The Defence of Montauban

The British soldiers endeavoured to consolidate their positions, despite continuing artillery and machine gun fire.  Acting OC, Major MacDonald reported  in the War Diary “Hostile MG fire was opened on the village immediately on our entry and about 2pm a heavy bombardment of 15cm and 77mm was opened on the town, which continued almost without cessation until the battalion was relieved 40 hours later”.

Royal Engineers helped the 90th Brigade consolidate defenses in Montauban. http://www.gwpda.org/photos/coppermine/displayimage.php?pos=-546Lt Callan-MacArdle wrote “Immediately, we started to consolidate, working like demons. In a short time, scraps of information were coming in from other companies and particulars of our losses. Vaudrey and Ford killed, Kenworthy wounded, the Colonel last seen in a shell hole with the M.O. in attendance…  As there was no available dug-out in B Company’s side (the East) of the village, Humphrey, who took over when Vaudrey was killed, had his HQ in a shell hole.”

“We instructed our men to dig holes for themselves under the parapet of Nord Alley, which was about 8 feet wide, but first they had to make fire steps. The trench became littered with dead and wounded. The dying called for water, but there was none. Those in agony asked pitiably for stretchers, but 8 stretcher-bearers had been killed, three stretchers out of four destroyed and the doctor overwhelmed by work. It was, of course, impossible to spare a sound man to help along a broken one as we were standing to for a counter attack. It came; was repulsed and came again and the regiment was crumbling away.”

160701 Montauban Defences

C Coy. Strong point C. D Coy. Strong Point B with Battalion Headquarters. Crown Copyright.

With B Company under the command of Lieutenant Mansergh in Nord Alley and the orchards to the east of the village, A Company took up defensive positions to the north of them and facing Bernafay Wood, under the command of Lieutenant Humphrey.

The enemy artillery, having been badly damaged, did not greatly interfere with the work of evacuation of wounded, bringing up of supplies and consolidation which now began in earnest. However, enemy shellfire falling on Montauban Alley, the village defences and on the old no man’s land intensified and stayed heavy, causing many casualties and making relief and re-supply very problematic for the tired units now holding the new positions.

Major Macdonald’s entry in the War Diary continued “Parties were set to work at once to consolidate Strong points & the perimeter.  The digging of trenches was very difficult owing to the fact that the village was a mess of shell holes & loose crumbling earth.  The total inadequacy of trenches in such a soil was abundantly proved in the next 48 hrs.”  He continued “Practically no dug-out shelters were available for men & casualties were heavy from the commencement of the bombardment.  The enemy was making accurate observation of the village during the whole of our tenure of it & his shooting was extraordinarily good.  No sooner did a working party commence to work on a new bit of trench then shells rained upon them.”

During the German bombardment of the newly won British line, 8361 Private Albert Alton of A Company’s I Platoon was recognised for bravery with the award of a Distinguished Conduct Medal. His citation reads “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During a heavy bombardment a trench was blown in several places and several men were buried. He at once started to dig them out under a very heavy fire, and rescued two men single-handed. He behaved in a most cool and courageous manner throughout the bombardment.”

C Company under the command of Captain Madden with Lieutenants Heywood,  Sproat and Stevens were next to A Company, developing positions facing Longueval and Bernafay Wood near Strong Point C. Lieutenant Sproat was killed by German artillery fire after his (X) Platoon had been spotted constructing  a new trench.  Major Madonald’s notes recount “The first arranged line on the E Side of N1. was found to be untenable as it was commanded by direct enfilade from the high ground S of BAZENTIN LE GRAND & a new line was taken up to the W of N.1.

D Company were located to the north of the village near Strong Point B, overlooking the German retreat to Caterpillar Valley.

90th Brigade War Diary notes the consolidation of the village defences with efforts frustrated by a sustained retaliation by the German artillery from 1.45pm.  “Enemy started bombarding MONTAUBAN from NW (3 guns 10.5 cm) causing heavy casualties amongst garrison particularly 17th Mchrs…”

Following the difficulties of improving defences in the daylight, the Battalion War Diary reports continuing challenges after nightfall on 1st July.  “At night when work was able to proceed unobserved the eastern side of the village was shelled with impartiality & was searched from N to S in a very thorough fashion.  Evidently the most methodical arrangement had been made for rendering the village uninhabitable – special attention being paid to strong points B [D Coy.] & C [C Coy.] and the middle of the orchard on East Side”

Possible postion of Battalion Hqrs.

Possible position of Battalion Headquarters

Progress was made and positions established for the Battalion support.  Major Macdonald recounted “Bn Hqrs. were established in well constructed dug-out just south of strong point B. and a dressing station in a good cellar just in rear.  Fortunately both these shelters withstood the bombardment.”

Major Macdonald also recognised the absence of planned support from members of 202 Field Squadron, Royal Engineers (RE) who were intended to assist with the construction of defences.  The RE Special Brigade was instrumental in the success of the attack due to the provision of smoke screens in the assault and it is recognised that 202 Field Company maintained rear telephone wires and rebuilt roads very soon after the village was taken.  As such, it’s likely the RE numbers were so  depleted, they couldn’t meet all their planned objectives.

©IWMQ 1421

©IWMQ 1421

Major Macdonald praised the British artillery support and realised the benefit of airborne observers. “Barrages were always prompt & effective.  It was noticeable that when an aeroplane was making observations enemy’s artillery fire almost ceased.  This gave us two lulls of 1/2 and hour each in the course of our tenure of the village.  Possibly if an aeroplane had been kept on continual observation casualties might have been reduced & hostile batteries might have been located.”

As the village defences were consolidated the wounded men from the Brigade endeavoured to find medical aid and made their way back to Casualty Clearing Stations.  Scout Sergeant Bert Payne (IWM Interview) recounted dreadful scenes and situations as he made his way the rear from the approaches to the village.  “There was ¼ million casualties that day. If you could imagine a building site without all the bulldozers”  Bert described the scene of a severely wounded British soldier.

© IWM Q 4442 Collecting firewood from the roof of a ruined house in Montauban, October 1916.

C Coy. Strong point C. D Coy. Strong Point B with Battalion Headquarters. Crown Copyright.

Montauban Church and Cemetery 1916. Courtesy Caroline Scott

Montauban Church and cemetery ruins.  Courtesy Caroline Scott

© IWM (Q 4281)  Montauban Church Bell Sept 1916

AWM Ruins of Montauban Church Dec.1916

AWM Ruins of Montauban Church Dec.1916

5 thoughts on “The Defence of Montauban

  1. Pingback: Lance Corporal Tom Sharples 9048. Killed in Action in Montauban 1-2/7/1916 | 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment on the Somme

  2. John Pinkstone

    Tim Greetings and hope all is well, I just ordered one of Jolyon Fenwick’s prints of Montauban taken for his recent exhibition. Not sure if you have heard of his work but thought I would let you know either way. I saw reference to his work on the BBC website
    http://www.jolyonfenwick.com
    John

    Reply
    1. 8055bell Post author

      Hi John,
      Greetings returned
      I’d seen the add for Jolyn Fenwick’s pics, but not checked them out until today. Very impressive. He’s captured some images that hold the essence of the day. I’ve captioned a few pics. but they never seem to hold any artistic quality after that.
      Here’s an image looking back over the same ground from southern trench. Looking back over the Montauban Battelfield

      Reply
  3. John Pinkstone

    Hi Tim,
    Very nice shot and captures the spirit of the place. Im in possession of the book and the Montauban print. I knew it covered more of the Essex Regt area but interesting work no less.
    Always good visiting your site. Interesting stuff reading the new commemorative stone to CSM Evans in London. Someone mentioned it was a pity they said he was Scots Guards which was his former regiment and a fine one at that.
    I believe our Father was in the 2nd Batt at some point.
    Cheers for now and hope all is well with you and your family.
    I still need to centralise the knowledge we have on our Grandfather. Do you recomend this site “wordpress”
    John

    Reply
    1. 8055bell Post author

      Hi John,
      I’m glad you still find interest in the site, even with your own depth of knowledge. WordPress has been a great platform. I’m always adding little updates here and there, but should have a clean up the pages every now and again. I should have been more carful with sources and links when I first drafted the pages.

      The site offers a lot of flexibility. I always have danger of going off-topic. That’s why I’m doing my seperate web articles now.

      Reply

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