6th Battalion, Royal Berks
1st July 1916
 
 


The Attack

The 6th Berks immediately prior to the Somme Offensive

The Battalion 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, etc.

In March, 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

The 18th 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.

Another 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 in all, the Battalion was as ready and well prepared as any other on the 1st July - and considerably more so than many.

The Bombardment

If any 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.

Bombardment

Of 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 around them.

Also 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)

The 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.

A good 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.

There 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.

Despite 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 their lives.

The Final Hours before the Assault

Writing Home

The 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.

This 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 suicide.

This 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.

On the 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.

Carnoy, 1916 (1)
Carnoy Church, 1916
Carnoy, 1916 (2)
Three views of Carnoy, taken in 1916, including the Church (centre)

The 18th 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.

In addition, 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.

As evening 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 of intercepting.

In any 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.

At 7.00 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.

At 7.15 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.

Shortly 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.

Please 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...
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Casino Point Mine

Mine Crater

Several 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.

Left: 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.

The 6th 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.

The result 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 it.

The Morning

Area of 18th Division Attack
Montage of photos depicting the ground over which 18th (Eastern) Division attacked on 1st July, 1916
The 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.

At 7.30 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.

German Machine Gun Crew

Of 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.

Left: German Machine Gun Crew awaiting the advancing British troops.

On the 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.

At 7.32 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 troops.

The German 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.

Montauban Alley after capture

Popoff 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.

Steady 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.

Left: Montauban Alley shortly after it's capture on 1st July.

All this 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.

Summary at Midday

The Berkshires 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.

The Afternoon

The depleted 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 attack.

Whilst 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 little progress.

The turning 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.

By 6.00 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 objective.

Resistance 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.

Summary at Evening

Montauban, 1916

As 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.

Left: Montauban, July 1916

No breakthrough 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

Casualties

The 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:

Killed
Wounded
Missing
Officers
07
005
00
Other Ranks
71
254
11
Total
78
259
11

Total 89 killed (inc. 11 missing, almost certainly killed), 259 wounded.

Carnoy Military Cemetry, 1916
Carnoy Valley, July 1916
(now Carnoy Military Cemetery)