As the quagmire of trench life became more tolerable with the onset of spring, the British Army began planning a major offensive along the front line from Serre in the north to Maricourt, in the South. The French army was under huge pressure at Verdun and the British command had acknowledged a major offensive would direct German troops away from Verdun to provide their French allies some respite. The British and French Artillery provided a week long bombardment of the German lines, providing every confidence the defences would be crushed and wire obliterated.
As part of 30th Division, the 17th Manchesters spent most of the spring and early summer of 1916 close to Maricourt and immediately next to French troops, who were taking part in the assault in the area to the south. The plans for the big push took shape and the 30th Division would carry out its first assault on the German positions close to the fortress village of Montauban. This lay amongst hedges and orchards up on the horizon, north of the Maricourt trenches.
Prior to the assault, the Battalion practised their attack on a copy of the trenches and terrain at Picquigny between Briquemesnil and Fourdrinoy.
“Perhaps something should be said about the attack on that glorious 1st July, 1916. It was so well rehearsed that the actual thing was like another rehearsal. “
The 19th Battalion War Diary notes the level of detail involved with the rehearsals, including 2nd Lieutenant Swaine WACOS practising with the runners and scouts in the dark.
On 26th June the Battalion then set off for the journey to the front line. They marched to Ailly-sur-Somme where they entrained for Mericourt. A march followed and the night was spent in Etineham Camp. Final preparations were then completed and the Battalion took up positions in assembly trenches at 10.00 pm on 30th June 1916.
“We had an unusual journey to the assembly trenches at Cambridge Copse. It may have been on this particular journey to the front that we saw the statue of Our Lady of Albert in the Horizontal position. It would be interesting to know whether her complete fall corresponded with the end of the war. “
The golden statue of the Madonna had become a source of superstition for the British troops. Toppled over at ninety degrees from her standing position on top of the Basilica in Albert, she had been secured by French engineers. She did fall in 1918; just prior to the Armistice.
“We slept on the way there in holes, made with our trenching tools in the hillside , and arriving just before dark, so that the guns, perhaps fifty yards only behind us and firing only a few feet overhead…” (1) “…they were slinging it over and the noise was terrible! Absolutely; as much noise from these guns, as there would be from the Germans, that were dropping shells near us at any time. But, we slept through it just the same.”(2)
Private Edward Higson (2) of 16th Battalion also described the noise from the final phase of British Artillery preparations:-
“At 6.00 am our artillery fire increased; hnudreds of guns firing as quickly as they could be loaded; the noise was so intense that one could not hear what the man next to you was saying. Suddenly a hedge, a very innocent looking hedge just behind the assembly trench [in front of Oxford Copse], fell down and revealed to pour gaze a long line of guns, wheel to wheel. These all opened fire at once and to this day I wonder why the drums of our ears were not burst open.”
2nd Lieutenant Kenneth Callan-Macardle of B Company, wrote in his diary.
“Tonight’s the night. Tomorrow is “Der Tag”. Only 4 officers per company are to go over but, although I missed all the wonderful training the other 7 had, still I am to go in with the Company – Oh blessed Adjutant McDonald. The others have done it over and over again – stormed the trenches, taken Montauban and Glatz a dozen times down at Picquigny – where it is all marked out with flags and shallow trenches, exactly to scale. They know every house (as it was before we bombarded the village with 12-inch shells. They know every yard, where every man is to go and they have passed most of it on to me. Tonight, in the dark, we assemble – brigades and brigades and more and more brigades. Tomorrow in the pale dawn we go over the lid. We, the 17th, will take Montauban.”
The assembly trenches adjoined Cambridge Copse were situated in a shallow valley north east of the village of Maricourt. A & B Companies occupied the first line, with C & D in the second. Being located, half a mile south of the front line, this was a relatively secure place for the evening. However it was not peaceful, with the artillery located near Oxford Copse, less than 100 yards to the rear. The Royal Artillery had maintained a barrage on the German positions for more than seven days, in an effort to pulverise the German positions and break the barbed wire defences.
Captain Grundy of the 90th Machine Gun Corps recounted the noise and proximity of the Field Artillery “The fringe of the wood behind us (curiously enough called ‘Oxford Copse’) was lined with 18-pounders, who were firing over our heads. As they were only 150 yards away, the noise was deafening.”
Albert Andrews (Pg 44) marched past theses Gunners on his approach to the 19th Battalion positions on the afternoon of 30th June. “Our Artillery Lads watching us go by were saying they would look after us on Saturday “We’ll give them Hell!”
The troops were now familiar with trench life and settled for the night. 2nd Lieutenant Kenneth Callan-Macardle recorded the early dawn of 1st July.
90th Bgd Assembly Montauban
“We had a comfortless night in the assembly trenches for they were very crowded and there was no room to sit down. It was cold and the morning broke with a chill white mist on the ground over which the sun shone turning the white and yellow balls of shrapnel smoke all pink.”
On the west side of Oxford Copse Sergeant Bert Payne was also waiting with 16th Battalion. Bert recounted (IWM Interview) playing cards and boredom waiting for the unkown zero hour. He also described neutral morale prior to the assault with the eager troops feeling bewilderment and wonderment.
The 19th Battalion were in the front line trenches, 2-300 yards in advance of the 17th Manchesters. Albert Andrews (Pg 46) recounted the Allied Artillery’s bombardment of the German positions at close quarters “The guns were now roaring worse than ever and to speak to anyone you had to get close to their ear and shout at the top of your voice.”
On the other side of the wire, the German infantry had faced the results of the sustained bombardment by British and French artillery fire. Patrols had found significant damage to the German wire and front line trenches in the sector. On the night of 29th/30th June, Bavarian Reserve Regiment 6 (BR6) was ordered into the line to relieve in the line facing the Manchesters’ front for the advance. Offizier S J Busl of BR6 recounted his experience of this relief in the Regimental History (1)
“…the company reached the relief position [Silesian Trench] at about 5.30 o’clock in the morning after an extremely exhausting march through heavy artillery and machine gun fire.
As a result of the days of shelling the trenches were partially leveled, the fire step was hardly usable…a further dugout collapsed with the loss of 8 men. As for food only coffee could be gotten because of the constant heavy fire.”
Jonathan Porter (1) the relief of IR62 prior to the offensive was a tectical error on the part of the German. IR62 was very familiar with their defences and they were replaced by BR6, which had no knowledge of the lie of the land. It makes sense that this issue forms part of the explanation for the success of the Montauban assault; relative to the disastrous slaughter on most other sections of the British line.
(1) Courtesy Jonathan Porter – ZeroHourZDay.com