Thursday 3 July 2014

Ulster at the Somme - The 36th (Ulster) Division

The 10th Corps consisted of the 32nd. Division, the 36th. (Ulster) Division and in support the 49th. Division. The 36th.Division embraced 3 Battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 9 Battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles and one battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, each battalion about 1,000 strong. These battalions in three Brigades, 107th. 106th. and 109th. each of four battalions, together with One Battalion of Pioneers (16th. R.I.R), Divisional Artillery, Field Companies of the Royal Engineers, Army Service Corps and Field Ambulances, all volunteers and all Ulstermen.

The Ulstermen's front lay astride the River Ancre and along the lower slopes of Thiepval Ridge as far as the southern edge of Thiepval Wood. Facing its centre was the strongly fortified village of St.Pierre Divion and the notorious Schwaben Redoubt (the most formidable on the whole front) with the Stuff Redoubt supporting these two. The whole of this front was well covered by heavy machine-guns firing from Thiepval Village on the right and the fortified villages of Beaucourt and Beaumont-Hamel on the left, all supported with a great concentration of artillery of all calibres.

Shortly after dawn on the morning of Saturday 1st July every gun on a front of 25 miles was firing. The roar was incessant and quite indescribable, at eight minutes before zero hundreds of Stokes Mortars joined in with a hurricane bombardment of 30 rounds a minute on the German defences. At 7.30 a.m. wave after wave of British Infantry roso and with bayonets glistening in the morning sun moved forward as the hurricane barrage lifted to the German second line, the air was filled with smoke and mist in the trail of the great barrage. The Ulstermen carried all before them and immediately overran the German first and support line. Within half-an-hour the 9th Inniskillings of the 109th. Brigade weer in the enemy Second Line and were sending back prisoners. By 8.30 a.m. the 109th. Brigade after very fierce hand-to-hand fighting captured and firmly established themselves in the supposedly impregnable Schwaben Redoubt. On their immediate left the 11th. and 13th. Rifles advanced rapidly and before 9 a.m. were before the Hansa Line protecting the Thiepval-Grandcourt Road. It was most unfortunate for them that St. Pierre Divion had not been captured and was already being bi-passed by these two Rifle battalions. The 12th. Rifles and the 9th. Irish Fusiliers across the Ancre on their left, after an initial success were held up by the vicious machine-gun fire from Beaucourt and Beaumont-Hamel and the failure of the 29th. Division attack on the fortress of Beaumont-Hamel and the rising ground on their immediate front. The machine-gun posts at St. Pierre Divion wrought havoc in the ranks of the 108th. Brigade, the 12th. Rifles and the 9th. Irish Fusiliers were pinned down when they reached the enemy first line, and suffered terribly, the latter lost practically all their officers. A similar fate befell the 11th. and 13th. Rifles but in spite of the terrible casualties these two battalions, or what was left of them continued their advance to the outskirts of Grandcourt (this village was not to be entered again until after the fall of Beaumont-Hamel on 15th November). This produced a dangerous and exposed position for them, being fired on from both flanks and indeed their rear. The 107th. Bde. (Belfast) advancing in support of the two leading Brigades were now advancing through the positions captured by the two leading Brigades and were now attacking the Stuff Redoubt, a strongly fortified and stubbornly held enemy strong point in the German 3rd. Line. Near the spot called the Crucifix the 11th. Inniskillings and the 14th. Rifles (YCV) found themselves being machine-gunned and plastered with mortar fire from their rear and suffered terribly. German machine-gunners and mortar crews who had sheltered in the deep cellars during the heavy British bombardment now, it must be admitted with great gallantry, came up out of their caverns to fire into the rear of the advancing infantry. No-Man's-Land became a ghastly spectacle of dead and wounded. The 15th. Rifles of the 107th. Brigade were now in the Stuff Redoubt and set about dealing with numerous machine-gun nests who had emerged from their hiding places, the scene can only be described as bloody in the fierce hand-to-hand fighting which ensued and many were the acts of extreme gallantry, most of which passed unrecorded. The hurricane of machine-gun fire from the fortress of Thiepval, which had unfortunately not been captured by the 32nd. Division on the right, played havoc among the ranks of the 8th. 9th. and 10th Rifles as they moved forward in support of the advanced positions gained by the leading battalions, in spite of the awful carnage they continued unfaltering as if on parade. The 10th. Rifles suffered terribly and lost their Commanding Officer who was killed leading his battalion to the assault. Colonel Bernard was the only battalion commander killed on this day, as Commanding Officers were expressly forbidden to accompany their battalions in the assault and were ordered to control the advance of their respective units from their battle headquarters, no explanation is forthcoming as to why this C.O. found it necessary to lead his battalion into the attack.

The 107th. Brigade battalions, sadly depleted, reached the final objective together with the remnants of the leading Brigades. Along this, the "D" or Fourth Line, they proceeded to consolidate and establish themselves. Grimly they had to beat of continuous bombing attacks until the late afternoon. Several fighting patrols were sent forward and one such patrol actually entered the notorious Mouquet Farm and found it vacated.

It is now known that about this time the Divisional Commander 36th. Division (General Oliver Nugent) was considering whether to continue the advance into the open country which had now been reached. He had asked Corps Headquarters whether he should halt his advancing Division where they stood in view of the fact that neither of the Divisions on hos flanks had gained a yard. The reply was that a new and more forceful attack would be made on Thiepval Village and also on his left towards Beaumont-Hamel. He was assured that a Brigade of the 49th. Division was being sent to his support and that he should continue his advance as was the original plan. This order from Corps. HQ., however, was cancelled ¾ of an hour later. His advance forward had already begun and every effort was made to halt the advancing troops, but as communication was extremely difficult the message arrived too late. The job of communication had to be done by runner and the process was a very long affair, fortunate was he who crossed than zone of death unscathed. Of those who went forward in the advance into open country few returned to tell the story, as they ran into masses of enemy reinforcements moving forward to heal the breach made in their line by the Ulstermen. The Fourth Line was held, however, against all onslaughts by handfuls of determined men in the hope that the promised reinforcements would arrive, unfortunately this was not to be. The Ulster Division in spite of the fact that more than half its strength were now casualties held in their grasp the promise of a great and far-reaching victory if the breach which they had made in the strongest part of the enemy defence system could have been put to use. Some 5,000 Ulstermen, though closely wedged in all round by the enemy but thrust well into the enemy line, constituted what could have been the pivot for both wings of the British Line to move forward in the attack, but for some never explained reason nothing was done about it. The Thiepval spur was undoubtedly the German key position and when eventually in the month of October and early November it was finally captured the whole German Line was compelled to retire some distance and eventually as the newly won British positions made the enemy line untenable the whole German Army in the Somme sector retired "according to plan" to the Hindenburg Line 30 miles away. Unfortunately the British casualties in the Somme battles since 1st July had passed the 250,000 mark.

Meanwhile the situation had grown considerably worse for the already sorely tried Ulstermen in the forward zone of the deep salient which they had created. After beating off continuous hostile counter-attacks throughout the remainder of the day of July 1st by German bombers coming up from Thiepval in their right-rear and from Grandcourt on their left and with ammunition and supplies practically run out the situation became desperate. Officers in the advanced positions had observed through their field-glasses trainloads of German Reserves arriving beyond Grandcourt during the evening. A large scale counter-attack was launched by these enemy reinforcements at dusk and drove our exhausted men back into the 2nd. Line which they had overrun earlier that morning. The northern end of the Schwaben Redoubt was again in German hands. During the night of 1st/2nd July three battalions from the 148th. Brigade, 49th. Division were at last put at the disposal of the 36th. Division with the object of re-taking the Schwaben Redoubt and attacking Thiepval Village from the rear with the assistance of the remnants of the 107th. and 109th. Brigades. But alas at 1 a.m. two of these battalions had not arrived and the venture had to be called off. The near exhausted troops holding on grimly to the 2nd. Line had to beat off more enemy attacks throughout the night, but the Line held, and a number of prisoners were taken. The sadly depleted units in the line now held had to fight off vicious enemy attacks all through the second day and no further relief came. Casualties mounted and many who had survived the previous day's onslaught lost their lives due to the terrible artillery and mortar fire brought to bear upon them. The problem of reinforcing and supplying the units in the forward positions was fraught with danger due to the ever narrowing width of the salient held. Several parties of the 16th. Rifles (Pioneers) with supplies of bombs ammunition and water very gallantly went through the hellish enemy barrage in support of the men holding on grimly to the southern end of the Schwaben Redoubt and joined in in the defence with their hard pressed comrades.

That night, Sunday 2nd July, the Ulster Division was relieved by the 49th. Division, the relief was complete by 10 a.m. on the morning of the 3rd July when the battle scarred and weary remnants of the gallant Ulster Division, less than half the numbers who went "over-the-top" on the morning of 1st July, marched into the Martinsart Area and immediately flung themselves down to sleep.

Mention must be made of the supporting troops of the Ulster Division. All gave of their best in support of the heroic effort of the infantry. The Divisional Artillery under most trying conditions and continuous bombardment carried out their task in the true tradition of the British Gunner. The wire in front of all four German Lines was well out when compared with other parts of the battle front. This was in no small measure why the infantry was able to advance with such speed. It should here be mentioned that a Regiment of French Artillery also supported the Ulster Division during the assault and no doubt added considerably to the success of the effective role played by the artillery on this sector of the front. The Royal Engineers, who suffered severely, showed devotion to duty of the highest order regardless to the pounding they took from the enemy barrage of shell and bullet. The Field Ambulances worked unceasingly and heroically in their work of succour for the wounded and the dying. The Army Service Corps Supply Columns gave of their best in their vital supporting role and in common with other supporting elements suffered severe casualties. In all it can truthfully be said that the Division worked well in this their first major, and perhaps greatest, ordeal. All ranks from the highest down had acquitted themselves in the traditional fighting spirit of their race and in the best traditions of the famous Ulster Regiments to which they belonged.

The Ulster Division's assault on Thiepval Ridge and along the Ancre Valley though carried out with brilliant dash and complete success on the opening day and well into the second day and alone of all the divisions in the Northern Sector had taken all their objectives and held on to them for a day-and-a-half their success was not exploited. They had created a deep narrow salient 3,000 yards in depth and approximately half that distance in width, they had overrun and captured the most formidable and reputedly impregnable positions on the whole Western Front and inflicted severe casualties on the enemy, but the Divisions on both their flanks failed to make any movement forward leaving the strongly fortified village of Thiepval and the Leipzig Redoubt on their right and the fortresses of Beaumont-Hamel and Beaucourt on their left unconquered. In spite of this the situation created by the advance of the Ulstermen could have undoubtedly been exploited if someone with the initiative of a Montgomery or a Patton had been there and decided to infiltrate reinforcements into the large gap made in the hostile line, however, the word infiltration had not yet crept into the British military vocabulary and nothing was done and a great opportunity was lost. Haig as a cavalryman had an obsession for cavalry and had taken the Cavalry Units, who for over eighteen months had been used as Infantry in the trenches, out of the trenches and assembled a Cavalry Corps comprising three Cavalry Divisions at some distance behind the front attacked, in the hope of a breakthrough - but this was wishful thinking - Cavalry had long since ceased to fit into the pattern of modern war and the "Tank" was still on the secret list. In any case it would have been quite impossible for horses to make their way across the deep trench systems deeply shell-pocked and covered with forests of barbed-wire entanglements running to a depth of two or three kilometres before the open country was reached. No cavalry could have advanced in face of the thousands of enemy machine-guns which faced the British advance. Why then was the Cavalry not allowed to remain dismounted as Infantry and take their place in the general assault, three further supporting divisions would have been very useful as things turned out.

As previously mentioned, what remained of the 36th. Division was taken out of the line on the morning of the 3rd July and placed in reserve around Martinsart, a few days later it was taken further back to reorganise in the Bernaville area. The Divisional Artillery, the Royal Engineers and the 16th. Royal Irish Rifles (Pioneers) remained in the line to carry on their hazardous duties in support of other divisions. On July 12th the Division less Artillery received orders to move to Flanders.

So ended the 36th (Ulster) Division's first great ordeal. It had cause to be proud of the valiant part it played in this the greatest battle the world had ever seen. Against immense difficulties and the most formidable defences, both Officers and Men had shown the highest degree of personal courage and had won for themselves and their Province a proud place in history. This, alas, was achieved only at a terrible cost in young lives, the Division lost 5,553 Officers and Men in the two days they were in action and practically every home in Ulster was thrown into mourning. We can do no better than end the story of the Ulster Division at the Somme than with Winston Churchill's famous words to the men of the IV Army after the battle ended: "Unconquerable by death, which they had conquered, they have set up a monument of native virtue which will command the wonder, the reverence and the gratitude of our island people so long as we endure as a nation of men".

To be continued...

The above text is taken from a typed manuscript which was written in 1966 and was signed with the initials W.A.S. If anyone knows who the original author was I would like to hear from you so that it can be properly attributed.

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