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Somme - July 1916

The search for personal effects after the battle
The search for personal effects after the battle

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The Battle of the Somme lasted officially from 1st July 1916 to 16th November 1916. The British lost 420,000 casualties, the French 200,000 and the Germans 450,000. On the first day alone nearly eight times as many British troops were killed or wounded as in the battle of Waterloo. Of the 20,000 dead on the first day, most had been slaughtered by perhaps a hundred German Machine-gun teams. From the British perspective this was a tragic waste of men, almost exclusively volunteers and tremendously committed.

Over the TopThe Reverend Stanhope Walker said "It was a time one can never forget. At a Casualty Clearing Station one realised the meaning of war more than anywhere else. One could go and see all the country round Trones Wood and Delville Wood spitting fire from our huge guns and see the great crumps from the German artillery bursting amid indescribable wreckage and desolation, but here were gathered together the results of it all in broken humanity. I don't think there is any part of the human body I have not seen wounded,frequently blown to pieces." (People at War, 1914-1918. A David & Charles Military Book. 1973. ISBN-0-7153-9244-1)

It was with such statistics and images that I approached the War Diary of Lt Col Elsner. I was shocked by the apparent callousness of the entry for 1st July 1916 until finding that the 9th Division were not truly engaged until 3rd July. From that date onward Elsner records events in a much more personally aggrieved tone.

1st July 1916 " Intense bombardment started about 5 am. The infantry advanced at 7 am and reached their objective Montauban during the forenoon. Bearer Divn in Trigger Valley (Billon Wood - Bronfay Fme). The usual congestion of walking wounded took place and appears to be inevitable".

4th July 1916 Following casualties amoung bearers in vicinity of Bernafay Wood:

       Pte J W Adamson - Killed Buried Talus Boise
       Pte J Davis     - Died of Wounds - Buried Bernafay Wood
       Pte R Adams     - GSW Shock Shell
       Pte R Longworth - GSW Shock Shell
       Pte J H Yesson  - PUO (Evacuated)
       Pte J Wilson    - GSW neck (slight - remained on duty)

5 July 1916 Further casualties in the bearer divn:

       LCpl W Weston   - GSW Concussion (Evacuated)
Bearer divn now established in German 1st line Valley Trench (A.3.C.8.0) in some German dugouts very deep and safe. Evacuation is easy along the railway line in Train Alley on trolleys. The bearers are in good spirits despite the casualties and working well, but had a rough time in Bernafay Wood which was being thoroughly and systematically shelled as are all the positions round about. Took Pte Coward with me as a reinforcement and Pte Chapman came up later - both off leave.

So Albert has now travelled from the comfort of his brief visit home, and returned to what he must have known to be the thick of the battle. I find it virtually impossible to imagine the difficulty that all these men must have overcome to travel back from sanity to hell, and to keep doing so time after time.

6 July 1916 Bearer Divn casualties continue:

       Pte T Coward    - GSW back (he only came off leave yesterday!)
       Pte F G Taylor  - GSW finger
Private Coward has been back for less than 24hrs before he becomes a casualty...

8 July 1916 Visited front lines with DDMS. Battle in progress, Trones Wood. Shelling at Bernafay and Montauban fairly heavy. Further FA casualties:

       Pte Gill        - GSW arm
       Pte Fleet       - GSW shoulder

9 July 1916 Bearer Divn relieved by 28 FA. To the ADS at West Peronne. Intense shelling of Bernafay Wood, Trones Wd and Montauban was taking place, and later Peronne Rd was shelled and the road to Bronfay farm. There were several casualties on those roads. One Motor Amb and 1 Lorry I saw smashed and the driver of the former lying in the road - decapitated.

12 July 1916 Visited bearers in rest at Maricourt Dugouts, but shelling daily and after the visit:

       Pte J Dillon    - GSW Head, Arm, Chest - Killed
       Pte A Binney    - GSW Arm, Chest - Evacuated

An extract from We Band of Brothers by George W Warwick, Howard Timmins, 1962 gives another perspective on the events on 10 and 11 July.

10 July 1916 ... while my half went up to occupy a large deep dug-out whose entrance unfortunately faced the Germans. What made matters worse, it was the only entrance and therefore liable to be blown in and entomb the men.
This is a very good description of the dugout mentioned in the newspaper article in Albert's personal effects.

11 July 1916 A stretcher bearer, Pte J Cooper, nicknamed "Chinaman Cooper", and another carried me to the dugout.

13 July 1916 Received a warning of an attack to be made tonight so marched the Bearer Divn to Train Alley where they opened up an ADS which soon became busy.

       Sgt Mackie      - GSW Thigh - Evacuated (Wounded on the march to Train Alley)
Bearer Divn now sadly depleted and reinforcements are urgently required.

Counting the men in the picture of the 27th Field Ambulance, Elsner has now lost a third of his men either killed or wounded.
Elsner's unit are then thrown into the thick of it when 8th Back Watch, 10th Argylls (26th Brigade), and 7th Seaforths (26th Brigade) are sent to attack Bazentin Ridge.

14 July 1916

3:00 AM Intense bombardment started and infantry  advanced
4:30 AM Aeroplane reconnaissance low over enemy lines
5:00 AM Wounded men from attack arriving - many should have gone to 28th FA
6:30 AM Cavalry advance
6:45 AM Cpt Whitworth and his No 1 Section bearers went out to collect the wounded.
        German prisoners appeared on the rise 100 or more...
7:30 AM
       Pte File         - GSW Thigh, side of nose
       Sgt J S Fraser   - GSW Neck and nose (remained on duty)
7:45 AM Wounded now arriving in considerable numbers and rain commenced which increases the difficulties of the bearers as the mud is of a very slippery nature 10:30 AM Take over Dives Copse
Main dressing station Dives Copse is a collection of marquees joined end to end in rows. Letters A-F(R) G-L(L) + 1 mortuary. Accommodation 1,700 stretcher cases expanding to 2,500 using bell and operating tents and two church army huts. Each block has an antechamber, operating theatre and collection chamber.

18 July 1916 Gas cases arriving freely. A new variety "like thousands of dud shells" the effect is not immediate therefore many men did not put on their smoke helmets. After 15-30 mins however the effects were very palpable and the usual signs were noticed. Dr R Pryron visited and thinks the gas is probably Oxychlorine and Carbonal (Phosgene) or Chloroforminate and Methyl Chlor (Palite)

Phosgene or Mustard Gas? From the descriptions I have read, Phosgene takes effect very quickly. The effect of Mustard Gas are described as "not apparent for up to 24 hours". In the book The Somme - The Day-By-Day Account by Chris McCarthy, Arms & Armour Press, 1993, ISBN-0-86288-088-2 no such gas attack is reported.
Attack on Guinchy and Guillemont. Heavy casualties amoungst Field Ambulance units, "very heavy blow - some of my best men gone".

Several of Elsner's men are awarded decorations for their attempts to clear casualties during this bombardment

19 July 1916 The level of casualties both inside and outside Elsner's unit are now causing serious difficulties. Two wards need to be closed from lack of personnel and the graveyard is extended by a further 15 metres. The situation is worsened by the recall of the Divisional Band for other duties. Despite the arrival of seven reinforcements, Elsner comments "Their tasks had to be absorbed by the remaining 15 men."

24 July 1916 Their stint at the front has come to an end, they are relieved by 13th Field Ambulance and march to Franciers.

This seems to have been the end of their life at the front for some time. The serious business of resting and rebuilding the unit's numbers continues for a couple of months while elsewhere the horrors of the Somme battles rumble on.

At one stage Elsner remarks "Made some inspections. The cemetary is close-by but most of the country here is a vast cemetary from former battles - therefore there are many bad odours and rats abound. The water is foul and contaminated by corpses."

horizontal rule - men advancing

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