6th Battalion, Royal Berks
1st July 1916
 
 


The Background to the Somme

Responding to the Call - Kitchener's New Army

The 6th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment was part of a unique army of volunteers - Kitchener's New Army, formed from the flood of enthusiastic men from all walks of life who rushed to "respond to the call" of the newly appointed Minister for War, Lord Kitchener, upon the outbreak of World War One.

Kitchener's appeal was born out of the political realisation that the war may well not be over by Christmas and he called for a "first hundred thousand" volunteers. More than 5 times this number responded. There were many reasons for this. For some it was a sense of duty, of genuinely believing that they should help King and Country in the hour of need. For others it was the prospect of adventure abroad and escape from the drudgery and poverty of the industrial towns and mines of early 20th Century Britain. Many simply joined up on the spur of the moment - perhaps because their chums had done so.

Whatever the reason, within a few short days the city, town and village communities of Britain and Ireland were half a million men fewer and the battalions of Kitchener's Army were beginning to form their unique character and shape.

The British Army of 1914

Amongst the European powers only the British Army at the outbreak of the war was composed entirely of volunteers. This meant that it was different in both size and structure to it's continental counterparts. Although the Army was well trained and disciplined it was relatively small and hence the call for volunteers by Kitchener, who had the political and strategic astuteness to realise that maybe it wouldn't be enough.

The basic infantry unit of the British Army was (and still is today) the Battalion, consisting of roughly 1,000 men, including (nominally, at least) 36 Officers. Of these roughly 800 would provide the fighting strength leaving around 200 support personnel - clerks, siganallers, cooks, stretcher bearers, etc...

The Battalion would be split up into four Companies of 250, which in turn were divided up into 4 Platoons of 60 (plus Officers) and the Platoons into 4 Sections of 14 Private soldiers and an NCO who was immediately responsible for them (usually a Lance Corporal).

The Regimental system of the British Army seems unusual, even illogical, to those not familiar with it. Whilst a Regiment will consist of several basic units - Battalions - these units did not necessarily operate together. The Army is split up into Divisions and it is these rather than the Regiments which form the operational parent unit of the Battalions. Several Battalions from different Regiments will form Brigades and several Brigades will form a Division.

So whilst the Royal Berkshire Regiment comprised two Regular (pre-war) Battalions, the 1st and 2nd, and of 3 Service (New Army) Battalions, the 5th, 6th and 8th, none of the member Battalions ever fought in conjunction under the same Division.

The 6th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, were part of the 18th (Eastern) Division. This Division was wholly typical:

18th (Eastern) Division (Commanded by Maj.-Gen. F.I. Maxse):-

53rd Brigade: 8th Norfolks, 10th Essex, 6th Royal Berks, 8th Suffolks

54th Brigade: 11th Royal Fusiliers, 6th Northamptons, 7th Bedfords, 12th Middlesex

55th Brigade: 7th Queens, 8th East Surreys, 7th Buffs, 7th Royal West Kents

*Pioneers: 8th Royal Sussex

*Pioneer Battalions were introduced to provide logistical and manual support when the workload of trench warfare could no longer be borne by the Brigade battalions.

As can be seen, each Brigade consists of 4 Battalions. The Brigade could be deployed for battle in a number of ways. For example, any two Battalions may be assigned to spearhead an attack, with a third following behind to support and consolidate captured trenches and the fourth held in reserve.

Generally speaking, a Division would keep it's constituent Brigades and their Battalions permanently.

The Pals Battalions

Forming a whole basic infantry unit - Battalion - became a natural goal for those enthusiastic members of communities up and down the land, usually factory owners, town mayors or country landowners, who took it upon themselves to recruit on behalf of Kitchener and The Cause. Many Battalions were therefore formed of men from the same area, town, village or even workplace and gave the New Army it's most unique characteristic - the Pals Battalions.

In retrospect, of course, it is easy to see that whilst the Pals Battalions had tremendous advantages in terms of morale and teamwork there was also a fundamental flaw in their creation. In 1914, it was assumed that the war would be mobile and over quickly. As we now know, it was neither and the tactics used were years behind the technology of mass killing which was employed by the participants. This had tragic consequences for small communities whose menfolk went en-masse into an attack against machine guns.

Stalemate

Contrary to contemporary popular belief, the war was not to be over quickly. However, Kitchener's hopes had been exceeded and the New Army of half a million volunteers was enlisted and the mammoth and haphazard process of equipping and training them into fighting units, to say nothing of the very real problem of finding Officers and NCOs to lead them, was as complete as possible under the circumstances.

1915 passed with still no end in sight. The war had stagnated into a static trench conflict spread along a line from the Belgian coast to Switzerland, with sporadic bursts of localised activity resulting in little or no gain for either side. During this time the regular British Army, occupying the sector of the front between the North Sea and the River Somme in the Picardy region of Northern France, was gradually whittled down and replaced by units of the New Army, as and when they became available. Most of Kitcheners' battalions would not, however, see any real action until the summer of 1916 when their moment would arrive - The Big Push, which would break the stalemate and win the war.

Everyone knew a huge attack was coming. For Kitchener's battalions of Pals it was why they had joined up - what they had been training for for two years. What few people knew was exactly where and when the offensive would take place.

The Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme, or to use it's official nomenclature of The First Battle of Albert, was to be a joint Anglo-French effort aimed at breaking the stalemate of the previous two years. In effect, it was intended to have the same impact on the First World War as D-Day had in the Second - the beginning of the end. The location was astride the River Somme where the two Allied armies met, a region that had seen little action over the previous two years - time which the Germans had spent building considerable defensive positions consisting of well positioned trenches almost universally on higher ground and with numerous strong points, machine gun nests and deep dug-outs, impervious to the worst that the Allied artillery could throw at them.

The average British soldier in June, 1916 knew that a large scale offensive had been planned for some time - that there was a real need to break the stalemate of the last two years. They also would have known that all their training had been to prepare them for such an effort. Many, too, will have been aware through rumour of the precarious position of their allies, the French Army, which had been forced to fight a vicious and immensely costly battle for the symbolic fortress city of Verdun which was causing an almost intolerable strain on their resources, not least in manpower. Indeed, the declared main aim of the German attack there had been to "bleed France dry" and in that it was succeeding, so much so that the planned French involvement on the Somme had been scaled down from 60 divisions over 30 miles to a mere 6 divisions across only 6 miles.

What the average soldier in Kitchener's Army did not realise was how the carnage at Verdun would force the timetable for their own offensive or how their months of training, preparation and hard work had left the High Command unimpressed. The British commander, Haig, wanted but was denied more time to prepare his troops for this immense effort and believed that, for the most part unproven in battle, the New Army soldiers were incapable of anything other than following a rigid, simple plan without deviating or improvising in any way. Over the coming weeks, the troops would prove the Generals wrong, although not before many other false assumptions regarding the coming battles would also result in a terrible sacrifice of brave men, often for no gain.

The Plan

In essence, the plan for 1st July, 1916 was one of intricate simplicity. Intricate because of the elaborate preparations and yet simple because of the straightforward method of attack for the units involved in taking the German trenches. The British sector stretched from Serre in the north to Montauban in the south. 11 Divisions plus elements of 2 others were to be deployed on the first day, involving some 120,000 men over a front of approximately 16 miles in a north to south L shape. A separate diversionary attack would be carried out by a further 2 Divisions at Gommecourt, just north of the main assault.

To view a map of the whole British sector click HERE (opens in new window).

The main aim of the initial assault was to take the first of the German's three trench systems and thus the high ground of the Pozieres ridge, which dominates the region. This would clear the way for a cavalry breakout into the relatively undefended 2nd and 3rd lines and into the open ground beyond - some even considered the major town of Bapaume, 10 miles away, to be within reach on the first day. Flanking this dashing central advance would be further infantry exploitation, rolling up the German lines north and south (the southern sector of the breakout being undertaken in large part by the French). Both Cavalry and Infantry reserves were thus lying just behind the British front, ready to pass through the attacking battalions as they consolidated their 1st July objectives.

There was to be a separate diversionary assault on the fortified village of Gommecourt, just to the north. This ill-conceived attempt to draw German attention and firepower away from the main attack is worthy of note because it demonstrates the mind-set of the high command. The troops here were to assault the Germans in isolation, surrounding the village and cutting it off. They would thus be exposed to fire from four sides (north, south, east and from within the village), with no flanking units in support. Furthermore, because of the diversionary nature of their mission, they had been ordered to make their preparations as obvious as possible to the defenders. All in all, an unenviable task for the two Divisions concerned.

A massive logistical effort over the weeks leading up to the Offensive resulted in thousands of artillery pieces laying a week long barrage over the enemy trenches, designed to kill the defenders, render their strongpoints or "redoubts" useless and cut the waves of barbed wire protecting their lines.

In addition, certain well positioned and heavily defended German positions were singled out for special attention - miners tunneled underneath them and laid huge charges, to be detonated shortly before the main attack, thus eliminating the considerable threat that even a few survivors of the bombardment could pose to the main advance.

For the leading troops then it would be a simple task to take the German front lines and clear the way for the breakout into the open ground of northern France beyond. The war would then become a mobile affair, with the superior combined resources of the British and French making victory inevitable. Soldiers in the initial waves of the attack were thus laden with equipment for consolidation of the trenches opposite them rather than just the essentials for fighting. After all, this was to be, quite literally, a walkover - the artillery was to kill, the infantry only had to occupy. The battalions of Kitchener's Army were thus ordered to walk across no-mans land towards the enemy trenches, with rifles at the slope. It was considered in high circles that they would not be capable of rushing forward in a conventional assault - and in any case, there was no need to do so.

One New Army Officer, Capt. Neville of the 8th. East Surrey Btn., attacking towards the German fortified village of Montauban, went over the top kicking a football towards the opposing trenches. He is buried in Carnoy Military Cemetery nearby.