News, events and discoveries of the Walkley Ways, Walkley Wars history project.
The Sheffield Pals were one of the first battalions ‘over the top’ on the morning of the 1st July, 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
On Saturday 24th June, the British artillery opened a bombardment that over a 5-day period was intended to destroy the German defences completely. Each night the Battalion sent out raiding and wire-examining parties; ominously the German wire was found to be incompletely cut. On 28th June, word was received that the attack would be postponed for two days because of the poor weather. The new time for the start of the offensive was 7.30am on Saturday 1st. July.
The day before the offensive began badly with the news that Lt-Col. Crosthwaite was seriously ill, necessitating his hurried replacement by Major Plackett. Also on the morning of the 30th June Lt-General Sir A. Hunter-Weston, the Commander of the VIII. Corps, in which the 31st Division was now serving, visited the Battalion, later publishing the following message:-
“My greetings to every officer, N.C.O. and man of the 31st Division in the coming battle. Stick it out, push on, each to his objective and you will win a glorious victory and make a name in history. I rejoice to be associated with you as your Corps Commander”.
The weather on this day – 30th June – was dry but overcast, the ground was still very wet and in places the trenches were flooded, there was mud everywhere.
The men did their last minute preparations and packed the final few items into their field kits. The small haversack was worn on the back instead of being slung around the shoulder. Inside the haversack were mess tins, a complete days rations, a haversack ration and iron rations only for use in emergency. They also carried a spare pair of socks, a cardigan and sewing kit. Fastened on the back of the haversack was a tin triangle cut from a biscuit tin. Every rifleman carried 120 rounds of ammunition in his pouches and an extra bandolier of 50 rounds in his pack.
They all carried four empty sandbags and two grenades, the latter were not to be thrown but given to trained bombers when they had exhausted their own supply. Two gas helmets were also taken, and the groundsheet was rolled up and fastened to the rear of the waist belt.
By the time they went into line every man was carrying at least 60lbs and some were detailed to carry extra items such as cable drums or ammunition, making their loads considerably heavier. It has been calculated that some men carried 90 lbs. Even if they had been ordered to attack on the charge they would have been physically unable to do so.
At 9.00pm that same day the Battalion moved out to march up to the assembly trenches which were behind John Copse and Mark Copse, a short halt being made just west of Courcelles, where tea laced with rum was issued to the men. Here the men ate one half of a day’s ration. This would be their last food and drink until after the attack. The onward move then continued until the assembly position was arrived at. For the attack, to open on the following morning, the 31st Division was to be on a two-brigade front, the 93rd Brigade on the right, and the 94th on the left and the 92nd in reserve, each assaulting brigade having two battalions in front, one in support and one in reserve. In the 94th Brigade the Battalion was on the left in front line, the 11th East Lancashire was on the right and the 14th York and Lancaster in support.
The battalion entered the trenches at Northern Avenue and made it’s way forward via Pylon and Nairne. The wet weather caused the trenches to be waterlogged in places. The pace was much slower than expected and most of the men were two to three hours late reaching their positions.
“It was still daylight when we set off round about 7.30pm all loaded up like pack mules with all the extra equipment we had to carry. By the time we reached the communication trenches it was quite dark, apart from the gun flashes lighting up the sky. It was a struggle moving down the trenches loaded up like we were. We signallers knew this section of trenches like the backs of our hands as one of our jobs was to find broken telephone lines at night and repair them. We couldn’t climb out of the trenches with all that weight of equipment, so we had to sweat and toil at the mud and water that was knee deep in places. The going was difficult and it took longer to get into position than planned. We got there just before first light.”
12/928 LCpl. J.R.Glenn
At 3.45am on 1st. July, the battalion was in position in the assembly trenches, finding them already in atrocious condition from German shellfire. With the appearance of daylight at 4.05am, German artillery began to shell the British front line with great violence, the Germans having evidently grasped the fact that something unusual was in prospect, for the reason that our wire had been cut to allow our troops to pass through, while tapes had also been laid out in No-Man’s-Land; some of our trenches were soon blown in, the front line was badly smashed up and owing to the heavy rainfall the communication trenches were knee-deep in mud and water.
At 7.20am the first wave of the Battalion, composed of “A” and “C” Companies moved 100yards into No-Man’s_Land and lay flat on the ground as the brigade mortar battery and divisional artillery placed a final hurricane bombardment over the German front line. A few minutes later – with the British front line coming under intense counter barrage – the second wave took up position 30 yards behind the first, the third and fourth waves also left the assembly trenches and went forward in columns of sections, all under the very heavy shell fire from the enemy.
Our barrage now lifting from the German front line, the first and second waves moved forward to the assault and were at one met with terribly severe shell, rifle and machine-gun fire; the left half of “C” Company was wiped out before reaching the enemy wire, the few men who did succeed in getting so far were unable to pass through, while the moment our barrage lifted, the Germans emerged from their dug-outs and opened rapid fire. The Battalion third and fourth waves suffered so heavily from this fire that by the time they had reached No-Man’s-Land they had lost at least half their numbers, whole sections being wiped out.
The German front line wire was found to be almost everywhere intact. A few men of “A” and “C” Companies managed to enter the German trenches on the right of the attack, remaining there in shell-holes until they could get back under cover of darkness. The failure of the attack was wholly due to the wire being insufficiently cut, consequently successive waves of men were struck down and did not arrive at the enemy wire in anything like strength.
Within minutes it was as if the battalion had been wiped off the face of the earth. Cpl. Signaller Outram recalled that as far as the eye could see, the last two men left standing on the battlefield were himself and another signaller, A Brammer. They signalled to each other. Outram turned his head for a moment and when he looked back Brammer had gone.
At 7.30am the Battalion Headquarters moved to Mark Copse, and in reply to a message from the Brigade inquiring as to strength, was only able to reply – “Strength of Battalion – ten men unwounded, these are runners and signallers.”
On the right of the Sheffield City Battalion, the Accrington Pals made greater inroads into the German trenches but were unable to hold on to the hard-won gains. The battle for Serre was lost.
Private Reg Parker of the Sheffield City Battalion was bringing up supplies the following night:
“We could see the fires as we went up. This little country village, this Serre, were a mass of fire that night. We had to take the stuff up to a place called Basin Wood and it was an exposed position, just about 600 yards behind our front line. And it was full of wounded. There were three doctors there working flat out and you could hear the groaning in the dark and see them lying round by the flash of the guns… You could see it had been a shambles.
I kept trying to find out about my brother. He’d only come to the Regiment a matter of days before the attack…. I didn’t have time to wangle him onto the Transport…. I kept asking, but nobody knew what had happened to him…. He must have been blown to smithereens”
The outcome of the day’s operations was terrible beyond anyone’s advance predictions. Apart from the South practically no ground had been gained. Even to determine the numbers lost was impossible at first. The roll calls gave figures of 8,170 killed, 35,888 wounded and 17,758 missing. As days and weeks passed stragglers came in, men lying in the mud and shell-holes were discovered miraculously alive, and investigations showed that men logged as missing had in fact been killed, while a few had been taken prisoner. The final count was 19,240 killed or dead from wounds, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 taken prisoner. A total of 57,470. The figures for German losses are not precisely calculable but some 2,200 had been taken prisoner and approx.. 6,000 were killed or wounded.
Never, before or since, has the British Army suffered like this.
From the Commander of the VIII. Corps which it had now left, General Sir A.Hunter-Weston sent the following message to the 31st Division.
“The G.O.. Anzac Corps has sent the following message to me which I desire to pass on at once to the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the VIII. Arm Corp, to show them the opinion held of them by the rest of the British troops:-
“Just a line to say how sorry we are to hear of the losses which your magnificent Corps. has recently suffered in its gallant fighting in the German trenches. They are indeed heroes and their name will live for ever.”
During the battle the 94th Brigade was temporarily commanded by Brigadier-General H.C.Rees, D.S.O., who published after the action the following Special Order of the Day :-
“In giving up the command of the 94th Brigadier-General T.Carter-Campbell, whose place I have temporarily taken during this great battle, I wish to express to all ranks my admiration of their behaviour. I have been through many battles in this war and nothing more magnificent has come under my notice. The waves went forward as if on a drill parade and I saw no man turn back or falter. I bid goodbye to the remnants of as fine a Brigade as has ever gone into action.”
From the Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield University came the following message:-
“Congratulate Battalion on its superb courage, while deeply deploring heavy losses.”
The remnants of the battalion were taken out of the line in the evening of 3rd.July, having lost 513 officers and men killed, wounded or missing; a further 75 were slightly wounded.
Throughout the long months of the Battle of the Somme, Serre remained uncaptured, falling into British hands only after the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in February 1917.
Although the battalion was gradually returned to strength, the “Pals” character was unrecoverable. During the harsh winter months of 1916-17, an almost unbelievable 887 officers and men of the battalion were evacuated to hospital. For two spells in May 1917 at Arras, the battalion defended the vital Windmill spur in the Gavrelle sector, suffering 143 casualties before playing a successful part in the attack At Oppy-Gavrelle on 28th June 1917. The battalion was again to suffer in German gas attacks at Vimy Ridge in August and September 1917. Finally in the early weeks of 1918 the weakened battalion was forced to disband.
By Julie Clarke
The content regarding the Sheffield City Battalion is largely drawn from Richard Sparling’s “History of the 12th (Service) Battallion, York & Lancaster Regiment” published in 1920, the “Yorks & Lancs own History” – Rotherham Museum, “Sheffield City Battalion” by Ralph Gibson & Paul Oldfield and “Somme 1914 – 1918” by Martin Matrix Evans.