press forward with an attack. The whole of XV Corps was to attack with 30th Division in the centre; 12th Division on its right and 9th Division of III Corps on the left. Despite the relative rest and recuperation for the Division, the Battalions mustered less than five hundred men – just over half of full strength. (MRF) Many of the new men had no battlefield experience, little training and had been in France for less than four months.
The attack from Flers on the Villages of Le Barque and Ligny Thilloy was intended to open up the way for an attack on the strategically important town of Bapaume. The town was a railhead for the Germans who brought in reinforcements, ammunition and equipment and defended the outskirts with fresh drafts of German marines, relatively unaffected by the previous months battles. (MRF)
The 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers would be on the right of the 90th Brigade advance with the 17th Manchesters in the centre and the 2nd Bedfordshires of 89th Brigade on the left. The 18th Manchesters would be in support of 90th Brigade and would undertake mopping-up operations; as a rapid advance was planned. The 16th Manchesters would be in reserve.
The assault was planned to take place under cover of machine gun fire from selected positions including the Brigade Motor Machine Gun Company providing overhead fire support. Lewis guns were to be pushed forward providing covering fire and a creeping artillery bombardment was planned. The bombardment would not start until Zero hour so as to give no warning to the enemy.
Dawn broke to overcast sky and heavy showers, to the men sheltering in trenches north of Factory Corner. Zero hour had been set for 2.05pm. On the morning of the 12th October, the 17th took over the front line from the 16th Manchesters. D and B Companies occupied the left sector, C and A the centre, with the 2nd RSF to the right. Major Whitehead’s Battalion orders stated that “the greatest care must be taken to keep very low and quiet in the trenches. Bayonets will not be fixed until 2 minutes before Zero, in case there is any error in timing. Men must be ready to fix.”
At 1.55pm a five minute artillery barrage opened on the German lines and the men were amazed to see the defenders run from their trenches and lay in the open some fifty yards in advance of their positions. As the men left the trenches a simultaneous German bombardment fell on the British lines. The enemy dashed back to their positions and a machine gun barrage was put down on the advancing 17th’s men. One NCO taking part in the attack said:
“So heavy was the machine gun barrage that I can only describe the sound of the bullets striking our parapet to the rattle of a side drum”.
As shown on the plan in Major Whitehead’s Orders D and C Companies (Left and Right) would form the first two waves, with each wave comprising two of their respective Platoons and attack on a front approximately 400 yards wide – about 6 feet between each man. B Company (Left) formed the third and fourth waves of the attack in following D Company, with A Company (Right) comprising the same form behind B Company, commanded by Captain Sidebotham. There would be 150 Yards between each of the four waves.
The 18th Battalion were in support of the 90th Brigade, with 16th Battalion in Brigade Reserve. One Platoon of 18th Manchesters joined the second wave of the attack as nettoyeurs – mopping up the remaining dug outs as the advance continued. 89th Brigade led by 17th Kings Liverpool Regiment (Left) and 2nd Bedfords (Right) led the assault to the north with objectives in Zone C (below).
The first objective, described as “the green line” on the 17th Manchester’s map was the German front line known as Bayonet Trench. The second objective, described variously as the “brown” or “blue” line was to be achieved at Zero + 20 minutes, following as close as possible with the creeping barrage. The blue line included a series of strong points behind the front line and German defensive positions beyond.
As the men went over the parapet they were struck down by heavy machine gun fire, not many got further than 20 yards. Each wave was swallowed up in turn as it went over. On the right side of the Battalion, C Company Commanded by Captain Brown was swallowed up by machine gun fire or artillery in the first two waves of the assault – the Brigade Diary reporting they were “…mown down as soon as they crossed the parapet, and within 50 Yds of our front line”. A Company then sent out the third wave in this sector. CSM Ham was in command and despite desperate conditions; he managed to return to the British line. Recognising the fatalities for the Company, CSM Ham stopped the futile slaughter and ordered the second wave of A Company to remain in the British line.
The 17th Battalion’s, Major Whitehead’s official report to Brigade stated that “At 2.05pm, the first wave advanced in good order. The enemy immediately opened a heavy M.G. [machine gun] fire on my right flank company (C Coy) at the same time sending up red rocket signals to his Artillery, which was immediately followed by a heavy artillery barrage on our front line and Support Trenches and Bn H.Q. in Gird Trench cutting our telephone wire in several places and to such an extent that despite every endeavour put forth by my linesman, I was unable to get in touch with you until about 6-30 p.m. The first, second and third waves of our right flank [C Company and two Platoons of A Company] were mown down as soon as they crossed their parapet and within 50 yards of their front line trench, by enfilade fire…”
Major Whitehead recounted the initiative of one of his senior NCOs, who made a strategic decision to hold the assault “… and C.S.M. Ham who went over with the third wave, returned and on his own initiative, ordered the fourth wave to remain in the front line trenches and garrison same in case of counter-ATTACK.”
CSM E N Ham had been V Platoon Sergeant in B Company. It is assumed he joined A Company in August 1916, following the loss of CSM Joseph McMenemy at Guillemont. 8619 Edward Norman Ham, Clevedon, Somerset. Wounded 1st – 10th
On their left, D and B Companies made progress to German positions and gained a foothold in Bayonet trench. Major Whitehead’s report indicates Lieutenant Dawson, with 5 & 6 Platoons (B Company) had formed the the third wave of the attack with Lieutenant R Jones on his right in Command of 7 & 8 Platoons. The War Diary notes that Lieutenant Jones had successfully advanced beyond the German first line “… about 200x [Yards] SE of a clump of 7 trees on the road leading to LE BARQUE.” The further War Diary reports confirms that the advanced detachment lost all Officers and retired under instruction from a Corporal Webster. Private F Webster 8347 is known to have trained with XIII Platoon of D Company, which more likely indicates the greatest advance by the men of D & B Company, with some contingents of the 18th Battalion.
As the assault stalled surviving men found damp shell holes to shelter from machine gun fire and waited until nightfall to seek an opportunity to withdraw to British lines. Only a few of the wounded managed to get back to the trenches before dark. During the action all the Officer’s of the Battalion, with the exception of Major Whitehead and a couple of Subalterns became casualties. Company Sergeant Majors took command of the companies, CSM Ham, RSM Coates, CSM Bingham and CSM Jacques taking A, B, C and D respectively.
Major Whitehead’s report concluded “While regretting the circumstances which were the cause of the failure to seize and hold our objectives, may I point out that and for which their short and hurried training rendered them unsuited and unprepared.”
The 18th Battalion which supported the assault suffered similar results. Private P J Kennedy’s letter to Ken Smallwood in October 1976 (IWM P321), recounted the gruesome summary of the Flers action
“We went over the top at 2 pm along with our 89th Bgde. Our barrage fell in No-Mans-land which warned the enemy we were coming. They left the front-line and then returned when the barrage lifted. We were mown down by machine-guns and very few got into the German trenches. The survivors were imprisoned in shell-holes until dawn the next morning.” “I was mentioned in despatches for this battle.” [one of 3 MiD]
Two hundred and thirteen men from 17th Battalion were casualties on 12th October, including fifty men recorded dead on the early list. 16th Battalion moved up to reinforce the few remaining men in the line. The next day 89th Brigade men of the 19th Manchesters came up to help clear casualties to the rear. They used a narrow gauge railway to expedite the clearance.
The profile of men who died in the bombardment on 11th October 1916 is 11th October 1916 Flers . The men that died on 12th October during the failed assault can be found here 12th October 1916 – Flers Losses
Private Bell’s active service in the War ended at Flers “…I was wounded on the 12th of October and – followed the course of the war from the point of a civilian – after the end of a few months when I was discharged.”
As part of CSM Ham’s A Company, Arthur Bell will have been in the third of fourth wave of the Battalion to go over the top on the right flank of the 17th Battalion, alongside the 2nd RSF.. It may be that CSM Ham saved his life by holding up the fourth wave and he stayed in the line to be wounded in the ankle with shrapnel. The wound by shrapnel – rather than machine gun fire – may support the proposition that he stayed in the front line trench for this assault. Alternatively, a wound in the ankle suggests he may have been above parapet level.
On the 13th October, the Battalion was in support and on the 15th they were relieved by the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers. 38 year old 43281 Private Thomas Bellinger was killed on 15th. Records show he was originally buried on the battlefield. In 1920, he was then exhumed and reburied in AIF Cemetery which was known as Grass Lane Cemetery. In common with many members of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, Thomas had joined the Battalion on 1st September. His mother Sarah Ann arranged the script on his grave as “Of Shrivenham, Berks”, where Thomas had been born. He had probably been attached to the 17th Battalion on 11th July, prior to the assault on Guillemont. See Royal Berkshire Regiment
The next day the Battalion moved to Pommern Redoubt, where it remained in bivouac until the 22nd, when they marched to Ribemont. Major Whitehead was appointed Temporary Lieutenant Colonel and a fresh draft of 142 men were received.
The Battalion War Diary records the loss of the majority of officers at Flers. Captain James Sidebottom as OC B Company led the third wave of the attack. He reached the German front line trench, to be shot through the head while he was looking over the parados. James had been OC I Platoon at Heaton Park and led the Lewis Gun Section when the Battalion left for France.
Former Manchester Grammar School Master Captain M W Brown [OC C Company] was also killed, along with Lieutenants Goodwin & Levinstein and 2nd Lieutenants Wilks, Pickstone and Jones. Records indicate remaining officers were wounded. These were Captain Whittall MC, Lieutenants William Dawson – awarded Military Cross for commanding 5 & 6 Platoon of B Company following the death of Capt. Sidebottom – Jones & Sadler, together with 2nd Lieutenant Fauk.
The sole death in III Platoon from the Heaton Park roll was 8474 (not 8478) Private Hubert Craig, aged 28. Born in Walsall, Hubert was the son of the late Hubert Craig and Mrs Mary J Craig of Rusholme. In 1911 Hubert had worked on a cotton warehouse and lived with his mother and sister qt 8 Willesden Avenue. Private Craig has no known grave and is commemorated with many of Pals at Thiepval. It is likely the entry in the Roll of Honour for S & J Watts & Co relates to Hubert.
Prior to the Flers assault, there were probably a few handfuls of the III Platoon men remaining from the Heaton Park roll. Therefore, the identification of only two casualties, possibly supports the hypothesis that the Platoon was held in the trench by CSM Ham. Six men are recorded as killed on 11th October 1916; the day before the advance. There remains a prospect that Arthur was injured on this day, prior to A Company going over the top.
The few remaining original 2nd City Pals had concluded their first phase of the Battle of the Somme. The 17th Battalion went on to fight again in 1917/18 until they returned to Manchester after the armistice. Very few of the original Pals returned unscathed. Such men must have gone home as very different individuals to the exuberant group that joined together four years earlier.
This shrapnel ball was found in October 2013 on the track north of Factory Corner and Flers. Arthur Bell was wounded with similar shrapnel within 200 yards of the point where this ball was found 97 years earlier. Arthur carried his shrapnel in his foot for the rest of his life.