With July lst marking the first day of the terrible ‘Battle of the Somme’ – during the First World War – local author and historian Andrew Swift has given Bath Newseum access to an extract from his book All Roads Lead to France.
It details the stories of soldiers from Bath who took part in that battle and also describes the arrival of casualties at Bath War Hospital.
Andrew’s book is currently on offer for £15. Details about this – and other publications of local historical interest – can be found via www.akemanpress.com
General Haig spent the first six months of 1916 drawing up plans for the great push that would end the war. Gradually, the biggest army Britain had ever put into the field assembled in France, swelled by drafts of conscripts. Bath, which had grown used to large numbers of soldiers wandering its streets, suddenly fell quiet. Almost the only ones left were those wearing the blue uniforms issued by the War Hospital.
One of those who took part in an early skirmish was 19-year-old Private Stanley Slater, who wrote to his father, Lady de Blaquiere’s butler, from hospital in London:
‘I was wounded on the third of June, when we charged the German trenches. We had four days continuous bombardment before we went over the top. At three o’clock in the morning the word was passed along our trench, “Over the top,” so over we went. It was grand to see our men charge. We went through machine-gun and rifle fire, then they sent shrapnel. There wasn’t many left of us, but we still kept on, and I got in the German trenches amongst them. I had the good luck to stick three out of the four, but the fourth one had more pluck than the others. He shot me through the head. It put my light out for a time; when I woke up one of our sergeants was carrying me back to our trench. While I was waiting in the trench to be taken away a piece of shrapnel hit me in the neck. Our stretcher bearers couldn’t get the wounded away because they were shelling our communication trenches. I had already waited five hours and I got fed up with it so off I went. I crawled three miles to the dressing station. I tried to walk but I couldn’t. I never want to see anything like it again. I can’t close my right eye and am stone deaf in the right ear, and can’t use my jaw much; but I think it will all come back in time. I was shot in the face and the bullet came out of the back of my head.’
By the end of June, everything was ready for the implementation of Haig’s master plan. The fighting force assembled at the Somme was at least ten times the size commanded by Wellington at Waterloo. The army sent over to France in August 1914 had consisted of four divisions. The army commanded by General Haig in the summer of 1916 consisted of 58. To support such an army in the field required another army – of back-up units. To maintain communication between fighting and support units a bureaucratic system of mind-boggling complexity was required. There was even a mobile typewriter repair workshop to make sure nothing interrupted the incessant flow of paperwork. The Battle of the Somme was dependent on bureaucracy. Wellington could gauge the progress of the Battle of Waterloo by riding around the battlefield on horseback, making changes to his strategy and giving orders. Haig, who spent most of the war at Montreuil, closer to the English coast than the Western Front, had little idea what was happening once a battle started. And, even if he had wanted to modify his strategy, it was next to impossible for him to issue coherent orders once a battle was underway. The problem was that communications had not kept pace with armament technology. Although a primitive wireless system was available, most communication in the field was by telephone and telegraph, both of which relied on cables easily severed in bombardments.
As effective communication in battle was a near impossibility, steps had to be taken to render it unnecessary. A timetable, whose rigidity was matched only by a mind-numbing attention to detail, was drawn up. Soldiers were drilled to take part in a show as regimented and pre-ordained as Trooping the Colour. Nothing was left to chance. The flaw was that, when it comes to battles, the enemy do not always do what you want.
General Haig ordered a week-long bombardment of the German front-line at the point where he planned his major advance. Over a million shells rained down on the German positions. As the bombardment drew to a close, Haig wrote to his wife, “I feel that every step in my plan has been taken with Divine help.” He noted in his diary that “the wire has never been so well cut, nor the artillery preparation so thorough.” Heavy rain held proceedings up for a couple of days, but at 7.30 on the morning of Saturday 1 July everything was ready. The artillery ceased firing and men from eleven British divisions climbed out of the trenches along a 13-mile stretch of the line and walked towards the German positions. They would face, they were confidently informed, little or no resistance.
Two days later, the Times in London reported that
‘Everything has gone well. Our troops have successfully carried out their missions, all counter-attacks have been repulsed and large numbers of prisoners have been taken. . . . The British attack was on a front of 20 miles in the country of chalk downs and woods on either side of the Ancre and the north of the Somme. . . . Sir Douglas Haig telegraphed last night that the general situation was favourable. Beyond the capture of Fricourt, where the fighting was very heavy, our troops were making effective progress near La Boisselle. Further north the situation was unchanged but favourable.’
The Times, it seems, was keen to portray the war as a cross between Stalky & Co and Scouting for Boys. Which is why they chose as their correspondent someone who makes William Boot, in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, sound like a battle-hardened war veteran. This – difficult though it is to believe – is how he described the first day of the Somme:
‘It was a lovely morning, the sun still low, shining directly in our faces from behind the German lines. . . . Albert was almost hidden in mist, except that the church tower, with the wonderful spectacle of the leaning figure of the Virgin, stood clear above the white bank below and gleamed golden in the sun. . . .
When 7.30 came the mist was still too thick to see our men advancing from their trenches. The lines of the trenches themselves were only doubtfully visible, the light westerly wind not being strong enough to dispel the fog or to drift away the smoke and dust of the bursting shells. . . .
It was between nine and ten o’clock when I left the scene of the fighting. The sun had grown stronger and the mists had almost gone, so that the details of the landscape were clearly visible. But the visibility came too late to see our men actually moving from their trenches. They had already gone from the ground where one might have seen them, on beyond the German front line, to where a thick veil of smoke still hid everything.
It has turned now into a beautiful summer’s day, with promise of great heat, the first that we have had for over a week. The sky above is clear blue, flecked with dazzling white islands of cloud. But over there, where at night the horizon was all a flicker of lightning, there is nothing but a sullen bank of thick pearl grey. Behind that bank the British Army is winning new glory.’
Later, he added a postscript:
‘7pm, 1 July: I have already, alas! seen many of our wounded; and prisoners are coming in in considerable quantity. It is impossible . . . at present to speak of the battle, otherwise than to say that it has only begun, but begun very favourably for us.’
Apart from a report of “moving scenes at Charing Cross station” as wounded soldiers were welcomed home by the “sympathetic cheers” of a large crowd, there was very little else about British casualties. Nothing to indicate that 1 July 1916 was the blackest day in British military history. Or that, far from having gone favourably, it was a bloody shambles. But this is what the great and good of Bath read as they sat down to breakfast on Monday 3 July. Hardly surprising that they had not got a clue what was happening in the trenches.
Hardly surprising either that they should label as traitorous anyone who dared to suggest that things were not quite as they were reported in the Times. It is no wonder that soldiers, home on leave, felt that there was no point of contact between them and those that had stayed behind. No wonder, too, that the widespread belief that you can’t believe what you read in the newspapers dates back to the Great War.
By the end of the first day of the Somme, over half the 110,000 British soldiers who had taken part in the offensive were either dead or wounded. It has gone down in history as the worst day in the history of the British Army. As the sun set on that balmy July evening, the sickly-sweet smell of human blood quivered in the air like the scent of a savage blossom. Many of the wounded were left out in No Man’s Land, screaming for help or for someone to put an end to their agonies. It was several days before they all fell silent.
Just as General Haig had confidently declared that little barbed wire would be left after the British bombardment, so he had confidently predicted that casualties would be light. A senior officer at the front, aware of the scale of the planned attack, had ordered 15 ambulance trains to be ready behind the lines. When Haig found out about the order, he cut the number to five. As a result, thousands of wounded men were left with no means of getting away from the front, and no one to tend their wounds. On 2 July, there was a terrific thunderstorm. Many of the wounded, lying helpless in supply trenches behind the lines, drowned as water flooded in. Many more died of relatively minor wounds as gangrene and blood poisoning set in.
What had happened is that the Germans had sat out the bombardment in trenches far deeper and more secure than anything Haig could have imagined. The British High Command never really got beyond seeing trenches as a temporary expedient. Make them too comfortable, too safe, too permanent, the thinking seems to have been, and soldiers will not want to come out of them.
The Germans, on the other hand, with stereotypical Prussian thoroughness, were prepared to make them – or at least the ones that needed to be defended most robustly – as deep, as safe and as comfortable as possible. So, when the firing ceased, the Germans simply climbed out of their dugouts, mounted their machine guns on the parapets, and waited for the attack. When it came, their task was made easier by its appalling predictability. As Paul Fussell has written,
‘The regulars of the British staff entertained an implacable contempt for the rapidly trained new men of Kitchener’s Army. . . . The planners assumed that these troops – burdened for the assault with 66 pounds of equipment – were too simple and animal to cross the space between the opposing trenches in any way except in full daylight and aligned in rows of “waves.” It was felt that the troops would become confused by more subtle tactics like rushing from cover to cover, or assault-firing, or following close upon a continuous creeping barrage.
A final cause of the disaster was total lack of surprise. There was a hopeless absence of cleverness about the whole thing, entirely characteristic of its author. The attackers could have feinted: they could have lifted the bombardment for two minutes at dawn – the expected hour for an attack – and then immediately resumed it, which might have caught the seduced German machine gunners unprotected up at their open firing positions. But one suspects that if such a feint was ever considered, it was rejected as unsporting.’
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It is important to recognise, however, that, on the morning of 1 July, British soldiers in the front line were not, on the whole, gloomy about their prospects. General Haig’s confidence may have been misplaced, but it had filtered down through the ranks so successfully that many regular soldiers looked forward to the big push as though it were a glorified football match. Philip Gibbs, who witnessed the preparations for the attack, later wrote that
‘A man would be a liar if he pretended that British troops went forward to the great attack with hang-dog looks, or any visible sign of fear in their souls. I think most of them were uplifted by the belief that the old days of trench warfare were over for ever, and that they would break the enemy’s lines, by means of that enormous gun-power behind them, and get him “on the run.” There would be movement, excitement, triumphant victories – and then, the end of the war. ‘
Two battalions of the Somerset Light Infantry – the 1st and the 8th – took part in the first day of the Somme. The 1st Somersets were in a sector between Beaumont Hamel and Serre Road, about six miles north of Albert. Arthur Cook kept a record of what happened:
A lovely morning and birds singing. Breakfast at 5.30am, each man being given a special cooker for this occasion. . . . The bombardment is now terrific and the enemy lines are one cloud of smoke from the shells. It seems impossible for anyone to live in such a hell! We are much inspired by it and stand up on our parapets to get a better view, cheering all direct hits. The enemy guns are strangely silent. This is going to be a cake-walk! . . .
At 7.30am a huge mine exploded under Hawthorn Redoubt on our right front. The force of the explosion shook our trenches. The attack started. It was an amazing sight for, as far as the eye could see to right and left, lines of men were advancing across No Man’s Land in perfect skirmishing order. Not an angry shot barred their progress. But just before the forward troops reached the German trenches the enemy opened a murderous machine-gun fire.
We were supposed to follow the Rifle Brigade at 7.40am. But everyone was eager for the fray and we were following up in a few minutes. So with a prayer on my lips I went over the top and we had not gone far before the enemy guns opened up. We were caught in the middle of No Man’s Land! Men began to fall like nine-pins, but we had to push on as the whole front was covered by these strategically placed guns. Soon my platoon officer, Second Lieutenant Tilley was hit. I thought he was killed but it turned out he was only wounded and captured. Then my platoon sergeant – Willmott – was killed and I was left in charge within five minutes of the start! . . . I led the platoon into the German front line.
After a breather we went on towards the second line. Here I lost control as the men rushed from one shell hole to another and became mixed up with other units under whose control they came for the time being. The ground everywhere was covered with dead and wounded, who had been caught by enfilade fire from the right. Our guns had made an unholy mess of the German trenches, but there were very few German dead, only our own men.
The Germans had been safely stowed away in deep dugouts during the bombardment. The ground was so churned up our progress was difficult. Huge gaps had been torn in the wire but the dugouts and their entrances had escaped. Some of these were about 30 feet deep and elaborately made. They were a revelation to us. . . .
After some time men from the 10th and 12th Brigades came up to reinforce us, but met such a withering fire they were almost wiped out. Their wounded were lying about everywhere and near me were hundreds of dead, piled up on top of each other, where the machine guns had caught them. Our only hope now was to consolidate our meagre gains. I tried to get in touch with some of our men but failed to do so and stuck where I was. . . .
Many of our casualties started to try to get back to our line, but I am afraid few did so. I have never seen so many dead in such a small area. In places where the enfilade fire had caught them they were three or four feet deep and all looked to be asleep. Their bodies were whole, as machine-gun fire does not dismember. It is only shells which do that. The shell holes all around were full of wounded and no hope of moving them in daylight. . . .
By this time the Germans had begun to try to get us out of their trenches. The few of us left got together and started to collect bombs from the dead and wounded and we began a grenade battle in real earnest. This went on for two or three hours when our supply of bombs ran out and there were no more to be got. The Germans gradually drove us back inch by inch through the communication trenches and had no scarcity of bombs. . . .
Our numbers were now very small and still men were being killed and wounded in all directions. Shells, both German and British, began to fall among us and mangle the bodies. It was ghastly. We all saw a similar fate in store for us and said if our time was coming let it be soon, for life here was more fit for devils than human beings. I had a terrible thirst from the fumes of the bursting shells and the bombs. The wounded were all crying out for water, so we drained our water bottles for them and collected those of the dead to give them. We could not move without treading on the wounded and, as we had much to do, no attempt could be made to avoid them.
As this awful day wore on most of our men went back gradually, leaving only a small party to hold the trench we were in. I still hoped to make contact with Somerset men, so stayed on. It was dangerous to move anywhere, but more bombs had to be got, so I scrounged around and got a few more from casualties in other trenches. These were soon used up. Then we went back to the former German front line trench to try and hold out with rifle fire. But it was bombs we wanted as Jerry took advantage of knowing the maze of communication trenches to follow up every yard of ground we gave.
Our number were by now reduced to about 50 and seemed to be made up of all units, myself representing the Somersets. I did not know where the others were and presumed they had retired. A Second Lieutenant of the Warwicks and I had a pow-wow and decided to split the men between us, barricade the trench to right and left and leave the open space between us to look after itself. He took his party to the right and I to the left, till I made contact with the enemy. I did not see the other party again.
I got a few men to collect all the bombs they could find, German ones and all. As I did this I saw a German coming up the trench and killed him. But many others followed with bombs and another grenade contest started. The only bombs we had now were German stick bombs. We could see each other as the bombs were thrown and actually could throw them back before they burst. The German time fuse seemed much longer than our Mills bomb of four seconds.
My numbers were being rapidly reduced, but we were holding our own until the enemy worked round to the right rear and began bombing from there. This was getting pretty hot, but my orders were to hang on till midnight when we would be relieved.
We seemed to be the only British troops around here and my party now numbered nine. I had not seen any Somersets for hours. I thought I could hold on while the bombs lasted. These trenches were full of German dead we had bombed out in the morning and we had to keep clambering over them to hold our own. Shells now began to fall thick and fast. It seemed that the Germans had retired and called for artillery support to dislodge us. It got very dark except for the shell bursts and about 11pm a relief arrived and we were told to go back.
We needed no second telling for those of us left had had a bellyful of fighting for one day. At the end of a German sap I ran into our Signalling Sergeant, the first Somerset I had seen for hours! I said, “Come on, Sam, we are relieved.” . . .
How I escaped I do not know. I tripped over dead bodies, fell headlong into shell holes full of dead, my clothes were torn to ribbons by the barbed wire. I lost all sense of direction and finally fell headlong, beat to the world. When I recovered I saw a man standing over me with a fixed bayonet. I thought he was a German and he thought I was one. Thank God it was a British sentry!! He had been told no British troops were out in front, so I nearly got shot by my own side after being out there in hell since 7.30am! What a lot had happened since I had gone over the top, happy and cheerful with thousands of others. I felt I was tumbling back into trenches, all alone, like Dr Bryden at Jellalabad!
I found our trenches in an awful state. I had seen nothing but dead and wounded in the German lines, but here was a similar scene. I wandered about trying to find out where I was and where the rest of the battalion was. At last I found Sergeant Tommy Johnson and a few Somersets. We found our Brigade had gone into Divisional Reserve at Mailly-Maillet, which we reached at 3.30am, absolutely exhausted.
Roused at 7.30am for a roll-call, and a motley crowd we looked. Out of 26 officers who went into action not one returned. Casualties among other ranks were 478. Colonel Thickness, Captain and Adjutant Ford were killed by the same shell, also Brigadier Prowse. . . . It seems to me that yesterday’s battle was a test of the respective merits of heavy artillery and machine guns and the machine guns won. For the result of the attack was absolutely nil.
Sergeant Holley of 30 Herbert Road was among those wounded in the attack. He described what happened in a letter from hospital a few weeks later:
I shall never forget the morning of the 1st the longest day I live. It was hell upon earth. I have been through the lot but I think that is the worst game any of us have been in. We went into the trenches the night before, and we went over the top the next morning. All our watches were fixed at zero; that was for us to go over at 7.30am. Our chaps bombarded with all sorts and sizes of guns for six days, and for the last hour every gun we had was trained on those front lines, and, by gum, it must have been a little hell for Fritz, but he had some good dugouts.
At 7.30 the fire was lifted and the order was sent down the line, “Up and at ’em,” and we met such a storm of machine-gun and shell fire that you would think it was impossible to ever live in. But I will say that for our troops – they never flinched. Our boys and the Rifle Brigade took the lead, but I don’t think many of us reached the trench before we were cut down. But if we did not reach it we opened the door for others to do so, and by the look of things it was a proud success. But you would believe that Fritz knew as well as we did what time the attack was coming off, as secret as it was supposed to be kept.
I did not last very long. We got up within twenty yards of their front line when my officer collected the platoon together to make a charge. He asked us if we were all ready and I said “yes.” We got up to charge, but if you see the vanishing trick put on about 60 men it was when he said “Charge.”
They were waiting and we went down like sheep. They gave me mine in my left thigh, right in the bone, and there it stopped. It was not being hit that I worried about, it was having to stay out there all day, but I suppose I must think myself lucky that I am in the land of the living. I had my operation before leaving France, but I am very afraid that I have got to have another.’
Seventeen men from the Bath area serving with the 1st Somersets were killed on 1 July: Sergeant A F Ashman of 20 Landseer Road, Corporal Henry Targett, and Privates William Briscoe of Claverton, William Brown of 21, Broadway, Dolemeads, William Bryant, Stanley Cass, Albert Gummer of 108 Calton Road, William Hancock, Leslie Knight, Arthur May, Arthur Morris, Arthur Nicholls of Camerton, Samuel Price, Wilfred Rawle, Percy Stead of Swainswick, William Stookes, and Aaron Swift of Widcombe.
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The line of trenches held by the 8th Somersets on 1 July were near Becourt, about three miles east of Albert. Less than a mile to the north was La Boisselle, where, at 7.28am, two minutes before zero hour, two massive charges, laid by tunnellers, were detonated beneath the German lines.
The debris from the explosion rose over 4,000 feet in the air, and a crater, 300 feet deep and 90 feet across, was gouged out of the earth. Sixteen similar explosions took place nearby at the same time, but only the crater at La Boisselle – named Lochnagar Crater after the trench from which the miners had tunnelled – survives, the most visible reminder of the first day of the Somme.
By the time the charges were detonated, however, despite zero hour still being a couple of minutes away, the 8th Somersets had already suffered heavy casualties. The regimental history describes what happened:
‘Dawn broke on 1 July on thousands of men all ready in position to go forward at zero hour. There were the trench ladders placed ready to assist the attackers into No Man’s Land, the company officers and platoon commanders with their men, ready to lead them forward. Behind were the troops waiting to support the attack, and behind these again, the carrying parties with ammunition, bombs, tools, etc.
At 6.25am there was an ear-splitting roar as the final hour of intense bombardment opened. The official despatches speak of this final hour as “exceptionally violent.” Never, indeed, during the previous period of the war had ammunition been expended with such prodigality.
Almost immediately the enemy replied and his guns poured an accurate, but not very heavy, storm of shells onto the British front line and support trenches, causing a good many casualties amongst the assembled troops. Five minutes before zero hour the 4th Middlesex, on the right of the 8th Somersets, attempted to leave their trenches and crawl towards the German lines. But they were observed and a storm of machine-gun and rifle bullets from the right compelled them to return to their trenches, after having suffered heavy losses.
Simultaneously the 8th Somersets left their trenches and crept forward and, although machine-gun and rifle fire from their immediate front and both flanks met their advance, the Somerset men, or rather the survivors, lay down in No Man’s Land waiting for zero hour and the barrage to lift off the enemy’s front line. Of those tragic five minutes the battalion diary records nothing, but in the 63rd Brigade diary are the following words:
The machine-gun fire caused heavy casualties, the commanding officer and adjutant and, as far as can be ascertained, all the remaining officers except Lieutenants Hall, Kellett, and Ackerman becoming casualties.
It is therefore obvious in what a plight the battalion was in, ere ever the final order to assault the enemy’s trenches was given, and from which point the battalion diary begins its story:
Directly the artillery barrage lifted, our men advanced in quick time. They were met by very heavy machine-gun fire and, although officers and men were being hit and falling everywhere, the advance went straight on, and was reported by a Brigade-Major who witnessed it to have been magnificent.
By the time the leading platoons had reached the German side of No Man’s Land they had lost 50% of their effectives, and then were momentarily held up in front of the devastated hostile trenches by a machine gun. But the battalion bombers got to work quickly and, as the survivors of the leading platoons were now joined by the successive supporting lines, the machine gun was silenced and the attackers swept on and over the German front line. In the latter only a few of the enemy’s machine gunners were found alive and these were bayoneted or shot down as they tried to escape.
Heavy fire again met the Somerset men as they advanced on the German support line, and men fell fast. But again the bombers got to work and some stiff fighting took place before Ball Lane and Arrow Lane were cleared. Down the German communication trenches the men worked their way, bombing dugouts as they went, then on to where the trenches had been battered out of all recognition, all that remained being a mass of shell craters.
A Stokes mortar lent the Somersets timely assistance, but the officer and team were unfortunately knocked out: next a Lewis-gun team belonging to the battalion was brought up and, under cover of fire from the gun, a further advance was begun. The Lewis gunners, who were commanded by Second Lieutenant Kellett, worked their way from crater to crater until they got into Lozenge Alley, which, the records state, had not been strafed by our artillery.
In Lozenge Alley, Second Lieutenant Kellett’s party joined up with Second Lieutenant Hall and his men, the combined parties totalling about 100. With fine tenacity these 100 men and their officers clung to the position they had won, repulsing during the night a heavy bombing attack from the direction of Fricourt.’
Ten officers serving with the 8th Somersets were killed that day; in other ranks the losses were 475 killed, wounded, or missing. Reinforcements arrived at eight o’clock the following morning, and what was left of the battalion was relieved two days later. Seven of those who died were from the Bath area.
They included Captain Arthur Hatt, the son of Alderman Hatt. A letter in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, sent by Gunner Cecil Christopher of 47th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery to his mother in August 1916, contains an unexpected tribute to him. Having explained that he had met a soldier from the 8th Somersets in an estaminet behind the lines, Christopher went on to tell her that the man had been down at base with heart trouble for some weeks
‘I asked him if he knew Captain Arthur Hatt was dead. He didn’t but said he knew him well, and was with him at Loos last year. He said he was sorry to hear he was gone, as he was a fine chap, and a jolly good officer, one of the sort who could always crack a joke with a fellow, even in the heaviest of fighting, and always looked after his men. “Every bloke in the battalion liked him,” was what he finished with. As a voluntary tribute from a man who was under him, I think that is splendid ‘
The six other men from the Bath area who died were Privates Frank Cleaver of Chudleigh Villa, Fairfield Park, John Edwards of 121 Locksbrook Road, William Higgins, Henry Sheppard of Twerton, Charles Townsend, and Albert Tuck of The Hill, Bathford.
Many men from Bath were serving with other regiments on the Somme that day. Among them was Lance Corporal Bush of 1 Weymouth Street, who wrote to his mother from Salisbury Infirmary a few weeks later:
‘On the morning of the 1st July we advanced through a wood. It was terrible, the machine gun fire, and I only managed to get about ten or fifteen yards in No Man’s Land when I received my first souvenir from a machine gun on the right that was doing a lot of damage to our troops. I lay flat on the ground with my head to the Huns, as the steel helmet was a good protection for me.
Well, I touched for my second in the thumb about half an hour afterwards, and could not get up, as the bullets were too thick, and I was waiting till our chaps had got over and put the gunners out. I think it must have been about an hour after when Fritz managed the “hat trick” and that was a corker, through the left elbow. The other two are slight but the right side one is very painful, and I have to thank my belt for stopping a lot of force, as it ripped it open about two inches. I have had my arm under x-rays and it is fractured, two bones broken in it. I must say the sister and nurses here are all very kind, and it is a treat to be back in England again.
Nine men from Bath serving with other regiments died on the Somme on 1 July: Captain Dominic Browne of the Royal Irish Rifles, Lance Corporal William Bolton of the Devonshire Regiment, Private Julius Dent-Young of the London Scottish, Privates Frank Gardiner and Edward Parker of the Machine Gun Corps, Private H J Hazell of the Lancashire Fusiliers, Private Frederick James of the Middlesex Regiment, Private Leslie James of the Royal Fusiliers, and Private George Wright of the Berkshire Regiment. Private Cyril Head, serving with the 1/4th Somersets in Mesopotamia also died on 1 July, bringing the total number of men from the Bath area who died on that day to 35.
It was the worst day’s tally in the whole war. But, although the casualty figures for a single day would never be as high again, 1 July 1916 marked the beginning of a season of bloodshed on a scale never known before. The number of men from the Bath area who were killed between from July and September 1916 was 209, the same figure as for the whole of 1915.
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Many battalions were kept in reserve on the first day of the Somme. Among them was the 6th Battalion of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, which included in its ranks Private Herbert Houghton, the son of the minister of Kensington Chapel on the London Road.
As dusk fell on the evening of 1 July, he wrote to his parents from “somewhere near Albert”:
‘As I am expecting to go over the top (i.e. to join in rushing German trenches) within the next few days, and may therefore never have the joy of seeing you all once again on earth, I am writing to tell you once more how much I love you all, and to remind you that if you get news of my death in action, it will not be long before we shall all meet again in heaven, because we are all members of the Body of Christ, and are all united in our love for Him, believing and knowing as we do that Our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, gave himself once for all on Calvary as a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for our sins.
It is a glorious thing just now, when I can hear our guns pounding away at the German lines, and know that though I am now a few miles to the rear, I shall soon (possibly within a few hours) be in the thick of it – to know that I am perfectly safe, because “to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Don’t be sad if I am killed, but rejoice in the victory for our Armies, because our cause is a righteous one. I shall be proud and glad to die in such a cause, though naturally if I had my own natural, selfish will I should prefer a longer life.
And remember that quite soon (in God’s time if not ours) we shall all see each other again. I hope that you will all have long, happy lives of service, and then meet me up above.
I have been a little worried because I have not been able to write since we left Rouen. I am so sorry if you have been anxious.
Give my love to all my friends. Perhaps you would not mind writing to all to whom photos of me were sent.
Best love to you all,
Yr loving son & brother,
PS – Sunday evening, 2 July – Have just heard that we go into action tomorrow (Monday, 3 July) morning. Best love to you all once more!’
A few hours later he was dead. The letter, found on his body by another soldier, did not reach his parents until the following May. Almost 90 years on, the sentiments he expressed in his final letter seem incomprehensible. It is as though we are reading a letter from a Crusader at the gates of Jerusalem or a member of Cromwell’s New Model Army. What is certain, though, is that he was not just setting down pious platitudes to please his parents. This was a man facing imminent death or disfigurement. The emotional intensity of the words is blindingly apparent.
The first casualties from the Battle of the Somme arrived in an ambulance train at the Great Western station in Bath at 5.25 on the morning of 6 July. They were wearing the same muddy, blood-stained uniforms they had worn at zero hour five days earlier. One wore a German helmet he had plucked from the battlefield. Others displayed different kinds of souvenir. “In the tunic of one soldier who had a bullet in his arm,” said an eye-witness, “could be seen the tiny hole made by the missile, while the breast of the tunic of another man was scored by a bullet.”
Most of the nurses at the War Hospital were women who had volunteered to serve with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). Mostly, but not exclusively, drawn from the middle classes, they probably came closer to comprehending the horror of modern warfare than anyone else on the Home Front.
Any illusions they may have had when they volunteered soon disappeared when they had to deal with soldiers fresh from the front. Working in a war hospital was nursing at the sharp end. They had to be tough to survive, and most of them rose to the challenge remarkably.
Some of their patients were young men with terrible, disfiguring injuries, many of them compounded by lack of attention on the battlefield. Amputations were common, death frequent. Night times were the worst, when men who had passed the day placidly enough would awake screaming as they relived the horrors of trench warfare. They were the routine cases; the ones diagnosed as suffering from shell shock were worse – far worse. It cannot have been easy trying to placate men driven mad by war.
One of the VAD nurses at Bath War Hospital was Kathleen Ainsworth from Swindon.
Through her letters home we can gain some idea what life at the hospital was like. Here is how she described the arrival of the men injured on the first day of the Somme:
‘We are almost killed this last few days – it’s a wonder there is any of me left at all. Last Wednesday evening the Colonel came round to say that a convoy of 250 was coming the next morning at six o’clock. Of course, there was great excitement because we hadn’t room for anything like that number so it simply meant turning out lots of our convalescent patients and sending them to the old hospital [at 9 Lansdown Place West] which had to be reopened. . . . On Thursday morning we had to turn out at four o’clock, breakfast at five, and a little past six the convoy arrived. All wounded – straight from the trenches. They have all taken part in the big push.
Poor boys – I watched them coming up the corridor, dirty, weary, covered with mud from the trenches and with several days’ growth of beard. We hurried them all to bed as quickly as we could. I blanket bathed two of them by myself and you simply couldn’t get the dirt off. Our men were bricks and helped like anything. They even got us a cup of tea at eight o’clock – quite on their own – what we should have done without them I can’t think. All the new men seemed as cheerful as possible but dog tired – they had been travelling since the previous Saturday when they left the trenches.
They were most hopeful about the war and most of them seem to think it won’t be long now. And weren’t they delighted to get a wash. I was scrubbing one man’s back hard to get it clean, and he said he would like me to go on all day. Some of them have very nasty wounds, one has three big holes in him about an inch deep and two inches across – they are awfully painful and it’s awful trying to dress them, though he is very brave and doesn’t make more noise than he can help.
We could have had 120 on the next day but simply hadn’t room. They simply scoured the town for beds and for nurses. Probably they will turn the whole grounds into a camp but if so they will simply have to get more nurses as we are nearly worked to death as it is. I never had such a day in my life as yesterday. It was one mad tear.’