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Prelude to Battle - June 1916

Castle Corbie

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The seeds of the Battle of the Somme were sown at the Allied Conference at Chantilly on 6th December 1915. The British Army was to continue, along with the French and Belgian Armies to endeavour to drive the German Army out of France and Belgium. Later a battle which would heavily involve the British was planned to take place in the Somme region in the summer of 1916, and this would release French Divisions, who in turn would try to defeat the enemy in the Verdun region. Unfortunately, the French suffered such horrendous casualties at Verdun prior to this battle, the British were forced to mount a major attack at strategically the worst possible place on the German Line.

The 27th Field Ambulance received secret orders on 23rd May 1916 to move to the Divisional Training area on 30th May. The march commenced as instructed and continued for the next three or four days. Lt Col Elsner comments that the stragglers seemed to be predominantly ex-cyclists, who enlisted as cyclists because they were unable to march. He fails to elucidate as to why they ended up as non-cyclists in a Field Ambulance unit. On arrival at the training area, the unit proceeded to practice both rapid advance through captured enemy trenches and equally rapid retreat in the face of a counter-attack. There is considerable preparation during this time for a Divisional Manouvres and Horse Show. However on 12 June 1916 the Horse Show is cancelled, presumably because the date for the impending battle is finally decided and being made known, possibly one of the cruelest cancellations ever. There follows a confused period of further marching, at one stage despite orders to move, nobody seems to know where the move is supposed to be to.

Chateau Corbie (in the postcard at the head of the page) is occupied on 16th June 1916. I would imagine that it was one of the better billets to be occupied by Lt Col Elsner during his service career.

On the 23rd June 1916, the day before Lt Col Elsner receives orders to move up to the line, Albert Chapman and Pte Coward are granted home leave. So just eight days before the British Army suffered one of its worst casualty rates ever, and 13 months after Albert left England, he finally got "a few days leave in the near future. You never know your luck". I find it almost impossible not to say "But what if...".

The day for the actual battle has to be delayed on 28th June for a further 48 hours. Heavy rains have made the forthcoming battlefield a slippery mess. The weather will continue to thwart the British Army when the wind refuses to blow in the right direction and further rains make the trenches difficult to move through.

horizontal rule - men advancing

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