A German perspective on the British advance on Montauban

This photo shows the German defenders’ view of the British line on the south side of the fortress village of Montauban.  These positions formed the second line of the German defences.  Maxim Machine Guns were located on the front side of the ridge line, with a clear view of parts of the British held village of Maricourt and the trenches in front.

The specific location was in the edge of the field on the west side of the sunken lane leading south to Glatz Redoubt and Maricourt beyond.  Trees line the lane, so a wider panorama image wasn’t now possible.  The German Infantry had a much more extensive view, providing their part of interlocking fields of fire for their machine gunners..

The perspective of these machine gunners is important to address.  These men will have been sheltering  in deep dugouts for seven days prior to the 1st July 1916 advance.  The British and some French artillery had endeavoured to pulverise the German line, although this was not fully successful.  Many Infantry men and machine gunners waited for the barrage to lift; and made their way to the surface and prepared their weapons, ready for the advancing enemy troops.

At the point of the photo, Southern Trench extended with a spur to the south, next to the place where I stood.  This was the final trench that the British had to cross before entering the Village.  The spur connected with Train Alley, approximately 50 yards forward to the south.  Train Alley was a communication trench from Montauban to Train Valley.  Therefore any machine gun post near the position of the photo would have been well connected to the web of Village trenches, ensuring that troops will have been able to take up position at the appropriate time.

From various records it is possible to address the likely impact of the machine guns held in this position.  At 07.30 on the 1st July the whistle blew in the 21st Brigade positions and the men of 19th Manchesters advanced towards Glatz Redoubt from positions in front of Machine Gun Wood.  The main weight of the British bombardment was then laid on the German front line, which was formed across the wheat field between the British Lines and Railway Valley.

The barrage was programmed to lift after the Manchesters crossed No Mans Land.  After this short time the shell fire moved north to the Village and second line trenches.   The Germans at the sunken lane may have had a short time to start setting up their defences, but it seems less likely that they had an impact on the successful 21st Brigade advance.  It is quite possible a bombardment remained on the village defences and the Germans remained in their dug outs at this time.

 

The 17th Manchesters advanced from assembly trenches in front (north) of Oxford Copse.  The image confirms the security of the assembly trenches, hidden from the German defences. 17th Battalion then made their way forward, to the right (west) of Machine Gun Wood, before advancing in the path of the 19th Manchesters towards Glatz Redoubt.  The assaulting troops tried to gain cover in Railway Valley, while they waited for the barrage to lift on the Village.  Lance Corporal 8622 Frederick Heardman and a section of B Company sheltered in the southern section of the sunken lane, while they waited for the artillery fire to move forward.  The Manchesters continued to suffer casualties from enfilading machine gun fire from The Warren, when the 55th Brigade advance had been held up.

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The view of Montauban from Glatz Redoubt with the sunken lane lined by the hedgerow on the right.  The slope up to the village can be seen where 17th Bttn made their final advance.

The German defenders in Montauban were also maintaining cover while the waited for the British Artillery to advance to the north of the Village.   Lance Corporal Heardman (1) and his section were now less than 500 yards from entering the village.  They were even closer to the position of machine gunners sheltering further up the sunken lane, waiting to hold up the final advance.

At 10.25am the artillery barrage lifted and the 17th Manchesters resumed their advance.  The final assault took place in the wheat field shown in the foreground of the photograph.  The German defenders promptly came up from their dug outs and set up their machine guns to hold up the advancing Infantry.

The Manchesters were heavily laden and had to make their way up the slope from Railway Valley, over the German wire, crossing trenches and the heavily shell torn ground.  The 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers were advancing behind and the 18th Manchesters followed, down the slope on the other side of the valley, as carrying parties.

The German machine gunners were fighting for survival and their view was dominated by the advancing khaki clad figures.  They simply couldn’t fail in their slaughter of the 90th Brigade men.  They will have targeted gaps in the wire, or bridges over wide trenches,  where then advancing British were funnelled forward and restricted the advance of the men on the open ground beyond.

Despite the withering fire, the 16th & 17th Manchesters and Royal Scots Fusiliers made good progress up the hill and approached the machine gun positions. Frederick Heardman recounted the scene:-
“So on we went facing the incessant machine gun fire. Our grand artillery had previously well and truly pounded the German front line but had apparently not penetrated all their very deep dug-outs out of which the machine gunners came as we approached and our artillery had ceased fire. Our men were dropping down everywhere. It was all like a bad dream”

Private Edward Higson (2) of 16th Battalion also recounted the impact of German machine gunners in the final assault and the consequences when they became overrun :-
“When we reached to within 100 yards of the village, our artillery barrage lifted as we unslung our rifles and charged the waiting Germans.  They fired at us until we got quite close up to them and then the row of steel got too much for them and scrambling out of their trenches they ran for it.  Many did not run far, for the aim of our boys was splendid.”

Many Germans withdrew from the village and large numbers were captured.  There is strong evidence that the Machine Gunners serving in the approaches to the village were killed during the advance, or died when the trenches were cleared by following troops.

Most British casualties at Montauban have no known grave; and I assume that the Germany Cemetery in Railway Valley (later concentrated at Fricourt German Cemetery) accommodated only part of their casualties.  In this context, there is every possibility that British and German casualties lie throughout the fields shown in the image.  Equally the remains of any machine gunners serving near the sunken lane are quite possibly lying close to the position I took the photo.

It is challenging to consider the issues relating to the death of the machine gunners who may have been killed after slaughtering the Manchester and then raised a white flag of surrender.  I will not judge the actions of the men of either side, yet the German machine gunners did their duty and this Page in some way helps to commemorate them.  I trust readers will understand this does not detract from the commemoration of the British losses on that fateful day.

MR02797 Return from Montauban

© Manchester Regiment Image Archive (MR02797) Return from Montauban. Oxford Copse can be seen in the background with the line of poplars lining the Peronne Road evident on the Peronne Road.

Sources

(1) 1968 interview for Martin Middlebrook’s First Day on the Somme

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