Today is the anniversary of the First Day of the Battle of the Somme. There are any number of stories that I could have chosen to cover to honour this day. I could have done an overall view of the first day itself. Maybe focusing on a unit and their outcomes on the day. Instead, I will be straying away from the Somme battlefield itself and will focus on an attack not far away from the offensive, that was intended as a diversion, to draw fire away. This is the story of the 46th (North Midland) Division at Gommecourt.
Gommecourt is a village to the south-east of Foncquevillers, about 9.3mi/15km from Albert. Much like Ypres, there was a salient that had formed around the west of the village which enabled the Germans to overlook the British positions and the level ground behind them. The attack on Gommecourt was to be a diversionary in support of the main offensive further to the south. Between Gommecourt and the northern end of the offensive was a gap of 2mi/3.2km. The orders from GHQ stated that
‘The objective is to assist in the operations of the Fourth Army by diverting against itself the fire of artillery and infantry which might otherwise be directed against the left flank of the main attack near Serre.
The attack at Gommecourt would not be a factor on the success of the wider attack. Success at Gommecourt would only shorten the line by taking out the German salient. The 2mi/3.2km gap was not to be attacked and would provide support. It was suggested by the Corps commander, Lt General Thomas Snow, that an operation around the city of Arras would be more effective and less costly but this was eventually rejected as it would have no influence on the German artillery at Gommecourt, which if left unchecked, would be able to target the northern end of the offensive at Serre.
The 46th (North Midland) Division, which was already understrength after being utilised in previous offensives and not having enough replacements sent to fill all the spaces, had orders to attack the northern side of the village, with the 137th Brigade with the 1/6th South Staffordshire and the 1/6th North Staffordshire in lead and the 1/5th South Staffordshire and 1/5th North Staffordshire in support. In the 139th Brigade, the 1/5th and 1/7th Sherwood Foresters were to attack with the 1/6th Sherwood Foresters in support and the 1/8th Sherwood Foresters in reserve, with one battalion to hold the line between the attacking divisions; the other being the 56th (1st London) Division attacking to the south of the village.
As soon as the whistle blew at 0730 on the morning of the 1st July, the attack started to fail for the 137th Brigade. Firstly, the smoke screen that had been provided to offer cover to the advancing troops, was so dense that the men became disoriented and the advance across No Man’s Land was neither uniform nor simultaneous. After half an hour, the smoke screen started to disperse, however, the Germans were ready and waiting for the troops who were still trying to advance across No Man’s Land. Troops who did manage to get across found that the German wire – which was supposed to have been destroyed by the artillery – was still in place but moved around, uncut or had already been repaired. These troops then found themselves caught in the German artillery, as British artillery support was moving forwards, away from them and offering no protection. German machine-gun fire from the Z, a spur beyond the left flank of the attack was also causing problems for the advancing troops. The machine gun fire was pinning down the waves of British troops in either No Man’s Land or even in the British front line itself, unable to get out and continue forward with the advance. Some troops from the 1/6th South and the 1/6th North Staffordshire were caught by flanking fire from the south but still managed to get to the German wire where they fell victim to rifle fire and grenades. An even smaller group broke into the German front line itself but unsupported, were forced out or destroyed.
The story started differently for 139th Brigade. The brigade managed to get into the German front line, despite many casualties. Parties were sent forward to the second trench, with some unfortunately straying to the left and being reported in The Z and Little Z by RFC observation crews. This report brought the British artillery firing on ‘The Z to suppress the German machine-guns to a halt. The following waves were also met by high levels of fire, the fourth wave never getting forward as a formation and hardly any of the fifth and sixth waves getting beyond the advanced trench. Contact with those who were forward was lost. Telephones, flags and various other methods of contact all failed due to casualty numbers and no runner was able to get through. The only contact from the forward zones was two flares at 1100 spotted by an observation crew. The Sherwood Foresters who were in the German front position found themselves trapped with Germans ahead of them in the direction of attack and Germans behind them, coming up from their dugouts. The Germans prevented more troops from crossing into the German front position and were seen bombing the British troops who had taken cover in shell-holes near the German wire.
By 0900 the 137th Brigade commander was sure that his brigades attack was a failure and that this would add to the growing problems of the 139th Brigade and the 56th (1st London) Division, both of which had made gains. He decided on a new attack with the support units of 1/5th South, 1/5th North Staffordshire and the rear waves of the 1/5th Leicester that were still in the British front line and no man’s land. Preparations began to bring back the creeping barrage, but the men had to be rearranged in trenches which were overcrowded. Many of the units had suffered casualties and the 1/5th North Staffordshire had been reduced to 200 men. Just after the orders were issued, the two Staffordshire battalion commanders were wounded, which caused another delay until Lieutenant-Colonel C. H. Jones (1/5th Leicester) could be found and two officers from the brigade HQ sent to assist form four waves. .
The 139th Brigade had got into the German front line but sending over vital supplies and reinforcements could not be done without another smoke screen, since there were not even shell-holes for cover except for a small section in front of the British front line and a similar one along the German front line. Brigadier-General Shipley the commander of 139th Brigade decided to delay until enough smoke bombs had been obtained. Before long it was realised that brigade operations were impossible, and Montagu-Stuart-Wortley the divisional commander, decided to co-ordinate a divisional attack at 1215 with artillery in support but with no fresh troops. The 137th Brigade was to attack under cover of smoke and the 139th Brigade was to send troops for carrying parties. The attack was postponed until 1315 but then the 139th Brigade reported that there were still no smoke bombs, neither brigade attacked and after more delays, zero hour was set for 1530. Ten minutes before zero, the smoke bombardment began and a thin continuous screen was achieved on the front of the 137th Brigade but only twenty bombs had been found for the 139th Brigade and the smoke was wholly insufficient and Shipley ordered the advance to be stopped.
One battalion commander unilaterally cancelled the attack before the order arrived and of twenty men who crossed the parapet on the left, eighteen were shot down by machine-gun fire or shrapnel in 30 yd/27m. On the right, the acting commander of the 1/5th South Staffordshire was wounded just before zero and giving no signal, no-one moved, all waiting for another officer to give the order. The commander of the 1/5th North Staffordshire, seeing no movement from other units, stopped the advance and waited on events. Snow had heard that the 56th (1st London) Division attack had been repulsed and sent an order for the 137th Brigade attack to be cancelled which arrived in the front line position in the nick of time.
After night fell, the 138th Brigade took over the 46th (North Midland) Division front with a battalion of the 139th Brigade attached to build up the numbers. It was decided that the 1/5th Lincolns would advance to the German front line under the cover of darkness to reach the troops believed to be holding out in the German front line. The Lincolns reached the German wire, found it uncut and instead of British troops, full of alert German troops, who sent up flares and opened fire on the unit. The Lincolns were ordered to lie down and wait, eventually being ordered back. The unit suffering many losses but managed to bring back their wounded. At dawn on 2nd July, a Red Cross flag was hoisted enabling both sides sent out parties to rescue the wounded and nearly all of the British survivors in No Man’s Land were taken in.
Casualty numbers for this diversionary attack are sobering. The 46th (North Midland) Division had 2445 casualties and the 56th (1st London) Division lost 4314 men. Conversely, the Germans defenders of Gommecourt suffered 1257 casualties. The division’s attack had failed to take the village and its objectives. The division also had the dubious honour of suffering the lowest level of casualties of the thirteen British divisions engaged that day.
Reporting on the attack after its failure VII Corps commander, Lieutenant-General Snow, stated in official correspondence:
“the 46th Division … showed a lack of offensive spirit. I can only attribute this to the fact that its commander, Major-General the Hon. E.J. Montagu Stuart-Wortley, is not of an age, neither has he the constitution, to allow him to be as much among his men in the front lines as is necessary to imbue all ranks with confidence and spirit.”
Snow ordered a Court of Inquiry on 4 July 1916 into the actions of the 46th Division during the attack, but before it delivered its findings General Haig as Commander-in-Chief ordered Montagu-Stuart-Wortley to leave the field and return to England. Subsequently, it was unfairly judged responsible for the failure of the Gommecourt action in having left the 56th (1st London) Division to fight alone in an impossible situation. For an extended period of time after this, the division was dogged by a reputation for being a formation of poor quality, until this was disproved in the divisions successful of the St. Quentin Canal in 1918.