By the month of June 1916 it was clearly evident to all that preparations for the so-called ‘big push’ against the German lines on the Somme were moving into overdrive.
Field Marshal Haig, commanding the British army in France was under severe pressure from the French military to launch an offensive which would relieve pressure on their battered forces at Verdun where they and the Germans were locked in a bloody, hideous battle of attrition.
By now the 12th Royal Irish Rifles were hardened to the duties of trench-holding but they were well aware that the next step in their war would see them leave those trenches en masse for an all-out assault on the heavly fortified German lines opposite to them.
Through the unit’s war diary we can take a glimpse into the past to see what men from Mid and East Antrim were enduring in the final build up to the bloody first day on the Somme.
Intelligence had to be gathered and troops prepared for the huge attack. It was a busy period for the 12th Royal Irish Rifles. The contents of the diary for this month are particularly interesting, detailing tactics of a large scale trench raid.
June 5: Raiding Party left at 5.30pm. Arrived Martinsart 6.30. The following is a copy of the report of the raid and gives in detail the description of what took place:-
The raiding parties were trained to move in couples to avoid straggling and possible cutting off of single men. Every NCO and man armed with a revolver was trained in its use and fired a course designed to meet all contingencies likely to be encountered. Faces and hands were blackened and explosives handed out.
11pm Parties in positions on far ridge and bombardment commenced. During interval of bombardment all parties organised in Ravine (far side).
11.20pm Patrol advances into position and taping party with torpedo party moved across sunken road towards enemy wire.
11.32pm Torpedo (a bangalore tube packed with explosive designed to blast a path through wire) exploded and parties entered (enemy) sap.
11.55pm Trench reported clear.
12 Midnight Parties in position on ridge. Parties checked and group rolls called.
12.15am Parties moved off from ridge and entered (British) front line.
12.45am Wounded men left in dressing station at Hamel. Parties then marched to Martinsart and were coveyed to bllets.
Prisoners: The reason that no prisoners were taken may perhaps have been owing to the keenness of Lt. Fawcett 121st Fd. Coy. RE to accomplish all the demolition possible in the time and thereby not giving the enemy a chance to surrender.
In other words the Germans in the dugouts were simply buried alive when the entrances were blown up.
After this raid, the battalion were sent to training billets where they were to make their final preparations for the attack which was only a matter of weeks away.
The diary reveals that, where possible, the troops were trained in their roles every day.
June 6 Very wet day. Btn went for short route march having to return early on account of rain.
June 7 Attack was practiced on Clairfaye training ground and some Btn drill done. Weather better.
June 8 Divisional Field Day at Contay. The Btn, being in brig. Reserve, had little to do.
June 9 Attack was again practiced.
June 10 Church parade at CLAIRFAYE football ground. Lovely day.
June 12 Very wet all day.
June 13 Attack as half brigade was done over (mock) German trenches and was very successful.
The Brigadier was present. A demonstration of firing of Stokes Mortars was given to Brigade.
June 14 Attack again as a half bde. Practiced successfully. Weather very wet and cold.
June 15 Bn went out as before doing the attack by companies. Weather better.
June 16 Sudden orders came in to the effect that the Bde. Would move to billets in Mesnil.
The morning was spent getting ready to move out etc. The Bn marched out at 5pm splitting up into platoons from Heaudvile on. All were in billets in Mesnil by 9pm. Situation unchanged. (To be continued)