9th July 1916 “…we are going to reward you by sending you back into the line again”
The 17th Battalion’s opportunity to ‘attack again’ came very soon. Bernafay Wood, ½ mile east of Montauban had now been secured and the next objective for the 30th Division was Trones Wood. This is a tear shaped wood located a further ½ mile distant from Bernafay, mid-way between the German held village of Guiillemont to the east and Montauban to the West.
Trones Wood had been a strong point and fortified artillery position before the 1st July assault. The position at the ‘corner’ of the revised line rendered it a formidable defensive position, not least due to the prospect of receiving German artillery fire from batteries to the north at Longueval, Guillemont, close by to the east and guns between the villages.
A large part of the subsequent interviews and documents relating to the 17th Battalion history, concern the enormity of the initial assault, particularly Martin Middlebrook’s ‘First Day on the Somme’. The depth of documentary evidence on subsequent assaults is not so great and Arthur Bell’s notes and interview reflect this pattern. However, the Official History, Battalion War Diary and some vivid documents help provide an account of the Pals in subsequent battles. Private Albert Hurst’s recording provides a first-hand account of the day. 2nd Lieutenant Alan Holt also provided some eye-witness explanation of the subsequent Battalion action in his letters home to his mother. He was not held back for this assault.
One week after the Montauban assault, the 17th Manchesters were ordered to the front. On the 7th July, the remaining 20 Officers and 430 Other Ranks of the Battalion had been ordered to gather together bombs and equipment, so they could be ready to move at a moment’s notice. The Official History records vile weather conditions and the troops being flooded out of their bivouacs. In mid afternoon on the 8th July, the Battalion moved close their former assembly trenches next to Cambridge Copse, arriving at 5pm. Major Whitehead was in command. At 9pm he received his Orders for the Battalion to attack Trones Wood at 3am. This was subsequently revised to 5.30am.
2nd Lieutenant Holt wrote “We got half an hour’s notice to move about 2 miles behind the line which we did and spent the night there in the open.”
At 1am on 9th July, the Battalion moved forward with guides from the 2nd Yorkshire Regiment (2nd Yorks) to Glatz Redoubt, following a similar path from 1st July. The men were subsequently moved over country to the Briqueterie. At 5.40am the location of the Battalion was then found to be wrong, due the guides mistakenly taking 17th Battalion to the 16th positions. At 6.10am the Battalion moved to their correct position south of Bernafay Wood. The War Diary notes the men “…formed up under cover of road, clear of S.E. corner of wood, facing N.E.”
Private William Speakman recounted. “We marched to the line during the night and found ourselves in a long communication trench. I reckon it was just before dawn and quite dark when the Germans started to shell us with gas shells. At that time, we had the old gas masks made of grey material with two round pieces of glass to see through, but soon got steamed up and a rubber tube to put in our mouths to breathe. We had the gas mask on quite a long time and, in some cases affected the skin on some of the chaps’ faces. Just before day break, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I was given an enamel cup which I was told to drink. To my surprise, it was rum. This was the first time I had tasted alcohol. The Germans must have sent quite a lot of gas shells because we were all thirsty. But the next thing we heard was the whistle for us to go over the top – it was terrible.” (JH)
Some years after the assault, Private Albert Hurst 9311 of the 17th Battalion’s B Company, took part in an interview concerning the Somme battles, including Trones Wood. The recording is now held in the Imperial War Museum. Albert recounted.
“About two o’clock [06.00] on Sunday morning, we got into position in Bernafay Wood, facing Trones Wood. We had to take up a position in a trench occupied by about thirty dead South Africans, who’d been caught by enfilade fire. We could see dead men in the open ground between Bernafay and Trones Wood, from a previous attack. Our objective was to take a trench in Trones Wood.”
The 2nd South African Infantry Regiment (SAI) had relieved two battalions of the 27th Brigade in Bernafay Wood. The trench was probably Trones Alley; leading from Bernafay Wood to Trones and close the road where Albert Hurst and the Manchesters were held prior to the attack. The 2nd SAI had incurred over two hundred casualties in the process. Commonwealth War Graves identify twelve men having died from the Battalion on the 8th July; the majority of whom are commemorated at Thiepval. It is possible other South African troops took part in the defence of Bernafay at this time, suffering the fate recorded by Albert Hurst.
The bodies of men in the open ground between the woods may have been troops of the 2nd Yorks, or 2nd Wiltshires of 21st Brigade. These Battalions had made assaults on Trones Wood from Bernafay on the previous day; supported by 18th and 19th Manchester Battalions. Ultimately, a detachment of the 2nd Wilts. had secured the southern end of the Wood by the night of the 8th July, alongside men from the 18th Manchesters. The War Diary noted the men of the 18th Manchesters supporting the advance.
The 17th Bttn War Diary notes the assault on Trones Wood commenced at 6.40am “…the railway line forming the general line of direction.” on a north easterly route. The Manchesters advanced out of Bernafay Wood, either side of the railway track. This route had been selected to take advantage of the contours of the land, enabling the advance to be slightly hidden from the German artillery at Longueval. For the majority of the assault, German shelling was reported as relatively light. B and D Companies led the assault in artillery formation; with A and C Companies in support. The Official History recounts the German machine guns were not in use for the first 200 yards of the advance “…the enemy apparently not expecting an attack. This supposition was probably strengthened by the fact it was now 6-40 a.m. and a bright summer morning.
Albert Hurst continued “As we attacked, a German machine gun was firing at us from further up Trones Wood, but we seemed to have a charmed life; none of us were hit, as far as I could see. Before we got very far, one of our shells got there and killed the machine-gun team.”
Lieutenant Leslie Humphrey was one of the B Company officers. His letter on 14th July (IWM P210) recounted a little more opposition.“…We got to the starting place and managed to get about a hundred yards without being spotted; as soon as they saw us their artillery got going, also a machine gun. We went on…without losing very heavily. There was a little hand to hand fighting, and then we cleared the wood.”
Albert Hurst continued “Trones Wood was still a wood – it had been behind the lines and the trees were still profuse. As we were moving across, we heard cheers coming from the bottom of the wood, which we concluded came from our 16th [Probably 18th] battalion. “
The men arrived at Trones Wood, with the right flank of the Battalion entering at the western most corner close to the point where a German trench known as Trones Alley joined the Wood as a defensive position that led back to Bernafay Wood. The men made contact with the 18th Battalion to their right in the south east section of the wood. It is most likely Albert heard cheers from the men of the 18th Battalion welcoming the 17th Manchesters or 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers who had assaulted from the south.
By 7.15 the left hand Companies came under heavy shellfire from the north as they rushed the enemy trench, which was an irregular shallow trench along the western edge of the wood. There were few casualties.
Albert Hurst reported problems with the dense woodland. “Once we were in the wood, the problem was keeping in touch with each other, through the trees and undergrowth.” The War Diary notes that the right hand companies took a half wheel to the left. They then worked their way northwards up the wood. Central Trench and the dugouts to the north were assaulted “…without difficulty by bombing…” and control was taken of the majority of the wood by 8.00am.
Defensive positions were then taken along the perimeter of the wood facing the German positions. Learning from their experience in Montauban, on the previous week, the men found the opportunity to seek further water and rations from the dead soldiers around them.
A Company was detailed to link up with a South African Company, holding the western half of Longueval Trench between the north east of Bernafray Wood and north west of Trones Wood. Lieutenant Callum Macardle who was Officer in Command of A Company is reported to have led the reconnaissance to Longueval trench. No South Africans were found, but instead they encountered a small party of the enemy “:Killed and Captured a few Germans” who were then reinforced. Lieutenant Callum Macardle and the six men returned safely. The 2nd South African Infantry holding Bernafay Wood had no information on the detachment missing from Longueval Trench.
From the descriptions available, it seems Albert Hurst’s Lewis Gun section were located at the lower end of Central Trench, to the south of the junction of the T, where Trones Alley joined it. It is likely that they were charged with defending the Battalion HQ, further up Central Trench – although Albert Hurst had not been aware of this tactical objective.
He recounted “We arrived at a T-shaped trench in the middle of the wood that had been abandoned by the Germans. We all agreed that this must be our objective, so we stopped. I thought we should have carried on to the edge of the wood. We could have gone further. It seemed like a daft position to take up, but we mounted our machine gun and stayed there. We stuck in the position that we’d been allotted to – and that was it!”
Soon after midday, the German artillery began a systematic 5’9 bombardment of the wood. Crashing timbers, flying splinters and clouds of cordite ridden dust tumbled around the men. They stumbled around, seeking any form of cover in this “..absolute inferno.”
The Official History states that the Battalion was fired on by hostile artillery fire from the north, north east and east. The strongest fire was from the north and east and was described as “terrific”. One officer wrote: “It seemed as if every gun in the sector had been switched on to this one small area”.
Albert Hurst faced this peril “Now, somebody had sent me some chocolate and I stood up to hand it out to the others. Just then, a shrapnel shell burst and it hit everybody except one of us. I got shrapnel in my foot. No one was badly wounded. We’d been ever so lucky, but the only chap who wasn’t injured was too shocked to bandage us up. We started to make our way back through the wood, to a dressing station.”
Recognising the number of casualties, limited communication and vulnerability from the northern end of the wood, the order was given to withdraw at 3 pm. The War Diary records “O.C. finding his right flank in the air (NB O.C. 18 Manch R states that his company had withdrawn) oreered a withdrawal…” This was carried out along Trones Alley, retiring to Bernafay Wood
Regrettably, a group of forty men from A and B Companies did not receive the order to withdraw and they were left behind to face the prospect of German counter-attack. The only survivor from the northern part of the wood was Sergeant Bingham, and he was wounded. The denseness of the wood made it awkward to reorganise the various Companies as they were scattered over a distance of about half a mile, making communication and movement in the fallen timber and thick undergrowth almost impossible.
As the evacuation was carried out, the Germans attacked in force at 4.15pm and quickly occupied the entire wood cutting of the detachments of A and B Companies at the North West edge of the wood. The men held out for as long as was possible they were eventually bombed out. A few men tried to escape across the open but were cut down by the enemy. None returned. All were either killed or captured.
Further south, confusion reigned. The 18th Manchesters had also partly withdrawn, leaving groups isolated in the wood. Private Paddy Kennedy of the 18th Battalion, found himself and a Lance-Corporal captured by a group of thirty Germans. Moving to the edge of the wood, the group then came across the 2nd RSF and Paddy made his escape; joining his 90th Brigade, Scots colleagues. The bombardment continued and Paddy was knocked out by a shell burst that killed two of the RSF men.
The War Diary continues “Finding the trench on E edge of Bernafray Wood congested, half of the Battalion was sent to Sunken Road – O.C. informed Brigadier that losses had compelled him to withdraw. Fearful shelling on E edge of Bernafray Wood. The other half was sent, on initiative of O.C. to Glatz Redoubt with orders to report to Officer Commanding on the spot.”
The withdrawal was completed by 5pm. At about 5.30, the Commanding Officer of the 17th [Major J J Whitehead] was “…blown over by shell, burst in back & leg: carried on for a bit in command.”
At 6pm the Battalion OC was back in the south east corner of Montauban village near Strong Point B. Brigade Orders were received to re-occupy Trones Alley, between Bernafray and Trones Woods and return to Trones Wood. The O.C. sent a message to the Brigade Commander explaining the situation and took no action to comply with the order.
At this point, Major Whitehead ordered Lieutenant Whittall to take command of the Battalion. He went to see Brigade Commander, who cancelled his former order. Instead, Lieutenant Whittall was ordered to collect the whole Battalion at Sunken Road. The Battalion spent all of 10 July in the sunken lane east of the Briqueterie.
A draft of 10 Other Ranks joined the Battalion.
2nd Lieutenant Alan Holt wrote “…we were forced to withdraw to a new position about 1,000 yards back owing to our heavy casualties. Here we spent the night and next day, waiting to give the Boche something if he tried to push through to the south of the wood. Our new position was a road about 10 feet below the level of the fields each side. We dug holes for ourselves in the bank so as to get a little protection from the almost ceaseless hail of shrapnel.” (JH)
At 01.00 am on 11th July, the Battalion was ordered forward to support the 16th Battalion at the eastern edge of the Sunken Road; south of Trones Wood, near Maltz Horn Trench. The Officer Commanding 16th Battalion then ordered them forward to relieve South African troops in a trench [probably Maltz Horn] 150 yards from southern end of Trones. “Only 110 men were now present …”
Alan Holt wrote “At 12 o’clock [1 am] that night I was ordered to take fifty men forward and occupy a trench 40 yards south of the wood which was then occupied by Germans. It was like it was going to be certain death for every one of us, but we held the trench for three hours before I got a message to retire, which I did, but not without being seen by the enemy, who followed us with a hail of shell. On my way back, I met lines of fresh attacking troops who passed through my line and drove the Germans out again.”
Acting O.C. Lieutenant Whittall had also gone forward. On reaching the trench, he found the South Africans had already been relieved, so left Alan Holt in Command and returned to Advanced Brigade HQ in the Sunken Road for information.
A Brigade order to withdraw the Battalion from the front line was issued to Lieutenant Whittall at 2.35am. It read “At 3am, you will withdraw your men to a distance of 200 yards south of the south edge of Trones Wood and lie down in the open. The men will remain there until they get an officer’s order to retire to the Sunken Road” withdrawal taking place in stages. “They will then be formed up there and march back to their trench area in Maricourt reporting to the Staff Captain at Chateau Keep.” They initially regrouped to the east of Machine Gun Wood at 04.00am.
Lieutenant Frederick Whittall received a Military Cross for the Trones Wood action. The citation reads “For conspicuous gallantry in action. He led his company with great dash and, for 24 hours, under heavy shellfire, occupied and improved a line of trenches. On two previous occasions, he had displayed great courage in action.”
At some stage during the time that attempts were made to relieve the South Africans, Company Sergeant Major Charles Johnson had suffered multiple wounds to his left foot, face, hands and thigh. It is anticipated some returning troops passed the message to the 17th Manchesters, while they waited for orders. As a
respected Warrant Officer, the decision was made to recover CSM Johnson. Arthur Bell’s recollections can now return.
“The alphabet now brings us to Volunteers. “Who will volunteer to bring back Sergt. Major “J” (8196 Johnson) – this was Lieut. Jockey M. (Miller) outside Trones Wood one day. How many hands out of about twenty men? Not one. Is there anyone here in my platoon? One hand – mine. Right, so we set off along the trenches. He has the revolver at the ready, and I have the stretcher. There’s not too much shelling from either side, quite a number of German soldiers offering no resistance –perhaps hoping we would take them back with us. The Lieutenant must have known where to look, for we got to the Sergt. Major without much trouble. He was quite unconscious, hit in the face an elsewhere. Nearby were some South African soldiers and one of them volunteered to help to carry the S.M. back to our lines. He – the S.M – was a very heavy man. My puttees provided a means of taking some of the weight from the hands to the shoulders. We went back over the top via the Briqueterie and the Sunken Road. The Jerry gunners were dropping two or three a minute at one point there. My ears rang more than a bit, I’ll say. By and by we got to a field ambulance, and Lieut. M. (Miller) was congratulated on his good work – the acting Colonel was there, I think.”
The Battalion had been relieved by 55th Brigade. In groups of fifty men they moved from Machine Gun Wood to Bronfay Farm and then Bois Celestine where the exhausted men arrived at 8pm. There had been a loss of 10 officers and 196 other ranks, of whom forty were fatalities. Many prisoners had been taken by the Germans, although it took many months for families to distinguish the men killed in action, from those taken prisoner. A draft of 196 Other Ranks joined the Battalion.
In his letter home written on 12th July, 2nd Lieutenant Alan Holt had lost the enthusiasm shown in his earlier letter written after the Montauban assault. He described the attack as going through the biggest experience of his life “I am thankful to say that I am one of the ten remaining officers out of twenty who went into it… The dear old Regiment is now a mere handful, but it has made itself famous. To me now, everything seems like an impossible nightmare…How I wish I had a “Blighty”.
The Battalion War Diary provides insightful reflection in the notations headed “Morale etc – Men much shaken by artillery fire. Declare that it was much worse than the attack on MONTAUBAN on 1 July.” The notes record the withdrawal of the dressing station from Bricqueterie to Glatz Redoubt, a smashed Lewis Gun. The limited communication by pigeon was also recounted including the question “OC Battn would like to know if they [pigeons] reached their destination” with the message to silence the onslaught of hostile artillery.
Private 8899 recounted the assault, withdrawal and aftermath from Trones Wood in his letter home on 12 July.
On Saturday at noon we were moved up to the line again at a moment’s notice and very much to our surprise our battalion was ordered over the top to attack a wood to the right of the village we captured the previous week-end. We went over at 7-30 on Sunday morning and took the wood. Our Battalion stuck there till 3-0 p.m. when another lot took over from us and we went into the support trench – those few of us who were left. We had a terrible time – worse than the previous week-end. I really can’t write about it. Poor Frank Rigby met a terrible death, but was brave to the end. I wasn’t with him at the time. I had left him a short time before to have my shoulder dressed. I was hit by a shell splinter and the force of it brought me to my knees. My tunic was ripped but I was fortunate enough to escape with a scar and badly bruised shoulder. It is nothing to speak of. I am carrying on as usual. We were relieved on Tuesday morning and are now several miles from the line in the wood where I met the Battalion when I returned from leave. I think we go further back to-morrow. We have had a terrible knocking about and are not likely to see any more fighting for a bit. If you remember I told you in a letter a week or two ago that Frank Rigby, another lad and myself had chips together at a house in ——. Whilst we were having them arranged to have a right do after the battle. I am the only survivor, the other two having been killed. (Credit CPGW)
On 12th July a further draft of 438 N.C.O’s and men were received to fill the ranks of the depleted Battalion. The next day they moved into billets at Daours and Vecquemont where it reorganised itself.
Further drafts of 109 and 135 men was received on 14th & 16th July respectivley. Some of the new men were Manchester men, but many had joined from other parts of the country. The character of the Pals unit had disappeared. As predicted by the General in 1914, the war had ‘knocked Manchester out’ of the Battalion.
Private A.E. Hall recounted (in the book The First Day on the Somme) “The battalion was then re-organised and brought up to strength from all sources and so ended the era of a battalion composed of the “Clerks and Warehousemen of Manchester”, who so eagerly enlisted early in September 1914. It was never again a “Manchester City Battalion.”
Profiles of the NCOs and men that died at Trones Wood are here Trones Wood Losses. The Battalion had lost numerous original Pals as fatalities, Prisoners of War and men who were wounded. At some stage in Mid July 1916, Arthur Bell attended a speech by 30th Division CO.
“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)
90th Brigade War Diary includes a summary of the speech by Major General Shea. For further precis see What no cheers!
“…I take this…opportunity of expressing my thanks…and my pride. You were asked to take Montauban and you took it. You were asked to take Trones Wood and you took it.
I sent you into the first action an untried Brigade. You came out of it with, what is most dear to a soldier, a good name and a reputation…the Corps Commander says that he cannot…do without you and the Commander of the Fourth Army has promised me faithfully that he will send us into the fight again. This is the highest compliment which could be paid to you as soldiers.
…How the 16th and 17th Manchesters … took Montauban and held it, ….I told the Commander of the Fourth Army yesterday that is he wanted any place taken and held, we, the 30th Division, would take it and hold it...”
Records of injuries for men in the War are very limited, as Service Records were burned, following bombing of the store at Kew in 1940. It is safe to assume many men were wounded in the assaults on Montauban, Trones Wood and subsequent action. One fortunate exception are the records of 8396 Henry Brumfitt, who’s record provided an earlier example of disciplinary action for misdemeanours; particularly being Confined to Barracks.
20 year old, former warehouseman, Henry Brumfitt was wounded at Trones Wood and admitted to the 2nd Australian general hospital at Wimeraux with shell shock. He was invalided home on 11th July. Following recovery, Harry continued his service. This will be recounted later.
In the assaults at Montauban or Trones Wood, records indicate 8604 Frank Hoyle was wounded and shell shocked. Frank had been promoted to Corporal by July 1916. He had enlisted in September 1914, aged 22 having worked with Louis Linney at Haslams and living with his parents James and Emma at 93 Church Street, Farnworth. After transfer to hospital in Leicester, Corporal Hoyle continued his service in Britain.
Private Joseph Leach 8706 was also wounded at Trones Wood, with injuries in the head and back. Joseph was a resident of 42 Garden Street, Ardwick.
On 27th July 1916 Albert Kendrick’s step-mother in Rusholme received Army Form B. 104 – 82, advising that Albert had been killed in action on 10th July. Albert was in A Company and was probably being held in Dulman Camp. There must have been considerable relief when his family heard of his wellbeing, from the Red Cross, three months later. Albert returned to Manchester in December 1918, where he went on to live in Fallowfield. He died at the relatively young age of thirty three, possibly linked to shell shock.
Albert Hurst 9311 provided much of our commentary from his role as one of B Company’s machine gunners. Albert was a former public school boy and son of a solicitor from Ashton. Following his wounding, he was evacuated to a series of British hospitals. He then continued his service while working for his original employer, National Oil and Gas Engine Company, before being discharged in December 1918.
CSM 8196 Charles Roland Johnson was 22 when he joined the Pals in September 1914. He had been promoted to Sergeant, soon after enlistment and become CQMS of C Company in March 1915. He became CSM in October 1915. CSM Johnson presumably transferred to A Company after the Montauban assault; or Lieutenant Miller was supporting his colleagues from C Company by rescuing their Sergeant Major. Charles Johnson had been employed as a printed cloth salesman at Tootal, Broadhurst & Lee before the war.
Following transfer to Norwich war hospital Charles eventually recovered from wounds to his left foot, face, hands and thigh. He was discharged in February 1918 and convalesced in Weston-Super-Mare – with his parents Thomas and Mary Johnson – prior to returning to Manchester. Arthur Bell recounted a strained meeting with Charles Johnson.
“I met Mr. J., the former S.M., at a re-union in Manchester – had seen him many times hobbling about outside his firm’s premises – but on this occasion I asked if he was glad to be alive – got no reply, and was too shy to tell him I took part in his rescue. I should not be surprised if the South African soldier had written to him.”
2nd Lieutenant Miller was killed in later action. His Obituary in the Glenalmond Chronicle provides a little more information. ‘In his [Ralph Miller’s] last letter home he enclosed a very touching letter from the father of his Sergeant-Major, who wrote to thank him for saving his son from certain death after he had lain helpless in “No Man’s Land.” In it the writer [Thomas Johnson] says: “We do want to tell you, for him and for ourselves, that your name will be often on our lips and always in our hearts. Thanks are poor, inadequate things for such service as you have rendered us, but we feel that the circumstances entitle us at least to count ourselves among those who are privileged to pray that you may go through safely and be restored to your own people whole and sound.’ (Courtesy Glenalmond College)
Ralph Miller was killed in the preparation on the assault on Guillemont on the night 29th July. One may hope his parents will have received their son’s last letter before they found he would not be restored whole and sound as hoped by Thomas Johnson.
The diary of Walter Giddy provides a record a private in the 2nd South African Infantry. Walter, Arthur Geoghan and Vernon Edkins were at Bernafay Wood and helped recover wounded men. It is quite possible Vernon Edkins helped carry CSM Johnson’s stretcher. South African Infantry helping Manchesters at Trones Wood | 17th Manchester Regiment on the Somme