BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM CITIZEN SOLDIERS OF BUCKS BY JC SWANN AND THE FIRST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION 1914-1919 BY PL WRIGHT
The opening of the Somme offensive on the 1st July found the 48th Division in the VIII Corps reserve to the 31st, 39th and 4th Divisions, the Bucks Battalion being in the Couin Woods.
The previous week had been so noisy that away in Couin Woods one hardly noticed the increased bombardment denoting zero hour. The battalions departure for Maily-Maillet had been fixed for 9 a.m. However, after marching for about half an hour, word was passed down the column that Gommecourt Wood and Serre were ours and the attack was going well. This, although it proved later to be quite inaccurate, more than satisfied morale at the time. The bivouacs were in the plantations to the south-west of Mailly-Maillet.
In the afternoon, commanding officers and adjutants were summoned to Brigade Headquarters. They returned with plans for a proposed attack by the 8th, 144th and 145th Infantry Brigades. For this attack, which was to be a night operation, the Battalion was to be in Brigade reserve. Officers and N.C.O.’s were sent forward to reconnoitre the ground, so as to be able to support the assault, should assistance be necessary. The attacking battalions had actually formed up when, at ten minutes before zero, operations were cancelled.
There had been a change in the situation, and it had been decided that the VII. Corps should withdraw to the line it had held previous to attacking that morning.
The Battalion remained in these bivouacs until the evening of July 3, when a move was made back to the huts in Couin Woods.
The battalion carried out one further tour in the Hebuterne trenches, before the next move on July 14, which took place in motor lorries, after handing over the camp, at the Bus-Bayencourt-Sailly-Coigneux cross-roads, to the 11th Battalion Middlesex Regiment.
The attack farther south, had been pressed forward satisfactorily during the days following and, when the news on the 13th that several more villages had been taken together with numerous prisoners was succeeded by hasty dispatch of the battalion in motor lorries to Senlis. The battalion remained two days at Senlis, during which time company commanders carried out useful reconnaissance of the ground round La Boisselle, with a view to ascertaining the best routes up to the line.
During the next six weeks the battalion took part in all the active operations carried out by the 48th Division during the Somme offensive, which tested the training and work of the previous fifteen months. From this test the Division undoubtedly emerged with the greatest credit, and the Battalion proved that both in endurance and dash it could hold its own with the best.
17-18 JULY OVILLERS-POZIERES On the night of the 17th/18th July the Battalion was ordered to carry out a reconnaissance of certain points in the enemy’s line between Ovillers and Pozieres. The enemy’s positions were not known, and the object in view was to ascertain whether four points in the area were being held or not. If these were not strongly occupied, they were to be seized and made into strong points, but heavy fighting was not to be undertaken.
The tasks were allotted to “A” and” D “Companies, each Company detailing one platoon for each of the points in its sector. Each platoon advanced in two lines of sections in file with a point patrol immediately in front, led by the officer in charge, with ten yards interval and distance between sections. All points were found to be strongly held, but a platoon of “A” Company under Second Lieutenant B. C. Rigden succeeded in rushing the most easterly point, and occupying it, until ordered to withdraw after daybreak. The withdrawal was accomplished with only slight casualties, notwithstanding that 400 yards of open ground had to be crossed.
Second Lieutenant C. Hall died of wounds received in this reconnaissance, and Second Lieutenant R. C. Norwood was missing. Amongst other ranks 2 were killed, 29 wounded, and 27 reported missing.
Efforts on the part of search parties, who were sent up to find the missing, were fruitless, on account of the extreme darkness of the night.
It was daylight when the move back started, as the evacuation of the wounded had taken some time.
Orders were to move back to billets at Bouzincourt.
On July 19, the Battalion marched through Albert, and took over bivouacs from 1/5th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment by the side of the Albert-Bapaume road.
20-21 JULY OVILLERS - POZIERES On the night of the 20th/21st July the Battalion was ordered to carry out an attack in conjunction with the 1/5th Gloucesters and 1/4th Oxfords against the enemy positions between Ovillers and Pozieres “A” “B,” and “C” were detailed for the attack, with “D”’ Company in reserve.
The 20th July was a busy day with the issuing of detailed orders, explanatory lectures to the N.C.O.’s and men, and the drawing and distribution of stores such as small arms ammunition, grenades, Verey lights, ground flares, shovels, all of which would have to be carried into the attack.
By 10.30 p.m. company commanders had given their final instructions to the men, and the battalion started for the front line, which lay some two and a half miles distant
The Battalion was to attack in four lines, on a front of two companies, each in line of platoons in column of sections,—two sections in the first line, one in second and one in third, —C Company (Captain G. G. Jackson) on the right A Company (Captain N. S. Reid, M.C.) on the left. B Company (Captain L. W. Crouch) was in immediate support to both companies in one line, and formed the fourth wave.
The enemy trench was situated about 325 yards distant from our front assembly trench (known as Sickle Trench), but a tape was laid by the Royal Engineers 175 yards from the German line, for the Battalion to form up on.
Zero was fixed for 2.45 a.m. on July 21, and at 2.15 a.m. companies left Sickle Trench to form up on the tape. D Company (Captain E. V. Birchall) moved up to garrison Sickle Trench, as soon as the other three companies went forward to their tapes. Although no unusual amount of gunfire had as yet started, the enemy appeared to be very nervous, starting at 2.30 a.m. to send up large quantities of flares. This was disconcerting, as it showed too plainly that he was very much on the alert. A few minutes later, red flares went up from his lines. Whether these were a signal to his machine guns to open fire is not known, but open fire they did—and to so some tune. So long as the hands of the watch did not point at to 2.45 a.m. it was possible to lie flat, though even then some few were hit. The moment to go forward, however arrived, and still the German machine guns chattered unceasingly. At 2.45 a.m. the British guns opened up with a roar, and shells flew just over the Bucks heads, bursting their shrapnel in a line of flashes along the trench opposite. It was the signal to advance. Few, however, were able to do so, for as men rose the machine guns of the enemy, upon whom our barrage appeared to be having no effect, scythed them down. Officers especially were dropping on all sides. A few isolated men reached the objective, but of these hardly any returned. The attack, including that portion of it made by the Gloucesters and Oxfords on the flanks, failed.
Casualties were heavy and included: Officers. Killed. 4 Wounded. 4 Wounded and prisoner. 1
Other Ranks Killed. 8 Wounded. 96 Missing . 41
The lack of success in this attack was keenly felt by all ranks, as it was the first serious attack in which the Battalion had been engaged.
For the survivors, sleep was the first consideration, for they were worn out; after that, reorganisation, with a view to the next attack, orders for which might arrive at any moment. The battalion was terribly short of officers and N.C.O.’s.
At 3 p.m. the following day (July 22), when efforts were concentrated on refitting, cleaning up, tracing the missing and the thousand things necessary after a battle, orders arrived that the Battalion was to move forward at 10 p.m. to some disused trenches, about two miles north. Here we were to stay for the night, in support of the remainder of the Brigade, who were to attack about midnight.
At 10 p.m., the battalion once more left it’s bivouacs and moved to these support positions.
22-23 JULY POZIERES On the night of the 22nd/23rd July a general attack was delivered by the greater part of the Fourth Army, during which the Australians captured Pozieres The 145th Infantry Brigade attacked on their immediate left, in the following order from right to left: 1/4th Oxfords,, 1/4th Royal Berks, 1/5th Gloucesters, the Bucks Battalion being in reserve in the Mash Valley behind Ovillers.
The Oxfords and Berks gained a footing in their objectives, but sustained very heavy casualties, and were cut off from the Australians by a large stretch of trench which remained in the hands of the enemy.
On their left the attack of the 5th Gloucesters was unsuccessful, which left them in a very perilous position without any communication with the rear.
At about 4 a.m. the Bucks Battalion received orders to attack, and seize at all costs, that portion of the trench against which the attack of the Glosters had been directed previously.
Zero had been fixed for 6.30 a.m., and there were 2 miles of strange trenches to be covered before reaching the jumping-off trench. There was no time to lose. Orders therefore were of necessity scanty, and much had to be left to the initiative of the Company Commanders concerned, who fully justified the confidence reposed in them by the Commanding Officer. The attack was one of very great difficulty owing to the way the trenches ran. The enemy position was a stretch of trench approached by two communication trenches about 400 yards long. The right-hand one was in good condition and met the enemy’s trench at right angles, the enemy having a bomb stop about fifty yards from the end. The left-hand communicator was badly damaged, and ran at an obtuse angle into the enemy’s line.
“B” and “D” Companies were detailed for the attack—“B” under Captain O. V. Viney on the left, “D” under Captain E. V. Birchall on the right. Both Companies at Zero were to leave their trenches and form inwards on the intervening space—about 200 yards. “A” Company, under Captain N. S. Reid, were to be in support in the right communicator; “C” Company, under Captain P. A. Hall, was to provide the necessary carrying parties after the attack had been launched. Unfortunately “ B Company whilst getting into position came under a barrage of our own heavy guns, which were shooting short, and sustained many casualties, being thus delayed in getting into position.
“D” Company, however, under the splendid leadership of Captain Birchall, carried out their orders to the letter, and by dint of advancing practically in the barrage succeeded in capturing the whole position single-handed. The support Company at once moved up to assist in the work of consolidation and clearing the prisoners, about 150. One of these officers stated that the assault had taken them entirely by surprise as they were waiting for the barrage to lift, before manning the parapet; and declared his opinion that the success of the assault, where two previous ones had failed, was due entirely to the way in which D Company had hugged the barrage.
The result of this action was that touch was immediately established with the isolated troops on the right, enabling bombing operations to be carried out by the 145th Brigade, and a junction with the Australians was effected. Several attempts by the enemy to retake the position were successfully repulsed by the Battalion. It was not till midnight of July 23/24 that he put down a heavy barrage on the captured line, though no attack developed, and at 12 noon the following day the battalion handed over the position intact to the 5th Gloucesters and returned to bivouacs near Albert.
The casualties in this action were: OFFICERS Died of Wounds 1 Wounded:4
OTHER RANKS Killed: 7. Wounded: 68. Missing: 8.
The losses of the Battalion during this period were extremely heavy, and many of the finest officers and most valuable N.C.O.’s were killed in the severe fighting.
The last ten days had left their mark on the Battalion. Strength was reduced to a very low figure, and even this included a draft of sixty-eight privates, who had arrived on the evening of July 21, and of whose capabilities we did not know sufficient to warrant our taking them into action. As regards officers and N.C.O.’s the shortage was acute.
It was now decided that the Division should be withdrawn, and on July 26, at 7 a.m., the Battalion marched back to temporary billets at Arqueves, moving via Bouzincourt, Hedauville and Varennes. Here it remained forty-eight hours, before resuming the march to Beauval, via Raincheval and Beauquesne. The Battalion marched exceedingly well during these two moves, which one may safely say was distinctly creditable, considering the strenuous days of the past fortnight, the insufficient sleep, and the fact that full marching order was being carried.
The following day the battalion started off on a seventeen-mile march to Domleger by way of Candas, Fienvillers and Bernaville. The old hands marched into Domleger as cheerily as they had left Albert, and great was the delight of everyone at the prospect of a few days’ complete rest and some measure of comfort.
The First Buckinghamshire Battalion 1914-1919
P. L, Wright. Hazell Watson & Viney. 1920
OBLI COLLECTION B24 I17
Mash Valley down which the 1st Buckinghamshire Battalion assaulted toward Pozieres between 20 and 24 July 1916. Sickle Trench, their jump off trench for 23/24 July ran from just to the left of the wall of Pozieres British Cemetery (where 16 of the battalions casualties lie) curving across the valley toward us.
1st Buckinghamshire Battalion at Pozieres 23rd July 1916 by W B Wollen (Copyright National Army Museum)