Major Macdonald’s notes in The War Diary reported Arthur Bell’s detachment at Triangle Point, an outpost 100 yards north of the main 17th Battalion line and East of the 16th Battalion positions in Montauban Alley, overlooking Bazentin Le Grand. Triangle Point had been established as a German defensive position by October 1915, yet the French (probably) artillery barrage had successfully obliterated the strong point by the time of the Advance.
“A small party from A Coy was pushed out to “TRIANGLE POINT” – this point – was found to be non-existent and the party cleared a portion of MONTAUBAN ALLEY and proceeded to establish themselves there.”
“My own place was Triangle Point. A bomber I was and; several other bombers out of the platoon had been detailed to go there and we carried, I think it were ten bombs and we were to receive two bombs each from other members of the platoon. “(2)
The 16th Battalion occupied Montauban Alley to the West; a communication trench with deep dugout running through Triangle Point. Lt Nash’s diary recorded “the Colonel wanted me to go up to Montauban Alley and take charge. I found all that was left of A, B and C Company, about 250 in all [of @ 750 who will have started the assault], and Johnson…the only officer. Johnson decided to take the right of the line [adjoining Triangle Point] and I took the left. The men were terribly tired…the inevitable re-action which follows…exaltation…fighting an bodily fatigue.”
Describing Arthur Bell’s defenses at Triangle Point, Lt. Nash wrote “On our right flank the 17th. Bn.,whose business it was to defend the west side of the village, had established a bombing post and strong point or redoubt”
The 16th Battalion Official History confirms these objectives in Montauban Alley, noting the intended right flank of the firing line to be held by A Company “…by Triangle Point where it touched the 17th Manchesters.” Private Edward Higson of 16th Battalion (1) related the 16th Battalion’s arrival at Montauban Alley and its challenging clearance using bombs:-
“Still we had to go further to reach our objective, Montauban Alley, on the far side of the village. It was there that many of the running Germans had taken cover [retiring from the south of the village] and we met strong opposition, one team of machine gunners firing point-blank at us until we overpowered them. With one of these gunners I had my first real not of bayonet exercise and his neck suffered somewhat in consequence. Eventually we got into Montauban Alley and my bombing section were detailed to go up the trench to the right for 200 yards, clearing the enemy out as we went.
A little later a sergeant and myself discovered a trench running underneath a road [to Bazentine Le Grand probably] and being curious went to investigate. No sooner had we got within a few yards of the tunnel than we were fired upon. There were five Germans in the tunnel. The sergeant and I scrambled out on the top, he going to one end of the tunnel and I to the other, then being of a kindly nature presented the inmates with a couple of bombs. There were two survivors, whom we shot as they came out, but before they were shot they accounted for the poor sergeant.”
Arthur Bell’s detachment of A Company and other troops made ready to hold their position and wait for the anticipated counter-attack. This detachment at Triangle Point marked the furthest sustained advance of the British Troops on 1st July.
“… I remember finding Triangle Point, and finding one or two of my platoon there – not many of them – there were other people besides… jumping down into it, as the work of filling in the trench there was well on the way.”(1) “We settled down to try and improve the defensive position on it. There was a young Lance Corporal in charge. And so we settled down for the night eventually.” (2)
90th Brigade War Diary shows that a Brigade wiring party of one officer and 26 men had been charged with reinforcing the strong point with 6 men at the southern corner of the British advance. They had then been charged to return to Brigade HQ.
Many British troops had long since drank their water bottles and spent a thirsty evening and night. Arthur Bell had further problems.
“Before the evening, I’d had good drink of coffee out of a dead German’s water bottle. It had been of course – a very hot day and a very hot business altogether – so I was terribly thirsty. I had quite a long drink and it eventually caused me a good deal of trouble; I think taking this drink in this way. Of course, naturally the coffee was cold and you will remember that we’d run a mile or two in the heat of the day – and a very hot day it was – so consequently when I drank all this coffee, it upset my stomach.”(2)
Arthur was surprised to find pristine equipment on the German soldier’s body.
“He was marvellously equipped, had a wonderful gas mask, and I recollect that he had a spare pair of boots as well as socks. His rifle was shining bright, like stainless steel, though it could not have been actually – just the same it did not seem to require oil to keep it bright. Perhaps he was a newly arrived re-enforcement.” (1)
While the bombardment of the new British positions continued in Montauban, the evening and night was relatively secure, due to the detachments advanced position ahead of the main line.
“I am not quite sure, but I do not think we had any shelling that evening and night of 1st July, perhaps because of our forward position in relation to the main trench.”(1)
Lt Nash’s Diary indicates he visited Triangle Point “When I visited this post in order to assure myself that our right flank was secure, I ascertained from the officer in charge that his orders were to fall back in case of attack. This was hardly according to plan and would have rendered our own position well-nigh untenable., so I sent an urgent message back to Sotham [16th Bttn. Adjutant] asking him to see the Colonel of the 17th and get these instructions modified. This was done and this contingent of the 17th. Battalion had received fresh instructions to hold its ground in face of all opposition.”
Lt Nash provided a summary of the first German counter attack on the evening of 1st July. As Arthur Bell’s detachment were in corresponding positions close to Montauban Alley, the defenders probably faced the same attack. “The ground in front of Montauban Alley fell away into the…valley, and we could only command a field of vision and fire for three hundred yards. In this valley the Germans massed and at 9.30pm they launched their first real counter attack. We were able to beat this off with comparative ease and by 10.30pm we had resumed…normal trench life…”
The 16th Battalion Official History notes the defence an limited field of fire. It also identifies the further challenge in defending the village because “It had been impossible to occupy, according to plan, Spur Point, an important position in advance of Montauban Alley, which commanded the [Caterpillar] valley, as our guns were shelling the spot.” The absence had allowed the Germans to build their attack unhindered by the defenders in Montauban Alley, but were ultimately unsuccessful in any event. This was confirmed by the 90th Brigade Diary which noted the prompt response by British artillery to the SOS signal which enabled the first counter attack to be broken up in its early stages.
2/7/16 THE HOLE IN MY HAT
At 3am and 4am, troops of the German 12th Reserve Division and 16th Bavarian Regiment launched counter attacks. They were beaten off by a shrapnel barrage fired by the 30th Divisional artillery. 90th Brigade War Diary noting “The F.O.O. [RA Forward Observation Officer] Camp [?] on E edge of village sent the following:- ‘Enemy massing to attack E of village.’ S.O.S. from MONTAUBAN the artillery barrage began rather slowly [contrasting to the prompt and effective response at 9.30pm] increasing later, the enemy counter attacked on N and N.E. of the village with a strength estimated between 1 or 2 Bns [Battalions].”
The vulnerability of Triangle Point now became clear as A Company’s detachment was open to attack from three points of the compass.
Lt Nash’s Diary records the 16th Battalions’s perspective of the counter attack further along Montauban Alley “At 3a.m. I was standing one the fire step…I saw advancing over the ridge, shoulder to shoulder, long lines of grey uniformed figures in great coats and helmets…On they came, wave after wave…As soon as the Germans topped the ridge every man of my garrison was firing rapidly and with deadly accuracy…Our machine guns and Lewis guns got to work at once…The attack was broken up simply and solely by rifle fire and and by the help of the Lewis guns. After four waves of the enemy had been dispersed our artillery [communication had been lost to bring in fire support earlier] came into action and put down a barrage. In a few solitary instances the German infantry reached our lines and were driven back by bayonet”
The 16th Battalion Official History expands on the final elements of the counter-attack in their part of the line. “The enemy had broken into Montauban Alley between our extreme right of our line and the 17th Manchesters. ‘Bombers Forward’ was the order. But there were no bombs. The enemy were driven back, however, and another block established…” The shortage of bombs also proved to be a significant problem for men of 17th Battalion.
Arthur Bell provided an explanation for the title of his ‘Steel Helmet’ notes together with a vivid description of the final defence and the detachment’s subsequent retirement from Triangle Point.
“How came I to get a hole in the hat. That was when jumping out of our own trench, sealed behind us at Triangle Point, after throwing all our bombs across the traverse to stop the enemy advancing along the trench. We were making for the main trench behind us. Its parapet had been reversed and wired and the joining point made up in Montauban Alley. The N.C.O. in charge at this point, a young newly promoted Corporal, after bayonetting one of the invaders, had given the order to return to the main trench at our rear. So, I got a slightly scratched head – whether the tin hat saved me I couldn’t be quite sure – but the Jock who landed in the shell-hole with us, on the way to our main body, had got one right through from one cheek to the other. There were eight of us in that hole, but there was plenty of room for more; we stayed there until nightfall – perhaps twelve hours later.(1)
The Triangle Point detachment was bombed out by the German assault and had no communication with any other units. Arthur Bell provided hands on reflection on his training.
“By the way, when throwing our bombs, not bowling them as was becoming the fashion, we removed the pin, counted a hundred and one, a hundred and two, a hundred and three – away. They would land and explode at the same moment, having a five second fuse. “(1)
The sustained defence is confirmed by the 17th Battalion’s War Diary. Major Macdonald recorded
Back in the village the Battalion continued the defence of Montauban. The War Diary recounts “Germans to the number of 100 then massed on the W side of the Montauban – Bazentin-le-Grand road just N of Montauban Alley. 1 Platoon of C Company advanced up N1 under Capt Madden and took up position on the road just E of Valley Trench. Artillery was informed and the enemy suffered heavy casualties from shrapnel and rapid rifle fire. They dashed into Montauban Alley and the enemy became demoralised and dashed back across the road to the dead ground towards Longueval. They also suffered casualties from the platoon across the road N1. Some of them remained in Montauban Alley and a bombing party was sent up N1 to bomb them out. This party could not get near enough owing to the barrage of the heavies. The relief of the 16th Manchesters on our left interrupted the operations and the Company of the Wiltshires undertook the clearance of Montauban Alley.”
Lt. Nash’s Diary provides a different interpretation of events from his position to the west in Montauban Alley. “…Corporal Waldron…had been in charge of our extreme right post and reported that the redoubt of the 17th. Manchesters [Triangle Point] had retired at the beginning of the fuss and had let the Germans in our right flank. These were then bombing down the trench…with the intention of clearing Montauban Alley…We had no bombs…so I sent…to borrow some from the 55th Brigade…and then took a bombing party…to deal with the Huns. We drove them out of our frontage and established a block where the 17th. Battalion’s post should have been.”
The obituary of one 16th Battalion’s men appears to support the 17th Battalion record. This reports Lance Corporal 6943 Frederick Charles Wiggins as a bomber of 16th Battalion who was involved with the capture and defence of an advance trench. The only known advance trench to the north of Montauban was the Triangle Point outpost, adjoining C Company of 16th Battalion’s known positions – and the description of the defense and withdrawal appears to confirm this proposition. “Instructions were given to the survivors that this [the advanced trench – Triangle Point] was to be held as long as possible. The men hung on till all their bombs and ammunition had been exhausted, and the Germans advancing on three sides rushed the trench. It was here that Wiggins was killed. The men succeeded in getting away had to shelter in dug-outs throughout the whole of the Sunday [2nd July].”
We don’t know if Fredk. Wiggins was the “newly promoted Corporal” reported by Arthur Bell “bayonetting one of the invaders, had given the order to return to the main trench at our rear”. It is certainly likely men from the 16th Battalion and indeed 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers – See the Jock who landed in the shell-hole – provided support to A Company of 17th Battalion. Frederick Wiggins was originally posted missing in MEN 2nd August 1916, having been seen holding the advanced position at Dawn on 2nd July 1916.
The evidence of a man likely to have been part of the 2nd RSF is consistent with 90th Brigade War Diary which notes the men of the 17th Battalion being bombed out of Triangle Point and “…most of the garrison being killed.” It confirms parties of the enemy had entered Montauban Alley and also the north east of the village where they were “…driven out immediately. 1 Coy of 2nd RSF reinforced N. face of MONTAUBAN.”
Captain Grundy of the Machine Gun Corps recounted “About 7 o’clock the bursting bombs seemed to be very close to one another and… about 30 of our men jumped out of the trench and started to retire towards us in Montauban. Immediately on seeing this, the Boches jumped out of their trenches and started firing on them. We turned two machine-guns on the Boches and wiped the party completely out, but not before they had accounted for [almost] all our men.”
Captain Grundy had a section of 4 machine guns posted behind the 17th Battalion at strong point C. This would have overlooked the men at Triangle Point and it seems likely he witnessed and assisted their withdrawal – most likely saving their lives. It is significant that he set the time for the detachment retiring at 7am. This is much more consistent with 17th Battalion reports.
More than a century later it is not a grandson’s role to judge the slightly opposing reports of Corporal Ben Waldron in comparison with the acting OC of the 17th Battalion; a Newspaper Report concerning Lt Nash’s troops; or that of the grandfather and seperate witness. Benson Waldron had served as Scout with Scout Sergeant Bert Payne and was experienced in making accurate observation and reports of events. It is best to confirm the shortage of bombs & ammunition that the Triangle Point detachment must have faced; in common with the 16th Battalion. The German map also shows the redoubt being attacked from three directions, with no known reinforcements. Clearly, Arthur Bell was present in the redoubt, as opposed to Corporal Waldron, who was defending his own line at least 50 yards distant. All reports confirm communication was difficult, with Major Macdonald’s War Diary stating that message could only be made by runner between Battalions Headquarters at Strong Point B and positions north of the village.
If Triangle Point was vulnerable, the shell hole between Montauban Alley and the British line was even more isolated in what had temporarily become no mans land. There was recognition that some men in the detachment may not have been able to withdraw.
“Both our own planes and German ones circled overhead during that time but, if they saw us, did nothing about it. We had yellow identification patched, and strips of tin. Also during that time, while Jerry was strafing the main trench, none of his shots fell so short of the target to be anywhere near us. One of the eight was an officer – I think he was in the 16th – another man had a chest wound. A man from our 4th platoon, A Company – Nat. N. [Nathaniel Needham 8764] – was there – I doubt whether he was a bomber. A boy who had a cup attached to his rifle so that it would shoot off Mills bombs, was not there – I do hope he survived.”(1)
The 16th Battalion Officer in the shell hole with Arthur Bell may have been Lieutenant Harvey who had been brought up from D Company to hold Montauban Alley with Captain Johnson and Lieutenant Nash.
The bright yellow patch on the men had been intended for artillery observers. Every tenth man had a “bright square of metal” for the same purpose. It is difficult to speculate whether observers in the friendly Flying Corps Aircraft would have been able to assist, especially when the men would have needed to be on their chests to be seen from the air. Having no knowledge of the position of hostile and friendly troops, the men in the shell hole waited until nightfall to seek safe return to their Pals.
“In the shell-hole when it became dark on the night of the 2nd we were not absolutely sure whether the portion of main trench nearest to us was occupied by our troops or not, so it was arranged that one of us, a volunteer, should go along and, if all was well, to ask the machine gunner to give the signal “Rat-ta-ta-tat-tat – tat tat”. A volunteer was found and we trooped across to find our battalion had been relieved and we were eventually conducted some miles to our own positions.”(1)
It is likely the Wiltshires occupying Montauban Alley provided the machine gun message for Arthur Bell’s withdrawal. The Wiltshire’s securing of Triangle Point confirmed the 17th Manchester’s claim of achieving the greatest distance for any sustained advance on the British 4th Army front on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Arthur Bell will not have known any aspect of such achievement and will surely have been relieved to find British soldiers at hand; enabling him to safely withdraw for some well earned respite on the morning of 3rd July.
Later reflection on the battle is shown in Martin Middlebrook’s First Day and also see The Middlebrook Guide to the Somme Battlefields – Paperback – A Personal Review. Arthur Bell recounted in the First Day “We had been told that if we made our three miles the cavalry would follow through with thirty miles. (Pte A. A. Bell, 2nd Manchester Pals)”
Later information shows III Platoon’s Private Harold Bretnall taking part in rifle grenade training with Arthur Bell. It is possible he replaced a casualty in the bombing section, or he may have been Arthur Bell’s original Platoon bombing partner at Triangle Point.
Beau Nash and the remnants of the 16th Battalion returned to Montauban on 5th July, to bury their dead comrades. Beau identified the place where Morton was killed, but his friend’s body couldn’t be found. He may have been buried in a battlefield cemetery by another burial party. Otherwise Morton’s body was lost in the bombardment of the newly held British defences. Morton’s grave was never identified and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.
Lieutenant Nash recounted “Morton Johnson and I had been very close friends since the day I joined the Battalion… he had been sick… but… determined to be with his company in our first big battle.” Beau Nash and Morton Johnson had travelled together between their training camps at Belton Park and Lark Hill; stopping for lunch at The Mitre in Oxford. They also shared sardines for Christmas dinner in December 1915. Morton played Gilbert and Sullivan Opera on the gramophone.
Anthony Nash was wounded at Trones Wood and visited Morton’s mother after leaving hospital. Morton’s parents were William Henry and Agnes Morton Johnson, of Woodleigh, Altrincham, Cheshire. Morton had been educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. M.A., F.R.G.S. He was Chairman and Managing Director, R. Johnson, Clapham & Morris, Manchester. The 1911 Census had described Morton as an iron master and employer in a wire manufacturer.
Morton’s youngest brother, Ronald Lindsay Johnson was also killed in the Great War, serving with 23rd Division, Trench Mortar Battery in the Royal Field Artillery. He died on 29th May 1917 and is buried in Brandhoek Cemetery in Ypres. Another brother, Alan Douglas Johnson, served in Gallipoli and Palestine as an Army Chaplain. He was awarded the Military Cross for bringing in wounded men near Gaza. ( The Men Behind the Medals) Alan was joint beneficiary of Morton’s extensive Estate, amounting to almost £25,000. The fourth brother was the second beneficiary and it’s not been possible to find where he served.