Relief and Aftermath

mr00647

© Manchester Regiment Image Archive (MR00647) Lone soldier of the 16th Battalion on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  The Manchester Regiment archive shows this image was probably Lieutenant Megson – the 16th Battalion Signal Officer – taken in Montauban.  Lieutenant Nash wrote that Megson received a machine gun bullet through the leg at Montauban, but he was able to carry on.  While the man in the image shows no sign of a wound and is not supporting himself with a stick, the wound must not have been too severe.  It is strange to see an individual posing for a photograph outside the Montauban trenches. This was particularly the case when machine gun and sniper fire made the village so treacherous.  Robert may be stood in a shell hole, or the men may have been heading back to the Maricourt assembly trenches on 2nd July; protected from machine gun fire by the Montauban ridge that they had just secured.  See Note 1.

The men of 30th Division were relieved at 3 am on 3rd July.  The 11th Royal Scots took over the positions of the 17th Manchesters.  They trudged back over the field of battle they had passed on the morning of the 1st, no doubt reflecting on their missing Pals.

MR02797 Return from Montauban

© Manchester Regiment Image Archive (MR02797) Return from Montauban.  Beau Nash took a photograph entitled “Return from Montauban”. Records show the 16th Battalion left the village on the afternoon of the 2nd July.  They then made their way back to the assembly trenches at near Oxford and Cambridge Copse near Maricourt.  The image appears to  show the reverse slope of the land in the slight fold where the assembly trenches had been protected in front of Oxford Copse; with the edge of Cambridge Copse to the extreme right side of the image.  The hillside on the horizon would then be the Albert to Peronne Road, lined with poplar trees.  It is noted that the trees lining the road in 2016 are very much smaller; possibly replacing the mature row we can see on the ridge line in 1916.  The middle ground in the photograph shows small groups of men, who would have been making their exhausted return over the battlefield.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Oxford Copse 2015

Scout Sergeant Bert Payne of 16th Battalion (IWM Interview) recalled seeing the Brigade Padre and the Medical Officer, Fletcher on the Battlefield tending the wounded.  In view of the continuing German bombardment on the former German positions in the afternoon of 1st July.  Bert had been wounded by machine gun fire and pressed the pair to return to the Casualty Clearing Station. He also provides a vivid description of the battlefield that had been crossed by 90th Brigade.

On the way back over the hard fought approaches to Montauban, Bert and Bill Brock came across a British Soldier with terrible wounds. “ A shell had come over and hit this man. Knocked off his left arm. Knocked off his left leg. His left eye was hanging on his cheek and he was calling out for Annie… So I shot him… But it hurt me. …He was just anybody’s boy. He was calling out for Annie…His eye was hanging out pulsing. I had to shoot him… Nobody could have done anything for him. He would have died in any case. I had the courage to do it.”

Later in the interview Bert mentions his repeated thoughts about his part in the death of the young man. It clearly made a deep impression on him and probably contributed to his response to a captured German Medical Officer he came across soon after. “I asked this Doctor to bind the Corporal’s [Brock] foot up and he wouldn’t. I told to do it or I’d shoot him…he said ‘Blame your own government.’ He refused to bind his foot so I shot him.”

Lieutenant Callan-MacArdle’s words from his diary provide a poignant illustration of the mood.

Sunrise looking from Briqueterie to Bernafay Wood.  Courtesy jeremybanning.co.uk“We were relieved in a hurricane of shells. We trailed out wearily and crossed the battlefield down trenches choked with the dead of ourselves and our enemies – stiff, yellow and stinking – the agony of a violent death in their twisted fingers and drawn faces. There were arms and things on the parapets and in trees. Shell holes with 3 or 4 in them. The dawn came as we reached again the assembly trenches in Cambridge Copse. From there, we looked back at Montauban, the scene of our triumph, where we, the 17th Battalion, temporary soldiers and temporary officers every one that went in, had added another name to the honours on the colours of an old fighting regiment of the line – not the least of the honours on it.”

MR02798 Valley Trench

© Manchester Regiment Archives (MR02798) Valley Trench.  Valley Trench was part the German front line position, facing the 16th Manchesters’ assault on 1st July.  It formed a reverse salient in the low ground of “Railway Valley”, opposite the British held the wood at Talus Bois.  This was the junction in the area of advance for the 30th and 18th Divisions, with the Manchester Battalions to the east-left.  The photo shows the remnants of the trench system and is believed to have been taken by Lt Beau Nash on the afternoon of 2nd July when the 16th Battalion had been relieved in the village defences.  This trench had faced a week long bombardment by British and French artillery.  An artillery limber had been brought up from reserve positions and a British soldier surveys the destruction.  Little opposition had been achieved from this part of the German line, yet numerous British troops had been slaughtered by a German machine gun position known as the Warren.  This was 100 yards to the west – right – of the photographer’s position.

Callan Macardle’s Diary continued “A molten sun slid up over a plum coloured wood, on a mauve hill shading down to grey. In a vivid flaming sky, topaz clouds with golden edges floated, the tips of shell-stricken bare trees stood out over a sea of billowing white mist, the morning light was golden. We trudged wearily up the hill but not unhappy. All this world was ever dead to Vaudrey and Kenworthy, Clesham, Sproat, Ford and the other ranks we did not know how many. Vaudrey used to enjoy early morning parades. Clesham loved to hunt back in Africa when the veldt was shimmering with the birth of a day.”

2 Lt Victor Godfrey 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers © IWM (HU 115135)

2 Lt Victor Godfrey 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers. One of Callan Macardle’s friends © IWM (HU 115135)

 “In Bellon Wood, on our way to our rendezvous at Bronfray Farm, we got water from the gunners who had moved heavy guns up there. There were already 18-pounders in Montauban.”

Private Edward Higson (1) of 16th Battalion also recounted the scene of the battlefield as he returned from Montauban.
“We started to retrace out steps to the assembly trench, back over the battlefield of yesterday, now strewn with thousands of our boys and the enemy.  It was awful to see the boys who fity-eight hours ago wer full of life, now lying upon the battlefield.  We picked up as many wounded as we could and took them to the dressing stations, then proceeded to the point of assembly [west of Cambridge Copse] to answer the roll.  The Sergeant Major was there calling out the names – some were answered, others would be answering on the other side…”

Lieutenant Callan-MacArdle and the majority of the returning Pals arrived at the camp to the rear of the lines in the early morning of 3rd July.  He wrote

“At Happy Valley, a bivouac was arranged for us and breakfast. We ate enormously, washed the worst of the grime away and slept for hours. Our reception was enthusiastic. The Brigadier has wired General Shay, the Divisional Commander “90th Brigade has taken Montauban in drill formation”. The highest possible praise. We were welcomed and praised and warmly shaken by the hand and the sun kissed away the ravages of our ordeal.”

Arthur Bell, arrived back at the Brigade camp later that morning.

Rev. R Balleine“Our lot were under canvas, and we were told what heart-breaking roll-calls there had been.  One particular man in our platoon had lost the younger brother whom he had been at great pains to have transferred from another battalion.”

  The III Platoon man was 8284Robert Schofield, who lost his brother 9519 Private Ruben Schofield at Montauban. Ruben had been transferred from the Lancashire Fusiliers.. Arthur continued.

Something unprecedented had taken place, though.  The Divisional Padre had managed to scrape up the canteen funds to buy extra eggs for us.  Never before had such a thing happened.  You can imagine why there was no shortage of them the survivors!  After the war, that Reverend gentleman was in charge of a church in South Manchester called, very appropriately, St. Crispin’s.”(1)

The Brigade Padre was Robert Balleine – the son of the Dean of Jersey.  Robert was subsequently the rector of St Crispins, Fallowfield between 1924 & 1930.  St Crispin is the patron Saint of martyrs and a number of famous battles have taken place on St Crispins day, including the charge of the Light Brigade and Agincourt.

A number of offices and men of the 17th Battalion had been held in reserve from the assault on Montauban.   In the first of a series of letters home to his mother in Hale, 2nd Lieutenant Alan Holt of A Company wrote

“This is just to let you know that I am still in the land of the living. By now you will have heard that the regiment has covered itself with glory and captured a most important village. I was kept in reserve with eight other subalterns and the senior major and I am sorry to say that I am now the only officer left in the company. Two others – one of which was my captain – being killed and the other was wounded. But it was a famous victory and I envy those who share the honour of it. “

Lieutenant Holt’s subsequent letters will show a reduced sense of celebration and glamour, consistent with Arthur Bell’s lack of appreciation of the senior officer’s congratulations.

“About then there was a Divisional Parade and we were addressed by the General  – “You have behaved so well that you deserve the finest rewards the good troops can have, we are going to reward you by sending you back into the line again”!…… (What, no cheers!)” (1) (See General Shea’s Speach What no cheers!

Lieutenant Macardle wrote to his father on 3rd July with contrasting perceptions of the assault and defence of Montauban “I don’t think I ever enjoyed an hour so much, but afterwards, holding on to what we had won was absolute hell.  We were shelled like a hurricane from three sides, and were not relieved for forty-eight hours”

Back home in Manchester, the Evening News 6th July edition recognised the success of the 30th Division:-

“Manchester Pals Covered with Glory

Sir Douglas Haig’s Splendid Tribute

Lord Derby (states the “Liverpool Post”) has received from the General Officer Commanding the Army engaged in France a telegram stating that the division to which the City Battalion and Manch. And County Palatine Artillery are attached have done excellent work and covered themselves with glory.

Lord Derby has also had a telegram from the general commanding the division to say that he is proud of the division and is glad to say that the losses are not excessive

Casualty figures for the 17th Manchesters amounted to 10 Officers and 196 men, who were killed, wounded or missing.  While the comparative success reported in the Manchester Evening News may have been accurate, the reports to the Pals friends and family understated the huge losses;  more than one third of the fighting force in the case of the 17th Battalion.

“NOTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY”

Casualties Surprisingly Few.

A Canadian medical officer who has just returned from France…gives reassuring news…”We have had a relatively slack time” he said “By Comparison with Loos this has been childs play…if we carry on the advance with as little loss as this I guess there’s not a great deal to worry about”.

The French Infantry had taken part in the assault, immediately south of the 30th Division.  General Balfourier, commanding the French XX. Corps, and General Nourrisson, com­manding the French Thirty-ninth Division, sent mes­sages expressing their “admiration of the British troops, their neighbours, whose bravery and discipline under heavy and continuous fire were beyond praise.”

The 18th Battalion Official History provides a useful indication of the plight of the vanquished Greman troops who had been ejected from the village.  Lieutenant-Colnel Bedall of 16th Bavarian Infantry Regiment was captured.  His diary recorded “The 6th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, which on the moring of July 1st was thrown into Montauban has been completely destroyed.  Of 3,500 men only 500 remained…All the rest are dead, wounded or missing.  The regimental staff and battalion staff have been captured in their dug-outs.”

Crown Copyright

Crown Copyright

Profiles of the men of III Platoon (and some other men mentioned by Arthur Bell) that lost their lives at Montauban are provided in Anniversary 1st July 1916 – Men.

Details of the 17th Battalion Officers that lost their lives are reported in 1st July 1916 Anniversary – Officers.

There are limited records of men who were wounded in the assault on Montauban or subsequent action.  Amongst the many wounded Manchesters were the 17th Battalion Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Johnson and A Company’s only surviving officer, 2nd Lieutenant Richard Wain.  Former St. Bees man, Richard Wain had originally enlisted as a Pt. in the 7th Bttn. (Cyclists) Welsh Regt.  He then transferred 16th Middlesex (Public Schools) Battalion.  He had been commissioned to the 17th Manchesters in July 1915.  His parents had lived in Llandaff, Cardiff.

2nd Lieutenant Gilliat’s initial F. is specified in the Brigade Casualty List.  It is thought this is Frederick Gilliat who is mentioned in the Manchester University Roll of Honour as serving with 14th Battalion and a former member of the O.T.C.  Frederick was born in Lincolnshire and was a 21 year old student living in Stockport with his parents and sisters in 1911.  A Frederick Gilliat was Commissioned in the Infantry on 10th May 1915 as published in the London Gazette of 12th June 1915 when he was posted to Manchester Regiment as published in the Gazette on 28 July 1916.  He was later promoted Lieutenant, effective 1st July 1917 and attached to Machine Gun Corps on 27th May 1918.

Montauban Casualties Killed/Wounded/Missing

90th Brigade Casualty List

Sergt. N – recounted by Arthur Bell as wounded at the German front line – was probably 8245 former Lance Sergeant Alfred Norbury of I Platoon.  Alfred recovered and was discharged in October 1917.

One example of a III Company casualty was 9143 Ernest Conroy.  Private Conroy was previously a Painter and Decorator, living at 16 Poland Street, Oldham Road.  He had joined the Pals in December 1914, aged 25 and been promoted to Corporal on 25th January 1916.  During the Montauban attack, he suffered a gun shot wound (GSW) to his knee.  He received initial treatment in Etaples Hospital and then evacuated to Chatham Hospital on 3rd July.

Following convalescence, Ernest was permitted leave at home, for the New Year of 1917 and then held in the Regiment’s reserve Battalion.  His re-posting will be reported later.

The second record of wounding of one of the III Platoon men concerns Pt. George S Garbutt.  The 24th July edition of the Manchester Evening News “Private George Garbutt of 17 Bickley Street, Moss Side, Manchester, who was wounded on July 1, is now in hospital at Epsom, Surrey, suffering from a gunshot wound in the leg.”

 More detailed records are found for the wounding and subsequent treatment of Private 8133 Arthur Edwards of who trained with XII Platoon of C Company. Courtesy Luton Telegraph 8th July 1916 and WWI Luton

Writing to his brother from St Mark’s Ward, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Chatham, Pte Edwards says:

“Just a few lines to put that dear old head and heart of yours at ease, for I know that you will be worrying as to how I am. I am thankful to be able to say that I am fairly well – not a great deal of pain…I have a bullet wound right through my right leg, about eight inches above the knee. It has made rather a nasty wound to look at, for it seems to have been an explosive bullet. I have a rubber tube right through my leg. Thank God it did not catch the bone. All my bones are as before – that’s what I think, anyway…I suppose you got my field card all right to say that I was wounded. As you see, I have managed to get to dear old England with it. I landed this morning. I would have liked to have been a bit nearer, but hadn’t a chance. Anyhow, I am sure we ought to be thankful to be alive…It’s marvellous how I kept my reason. Awful! Awful! All the boys dead all around me…but how they did it! Grand! We had to go and take a village nearly a mile and a half away. I was among the first 50 in. The village was Montauban…Well, the 17th Manchesters did it. I was shot when right through at the other side of the village, about 2.30 on Saturday afternoon. For the next 12 hours I lay in a bit of a cellar, shells dropping all around. I was nearly buried alive and my right leg was bleeding fearfully, and no one to take me away…At about 2 o’clock on Sunday morning, I decided to try and get back to our lines. Anyhow, I won’t trouble you with how I did it. God! One and a half miles with a hole through the leg. Anyway, here we are, as merry as a cricket and very little pain, really, so don’t worry.” Also See Service Records

The successful capture and retention of the village of Montauban was a huge exception to the plight of the majority of the British Fourth Army’s plight on the 1st July.  Alongside Manchester, the villages of Mametz and Fricourt were captured, but further north, there were nominal gains, or no progress. 

The overall picture for the first day of the Somme can be described as a disaster.  The British suffered 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 prisoners for a total loss of 57,470. This meant that in one day of fighting, 20% of the entire British fighting force had been killed.

A commentator suggests that half of these losses took place in the first hour of the battle.  At 7.30, the first British wave went over the top into a hail of artillery and machine gun fire.  Many German positions and wire had remained intact and the defenders successfully repelled the advance.  There were places where the brave assault made progress, but the continuing bombardment of no-mans land prevented any support for these gains.  The initial successes were then lost as troops were forced to withdraw; either captured or the slaughter continued.  Some Brigades continued the assault – with one Battalion following another into the storm – and lost almost all of their fighting force.

One particular example of the bravery of the British soldiers was provided by Arthur Bell in his observation on his pals from Birmingham.

“We heard that they met with terrific resistance in that sector on 1st July – whether our friends were there we did not know. “(1)

The 1/5th to 1/8th Territorial Battalions of the Royal Warks. formed the majority of the 143rd (Warwickshire) Brigade – part of the 48th (South Midland) Division.  On 1st July 1916, Arthur Bell’s Pals of the 1/6th and 1/8th faced an onslaught in their assault on ‘The Quadrilateral’ or ‘Heidenkopf’ near Serre.   Following withdrawal, both battalions had a roll call.  The 1/8th could only muster 47 men out of 600 that went into the attack. Of 830 men of the 1/6th who went into the attack 95 answered their names only 25 of them were un-wounded. (Birmingham Post)

As Brigadier-General Prowse lay dying after the assault, the Brigade Commanding Officer spoke an immortal epitaph to the gallantry of Birmingham’s part-time soldiers:- ” I did not think much of Territorials before, but, by God, they can fight!”. (Birmingham Post)

The French Army gained many of their objectives to the south of the British.  The limited progress around Montauban placed a foothold for progress and the action broke the long term deadlock of the static trench line.  The first day can also be confirmed as positive because the German Army immediately transferred troops to the area and ultimately the primary objective was achieved – to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun.

Private Paddy Kennedy of 18th Battalion clearly felt more progress could have been made on the first day.  In a his letters to Ken Smallwood in November (IWM P321) he wrote

“It took a fortnight to capture Trones – losses 20,000.  We could have taken these Woods [Bernafay and Trones] on the 1st of July 1916 – but had orders to stand fast – we saw the Jerries running away from the woods.” and reflected on the Commander’s decisions.

“Haig failed to exploit the success of the 18th and 30th Divisions, 1st July 1916.  He had one Mounted Division and the 15th Scottish Division in reserve.”  

Reflecting on the slaughter of the British Army almost one hundred years later will be left to other authors.  Subsequent action by Arthur Bell and his remaining Pals will be addressed in subsequent chapters.  In this context, the reader can judge the change in tactics (or lack of development) to assess their own view of the Somme battles.  As author, I read between the lines of my Grandfather to make my own judgment on his perception of the management of the offensive in Picardy.  I also recognise the fortunate destiny that he survived to have a complete and full family life; when so many men from his Platoon, Battalion and country did not.

AWM Collection - Montauban Church Bell 1918

AWM Ruins of Montauban Church Dec.1916

National Collection

Also see Reflections on the Anniversary of World War I – 1914-2014 for more information on Sgt Bert Payne and his Pal Corp Bill Brock.

Also see Centenary of the liberation of Montauban for photos of the commemoration in the village 100 years later.

Note 1.

Megson MRA MR00648 Euro 1914-18

© Manchester Regiment Image Archive (MR00648) Lt Robert Megson

Robert Megson had been one of the original subalterns in 16 Platoon, of D Company, which Anthony Nash joined in 1915.  He was Commissioned Lieutenant on 3rd October 1914.  As Battalion Signals Officer, he will have had a pivotal role in the 90th Brigade’s defence of the village. The two men were friends with Morton Johnson, having shared Holy Communion and Christmas dinner in December 1915 and training together in England.  The 90th Brigade continued with further assaults in the Battle of the Somme and Robert was twice Mentioned in Despatches.  He was also wounded for a second time at Trones Wood on 9th July and recounted in a letter to Beau Nash “…a very strenuous twenty four hours…”  He returned to duty by 21st July, as Officer Commanding A Company.  He took part in the Brigade assault on Guillemont where he reported “…we have now 8 inch and a few 17 inch shells to reckon with, and ‘they like me not’.”. 

Robert was later promoted Captain and had his final Home leave in November 1916, returning to A Company, before his second Christmas in France.  Robert was mentioned in Despatches on 2nd January 1917, most likely for action at Flers in October 1916. He was killed in action on 23rd April 1917, during the Brigade assault on the village of Heninel.  It was reported he had been shot through the head and died instantly. Just like his friend Morton Johnson, Robert Megson has no known grave; being commemorated on the Arras Memorial.  He was 29 years old.  Robert was posthumously Mentioned in Despatches on 25th May 1917.

Prior to hostilities Robert was a Chartered Accountant for Ashworth, Mosley & Co.  He had been educated at Fettes College, Edinburgh, where he was a pupil of Carrington House from 1901. He was the son of Ella and James M. Megson, of Stockdale, Didsbury.  

There was a distinguished contingent of Officers in the Manchester Regiment City Battalions who were connected with Fettes College or Merchiston Castle Schools.  Officers from Edinburgh included 90th Brigade Staff Captain, Arthur Taylor and William Tongue as alumni of Fettes College.  William was killed by a sniper in the 17th Battalion’s first tour of the Maricourt trenches on 12th January 1916.  He was the first of numerous Manchester Officers to be killed. 

Merchiston Castle School had many teachers that served in the Regiment, notably Lieutenant Colonel Wilfrith Elstob, who became 16th Battalion Commanding Officer.  Colonel Elstob was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his valiant leadership in the defence of Manchester Hill in March 1918.  He famously rallied the remnants of the 16th Battalion troops with his call “Here we fight, and here we die.” The Men Behind the Medals

Notes
(1) Private Edward Higson was later wounded at Trones Wood and Commissioned after recovery.  His Uncle, Lance Corporal Frank Herbert Hobson was killed at Montauban with 16th Bttn.  He has no known grave. See http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030011463

 

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One thought on “Relief and Aftermath

  1. Pingback: 17th Battalion Service Records | 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment on the Somme

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