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in the battle of the Somme? Share your experience or story with Essential Somme
My great uncle, Rifleman Henry Cordwell, R/1227. 12th Battlion, Kings Royal Rifle Corps, who died on the 7th October 1916 and is buried in Bernafay cemetery. Having visited his grave several times, the most moving was on the 90th anniversary of his death last year, 2006. I took the opportunity to walk through the woods of Bernafay and Trones wood and would recommend anyone with the slightest interest to do that walk. The area is very much untouched and gives testament to the experiences that indeed cost my Uncle his life. My puzzles are the circumstances of his passing when the major battle was around Transloy at that time, or was it just the indescriminate shelling from the German lines at that time? If anyone has knowledge of his regiment I would be delighted to see notes posted.
My great great uncle Albert Fell died at the Somme on the 29,07.1916. he was only 20 years old and was the only one out of 5 brothers who didnt return to England alive. He served with the Sherwood Foresters, in the 11th battalion.... rip
My great grandfather John Heath served with the 14th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment (1st Birmingham Pals) number 15/1594. He died of wounds received in action during the Battle of the Somme on 29th August 1916 during heavy shelling at Guillemont. I visited his grave in Corbie in 1998, and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
Having been priviliged to run a support vehicle for the 90th anniversary Somme pals March, it was my first visit to the area. The area around Hawthorn Ridge was so full of life, deer, young calves, hedgehogs, hare. As I was walking along the Sunken Road on a perfect evening I was suddnley struck I was walking on men graves. The area is so small to have claimed so many lives.
The Ulster Tower will always be a central focus for the vast majority of people from my neck of the woods. But I had my sights firmly fixed on another few acres of French soil which is not quite so well remembered for its Ulster connections.
Kind forum members had done their very best in the past to post pictures of the Ancre valley and the ravine which runs off it in the direction of Beaumont Hamel. I will be eternally grateful to them for their efforts because they made the journey so much easier for me. Having been thoroughly briefed, advised and supplied with a list of contacts along the route by my hosts, I set off down the steep hill from the Ulster Tower.
At this stage on the journey it was hot but the little breeze in the air just about kept things bearable. On the descent, I was stunned by the wooded banks of the Ancre as it flows along the valley past St. Pierre Divion. From old war diaries, I knew that the 12th Royal Irish Rifles had patrolled these marshy meadows in the weeks and months before1st July 1916. During the attack itself, two platoons of ‘B’ company had been tasked with attacking the German saps and outposts in the area. Rfn. Frank Gamble from Kells (‘the first bayonet man into the German sap’) and a host of others with local connections probably knew this spot well. And there’s a good chance that a few of them compared the Ancre and its wooded banks with the River Braid which flows through my home town.
I stopped to take a picture of the idyllic scene and then turned to look back up the hill towards the Tower and the facing edge of Thiepval Wood. Only then did I realise just how well the Germans had picked their positions for defence. Little wonder that the two battalions of 108 Brig. tasked with attacking in this St. Pierre Divion sector suffered so badly. I turned away and marched across the railway line, emerging on the road to Beaucourt Sur Ancre. Hamel was only a matter of yards away and I strolled down into the sleepy village where I visited the British cemetery. I had come to see the burying place of Samuel Beattie, an ex-artillery regular who signed up with the 12th Rifles in the early wave of recruiting. He died when the Germans shelled his sap during the bitterly cold month of March 1916.
BEATTIE, Samuel, 18860, Lce.Cpl., 12 R. Irish Rifles, KIA March 7, 1916. Buried Hamel Mil. Cemetery, Somme. Aged 35, born and enlisted Ballymena. Kin at Prospect Place and wife Maria at 91 Queen Street, Ballymena.
And it is also the last resting place of:
HAUGHTON Thomas Greenwood Lt. 12th R I Rifles. KIA 1st July 1916. Aged 25, son of Thomas and Catherine Haughton, Hillmount, Cullybackey. Buried Hamel Military Cem. Somme.
who died on the uncut German wire on 1st July 1916.
I was glad to see that his grave – and those of all the others – was in perfect order. The proximity of Hamel to the front battlelines did take me aback. It seemed too close! Then again, seeing the geography at first hand gave me a much better perspective on the battle and months leading up to it. I knew that the Rifles had been worked hard to keep the ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ communication trench open through the winter of 1915/16. Aside from the mud, frost, snow and rain, the 12th Rifles also faced regular shelling directed on to their positions by the German observers on the high ground. It cannot have been a pleasant route to negotiate.
My next stop was the Ancre River Cemetery which contains so many graves of the Royal Naval Division who were to suffer heavily there in the later stages of the Battle of the Somme. A couple from the Midlands were taking pictures of various headstones in the (by now) baking heat. We exchanged greetings as I wandered past towards the Cross of Sacrifice. Standing on the rear wall of the cemetery, I had a perfect view down the middle of the infamous ravine in which so many 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers and 12th Riflemen fell on 1st July 1916. After years of reading about the spot, examining photographs and contemplating various trench maps, it was amazing to see the place at first hand. The bottom of the ravine was planted with crops which swayed gently in a whisper like breeze.
I could not conceive of this spot as a killing zone but for all its modern rural beauty, this stretch of land was a veritable slaughterhouse. Three times the 12th Rifles attacked, subalterns regrouped their men in no-man’s land and led them back to the wire and the unforgiving German machine gunners.
Edmorsers fell amongst them as they tried to advance through the few gaps in the wire which could be found. According to the war diary of 12th Rifles, only 46 men could be found when the orders for a final attack, supposedly in conjunction with the regular 29th Division, came through. But the ‘Incomparables’ were unable to mount their attack. Most of them were lying, dead or wounded in the no-man’s land around Beaumont Hamel. The 12th Rifles were virtually side by side with their comrades in the regular battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers who also suffered horrendous casualties. I don’t know if this spot on the battlefield is much visted by Ulster people, but it deserves to be. Cyril Falls had this to say of what happened in this sector of the Divisional area on 1st July:
It is the custom, kept throughout this History, to describe the course of battles from the right hand to the left. If here it is departed from, it is only because the action on the north side of the Ancre was separate from the other and of lesser importance. Its description, alas ! will occupy small space enough.
There was here in Man's Land" a deep ravine, which the map contours show without giving an idea of its abruptness.
The first wave of the 9th Irish Fusiliers reached this with little trouble, but those which followed met with very heavy machine-gun fire, and suffered terrible loss. Advancing at Zero with splendid dash, the survivors of a battalion which Colonel Blacker's training had made one of the best in the Division, swept through the enemy's front line trenches. One small body of the right centre company in particular carried all before it, and was last seen advancing upon Beaucourt Station.
On the left the 12th Rifles had worse fortune. The wire round the German salient over the hill-brow, less easy to observe, was less completely destroyed than on the rest of the front. Many gaps were cut, but machine-guns were trained upon them. Beaten back at the first rush, and having lost the barrage, the remnants of the battalion were twice re-formed by devoted officers under that withering hail, and twice again led forward,
It was of no avail. On their left the leading troops of the next Division crossed the front line trenches, but were assailed from the rear by machine-gunners emerging from dug-outs. At eight o'clock the 36th Division was informed that the enemy had re-taken his front line. The attack north of the Ancre was a failure, though gallantry every whit as great as that of the battalions on the left bank was behind it.