1st Battalion at the Somme (1916)

Battle of the Somme – The First Phase

As we learned in the previous chapter, the 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment entrained for Suez around the middle of January, 1916 where they spent several weeks engaged in training. It was the 12 March that saw them eventually leave Suez, making their way back to Alexandria again before embarking for Marseilles on board the transport Marilda. When the battalion arrived at Pont Rémy ten days later they proceeded to Gorenflos where they billeted until the end of March. During this time the men were granted leave to England, many of them taking up this offer while it was available as it was unknown when they would get this chance again.


There had been many changes since the Battalion saw in the new year, 1916. The failure at Gallipoli was costly on both sides and with that chapter behind them the Battalion had to focus on what lay ahead of them on a new front, that of the Western Front in France. The command of the British Forces on the Western Front saw the departure of Field-Marshall Sir John French[1], who had been involved with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) since 1914, and the position had now been filled by General Sir Douglas Haig. Further to these changes was the introduction of the Military Service Bill, which stipulated that any citizen of Great Britain between the ages of 19 to 41 was liable to be called up for active duty. Considering by the end of 1915 the British Empire had already, with great success, managed the feat of raising 5 million volunteers, the call for a Bill to conscript the qualifying population regardless of whether they wanted to or not, meant that many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of casualties had already occurred and still more men were needed.

With that in mind, and with formidable forces on either side locked into a stalemate where there was very little movement, the beginning of 1916 was fairly uneventful in as much as although there was fighting taking place by way of local encounters, nothing of any scale was in operation at that time. General Haig in his Despatch of 19th May 1916 writes:

In short, although there has been no great incident of historic importance to record on the British front during the period under review, a steady and continuous fight has gone on, day and night, above ground and below it. The comparative monotony of this struggle has been relieved at short intervals by sharp local actions, some of which, although individually almost insignificant in a war on such an immense scale, would have been thought worthy of a separate despatch under different conditions, while their cumulative effect, though difficult to appraise at its true value now, will doubtless prove hereafter to have been considerable. [2]

Bitter fighting had taken place at Verdun, the French city of strategic important that the German Army would under any circumstance cede to the French and British forces. Long-drawn-out attacks commenced here on the 21 February and seeing how damaging this bitter conflict was to the French, who were also suffering badly, Britain, with a commitment to her French Allies, also took part in the battles here to help gain a stronger footing. The fighting continued until the 18 December 1916 and resulted in more than 250,000 deaths and one million wounded. It turned out to be the longest and bloodiest battles in the history of the war[3] With all this hellish fighting ensuing at many different locations along the front lines across France and Belgium, the 1st Battalion Border Regiment, after nine months at Gallipoli, had eventually come to France not knowing where it would end up.

The Somme Département

Location of the Somme Département in Picardie region.

With their leave to England officially over the Battalion spent much of their time moving from town to town, moving up front to the firing line and then being relieved back to billets and further training. The continual movements took them across much of the northern parts of the Somme Département[4], into the Pas de Calais Département and back again. On the 2nd of April the Battalion marched from Amplier to Achuex, where they billeted in the woods there for the evening before moving swiftly on to Englebelmer, arriving there at 7.25pm the following day. Throughout the month the Battalion were involved in front line action along with working around communication problems where telephone lines were interrupted and then later restored; bombardments and machine gun fire that rung through air at sporadic intervals; repairing damage done to the trenches and attending lectures of gas, which was the new weapon at the time, and the use of helmets for protection. Instruction on bayonet fighting was also given as was a demonstration in Flammenwerfer[5] and the effects of Lachrymatory Shells[6]. On returning to Acheux, much of the same fighting continued.

Throughout the months of May and June the Battalion was again involved in further trench warfare, causing losses amongst the ranks. They had returned to Englebelmer, spent several days in the firing line dealing with similar situations they had done during April, then moved on Louvencourt towards the end of May. At the beginning of June they had a brief spell back at Englebelmer, then again back to Louvencourt and finally marching back to Acheux on the 23 June. However, on the night of 27/28 June the Battalion was involved in a raid, one of many along the front the 29th Division was manning. The 28 June was the original date set for the commencement of the Battle of the Somme but this was changed due to unfavourable weather, which at the time was wet and windy and thoroughly unpleasant all round. The new date set for the opening day of the Somme Battle had been pushed back until the 1 July. Although history remembers the 28 June as the day the Battle of the Somme should have but did not commence, it is less remembered for the minor events that took place the same day along the entire front. For the 1st Battalion the raid on the enemy’s trenches opposite their location was something that did not go exactly according to plan. However, there were no casualties as a result.

The Night Raid

The raiding party, which consisted of 50 men from D Company, under the command of Lieutenant Bremner, left Acheux on the afternoon of 27 June and from there proceeded to the front line trench of Knightsbridge Barracks. From there they continued on at 10.45pm to Shaftsbury Avenue, which was to become the planned Point of Exit. They arrived there at roughly 11.30pm. At this location they were supposed to have met up with a guide from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers with two Bangalore torpedoes but there was no sign of them or the explosives. The men of the 1st Battalion waited until just after midnight when the others they were supposed to have met earlier arrived. But owing to the difficulty in getting there it was found that the Bangalore torpedoes were choked with either sand or mud.[7] As a result of their late arrival, the raid, which was originally set to commence at 11.50pm, did not start until 12.05am after quick inspection of the torpedoes. The raiding party began what they had set out to do. Lieutenant Bremner was successful in finding the cut in the wire without detection but as soon as he was about to proceed the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Regiment’s own raid on the German trenches further along the salient disturbed the somewhat relaxed sentries and within just a brief moment the enemy was on full guard sending up ‘Very Lights’ and opening fire out into No Man's Land. Cutting through the wire with clippers was slow and cumbersome and seeing that a continuation of the raid was now impossible Lieutenant Bremner, at 1.05am, gave the order and withdrew his men to safety to reline in their own trenches. At around 1.20am, after a count had been made it was found that there had been no casualties of the raiding party.

The men did what they could but as a result, because of the unpredictability of raids of this type done during the cover of night, their objectives were not achieved this time round. There would be plenty of other opportunities for the Battalion to take part in further raids, notably one that took place on the 30 September 1916, mentioned later in the next chapter of this history.

1st July push on Beaumont Hamel

The peaceful village of Beaumont Hamel was considered to be an important position to take simply on the grounds that it was a particularly strong position the enemy had taken up residence in. The reason why it was such a formidable site was because it contained large quarries and excavations that the enemy could conceal themselves in and effectively become part of the landscape around them. They could remain in total safety until the last minute of an attack as was found out when the British bombardment on the area did little in the way of substantial damage to the troops accommodated there and so the task ahead was going to be a difficult one. The VIIIth Corps Order of Battle for the operations that commenced on the 1 July 1916 at this area was as follows:

File:Barbed Wire at Beaumont Hamel.jpg
Barbed Wire and the devastation of land at Beaumont Hamel.
  • 29th Division on the right;
  • 4th Division was opposite Beaumont Hamel in the centre;
  • 31st Division opposite Serre;
  • 48th Division in reserve.

The 29th Division would be using the 86th and 87th Brigades up front with the 88th in support. The Battle of the Somme had officially begun. The Battalion’s action this day can be accounted for in the War Diary which states:

7.30am, the Btn (less 10%) advanced just South of Beaumont Hamel, their objective being Beaucourt Redoubt. The 2nd South Wales Borderers, whose objective was the first two German lines, were wiped out by machine gun fire in our own wire. The 1st Btn The Border Regiment, then went over the top from our support line, and over our first line, the bridges over our front trench having been ranged by the German Machine Gunners the day previously. We met with heavy losses, while crossing these bridges + passing through the lanes out in our wire. The men were absolutely magnificent, and formed up as ordered outside our wire, made a right incline, and advanced into “No Man’s Land” at a slow walk, also as ordered. The advance was continued until only little groups of half a dozen men were left here and there and these, finding that no reinforcements were in sight, took cover in shell holes or wherever they could. [8]

By 8am the advance had all but come to a standstill and by 8.15am the Germans had reopened their bombardment on British trenches, who also retaliated further. An hour later at 9.15 "Lieut-Col Ellis having been wounded and brought in by No.8409 Pte. Newcombe, Major Meiklejohn (who had been in command of the 10%) assumed command of the Btn., and collected all the men he could in the support line, as ordered by the Brigadier." [8] It looked as though there was going to be little chance of a successful advance. The 1st Battalion were cut down in large numbers, reducing their strength considerably. A defensive line is all that could be held at this time and by the 2 July all hope of any continuation was given up. The remnants of the Battalion relieved the 9th Royal Irish Rifles just to the north of the River Ancre and immediately set about repairing the battered trenches, which had clearly suffered severely during the bombardments. The Battalion had started the day on the 1st of July with a total of 23 officers and 809 other ranks. The total number of casualties as a result of the advance that day is as follows:

1st Battalion Border Regiment Casualty Figures, 1st July 1916
Other Ranks
Missing Believed Killed
Capt. F.R. Jessup
Capt. T.H. Beyes
Lt. Col. A.J. Ellis
Capt. J.G. Heyder
Lieut. B.L.A. Kennett
Lieut. J.B. Sinclair
Lieut. H.F. Sampson
2nd Lieut. G.W.N. Rowsell
2nd Lieut. F.H. Talbot
2nd Lieut. A.W.H. Barnes
2nd Lieut. D. Bremner
2nd Lieut. F.T. Wilkins
2nd Lieut. D.C.R. Stuart
2nd Lieut. D. Cargill
2nd Lieut. H.L. Cholmeley
2nd Lieut. W.P. Rettie
2nd Lieut. W.K. Sanderson
2nd Lieut. Baxendine
2nd Lieut. A.W. Fraser
2nd Lieut. L. Jackson

By the end of this phase of the Battle of the Somme, which amounted to the first five days, Sir Douglas Haig in a despatch wrote:

On a front of over 6 miles, from the Biqueterie to La Boisselle, our troops had swept over the whole of the enemy’s first and strongest system of defence, which he had done his best to render impregnable. They had driven him back over a distance of more than a mile, and had carried four elaborately fortified villages....the enemy’s second main system had been captured on a front of over 3 miles. We had again forced him back more than a mile and had gained possession of the southern crest of the main ridge on a front of 6000 yards. [9]

On the 8 July the Battalion move to the rest camp at Acheux and did not take part in the remainder of the first phase of the Battle of the Somme. They would find themselves on a new front further north in Flanders, Belgium.

See also

References / notes

  1. Who went home to England to command the Home Forces.
  2. General Sir Douglas Haig, Despatch dated 19th May 1916. From the Third Supplement to the London Gazette, dated 26 May 1916.
  3. Battle of Verdun. [1].
  4. Département denoting something similar to an English county.
  5. The German equivalent of the Flamethrower.
  6. A lachrymatory agent is a chemical compound that was used as an irritant to cause watering of the eyes, pain and even temporary blindness. Added to the explosive action of a shell on enemy trenches, the effects were quick and worked well to bring the enemy down, mostly in a non lethal way.
  7. This stipulation is unclear in the war diary.
  8. 8.0 8.1 1st Battalion War Diary, July 1916.
  9. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.88.
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