“A lack of offensive spirit”: After the Army’s blackest day – the opening day of the Battle of the Somme – the heroic men of the North Staffords and the Sherwood Foresters were heavily criticised following the carnage of Gommecourt. Mark McKay reports... THE sleepy French village of Gommecourt sits among the rolling hills of Picardy overlooking its easterly neighbour Foncquevillers – the silence only occasionally broken by the sound of a lone car on the road between the two villages and the dull hum from overhead powerlines.
It was across the fields by the road that East Staffordshire men of the Sixth North Staffordshire battalion and Derbyshire men in the Fifth Sherwood Foresters, part of the 46th North Midland Division, attacked on July 1, 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
It is a battle which holds the title of the costliest day in the history of the British Army; the macabre statistics of 57,000 British causalities including 19,000 killed on the opening day are seared into Britain’s collective memory of the conflict.
For the North Staffords and Sherwood Foresters the attack ended in a costly failure and ignominy as 6,769 men in the division became casualties and a court of inquiry accused the troops of ‘a lack of offensive spirit’.
Since its arrival in France in February 1915, the 46th North Midland Division had been mauled in fighting at Hooge, near Ypres, and in front of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, during the Battle of Loos.
But, as historian Alan MacDonald has written, ‘the casualties had been so high and the failure so complete’ at Gommecourt, that its memory became embedded in how Staffordshire and Derbyshire communities remembered the Great War.
I’ve read about the attack at Gommecourt. One book is particularly dog-eared from flicking back through pages to scrutinise maps to help understand what happened there on July 1.
Because of its connection to East Staffordshire and Derbyshire, it was a place I had to visit on my latest trip to the Western Front.
Gommecourt has been spared the industrial development and forestation programmes which have been carried out on other First World War battlefields such as Ypres and Verdun.
The trenches and craters may have disappeared – filled in during the post-war reconstruction – but the layout of the battlefield remains almost identical to how it would have been in 1916.
From Gommecourt Wood New Cemetery, halfway between Gommecourt and Foncquevillers, it is possible to view the battlefield in its entirety.
Looking north, the British front line would have zig-zagged to the left in front of Foncquevillers, or ‘Funkyvillers’ as it was dubbed, almost directly below overhead powerlines.
The German lines would have been 400 yards away to the right in front of Gommecourt Wood.
In the distance, a clump of trees marks the spot where a German strongpoint known as The Z and Little Z jutted out from the German line. Machine guns positioned here could fire the length of the front and would cause hundreds of casualties on July 1.
The British planned the attack at Gommecourt in the hope of diverting German forces from the main offensive further south at Serre.
In fact, British troops were told not to mask their preparations in order to draw as much enemy fire as possible.
The North Staffords and Sherwood Foresters were to attack German trenches north of the road in front of Gommecourt Wood. They would then link up with soldiers from another division which had attacked Gommecourt from the south and cut the village off.
Nothing depended on the attack succeeding; there would be no reserves to exploit any success and the cavalry would not be coming over the hill should things go awry.
But while the British planned, the Germans had prepared their positions in Gommecourt to become some of the most heavily fortified on the Western Front.
Thick belts of barbed wire protected up to five lines of trenches, underneath which dugouts housing scores of men had been dug up to 40 feet deep into the chalk making them impenetrable to all but the heaviest artillery.
A week-long artillery bombardment, designed to cut the wire, smash the dugouts and silence the German artillery, preceded the attack. But inexperienced artillerymen and faulty munitions meant up to a third of the shells failed to explode while too many of those which did were shrapnel and posed little threat to troops sheltering in dugouts.
Although some defender’s nerves were strained to the limit, they would survive the bombardment and be ready to meet the British attack with ruthless tenacity.
In the weeks prior to the attack, illness had swept the ranks of the North Staffords and Sherwood Foresters while those fit enough to be in the line faced a constant battle to repair trenches which had been neglected by the previous unit.
The men had also spent hours at night digging an advanced trench to cut the distance they would have to advance in the open. But, by the morning of July 1, this was still shallow and too muddy to use.
Immediately before the attack, British artillery fired a hurricane bombardment of shrapnel and high explosive shells while smoke candles were lit in the hope of masking the attack.
At 7.30am, the British fire lifted to targets behind the German lines and officers in the North Staffords and Sherwood Foresters blew their whistles to mark the start of the assault.
Almost immediately German machine guns in Gommecourt Wood and The Z opened fire, cutting swathes through the advancing ranks while the German guns wrought havoc on the supporting waves of troops assembling in the British front line.
Some made it into the German trenches, but with supporting waves floundering in the British line they lacked back-up and were quickly surrounded and either killed or captured.
While carnage reined in no man’s land, so too did chaos and confusion in the British front line.
Troops held in reserve had to walk over their dead comrades to join the assault, often from the wrong position while shrapnel fire decimated the ranks. Scores fell before they had even passed the British wire.
By 8.30am the attack had failed. Those who could sought refuge in shell holes, some with horrific injuries. They faced an agonising wait until darkness when they would attempt to return to their lines.
But the drama was not over. The division’s commander Major General Montagu-Stuart Wortley was ordered to renew the attack at 3.30pm under a new smokescreen.
When the smokescreen failed to appear all but one unit remained in the trenches. The unit which did attack was cut down to a man within seconds.
As the day turned to night the chatter of machine guns and thud of artillery died down only to be replaced with cries from the wounded trapped in no man’s land.
The butcher’s bill was colossal. Of the division’s 6,769 casualties, 2,206 were killed, including 143 from East Staffordshire and South Derbyshire.
For all their courage and heroism, Gommecourt did not fall; the attack did not even achieve the objective of drawing fire from the attack at Serre.
In spite of the catastrophe that befell almost every attacking division on July 1, 1916, the 46th North Midland Division was the only one whose commander was summarily sacked and whose actions were the subject of a court of inquiry.
The men were seen as unreliable combat troops; the accusation that they lacked ‘offensive spirit’ was akin to cowardice.
It would be a reputation they would carry until the final months of the war.
‘I feel that we owe a great deal to them and nobody can dispute that’
EVELYN Green’s hero is her father. And why wouldn’t he be?
After all, he lied about his age to fight for King and country in the First World War and was seriously wounded in battle.
Evelyn’s admiration for her father Samuel Foster, and the rest of her family, is evident from the moment you enter her home in Uttoxeter.
There is hardly an inch of wall space not taken up with photos of the 75-year-old’s relatives – with one of her father taking pride of place by the fireplace.
Born in May, 1899, Samuel was just 15 when Britain declared war on Germany in August, 1914.
After watching hundreds of young men, including his elder brother Jack, rush to join the colours, Samuel signed up just after his 16th birthday.
“It’s amazing that a young man would want to do that for his country,” Evelyn said. “I have always been very proud of that.”
Samuel would not have long been in France when he was seriously injured in the shoulder in an attack on a German strongpoint called the Hohenzollern Redoubt, near Loos. The memory of the attack stayed with Samuel until his death in 1968, said Evelyn. “He must have been the youngest soldier on the battlefield,” she said.
“You can’t imagine that a 16-year-old would do that in this day and age.
“I feel that we are safe now because of these men. We would not be here and I certainly would not be. I feel that we owe a great deal to them and nobody can dispute that.
“He found it difficult to live with the memories. There were some things he could not speak about.
“But because of what he did there is a part of me in France and it will forever be sacred. It is sacred ground.”
Surgeons managed to save Samuel’s arm but his injuries were so severe he was discharged from the army aged 17; still younger than the legal enlistment age of 18.
He married his childhood sweetheart Evelyn Watts in June, 1918, and trained as a painter and decorator. The couple settled in Stone Road.