Background to the Somme
to the Call - Kitchener's New Army
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.
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
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.
British Army of 1914
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
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...
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).
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.
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.
Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, were part of the 18th (Eastern)
Division. This Division was wholly typical:
(Eastern) Division (Commanded by Maj.-Gen. F.I. Maxse):-
Brigade: 8th Norfolks, 10th Essex, 6th Royal Berks, 8th Suffolks
54th Brigade: 11th Royal Fusiliers, 6th Northamptons, 7th Bedfords,
Brigade: 7th Queens, 8th East Surreys, 7th Buffs, 7th Royal West
8th Royal Sussex
Battalions were introduced to provide logistical and manual support
when the workload of trench warfare could no longer be borne by
the Brigade battalions.
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.
speaking, a Division would keep it's constituent Brigades and their
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Battle of the Somme
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
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.
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 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.
a map of the whole British sector click HERE
(opens in new window).
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.