It was almost time for the men who had volunteered in the first rush to the colours in 1914 to see the most brutal face of war.
Men from factories, farms and offices who would have never dreamed of joining the army in other circumstances had taken the King’s Shilling and enlisted for a strange cocktail of reasons - patriotism and associated peer pressure would have been near the top of the list.
Like the Pals Battalions from England, Scotland and Wales, many men from all over North and East Antrim were serving with their workmates, relatives and friends in their local battalion or their very own 36th (Ulster) Division.
That very local composition of such units was a source of comfort and pride to many - but it was also to be a curse when, for example, one platoon drawn from a very specific local area happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The opening day of the Somme in July 1 1916 effectively saw the entire British army being in the wrong place at the worst time imaginable.
The British objective in the Somme offensive was to relieve German pressure on the french army at Verdun where they had been enduring hell whilst their British counterparts had built up strength in numbers and much needed military experience.
Using the war diaries of the 12th Royal Irish Rifles (Central Antrim Volunteers) we can look back in time to see exactly what was happening to so many local men 100 years ago.
June 24 1st day of bombardment. Principally 18 pdrs. U day; June 25 2nd day of bombardment. The enemy reply was feeble. V day; June 26 3rd day of bombardment. W day; June 27 4th day of bombardment. A few shells fell on Mesnil. X day; June 28 5th day of bombardment. Relieved 9th R Ir Fus in Hamel subsector X2 day; June 29 Rather quiet day. Enemy response was very feeble. Y1 day; June 30 Another quiet day – Y2 day.
July 1 was to be ‘Z’ day and by that time it was expected that the German wire would be well cut and their machine gunners dazed and confused by the massive bombardment.
But many of the shells fired by British artillery proved to be ‘duds’ while far too many were shrapnel shells which did nothing to damage the wire. Most importantly, whilst the Germans were indeed kept pinned down by the barrage, they were sheltering in deep bunkers and had suffered much fewer losses than anticipated.
While he may have suspected as much, Lt. Col. George Bull, the efficient regular offiers commanding the 12th Rifles had drawn up an attack plan for his men which was detailed and concise.
He and they knew their job. But then again, so did the Germans and they were very good at it.
Excerpts From the war diary:-
Plan of attack
Information - The 36th Div is attacking on both sides of the Ancre and will have the 32nd Div on its right and 29th Div on its left.
The 108 Brigade (containing the 12th Rifles) will attack on both sides of the Ancre.
The 12th Bn Royal irish Rifles in conjunction with the 9th Royal irish Fus. Will attack on the right bank of the River Ancre.
Objective: The triangle of trenches enclosed between the left boundary of the attack and the Ancre to Beaucourt Station.
One platoon of B coy with a Lewis gun under Lt. Lemon will enter enemy trench at Railway Sap and clear it NE to Q18C 78.75. This platoon will then proceed along the railway line to BEAUCOURT STATION keeping touch with the 9th R Ir. Fus. On their left.
One platoon of B coy (with a Lewis Gun team under 2nd Lt. McNeill will recon. The marsh to BEAUCOURT STATION. Their right boundary will be the River Ancre, left boundary Railway Line. They will keep slightly in rear of and in touch with Lt. Lemon’s platoon.
The remainder of B Coy will support the 9th R Ir Fus leaving our own front line when the last wave of the 9th R Ir Fus has entered the enemy’s line.
C coy with two Lewis Guns and 2 Vickers will attack on a platoon front of four waves on the left of the 9th R Ir Fus. Their right will be A25. They will clear the enemy’s trench 1st,2nd and 3rd lines north westward.
A and D coys in eight waves of alternative platoons at 60 yards distance will attack the enemy’s salient between Q17. B. 10.30 and will occupy their first line and support trenches. A coy will clear trenches northwards and get in touch with the 29th Div. D coy will clear trenches eastwards and get in touch with C coy, both coys will have their Lewis Guns.
The rear platoons of each coy. Will be a carrying platoon. The attack takes place at zero time on Z day.
Infantry attack: All movements on Z day from moment of assault are timed from zero.
Prior to hour of assault the coys will leave their trenches at point to be arranged by coy. Commanders under cover of bombardment and lie down in front in formation in which they are about to advance.
The first wave of the attack to be within 150 yards of the A line at zero time.