West Country Regiments on the Somme

Posted on Tuesday 28th June 2016


Extract from 'West Country Regiments on the Somme' by Major (Retd) Tim Saunders MBE.

The book covers the part played by both the Devonshire and Dorset Regiments in the 1916 Battle. It covers the arrival of the battalions on the Somme, preliminary operations and the part they played in the various phases of this grimmest of battle from the disaster of 1 July through to the very final attack in mid November.
The extract below is on the attack of 2nd Battalion the Devonshire Regiment on Ovillers la Boissele on 1 July 1916; the blackest day in the long history of the British Army.

Of the five West Country battalions in action on the first day of the battle, 2/Devon was one of the two battalions that attacked or ‘went over the top’ in the first wave at Zero Hour. They had arrived on the Somme, to join the Fourth Army, at the end of March with 8th Division joining III Corps. Along with the remainder of the Army, the Devons worked hard training and preparing for the great offensive. Meanwhile, the Germans, with only the questions of time, date and boundaries of the British attack to determine, continued to strengthen their position.

The German positions

Opposite III Corps, the Germans 26th Reserve Division occupied positions on three spurs that ran down from the Pozieres Ridge. The two fingers of high ground of significance to 8th Division and the Devons were the Ovillers Spur and the la Boisselle Spur. Both were crowned with German held villages that had been developed into fortresses within the front line trench systems. The Official Historian commented that:

"Owing to the enemy's front position being on the forward slopes, it was completely exposed to fire ... but the enemy front line was singularly well adapted to defence, being sites, as the ground demanded, as a series of salients and re-entrants being particularly strong."

Behind the front line lay two intermediate lines and further in depth, was the incomplete Second Position. Here the trenches and wire were both less well developed and, consequently, lacked the comprehensive defensive properties of the front line system. A further three miles back was the beginnings of a third position, which was being worked on, as German time resources were available. In July 1916 it was still patchy but was clearly marked out for development.

Realizing that they were astride what was likely to be the Fourth Army’s axis, the German 180th (10th Wurttemberg) Regiment put a great deal of effort into improving the area's defence. They dug the usual deep shelters, linked up the strengthened cellars of Ovillers, with the fighting trenches and ensured that their positions were covered by overlapping arcs of machine guns fire. These guns were sited in considerable depth and were very well camouflaged, with battle positions by the British had not located. 180th Regiment was holding the front line from the Ovillers Spur to Leipzig Salient with two battalions. Each of these battalions had three companies in the first and second lines of trenches, with individual companies covering a frontage of approximately four hundred yards. Their fourth companies occupied the support line, while the reserve line was in each case occupied by a company from the Regiment’s third battalion, with the remaining companies being positioned to the rear in the Intermediate Lines. Approximately 1,800 men were facing 8th Division’s infantry element of 9,000 men. However, calculating the number of enemy machine guns that 8th Division was facing is more complicated, as the machine gun’s effective range was over 2,000 yards. Up to six guns belonging to 110th Regiment, dug into the hillside behind la Boisselle, were able to sweep 8th Division’s positions and no-man’s-land in the Ovillers area.

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British plans

III Corps was to attack between the Nab and Mash Valley with 8th Division on the left and with 34th (New Army) attacking astride la Boisselle. 19th Division was Corps Reserve, initially located around Albert. This division’s task was to move up securing the forward divisions’ gains, to complete the capture of the German’s third position and deepen the penetration.

8th Division was to attack with all three of its brigades, each with two battalions in its leading wave. The Division’s New Army brigade, 70 Brigade, were on the left attacking the northern flank of the Ovillers Spur rising from Nab Valley. In the centre of the Spur, 25 Brigade were to attack the crest line. This brigade was considered to have the easiest initial objectives, as they were not so likely to be engaged by flanking machine gun fire. On the Division’s southern flank 2/Devon, with 23 Infantry Brigade had to attack what was perhaps the strongest part of the enemy line. The divisional history (1) describes the ground in the following terms:

"...no division was more difficulty placed than 8th Divisions. Except for a short space in the centre of the section, no-man's land was everywhere exceptionally wide. Particularly was this the case on the right, where both our own and the German lines were somewhat recessed. Here the 23rd Infantry Brigade had before it an appalling stretch to negotiate before it gained contact with the enemy trenches. Furthermore, the advance of the right brigade [23 Brigade] lay up a valley [Mash Valley], dominated to the left by the higher ground of Ovillers and on the right even more dangerously threatened by the German Salient at la Boiselle. If all went well elsewhere [i.e. the 34th Division], it was obvious that both from Ovillers and from la Boisselle spur a deadly flanking fire could be brought to bear on our troops as they struggled up that desolate valley towards their distant objective. ... The village of Ovillers was a solid and terrible obstacle. It will readily be appreciated that unless the results of the final intense bombardment covering the assault were such that the defence was for the time being completely out of action, and unless the progress made by troops on either flank was rapid and successful, the 8th Division was likely to find its task beyond the powers of human accomplishment."

8th Division's objective lay beyond the village of Pozieres, some four kilometres distant. However, as far as the 8th Division were concerned, they had been impressed by the barrage and 'hope ran high that the results would be so to pulverise the enemy's defences that a legitimate chance would be given to the infantry to press forward to success'.

The essentials of Brigadier General Tuson’s plan for 23 Brigade, namely that he was to attack with two of his four battalions, had been laid down by 8th Division. 2/Devon and 2/Middlesex were to provide the leading assault waves, who were to break into the German front line trench system and fight through the southern portion of Ovillers and capture the enemy’s two intermediate lines. At this point, the Brigade’s reserve battalions, 2/Scottish Rifles and 2/Middlesex, following closely behind the leading battalions, were to take the second and third objectives in the German Second Position and around the village of Pozieres respectively.

2/Devon’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sunderland, had also been given comprehensive orders and had little to do other than allocate his troops to the specific tasks given to him in his orders. He decided to attack with A and B Companies, who were to advance in columns of platoons i.e. in four waves, at a distance of fifty paces apart. This formation, one of those recommended in Forth Army Tactical Notes, was adopted because of the distance of the objectives behind the German front line. They were to be followed by C and D Companies. A part of each company was detailed as carrying parties, who would bring up defence stores, such as pickets and sandbags, and ammunition in order to consolidate trenches taken by the assaulting infantry. Also planned to move up behind the assault waves, were sections of Vickers guns from 23 Brigade’s Machine Gun Company, Royal Engineers and artillery observers.

During the initial stages of the attack, Battalion Headquarters were to remain in the trenches at the junction of Rycroft Street and Farness Street, as instructed by Headquarters III Corps. This was in order that they could report the progress of the attack, as the chain of command depended on field telephones and wire. Once away from the cable head at the end of the deeply dug in lines, they could only pass their reports by vulnerable runners or unreliable pigeons. However, commanders were confident that the infantry could reach their objectives without the intervention of Battalion Headquarters, as the well-schooled companies knew their part in the battle, having repeatedly practised the attack on the divisional training area. The Devon’s Battalion Headquarters would cross no-man’s-land during the consolidation phase, with signallers laying vulnerable line as they went. In subsequent phases, Battalion Headquarters would follow a bound behind the forward troops, ready to command in what was accepted would be a more fluid battle.

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On 6 June, C and D Companies of 2/Devon had taken part in an important preliminary operation: the digging of New Trench. They went out into no-man’s land and deployed to cover a large working party, which dug a ‘jumping-off trench’, designed to reduce the width of no-man’s-land. The first the Germans knew about the digging of the trench, was in the morning, when they saw the heaps of chalk soil that formed the trench’s parapet. The distance between the British and German lines had been reduced from an average of almost eight hundred yards to five hundred yards in the sector to be attacked by 2/Devon.

Another measure designed to reduce the danger presented by the ‘appalling stretch of no man’s land’ was the digging of Russian saps. The Official History describes their construction and intended use:

"Three tunnels had been constructed on the III Corps front to provide covered communication across no man's land after the assault, ... [two of which] were in the 8th Division area, one north of la Boiselle and the other to a point opposite Ovillers. These tunnels were 8' 6" high and 3' 6" wide at the bottom and 2' 6" at the top. They had been dug through chalk at a depth of 12 to 14 feet, the last 150 being excavated with bayonets to prevent any sound of working reaching the enemy."

Once taken, the Russian Saps would be connected to the German front line and would be used by follow-on troops to cross no-man’s-land. By taking this subterranean route, they would avoid enemy barrage fire that was designed to isolate the British assault force while the Germans counter-attacked and destroyed them. Subsequently the shallow tunnel could be opened up and used as a communications trench.

On the eve of the attack, just as they were starting out for their assault positions, the Devons received General Sir Henry Rawlinson's less than inspiring message to the Fourth Army.

"In wishing all ranks good luck, the Army Commander desired to impress on all infantry units the supreme importance of helping one another and holding on tight to every yard of ground gained. The accurate and sustained fire of the artillery during the bombardment should greatly assist the task of the infantry." (2)

2/Devons duly occupied their assembly positions in New Trench, in front of the main defensive line. Moving up had been a slow business, as the men had to negotiate the frequent 90 degree turns in the communication trenches, many carrying awkward loads. The process was further delayed by the drawing of additional ammunition and stores from dumps en route. However, as recorded by the regimental historian, 'They had been waiting in readiness for several hours before, at 0625, a tremendous bombardment opened'.

As already recorded, a heavy artillery and mortar fire had opened for one hour twenty minutes, at various times, every day since the beginning of the bombardment. On the 1 July, however, the shellfire was to be fifteen minutes shorter than normal, ending at 0730 hours, in order to achieve some tactical surprise. At most points along the front, the British artillery barrage halted briefly, at 0722 hours, while the artillerymen re-laid their guns from the enemy’s frontline trenches and wiren to engage depth targets including the German intermediate lines. Their fire on the enemy front line was to taken over by the 3” and 4” trench mortars that fired an eight minute hurricane bombardment. However due to the width of no-man’s-land facing 2/Devon, 23 Trench Mortar Company were out of range of the German lines. Therefore, a few field guns remained firing on the front line but this was no replacement for the mind-numbing weight of mortar fire enjoyed elsewhere.

Across no-man’s-land the Germans were waiting, a German officer from 180th Regiment wrote:

"The intense bombardment was realized by all to be the prelude to an infantry assault sooner or later. The men in the dug-outs therefore waited ready, belts full of hand-grenades around them, gripping their rifles and listening for the bombardment to lift from the front defence zone on to the rear defences. It was of vital importance to lose not a second in taking up position in the open to face the British Infantry, which would advance immediately behind the artillery barrage. Looking towards the British trenches through the long trench periscopes held up out of the dug-out entrances there could be seen a mass of steel helmets above the parapet showing that the storm troops were ready for the assault." (3)

At 0728 hours, just before the barrage lifted from the enemy front line, the 2/Devons, with the 2/Royal Berkshire (25 Brigade) on their left and 2/Middlesex on the right, climbed out of New Trench. Captain Andrews led the forward platoons of A and B Company across no man's land towards Ovillers. Even though the line ahead of them was being pounded by mortar fire, the divisional historian wrote that ‘they were subjected to a searching fire from rifles and machine guns. Meanwhile, C and D Companies moved forward to the now vacated assembly trenches and were to follow in two waves at fifty-yard intervals. The leading assault waves were little more than one hundred yards from the enemy wire when the mortars lifted from the German trenches.

Zero hour

The German observer in 180th Regiment’s lines continued his account:

"At 7:30 A.M. the hurricane of shells ceased as suddenly as it begun. Our men at once clambered up the steep shafts leading from the dugouts to daylight and ran singly or in groups to the nearest shell craters. The machine guns were pulled out of dug-outs and hurriedly placed in position, their crews dragging the heavy ammunition boxes up the steps and out to the guns. A rough firing line was thus rapidly established. As soon as the men were in position, a series of extended lines were seen moving forward from the British trenches. The first line appeared to continue without end right and left. It was quickly followed by a second line, then a third and fourth. They came on at a steady easy pace as if expecting to find nothing alive in our front trenches."

At Zero-Hour, the Devon’s companies amidst the dust of the bombardment ‘got up and went forward in waves to the assault at the pace laid down in Army Instructions to Infantry, '100 yards in 2 minutes'. Despite some reservations, commanders’ confidence that the barrage would destroy the German defences was generally accepted and most believed that they would simply advance and occupy the German line. However, with the Germans having survived the bombardment, to succeed the Devons would have to have occupied the enemy line before the defenders could get up from their deep dugouts and establish a proper firing line. The Wurttembergers of 180th Regiment were waiting:

"A few moments later, when the leading British line was within a hundred metres, the rattle of machine gun and rifle fire broke out along the whole line of shell holes. Some fired kneeling so as to get a better target over the broken ground, whilst others, in the excitement of the moment, stood up regardless of their own safety, to fire into the crowd of men in front of them. Red rockets sped up into the air, as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from out batteries in the rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines."

A and B Companies were caught in interlocking and overlapping arcs of machine gun fire from Ovillers, forward and to their left and from la Boisselle to their right. According to the Devon’s after action report, Lieutenant Colonel Sunderland could see very little of the action. ‘At first and for some little time owing to mist and dust caused by our shell fire, it was difficult to realize what had happened … The lines appeared at first sight to be intact…’. Back at his headquarters at the telephone cable-head, catching a glimpse through the swirling clouds of morning mist and lingering smoke and dust from the barrage, the Commanding Officer, could just make out rows of his men lying down. He demanded ‘Why aren’t they advancing?’ The Adjutant, Lieutenant Tillett, peered through his binoculars and turning to Lieutenant Colonel Sunderland he replied ‘They’re all hit, sir!’ The battalion’s report recorded ‘… it was soon made clear that the lines consisted of only dead or wounded’.

The survivors bunched as they made their way forward through the gaps in the wire. According to the Official Historian ‘The original wave formation soon ceased to exist, and the remains of companies became mixed together, making a mass of men, among which German fire played havoc’. The German eyewitness wrote:

"All along the line, men could be seen throwing up their arms and collapsing, never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony, and others, less severely injured, crawled to the nearest shell hole for shelter. ...The extended lines, though badly shaken and with many gaps, now came on all the faster. Instead of a leisurely walk, they covered the ground in short rushed at the double. Within moments the leading troops had advanced to within a stones throw of our front trench, and whilst some of us continued to fire at point-blank, others thew hand grenades among them."
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before the attack

The Devon’s report recorded that ‘only a very few reached the German lines alive. Some of these managed to effect an entry into the German trenches, where they put up a determined fight against enormous odds and were soon killed’. The toehold that the Devons had gained could not be reinforced, as the curtain of fire that the German artillery put down in the middle of no-man’s-land had halted C and D Companies who were following up behind them. They too were driven to ground by the German machine gunners, who then switched their fire to the support battalion, 2/W Yorks, who moved forward at 0825 hours. Meanwhile with the British barrage still proceeding into the depths of the German position as planned, the supporting troops lacked the assistance of suppressive fire on the enemy. Consequently, the attack ground to a halt and few of the supports, C and D Company 2/Devon along with A Company 2/West Yorks, ever reached the German line. However, it is thought that at least one mixed group of Devons and W Yorks ‘reached the second trench, two hundred yards beyond’ the front line.

Despite individual acts of heroism, determination and footholds in the enemy front line, by 0900 hours, the attack of the 8th Division had failed along the length of it's front. The extent of German success is indicated by the fact that two battalions of 180th Regiment held the entire 8th Division and that they only had to call on part of one reserve company during the day. At 0930 hours, Major General Hudson instructed commanders of 23 and 25 Brigades to gather their men and repeat the attack. He insisted, until it was pointed out that a repeated bombardment would hit their men thought to be stranded in the enemy position.

later in the day
As late as 1430 hours, there were observers' reports that 'bomb fighting' was going on in the German lines (4). However, for those remaining out in no-man's land it was fortunate that the shell holes, which had earlier hindered the movement of advancing men, now provided cover from enemy fire. The Battalion report recorded that:
"No accurate information could be ascertained as to the exact number of casualties the Battalion had suffered, although it was clear that there were very few left who had not been hit; the enemy began to snipe at our wounded. When it was quite clear that we were not holding the front line trenches, and 2/Scottish Rifles were moved forward to the "New Trench" and were told to hold themselves in readiness to advance."

Meanwhile, many lightly wounded Devons, such as Sergeant Major Bauer and three men, spent much of the morning sniping at the Germans. In their case, ‘they established themselves in a shell-hole seventy yards from the German lines fired away till they had expended all their ammunition’. However, the German artillery played up and down no-man's-land seeking and killing already wounded men and presenting a wall of fire to a renewed attack.

The Devon’s Medical Officer, in his Aid Post dugout back in the reserve line, after the initial rush of walking wounded, had few casualties to deal with. The reason why is explained in the Battalion’s after-action report:

"Our wounded still continued to crawl in to the New Trench but great difficulty was found evacuating the wounded to the Regimental Aid Post, as the trenches were too narrow to allow a stretcher to pass and also the trenches had been so knocked about that in many places one was exposed to hostile machine gun and shell fire.
"The Medical Officer went down to the New Trench and bandaged all the wounded, while the stretcher bearers and parties of regimental pioneers from Headquarters carried the wounded back to the Aid Post on their backs and in waterproof sheets. By this means all our wounded which it was possible to get at were removed to the First Aid Post where the MO redressed their wounds. The supply of [RAMC] orderlies for removing the wounded from the First Aid Post was not good. Several messages had to be sent asking for orderlies to be sent up to remove the wounded."

The sad fact is that many casualties who succumbed to their wounds, if evacuated promptly, would have survived. Many, however, lay in degrees of agony until, eventually the British barrage, which was running to the original fire plan, was brought back to the enemy front line. Under its cover many men regained the British line and more returned under the cover of darkness. The German's, once all fighting and firing had died down, did little to hinder 8th Division's efforts to clear casualties from no-man’s-land. The Battalion report recorded that ‘During the day wounded and unwounded crawled-in, in small numbers. The unwounded were organized into parties by company. … By this time [2000 hours] about forty men not including Headquarters had been collected.’ This figure of forty, gives an indication, not only of the scale of casualties but also of how effective enemy fire was in completely neutralizing the Battalion’s combat effectiveness.

As the scale of the disaster became apparent, offensive operations were cancelled. The Devon’s Commanding Officer wrote:

"At 4 P.M. all Adjutants were ordered to report at Brigade Headquarters. The Brigade Major started to dictate orders to the effect that the Scottish Rifles would take over the front line and the remainder of the other battalions of the Brigade would move into the support trenches. While taking down the orders, the 8th Division informed the Brigade that the whole Brigade would be relieved that night, and that orders for the relief would be issued. Adjutants then returned to their battalions and COs were ordered to re-organize their battalions."

Shortly afterwards the Devons learned that they were to be replaced in the line by 12th Eastern Division called up from Fourth Army Reserve. The remains of the Battalion marched back to its familiar but now very empty billets in the village of Millencourt. During the night the Medical Officer and Senior NCOs from each company remained in the front line to receive men coming in from no-mans-land or who were found by patrols. By dawn, most of the wounded who were to return, had done so but the last badly wounded Devon was not brought in for almost three days after the attack. So badly shattered was the 8th Division's infantry when they were relieved during the night of 1 / 2 July that they left the Somme the following day to join the First Army whose front was quiet.

The casualty figured that were eventually compiled showed the one-sided nature of the battle, which to all serious intents and purposes was over within forty minutes of 'Zero'. 'The 8th Division suffered 5,121 casualties, the 180th Regiment only 280 - a proportion of eighteen to one in favour of the German defenders'. (5) 2/Devons eventually assembled about three hundred officers and men. Eleven officers and 221 men were killed or missing and 194 men were wounded; in all 431 casualties out of a strength of approximately eight hundred men in action. The casualty balance in favour of those killed is unusual and is a reflection of the fact that, unable to be recovered from no-man's land, a high proportion died of their wounds.
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Analysis

What went wrong? The Regular Army soldiers of 23 Brigade lost no time in analysing the day’s events. With the Battalion safely out of the trenches ‘The CO and Adjutant then proceeded to Brigade Headquarters where a conference was held by the GOC 23rd Infantry Brigade, on the operations and the best methods of overcoming the difficulties which had been met.’ All agreed that there had been an overestimation of the fire effect of the British Artillery on deep dugouts and wire in particular and the German defensive system as a whole. Following on from this misappreciation was the decision to send over men who were to advance at a steady pace with ‘Ported Arms’. This allowed the virtually unscathed Germans to man their wrecked trenches above their dugouts and shoot down the lines of advancing British infantry. Secondly, the Artillery had yet to learn the technique of controlling a creeping barrage. In July 1916, the artillery operated in a series of timed lifts, which unless the attack went to schedule, left the infantry without support when most needed. 23 Infantry Brigade's post-action report stated;

"A bombardment on some given line may be of value in damaging the enemies defences and preventing supports from being sent up; but if the line in question is 1,000 yards behind the line from which our assaulting troops are being help us, as was the case on 1 July, the position is very far from satisfactory. To prevent reinforcements from reaching the enemy is but of minor value is we are ourselves unable to maintain our hold on the enemy's front line. I consider.... that no barrage should lift until the infantry concerned have notified that they are ready." (6)

Another factor was that success by the 8th Division was dependant on the equal success of 34th Division's attack immediate right of the 8th, across Mash Valley, on la Boisselle. The German machine guns had not been destroyed and the devastating enfilade fire on the Devon’s flank made the maximum use of the weapons' characteristics.

A further reasons for the attack's failure became clear when the British eventually took Ovillers: they found a translation of a British operation order. Even if deception and concealment of the preparations for the offensive had been of a higher standard, German intelligence had already made such attempts pointless. A breach in field security had delivered into the hands of enemy commanders the essence of the British plan! In addition, the Germans were able to confirm the time of the attack, as they had taped the British wires in the area of la Boisselle and had taken down Haig's message to the troops, which had been passed by a New Army brigade major over the field telephone, in contravention of instructions. Once again the lessons of concealment, deception and field security were re-learnt at a tragic cost.

The 1st July 1916 was a tragic day for the 2nd Devons. The casualties they suffered on this occasion were only surpassed at Bois des Butts, during the second battle of the Aisne, two years later. The First Day of the Somme Battle was, for the 2/Devons, a mind-numbing disaster with nothing to show for their casualties.

1. The eighth Division in War 1914-1918. Boraston and Cyril. The Medici Society Ltd, 1926
2. The Devonshire Regiment 1914-1918
3. Quoted from Schwaben in the British Official History
4. Official History
5. The First Day on the Somme, 1 July 1916 by Martin Middlebrook. Republished by Pen and Sword Books, 2002
6. Public Record Office WO 95/1579

Further Reading


West Country Regiments on the Somme
(Hardback - 224 pages)
ISBN: 9781844150182

by Tim Saunders
Only £19.99

This book seeks to explore the little appreciated part in the Battle of the Somme played by the Regular and Volunteer Service battalions of two famous West Country regiments; the Devonshire Regiment and the Dorset Regiment.These two regiments had five battalions in action on the first day of the battle and were represented in most of the significant attacks.The reader will be able to form a clear picture of the battle's development as a whole through the eyes of West Country soldiers who fought on the Somme.
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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