Both sides of the story
American researcher Ralph J. Whitehead has immersed himself in the history of the German troops who served on the Somme front from their arrival in the area in 1914. His knowledge of the ‘German side of no-man’s land’ is widely respected. Des Blackadder, a keen amateur from Northern Ireland, recounts the story from the viewpoint of the 12th Royal Irish Rifles, serving with 108 Brigade in the 36th Ulster Division.
The defenders and their defences
Ralph J. Whitehead
German soldiers had come to the Somme region in late September 1914 with the arrival of the units of the XIV Reserve Corps. Men from Württemberg and Baden comprised the bulk of the troops fighting in the corps fought at places that have become well known to many: Fricourt, La Boisselle, Ovillers, Thiepval, Beaumont-Hamel etc.
The German army settled in to the newly captured territory and started to erect entrenchments and defensive works, they were here to stay. Over the next 21 months the German lines took form and expanded in size. What had once been a single trench in 1914 eventually consisted of a series of positions containing up to three trenches each covered in dense belts of barbed wire.
The River Ancre caused an interruption in the German defensive system. Although little more than a large shallow stream, sluggish and bordered by swampy ground, it was still vitally important ground. It formed a natural break in the continuous German lines. Every attempt was made by the German army to protect this vulnerable location, as did the French, followed later by the British.
When the opening bombardment started on 24 June those defending the German positions on the northern bank of the Ancre were men from the I Battalion, 119th Reserve Infanterie Regiment . The four companies of the I Battalion, Nos. 1-4, were positioned in Sectors B5, B6 and B7 of the Beaumont Sector. It was normal to position three companies in the front line trenches while the fourth was held nearby in reserve.
The extensive trench system occupied by the I Battalion had been created by several regiments including men from the 99th Reserve Infanterie Regiment that had a large number of miners in the rank and file.
The I Line consisted of three rows of trenches connected to one another through a series of communication trenches. Because of the unusual situation posed by the Ancre a series of trenches had been created running parallel to the river up toward Beaucourt as well as across the swampy low ground along the river. One of these defensive locations had been given the name ‘Beaver Colony' (Biber Kolonie) due to the manner in which the position was created above ground. Entrenching was impossible due to the high ground water level along the marshy banks of the river, an occurrence usually associated with the trenches in Flanders. The front line was extended toward the swampy Ancre ground as far as possible through a trench known as the Tal Stellung, literally the Valley position.
The Tal Stellung was also extended to the north running parallel to the railway line much of this position was constructed above ground in the manner of the Beaver Colony.
The trenches were well constructed and equipped with numerous deep dugouts, especially those along the steep hills lining the riverbank. Each trench was protected by dense, wide belts of wire entanglements designed to direct any enemy attacker into the field of fire of the regimental machine guns positioned at intervals along the line. The machine guns were placed in positions where the maximum effect of the gun could be exploited, usually a spot where flanking fire could be directed against any enemy attack.
The dugouts and tunnels driven into the hillside along the Ancre were of unusual depth and in most cases impervious to even the heaviest British shell. The majority of the men sheltering inside them, deep underground, would be safe and ready to repel any attack made against their line.
Above: Modern day view from St. Pierre Divion towards the north bank of the Ancre. The red circle indicates German lines - a white lightning flash of chalk in the soil. This gives a good perspective of the battlefield at this point. The Ulstermen attacked from the left side of the picture.
The trench map above kindly provided by 'Croonaert' from the Great War Forum.
The sectors held by the I Battalion, 119th Reserve were protected by three machine guns from the 2nd Machine Gun Company, the remainder of the guns were positioned near Sector Beaumont-North. The 1st machine Gun Company had been sent to the opposite bank of the river and during the attack on 1 July would be occupied with the attacks against the Schwaben Redoubt and the village of Thiepval.
One of the three machine guns located in Sector Beaumont-South was forced to relocate after British artillery fire had damaged the dugout being used by the gun crew. The new location located in the second line was better suited for use as flanking fire against targets south of the river leaving the sector only two heavy machine guns when the attack came.
Additional reserves were stationed in the vicinity in the form of the 2nd Recruit Company, men who were in the final stages of training before being integrated into the line companies. The recruit company was positioned in Feste Alt Württemberg, a strongpoint on the outskirts of Beaucourt behind Sector Beaumont-South.
Each battalion had an average strength of 850 men, each company averaged 210 – 215 officers and men. This would mean that the front line trenches of Sector Beaumont-South would be protected by approximately 650 men.
During the 7 days bombardment, 24 – 30 June 1916 the positions of the I Battalion were heavily damaged by artillery fire and many trenches were almost leveled, wire entanglements were damaged and a number of dugouts collapsed or were heavily damaged but overall losses were small: 1st Coy 1 man killed, 5 men died from wounds, 2nd Coy 5 men killed, 2 men died from wounds, 3rd Coy none killed, 4th Coy 3 men killed, 2nd MG Coy 1 man killed, 1 man died from wounds with approximately 45 men wounded; some so slightly that they remained with the regiment and were ready to receive the attack on 1 July with their comrades.
The opening day of the bombardment consisted mainly of shrapnel, which was used against the front line trenches. This caused little damage and virtually no losses. However, in the evening heavier guns shelled the routes leading to the rear making any journey extremely dangerous. The soldiers in the front line dug-outs had to tighten their belts as supply columns were often forced to return to base because the ferocity of the shelling.
By 25 June heavy shells mixed with shrapnel, were directed against dugouts, which were being spotted by enemy aircraft, which enjoyed almost total superiority over the sector. This time, damage to the lines was more serious and some losses, mainly trench sentries and carrying parties, had been incurred.
The third day of the bombardment, 26 June, began with a similar fire pattern but between 3 and 4 p.m. gas clouds were sent against Beaumont-South. The fumes came up to the ravine in no man's land but the gas drifted toward the Ancre, never reaching the German trenches. Leiling Schlucht and Beaumont-North were subjected to the heaviest fire during this 24 hour period.
British raids against line held by 2nd Coy early in the morning of 28 June were repulsed by heavy defensive fire from the trench garrison.
Meanwhile, the artillery bombardment continued, causing more damage to the trenches and once again gas was used to little or no effect. Two further raids against the 2nd Coy, in the early hours of both 29th and 30th June, were repulsed with heavy fire.
By the final hours of the bombardment, the position looked dreadful with much of the wire destroyed by shrapnel and spherical mines. Many of the trenches resembled a crater line, half buried holes marked the entrances to dugouts. The road leading toward the railway station was littered with shattered wagons, dead horses, scattered material, fallen branches and trees.
However, night after night transports still made the trip to the front suffering losses each time.
Despite the shelling, the German soldiers kept a constant vigil along front. Sentries were well aware that an attack could come at any moment. Many stayed in the relative safety of dugout stairwells but they would routinely pop up to look out over no man's land. Others used mirrors on the rear trench wall that provided a view toward the enemy lines.
Keeping this vigil was a dangerous occupation and losses amongst the observers grew steadily.
It was a testament to the effectiveness of the German defenses that the entire regiment had lost just 20 killed and less than 100 men wounded in the preliminary bombardment. These losses were minimal considering the weight of shells and shrapnel fired at the German lines.
Repelling the infantry attack
Intelligence reports obtained through ‘Moritz' listening stations indicated that the long-awaited British attack would take place on 1 July and all commands were duly notified. Many of the telephone lines were intact and communication to the batteries in the rear was secure.
To the eye of any German officer, this section of front may well have been battered but it was far from broken and the unit commander must have regarded his situation with some confidence.
At 6.30 on 1 July, the bombardment rose to an intensity few had experienced before. Smoke and dust filled the air as the ‘hurricane’ barrage tore into the German front line.
‘This was the attack. Everyone sensed it. Everything was made ready for battle, everything was strapped on, the rifles were grasped and hand grenades were in the right place. The officers and Other Ranks waited on the stairways and in the dugouts, ready to take up the defense at the moment the enemy fire was transferred to the rear.
Shortly before 8 o'clock it suddenly grew quiet at Beaumont-South. The English came out of their trenches in dense waves and climbed down walking into the hollow and up the hillside. In seconds the trench garrison was alerted, the positions were occupied and they opened fire. Calls were made to the artillery through the existing telephone lines, red light balls were also launched requesting barrage fire from the field guns and light howitzers located in the rear.
(Although the German defenders were facing soldiers of the Ulster Division, it mattered little to them ... the British soldier was collectively known as ‘English’ amongst the Kaiser’s troops.)
‘The infantry and machine guns mowed the attackers down so that the attackers soon hesitated and threw themselves down."
The English were successful in penetrating individual places of the front line trench only in Sector B5. However the garrison of the 2nd trench, running parallel to the 1st trench, attacked them frontally and threw them out. They captured two Lewis guns that had already been brought into position. Some of the men were probably familiar with the operation of the Lewis Gun and could put them to use against their former owners.
The enemy was also able to penetrate into the Ancre ground and into the Tal Stellung in front of the transverse tunnel gallery. The opposing sides became involved in a hand grenade fight that was swiftly decided in favor of the German garrison. The survivors of the first attack now took up positions in shell holes close in front of the German line and started a firefight while new attack waves broke forth.
The new waves came under heavy artillery fire and the English ranks were soon brought into disorder. Everyone looked for protection in the hollow that ran toward the Ancre stream, now the fire from the erdmörsers struck them down. The erdmörsers fired a 24.5cm shell constructed of sheet iron and weighing 24 kilograms, 12 of which was the explosive charge. The effect of the exploding shells was devastating to the Ulstermen. Finally, the survivors withdrew back to their starting point. At 10 o'clock the attack upon the I Battalion was finished.
Machine Gun details: 2nd machine Gun Company.
Gun no. 7
Position: In front line overlooking the ground between Mary Redan and William Redan in the village of Hamel. The ravine was the only dead ground in front of this gun, otherwise a good field of fire.
Unteroffizier Kaeser, Gun commander
Gefreiter Leuze, gun layer
Schütze Vogt (killed)
At 7 a.m. a smoke screen was formed in front of the gun position. The gun crew observed the British lines by use of a mirror placed on the rear trench wall that allowed a view over no man's land. The gun crew made periodic checks from this mirror to see when the attack started. During one such viewing Schütze Vogt was killed by a shell.
(Vogt, Baptist Schütze 2 M.G. Co. from Arnach, Waldsee)
The commencement of the attack was clearly observed, the gun was taken out of the dugout, placed into position and made ready to fire, all within a few brief minutes. The gun opened fire on the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers before this battalion had time to enter the steep valley between the two positions. There was still artillery fire on the German lines at this point and after 280 rounds had been fired a shell exploded in front of the position, burying the gun and wounding the gun layer Gefreiter Leuze. His wound was slight and he remained with the regiment.
(Leuze, Ludwig, Gefreiter, 2 M.G. Co. from Eningen, Reutlingen)
The gun was quickly restored and opened fire once again as the enemy appeared on the near side of the valley. The gun continued to fire until the attack was over.
Total ammunition expenditure: 2,500 rounds.
Gun no. 8, positioned some 500 yards north of Hamel in German front line.
Schütze Manz, Gun commander
The dugout in the first line containing the gun was destroyed in the shelling. The gun was moved to the second line. Heavy artillery fire prevented the gun from being used against targets on the north side of the Ancre, instead the gun was directed toward the south bank, the 99th RIR sector and the enemy attacking in front of St. Pierre-Divion at a range of 1,500 meters. The gun fired into the flank of the Ulster Division the entire day.
Ammunition consumption: 3,000 rounds.
Gun no. 9, located in the German second line north of Gun no. 7.
Unteroffizier Huss, Gun commander
Schütze Gess, gun layer
Schütze Bäzner (killed)
The gun crew was alarmed by a trench sentry once the attack was started. The gun was brought up from the dugout and set up in position and opened fire. The gun was also subject to artillery fire and one shell splinter ripped open the skull of Schütze Bäzner.
(Gustav Bäzner, 2nd M.G. Co. from Petersmühle, Nagold)
He was removed to the dugout and he later died from his wound on 1 July. A second shell exploded in front of the gun but did not disrupt its operation. The only interruption in firing was caused by a burst cartridge. The obstruction was quickly cleared and the gun opened fire again. It was used against all worthwhile targets.
Ammunition consumption unknown, Approximately 2,500-3,000 rounds estimated.
Above: A German magazine printed this 1916 picture of the vantage point the defenders had from St.Pierre Divion. It is taken from almost the same spot as the colour picture already published.
Artillery support came primarily from obsolete 9cm guns, modern 7.7cm field guns and 10.5cm light field howitzers and minenwerfer. Additional support was provided by 15cm heavy field howitzers and 21cm howitzers.
In the event of a full-scale enemy attack the field guns and light field howitzers would direct barrage fire upon the enemy front line trenches thereby forming a nearly impassable barrier to fresh waves of enemy troops while the heavier howitzers would fire upon enemy assembly trenches and rear areas. The artillery batteries had practiced for this possibility many times in the past months and were fully prepared to support the infantry in the critical hour of the attack. Large stocks of ammunition were at hand, the artillerymen were ready.
Accounts from the British side of the lines, which we are about to examine, continually refer to the accuracy and ferocity of the MG fire directed against them during the attack. It is now clear that just two German gun teams had the ability to fire into the ranks of the Ulster Division troops in this sector. The German army held their machine gunners in high esteem and expected nothing but the highest courage and weapons skills from them. On this day, the crews commanded by Unteroffizier Huss and Unteroffizier Kaeser lived up to this demanding standard.
The attackers - Des Blackadder
Facing the German defenders were two service battalions of the 36th (Ulster) Division. Essentially, this is the story of how they were almost annihilated as they tried to advance against the positions held by the 119th Reserve Infanterie.
While their comrades south of the Ancre were storming their way into the Schwaben Redoubt and into history, the 12th Royal Irish Rifles (Central Antrims) and the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers (Armagh,Cavan and Monaghans) took part in an attack which was short in duration and horrendous in its consequences for many Ulster homes.
The 12th Rifles and the 9th Fusiliers were fighting a separate action from the remainder of the Division and indeed of their own 108th Brigade. They were no less brave than their more successful comrades who attacked from Thiepval Wood. Indeed, they demonstrated their courage when they reformed no less than three times under heavy fire and made desperate but doomed attempts to break into the German trench systems facing them.
Much has been written about July 1 and the Ulster Division. Most of it has been culled from newspaper accounts, which played up the jingoistic spirit of the time. Another historical resource which has been used time and again is Captain Cyril Falls' 'History of the Ulster Division'.
But for a cold, objective military view of what happened in just a few minutes after zero hour, there can be few better research sources than the actual report of the 12th Rifles commanding officer, Lt. Col. G. Bull.
It was written on 8th July, five days after the Ulster Division had been relieved from the Somme front. It is remarkable not only for its historical accuracy but also for the matter-of-fact nature of the writing.
For Col. Bull, the destruction of his battalion for no success whatsoever must have been heartbreaking. Yet he takes up his pen and writes a cold, hard chronicle of the tragedy. It has proved interesting to compare Bull's account which matches almost perfectly the report of the action compiled from the other side of no-man's land.
12th (S) Bn. Royal Irish Rifles 1st July 1916.
The bombardment, which had lasted seven days without ceasing reached its climax at 6-25 a.m. on the morning of the 1st July, and from 6-25 a.m. until 7-30 a.m. the German trenches were treated to a perfect hurricane of shells. Analysis: It is now clear that despite the ferocity of this bombardment, only minimal casualties were inflicted on the German 119th Res. Btn.
The companies, who had already been in the trenches (Hamel Sub- Sector) two days, were in the following order: - 'B' Company had one platoon (No. 8) on the right made responsible for the marsh.Location: The marsh referred to was the swampy ground beside the River Ancre. It is clearly marked on trench maps.
Immediately on its left was another platoon (No. 6) responsible for the Railway Sap.Location: The Railway Sap (most likely the Tal Stellung) was a German out-post trench close to the railway line which ran parallel to the River Ancre.)
The other two platoons of 'B' Coy. were in support behind the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers. The 9th Bn. Royal Ir. Fus. were in between 'B' Coy. and 'C' Coy.
'C' Coy. Being on their immediate left.
'C' Coy. had 'D' Coy. on its left and 'A' Coy. was on the left of 'D' Coy.
Starting from platoon on the right, the attack, as far as it has been possible to gather from the information of eye witnesses remaining went as follows:-RIGHT PLATOON
During the last ten minutes or so of the intense bombardment, No. 8 Platoon under. Sergt. Hoare left the Crow's Nest (a 'forming up point in the British trenches) and lay outside their own wire.
At zero, and under cover of the barrage of smoke put up by the Trench Mortar Officer they commenced the advance. This platoon was divided into three parts, one under Sergt. Hamilton who went to the left, one under Sergt. Bennison who went to the right and one under Sergt. Hoare who remained in the centre. (German accounts clearly mention the use of smoke).
This platoon was very heavily shelled going out and while out were under very heavy machine-gun fire from both right and left, and Sergt. Hoare's party soon all became casualties.(Confirmation of the shelling is found in German accounts which relate how barrage fire was called for by telephone and red light balls. The shelling started almost immediately. )
The left party under Sergt. Hamilton also suffered very heavily but he managed to get into the German Sap with three or four men, but owing to the heavy machine-gun fire were unable to remain and had to leave the Sap.
On the right Sergt. Bennison was killed and this party with its Lewis Gun came under very heavy Machine-gun fire from the right and were unable to get forward at all. The casualties were heavy, and Sergt. Hoare sent back a man to Lt. Col. Blacker for orders as he could not advance. He received orders to retire; he did so with what was left of the Platoon. (The MG fire mentioned in the British report probably came from the a German MG post on the southern bank of Ancre near the infamous strongpoint at St. Pierre-Divion.)Analysis: An infantry platoon of 1916 vintage usually consisted of 60 men. Allowing for illness, previous casualties and troops left out of battle, it is very likely that No.8 platoon had around 50 soldiers on the 'bayonet strength' for the attack.
What does the report tell us of its fate? One word sums it up .. annihilation.
Sgt. Hoare's party 'soon ALL became casualties'; by the time Sgt. Hamilton reaches the German wire and makes a small incursion into the line he has only 'three or four men' still with him; Sgt. Bennison is killed and his men are pinned down and 'unable to get forward at all'.
Lt. Col. Bull states bluntly: "Casualties were very heavy."But an even worse fate was in store for their comrades in No. 6 platoon.
The diary continues:-No.6 PLATOON
This platoon was under Lieut. Lemon and was made responsible for the Railway Sap. (Or that portion of the Tal Stellung which extended toward the Ancre).
The platoon left our own trenches before zero at the same time and on the right of the 9th Royal Ir. Fus. but before reaching the Ravine the whole Platoon with the exception of Lieut. Lemon and twelve men were all casualties. (Most of these men were victims of MG No. 7 and MG No. 9 in the German front line and second trench.)Analysis: Thus within a few minutes a platoon of 50-60 men was reduced to an inexperienced young Lieutenant and a dozen men. But the slaughter did not stop there.
Once again the diarist takes up the story:-
On reaching the Ravine, Lemon looked for some supports, but as none were available he advanced with his twelve men to enter the Sap. When he reached. the Sap he had only NINE men left, but he entered the Sap at the Railway bank.
L.Sergt. Millar and three men moved to the right to bomb down the Sap, but, these were soon all casualties. (This hand grenade fight is clearly described in German accounts above)
Lieut. Lemon and the remainder of the men advanced up the main Sap. The thick wires running into the first large tunnel was cut by Rfmn. Gamble who was the first bayonet man.
There was a machine- gun firing across the sap from the small tunnel. Lieut. Lemon, however, climbed above the small tunnel with some bombs in order to catch any Germans who might come out and sent the men on. (The gun referred to was probably MG No. 8, firing aross the river into the flank of the Ulster Division attacking the Thiepval Sector)
Lieut. Lemon was then shot by two German officers who fired their rifles at him from the top of a dug out which apparently led into the tunnel. The two German officers were afterwards killed by a bomb which exploded right at their feet. (Only two officers killed from a single company in the I Battalion. They were:-Frech, Otto, Leutnant der Reserve 3rd Coy from Reichenberg, Backnang; and Sütterlin, Karl Leutnant der Reserve 3rd Coy from Wien.)
The remaining men got cut off between the 1st and 2nd German line and only two of them escaped.Analysis: A staggering statistic ... 'only two of them escaped' ... the rest of this platoon lay dead, dying or wounded either in no-man's-land or in the tiny part of the German line which had been breached and then evacuated. TWO men from a platoon make it back to answer the roll-call. No.6 Platoon had ceased to exist.
7 AND 5 PLATOONSNo. 7 Platoon advanced behind. the 9th Royal Ir. Fus., but as the Fus. were held up, this platoon only got just beyond our own wire. No. 5 was the carrying platoon and did not leave our own wire. Capt. C.S. Murray was in command of these two Platoons, but was wounded at the very start.
The two Machine-guns which caught No. 6 Platoon so badly were right outside the German trench and the shelling was also very severe in the Ravine.(This shelling would have consisted of Erdmörser fire as well as artillery fire from the German batteries).
The Lewis Gun Team which was with No. 6 Platoon became casualties before reaching the Ravine and the gun was put out of action by shrapnel.
Corpl. Burgess and Rfmn. McNeilly were the two men who escaped from the Sap.
Rfmn. McNeilly lost Corpl. Burgess on the way back and reported to two N.C.O.'s of the 9th Royal Ir. Fus.'C' COMPANY's ATTACK
Before zero, 'C' Company who were on the left of the 9th Royal Ir. Fus. left our wire and immediately came under very heavy machine Gun fire.
At zero the company advanced led by No 10 Platoon and followed by No. 11. No. 10 were held up by the wire, which had only two small gaps cut in it at this point.
No. 10 Platoon at once split in two, each half going for a gap. Some of this party succeeded in getting into the German line, but as there was a German machine-gun opposite each gap the casualties were very heavy. (Many of these gaps were more than likely intentional, and used to funnel enemy into the MG teams’ cone of fire)
No 11. Platoon immediately reinforced No. 10 and at once rushed the gaps and a few more men succeeded in getting through. The casualties were very severe, but Captn. Griffiths collected Nos. 9 and 12 Platoons and gave orders to charge. He was killed immediately he had given the order.
Above: Cpl. (later Sergeant) Herbison from Hill Street, Ballymena, was killed in August 1916. His bravery on 1st July was remarked upon by his company officer, Capt. W. B. Stuart (MC, KIA Nov.22 1916).
At the same time an order came to retire. The remaining men retired with the exception of Sergt. Cunningham, Corpl. Herbison and L.Cpl. Jackson who remained and fired at the Germans, who were standing on their parapet firing and throwing bombs at our men.
They killed or wounded at least ten Germans. Rfmn. Craig with a Lewis Gun kept up a good fire by himself, all the rest of the team having been killed or wounded.
L.Cpl. Harvey then rallied all the men he could find and rushed the gaps again but had to retire for the third time. The Company had then to retire to the Sunken Road.
Sergt. Cunningham and Corpl. Herbison again did good work by helping wounded men to get cover in the Sunken Road. The road was being shelled very heavily all the time.Analysis: ‘C’ company’s fate was repeated all over the Somme battlefield that morning. They were under fire almost from the moment they left their trenches and the weight of fire steadily increased. Those who made it to the German wire found only ‘canals of death’.
'D' COMPANY'S ATTACK
'D' Company's attack was led by 2/Lieut. Sir Harry E.H. Macnaghten Bart., and No. 16 Platoon. Sir Harry was on the right of his Platoon and Sergt. McFall on the left.
(VC Winner Robert Quigg was servant to 2nd Lt. Macnaghten and took part in this attack. He won his decoration for his valour in rescuing wounded men from no-man’s land.)
At zero this Platoon rushed the German front line and entered it. Sergt. McFall found some dugouts on the left and detailed two bombers to attend to each . The German second line was very strongly held and the machine-gun fire from the salient on the left (Q.17.B) was very heavy.
The Germans stood up on the parapet of their second line and threw bombs into the front line, while they kept a steady fire up against the other advancing platoons (13, 14, and 15) These suffered very heavily as they approached the German wire and line.
No 14 Platoon lost half its men before No. 16 had gained the German front line. An order to retire was shouted out and Sir Harry got out of the trench to order the men not to retire but to come on and just as he got out he was shot in the legs by a machine-gun only a few yards away, and fell back into the trench.
Above: Rfn. (Later Sergeant) Kane. He was to be killed in action in 1917.
Rfmn. Kane who was quite close to Sir Harry bayoneted the German who was firing the machine-gun. 'D' Company then fell back behind the ridge and were at once reassembled with the remains of 'A' Company by 2/Lieut. Dickson, who ordered a second charge at the German trenches. (However no German gunner was killed in this manner and neither gun crew was approached by enemy troops).
He was very severely wounded almost as soon as he had given the order, but carried on for a time until he fell, and then Sergt. McFall at once rallied the companies and they advanced a second time. The Machine-gun fire from the Salient was very severe, and they had to eventually fall back on our own trenches.
'A' COMPANY'S ATTACK'A' Company who were on the extreme left of the Battalion front, were in touch with the 29th Division. They left their new Trench before zero and assembled along the Sunken Road.
At Zero they began to advance, and at once came under very heavy Artillery and machine-gun fire. No. 4 Platoon led the attack, and were badly cut up, but what men remained entered the German front line.
They were closely followed by No. 3 who at once reinforced them. The wire was well cut here but there were two machine-guns on each side of the gap and three or four in the Salient, as well as a German bombing party.
Lieut. McCluggage at once collected his men and tried to rush on to the German second line but was killed in the attempt. The Germans in the front line it was noticed all wore caps while those in the second line wore helmets.
The German second line was full of men and there was a very considerable number at the back of the large mound on the left. All these men fired at Nos. 1 and 2 Platoons while they were advancing and threw bombs at Nos. 3 & 4 while in the German front line.
The men of Nos. 3 & 4 Platoons bombed three Dugouts and shot a good many Germans. All these four Platoons suffered very heavily from exceedingly intense Machine-gun fire. An order to retire was passed along, and as there were no supports on the spot 'A' Company did so.
Lieut. T. G. Haughton had been wounded in the leg soon after leaving our front line but led his Platoon on. He was wounded a second time during the retirement and killed.
The Company then retired to the SUNKEN ROAD when 2/Lieut Dickson, who was the only officer left assembled the men there and ordered another advance.
The men advanced again but were met with a terrific fire from all the Machine-guns in the Salient (Q.17.B.) and had to ultimately retire to the New Trench.
Rfmn. McMullen, being the only man left of his team of Lewis Gunners, entered the German line with Lewis Gun and two magazines and fired from his shoulder at the Germans in the second. line. He retired with the company and brought the Gun with him.
Amazingly, despite these horrendous casualties and the repeated, costly attempts to storm the German line, military necessity dictated the need for yet another charge by the few survivors. Even more amazingly, it seems that some were ready to make yet another suicidal bid.
Bull's report reveals that common sense prevailed and the Rifles were ordered to man their own trenches in case of a German counter-attack.
An infantry battalion of 1916 boasted around 1000 men and 36 officers. It was rarely at full numbers and the actual fighting strength of the battalion was more likely to be around 800 men.
During the first day on the Somme - in a period which could not have exceeded 120 minutes, the 12th Rifles were reduced to 46 men.Bull concluded his report:-
All companies had now been badly cut up, and had very few men left. We were ordered to attack again at 10-12 a.m. with what men we could collect.
Major C.G. Cole-Hamilton D.S.O. took command of the front line, collected all the men he could find (about 100) and assembled them in the New Trench and prepared to launch the attack.
Sergt. McFall and Sergt. A Smith of 'D' Company and L.Cpl. W Harvey of 'C' Coy. were conspicuous for their coolness and skill under a very heavy fire in helping Major C.G. Cole-Hamilton D.S.O. to form up the men and carry out the attack.
The attack was made under very heavy shrapnel fire from the time of the assembly and was finally stopped by Machine-gun fire.
When in advance of the Sunken Road, the same three N.C.O.s did magnificent work in steadying the men, while L.Cpl. Harvey brought a wounded man in on his back.
About 11 a.m. another attack was ordered for 12-30 p.m. in conjunction with the 29th Division. Every available man was collected and assembled in the New Trench.
The total number this time was 46.
The men went forward before 12-30 p.m., and were lying in cover by 12-30 p.m. Major C.G. Cole-Hamilton D.S.O. , finding that 29th Division did not launch an attack at 12-30 p.m. and not having a sufficient number of men to carry out an attack, sent a message to the Commanding Officer to this effect.
The Commanding Officer ordered the men to be brought back and the front line to be re-organised and held. Sergt. McFall, Sergt. A. Smith and L.Cpl. W Harvey again did splendid work in getting the men back and re-organised under very adverse conditions.
By 2 p.m. all the men were back and sentries were posted all along the line. This state of affairs continued until the few men who were left in the line were relieved by the York and Lancs at 6-30 p.m.
12th (S) Bn Royal Irish Rifles.