Ballymena’s bloodiest day - the harsh reality of the Somme
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 picture above is a modern day aerial view of this sector of the battlefield. The railway to Beaucourt runs through the centre of the picture and the cemetery is built on the verge of the ‘gully’ mentioned in these reports. The 12th Rifles attacked from left to right of picture. The wooded area in the foreground of the picture masks the area of the marshy River Ancre.
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 German 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 it 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)
Lieut. Lemon and the remainder of the men advanced up the main Sap. The thick wire running into the first large tunnel was cut by Rfmn. Gamble (from Kells, Co. Antrim) 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 were 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 PLATOONS
No. 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 mortar 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.
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.
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, Ballymena man Capt. W. B. Stuart (MC, KIA Nov.22 1916).
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.
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.
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Weather for Ballymena
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 15 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South
Temperature: 9 C to 15 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South