6th Berks immediately prior to the Somme Offensive
had been in the Somme region since summer, 1915. During this time
they were to become familiar with the routine of life in the trenches.
As with other front line units, they spent time in and out of the
lines, experiencing both the dull and unpleasant realities of trench
warfare and the occasional action in the form of raiding parties,
1916 training for the Somme offensive began in earnest. The 18th
Division, of which 53rd Brigade and thus the 6th Berks were a part,
were fortunate in being under the overall command of Maj. Gen. Ivor
Maxse, a thorough and intelligent leader who greatly appreciated
the value of training and ensuring that in the heat of battle even
junior officers should be able to make key decisions if progress
was not going according to plan. His doctrine can be summarised
thus: All ranks should know their form of attack thoroughly and
any commander down to Company level may vary their formation at
short notice and according to the circumstances facing them.
not many of the other Divisions involved on 1st July were lucky
enough to be granted such flexibility, greatly increasing casualties
when local commanders rigidly obeyed their orders and followed the
initial plan, sending wave after wave of men towards German machine
guns when further progress was clearly impossible.
spent considerable time training in a trench system specially built
well behind the lines. This was an exact copy of German lines which
were to be their objective. This undoubtedly was of enormous benefit
- the very nature of trench warfare means that an overall view of
the landscape around one's position is often impossible as confused
fighting takes place below ground level, in trenches and heavily
defended redoubts. A clear idea of your location in relation to
the surrounding positions is essential to success.
factor to benefit the Berkshires was that they were already familiar
with their area of attack, having been in the front lines at Carnoy
and nearby Maricourt earlier in 1916. This time would doubtless
have been spent building up a good picture of the German dispositions
within the trench lines opposite.
all, the Battalion was as ready and well prepared as any other on
the 1st July - and considerably more so than many.
one factor in the planning for the Somme offensive was of critical
importance to the outcome on 1st July it was the initial bombardment
of the German front lines.
particular concern to any attackers of a trench system was
the barbed wire in front of it. This was no simple fence,
but an almost impregnable barrier many yards deep, on which
trapped soldiers became easy prey for the defending infantry.
It was not sufficient even to destroy the wire in a few places,
as these would become "killing zones" on which machine
guns would concentrate their fire as troops inevitably congregated
of course the bombardment had to ensure that the defenders
were either dead or still in their underground shelters when
the attackers fell upon them. The High Command had complete
confidence that the Artillery would achieve both these aims.
Left: Shell exploding on the German front line (viewed from
the British front line)
barrage was to commence on 24th June and continue to fire day and
night onto the German wire, trenches and artillery batteries, using
a variety of munitions depending on the targets, right up to the
planned start time of 7.30 a.m. on 29th June. In the event, the
start date was delayed at short notice to 1st July, this giving
the artillery even more time for their objectives to be achieved.
insight into the extent and ferocity of the artillery bombardment
is the statistic that more shells were to be fired in that week
than in the entire preceeding 12 months of the war. This helps to
explain the apparantly ludicrous order that troops in the first
waves were to walk across no mans land, carrying large amounts of
consolidation equipment such as entrenching tools and rolls of barbed
wire. However, what could not be foreseen by the planners was that
fully one third of the British shells would fail to detonate, the
shrapnel rounds designed to take out the barbed wire would be far
less efficient than expected and that the sheer strength and depth
of the German hideouts and redoubts would mean that those occupying
them, whilst suffering a terrifying ordeal of noise and tremor,
would survive. Crucially, the defending troops on 1st July would
also have sufficient time on cessation of the barrage to run up
to the trenches and set up their machine guns.
is one notable exception to these flaws in the artillery barrage,
this being in the southern sector of the British zone, where the
French and British sectors met. Here, French artillery, who had
many more pieces including a larger proportion of the heavier calibres
needed to destroy the deep dugouts, were to support the attack.
Their ammunition was also of superior quality and they were much
better skilled in supporting infantry advances, having learnt valuable
lessons at Verdun - in particular with regard to destroying defensive
positions and then providing a "creeping barrage", whereby
the guns gradually lift their fire to stay closer to advancing attackers,
giving the Germans much less time to man their positions. Whilst
not being the only reason, it is noticable that all units known
to have been supported by the French guns on 1st July took their
objectives by the eve of the day. Nowhere else was there British
success on the scale of that in the south. It is hard to determine
exactly who provided the artillery for the 18th Division sector,
but given the almost complete destruction of the wire opposite them
and the huge damage inflicted on the German positions it would be
no surprise had it been the French, who certainly supported 30th
Division to the right of 18th.
the effectiveness of the bombardment opposite the Berkshires it
would be a mistake to think that the task of assaulting the German
lines on 1st July would be straightforward. Many Germans were still
alive, able and more than willing to vigorously oppose the impending
attack. As far as they were concerned, they would be fighting for
Final Hours before the Assault
6th Royal Berkshires had become familiar with their area
of attack, as in the previous few months they had been in
and out of the Carnoy / Maricourt sector on a regular basis.
Indeed, they had manned the trenches there for some of the
week prior to the 1st July, moving into the line on the
night of 27th June, having spent time at Grove Town in preparation.
The intended start of the offensive was the 29th but this
was put back to 1st July at short notice, so the Berkshires
stayed at the front for the next three days.
period proved an extraordinary experience due to the intense
British barrage opposite. One Officer noted how it was possible
during the day to move about in full view of the enemy trenches
without fear of being sniped at. To have done so only a
week previously would have been tantamount to committing
freedom of movement allowed the British carefully to observe the
enemy positions and the damage being inflicted by the artillery
barrage, which in the southern sector was much more effective than
that elsewhere and the trenches opposite appeared "devoid of
German life". This must have been of considerable encouragement
to the British troops as the date of the offensive drew closer.
During daylight the German artillery had been quiet - any batteries
firing would be spotted by the many allied aircraft overhead and
would be subjected to a rain of shells. At night, however, they
opened up, their shelling being extremely accurate and effective.
The British dugouts offered inadequate protection and many men of
the Berks were in the trenches on carrying party duties, taking
ammunition and other supplies to the front. In the period 27th June
to the night of 30th June/1st July the Battalion lost 6 men killed
and 27 wounded to shellfire. There would also have been a psychological
effect on the men. After all, they had been assured that the British
bombardment would destroy the German wire, trenches and artillery.
Clearly, the latter aim of the barrage was not being fully achieved
leading to doubts concerning the others, despite the reassuring
noises coming from senior commanders.
eve of battle itself the Battalion made their final preparations.
The men checked their equipment, packed their kit and waited. Most
other units had to be moved forward to the assembly trenches and
final positions for the off, which would at least have given them
something to occupy their minds whereas the Berkshires were already
in the front line. The men were to go over without their full pack
but with 170 rounds of ammunition, two mills bombs (grenades), a
waterproof sheet, two smoke helmets (the primitive gas masks of
the day), two empty sandbags and a haversack containing food rations
such as hard biscuits, basic groceries and two tins of meat. Specialist
troops such as bombers and Lewis Gun parties would have a variation
on this equipment, usually more rather than less to carry. Nevertheless,
the men of the Berkshires had a much lighter load than those of
other divisions, where much more emphasis had been placed on consolidation
than attack - many men in the first waves further north went into
action with 70lb packs and rolls of barbed wire or entrenching tools
to add to their burden.
Div. commander, Maj. Gen. Ivor Maxse, was clearly leaving as little
to chance as possible. The usual form of attack would be for 2 of
the 3 brigades in his division to make the assault, with one held
in reserve. For the 1st July however he had decided to send as many
men as possible into the fray, using all three brigades in line.
Each brigade would be spearheaded by two of it's four battalions,
with a third in support and one in reserve. In 53rd Bge the lead
battalions were to be the 6th Berks on the left and the 8th Norfolks
on the right. Supporting them would be the 10th Essex. - two platoons
of which would be joining the Berkshires and two the Norfolks in
the initial assualt.
the 18th and 30th Divisional commanders had decided to send men
as far forward as possible into no mans land a few minutes prior
to Zero Hour. Despite the risk of incurring casualties from their
own artillery as shells crashed onto the German wire and forward
lines this would ensure the minimum possible delay between the whistles
blowing at 7.30 and being able to obtain a foothold in the enemy
positions. This wise decision, in direct contradiction of Fourth
Army's overall instructions for the assault, was a crucial factor
in the success in the south on 1st July.
turned to night the usual German artillery fire commenced and steadily
intensified to an unusual level, leading the troops to wonder if
the enemy knew that this was no ordinary day. In fact, unbeknown
to the British, the Germans had chosen their positions on the Somme
with great care in the earlier days of the war. They occupied higher
ground although deceptively the extent of their powers of observation
over the opposing lines was not apparent to the British - a visit
to the area today confirms this. They had thus been very aware of
the massive build up of logistics and men over the previous months.
It's also likely that they knew the exact date and time of the coming
attack - their intelligence network was good and the British had
been less than discreet, especially in political and diplomatic
circles, regarding their plans. There was also at least one confirmed
case of orders being ignored and details being conveyed over the
forward British communications lines, which the Germans were capable
event, the masses of men, once in position for the off, now had
little to do but hope that a shell would not burst amongst them,
wait for their promised meal of hot tea or soup with a bully beef
sandwich and wonder, along with 120,000 others up and down the line,
what the coming hours held in store for them.
a.m. all Companys reported that they were ready. Final instructions
had been issued, including an order that no men were to cheer as
they went over for fear of alerting the Germans. The weather was
good, a light mist in some places, especially in the low lying river
valleys. The day ahead promised to be clear and sunny.
the allied bombardment reached a dramatic crescendo as the artillery
furiously rained shells down onto the trenches opposite. As the
troops waiting nervously for the order to move out into no mans
land and approach as closely as possible to the enemy lines they
must have been mindful that they had been told to expect 6% casualties
from their own guns.
after 7.25 the leading waves of the Berkshires began calmly to climb
up their trench ladders and file out into no mans land. Those behind
them in turn moved into the trenches vacated in preparation to follow.
The waiting was over.
Note: at this point the reader
may find it helpful to open a trench map of the approx. 2000
yards/metres of the area concerned - the map will open in a
new window which can then be maximised or minimised at will
without closing this page...
particularly well positioned and heavily defended strongpoints
in the German front line were singled out for special attention
by the British planners. These locations were crucial to the
outcome of the attack, as they were capable of inflicting
huge casualties even if only a few of their occupants survived
the bombardment. It was decided to lay huge explosive charges
in tunnels dug underneath them - upon detonation, these would
completely obliterate anything of the position, leaving a
large crater which when occupied by the British would give
them a commanding view and excellent line of fire into the
surrounding area. Of course, occupation by the defenders would
reap similar benefits meaning that the timing of the detonation
of these mines had long been a contentious issue. Most were
to be blown at 7.28 a.m., giving a full 2 minutes notice of
the impending assault and plenty of time for any alert Germans
to act. In the event, some of these craters would thus be
at least partly occupied by the defenders and used to considerable
advantage against surrounding attackers.
Lochnagar Mine. Located in the centre of the Somme front, this
crater was in British hands fairly quickly on 1st July. The
surrounding positions however were not taken, resulting in horrendous
losses amongst 34th Division, attacking the fortified village
of La Boiselle beyond.
Berks were positioned opposite the Casino Point machine gun nest,
under which a 5,000 lb (c.2 300 kg) mine was to be placed (indeed,
in the period leading up to the assualt the Battalion provided labouring
parties to assist the miners in their tunneling). Casino Point is
noteworthy in any account of 1st July because although it succeeded
in it's main aim it uniquely failed in two important respects. Firstly,
it had almost certainly been lain too shallow - during the mining
operation the British had accidentally broken into one of the bunkers
under which the mine should have been placed. Also, the Royal Engineers
Officer responsible for detonating the mine was appalled to see
at the appointed time of 7.28 that British troops, including the
Berkshires, were already out in no mans land and so clearly vulnerable
to it's blast. After a moment's hesitation he realised that at least
one machine gun in Casino Point was causing considerable casualties
to the advancing men and so exploded the charge.
was the complete destruction of the position, sending earth, burning
debris and dead Germans into the air. However, because of the shallowness
of the charge, rather than erupting straight upwards this man made
volcano hurled it's contents over a wide area, causing casualties
among many surrounding British battalions, both those advancing
and the troops assembling in preparation for following waves of
the attack. Crucially however, the crater was in the Berkshire's
hands almost immediately, along with the first trench line around
of photos depicting the ground over which 18th (Eastern) Division
attacked on 1st July, 1916
panorama above was taken from the starting point of the 8th
Norfolks. The road runs north-west from Carnoy to Montauban,
the latter being directly behind the large tree on the right.
The 6th Berks attacked on the Norfolk's left, their main objective
of Montauban Alley trench lying some 2000 yards ahead, just
over the crest of the ridge along which the Montauban-Mametz
Road runs. The clump of trees to the left of this picture lies
well beyond Montauban Alley but is roughly in line with the
6th Berks final positions.
a.m. the artillery fell silent as the gun ranges were adjusted beyond
the first German lines. The roar and shock of the exploding mines
had also subsided so that in most places along the Somme front an
eerie silence descended over the battlefield. Out in no mans land
there was plenty of undergrowth and tall grass, a testament to the
relative inactivity in this area over the previous couple of years.
Then, whistles up and down the the sixteen or so miles of British
trenches blew and men started clambering out, filing through the
specially prepared gaps in their own wire and forming up into their
neat waves before setting off over no mans land at a slow, steady
pace, rifles at the slope.
course, once the final crescendo of the barrage ceased abruptly,
the defending Germans realised what was happening and rushed
up from their bunkers to the trenches above. The outcome of
the battle would essentially be decided by who first reached
the forward German positions as this would decide whether
the British would at least have a foothold in the German trenches
or all be out in the killing zone of no mans land - along
most of the front the race was won by the Germans. A competent
machine gunner would have no problem in causing carnage among
neat lines of men by slowly traversing their 600 rounds per
minute along them - and the Germans were very competent. Very
soon the patter, patter of machine gun fire filled the air
and all along the advancing lines of British troops men began
to twist and fall as they were hit.
German Machine Gun Crew awaiting the advancing British troops.
18th Division's front matters were slightly different. The 6th Berks'
leading wave, already far out into no man's land when the whistles
blew, was upon the German front line of "Mine Trench"
and the crater left by the exploding Casino Point mine within seconds
of the barrage ceasing and the first prisoners were taken.
a.m the leading wave of Berkshires moved off towards the second
German line, "Bund Support", whilst the second wave began
advancing across no mans land and subsequent waves prepared to follow.
The Germans were by now manning their weapons in the carefully positioned
tiers of trenches ahead and firing downhill into the advancing British
commander facing the Berkshires had placed most of his strength
in the 2nd and 3rd lines, Pommiers Trench and Pommiers Redoubt /
Montauban Alley. Attacking alongside and on the right of the Berkshires
were the 8th Norfolks, who faced a different German unit, which
had dispersed it's strength further forward. This had serious consequences
for the Berkshires, some of whom by 7.50 were well forward, bombing
their way up Popoff Lane trench which connected Bund Support with
Pommiers Trench, whilst others had even reached Pommiers Trench
across open land. The Norfolks were held up, noticably at The Loop,
a strongpoint leading back from Pommiers Trench but crucially at
a point to the rear of the Berkshire's leading units. The Berk's
right flank was thus exposed to machine gun fire from The Loop and
heavy casualties resulted.
Lane and Pommiers Trench were nevertheless taken and at 9.30
Pommiers Redoubt, which had been heavily shelled during the
morning, was assaulted and captured by the 11th Royal Fusiliers
together with men of the 7th Bedfords and 10th Essex. The
way was now open for the Berkshires to move on to their final
objective, Montauban Alley. However, The Loop was still in
German hands, inflicting casualties on both the Berkshires
and the Norfolks, and the latter could not advance without
taking the position. Loop Trench ran from The Loop north to
Montauban Alley, crossing the Montauban-Mametz road on the
crest of the slope which the 18th Division were charged with
assaulting. The Berkshires started to bomb their way up this
trench against fierce opposition, with the aim of isolating
the Germans in The Loop and protecting their right flank as
they attacked Montauban Alley.
progress was made up both Loop Trench and Montauban Alley
although one can only imagine the ferocity of the fighting
as the Germans held on desperately to every yard of trench.
By 10.40 the Norfolks at last had quelled resistance at The
Loop but were now facing stiff resistance at their next objectives,
Boche and Back Trenches. The Berkshires had meanwhile made
contact with the 7th Bedfords on their left, making similarly
slow but sure gains.
Montauban Alley shortly after it's capture on 1st July.
time, casualties were mounting. Many officers had fallen and individual
units were becoming badly depleted, especially further forward.
It was precisely because of this possibility that the training for
the attack had been so thorough and the "walkover" assumptions
adopted elsewhere had been largely ignored. The benefits now paid,
as junior officers and NCOs improvised and gave orders according
to how the battle was developing, rather than how it was meant to
be progressing. The 6th Berks continued to act in a co-ordinated
and cohesive manner, despite the confusion on the ground in the
heat of the battle.
had taken Loop Trench as far as the Montauban-Mametz road. Half
of Montauban Alley trench, their final objective, had also been
taken. Both had been bitterly fought over, the Germans having placed
the majority of their strength in these rear areas. The 6th Berks
line running between the two trenches was particularly hazardous,
as there was little cover out in this open ground. It is noteworthy
that the Berkshires were entering territory beyond the line of sight
from their own former positions in the British lines, having reached
the ridge at the top of the gentle slope facing 18th Division. They
now had to continue their desperate fight along Montauban Alley
and Loop Trench, to the junction of the two trenches north of the
Montauban-Mametz road. Reinforcements from the 10th Essex Bn. had
by now been requested to aid in the bombing up the two enemy trenches.
and exhausted troops of the leading Berkshires were facing the stiffest
resistance of the day in Montauban Alley and Loop Trench. The German
artillery had been accurately shelling throughout the actions of
the day so far, making the task of the carrying parties and consolidation
troops hazardous as they brought ammunition and supplies to the
forward units and worked to create new strongpoints in case of counter
the bombing parties in both Montauban Alley and Loop Trench fought
fiercely to work their way forward, those troops out in the open
between the two trenches were virtually static, pinned down by machine
gun fire and snipers. Progress in Loop Trench was becoming negligible,
in Montauban Alley it was little better. The reinforcements from
the 10th Essex still had not arrived and were requested again. The
Norfolks on the right were also facing fierce resistance and were
not advancing. By mid afternoon the situation was desperate. Heavy
casualties had been sustained as the exhausted troops on both sides
fought on ferociously and still the Berkshires continued to make
point came with the arrival of the bombers from the 10th Essex.
They were immediately sent to Montauban Alley and the Germans began
to fall back under the onslaught of grenades from these fresh and
well armed troops. Reinforcements also soon arrived at Loop Trench
and here, too, progress was resumed as the Germans finally started
to relinquish ground.
p.m. the Berkshire and Essex men were in posession of both Montauban
Alley and Loop Trench. The latter was handed over to the Norfolks,
now up alongside and whose objective it had originally been. They
were advised to continue bombing up Caterpillar Trench, their final
now was negligible and by 6.30 any surviving Germans were fleeing
accross the open land in front whilst the British troops consolidated
their final positions for the day, all objectives along the 18th
Division's front having been or shortly to be taken. Shelling continued
from the German gun batteries concealed beyond but ammunition, food,
water and other supplies were finding their way forward.
the exhausted but surviving British troops all along the southern
section of the assault consolidated their positions and took
stock of the day's events, many soldiers were aghast at the
observation that had been afforded to the Germans when looking
down towards the British lines and realised how well their
preparations would have been noted. Doubtless they would also
have been wondering why they could see no sign of the Cavalry
units who were meant to be sweeping through the huge gap in
the German lines stretching from Serre to Montauban, created
by their efforts and the sacrifice of their pals.
Montauban, July 1916
was achieved. The lack of progress and full extent of the carnage
on the front further north, where in places whole battalions had
been virtually wiped out for no gain, had yet to filter through
to the high command although they clearly realised that events had
not gone according to plan and so did not order the Cavalry forward.
Instead, the troops in the south looked out over the rolling landscape
of the Somme beyond, dotted with the woods - Delville, High, Mametz
and more - which were within easy walking distance, clearly unoccupied
by enemy troops and yet which would soon become icons of the slaughter
of the First World War
success of the 6th Berks on 1st July came with a high price.
The attacking strength of the Battalion was 20 Officers and
656 other ranks. Casualties were:
89 killed (inc. 11 missing, almost certainly killed), 259
Valley, July 1916
(now Carnoy Military Cemetery)