21st Battalion History


The First Battle of the Somme.


Detrained at Longeaux siding near Amiens after seven hours train ride, via Calais, Boulogue, Etaples and Abbeville, we marched 8 miles to billets at St. Sauveur where we stayed till the 16th July. Blankets were handed in and practices in attack formations were carried out daily. By this time we knew our fate and had a screw up our courage to face with a smile the certainty of entering the Somme push on the heels of the 1st Division.

Marching by easy stages we reached Varennes (22 miles) on 20th July via Villers Bocage (8 miles) and Puchevillers (7 miles). Each day the roar of the battle came clearer to our ears. From Varennes we could see the shells bursting near Ovillers-la-Boiselle and the unit would line up in the evening to watch the strafe. Equipment was fitted and refitted until we evolved the "fighting order" which lasted with small modifications throughout the campaign. We left Varennes for Albert at 5 am on the 26th on two hours notice. This hurried move was typical of our earlier days as a division and was a contrast to the better-organised and less hurried movements, which took place in 1918. We shifted perhaps on shorter notice in 1918 but our training and experience enabled us to do it with less bustle and consequent loss of temper.

All day long we camped at the Albert Brickfields listening to stories of slaughter from the 1st Division men and at 7 pm moved by platoons through the town to Sausage Valley where we camped in the old German front line in a rather disorganised state. Guns of all calibres were drawn up almost wheel to wheel all round, the noise was deafening and it was hard to imagine that there was any system about the battle at all. For three days we acted as carrying battalion to the Brigade moving up laden with rations, bombs and S.A.A. through the murderous barrage which was kept on the Chalk Pit road and Pozieres village. In those days the art of counter battery shooting had not been invented as a science and the poor old infantry were the target for all types of artillery. Of our trips along the so-called Kay trench, which was really only a track among the shell holes, the less said the better. All troops were under observation by the Germans from the time they cleared casualty Corner at the top of Sausage Valley until they reached the front line. The trenches on both sides were battered day and night with H.E. (high explosive) and the roads in addition received constant attention with shrapnel.

The one satisfaction was that the 1st Division had captured Poziers village and that we were holding it. Moving into the front line on the night 29/30 July we had another rough passage in the village but relief was complete by daylight. Our tour lasted three days during which casualties were hardly as heavy during the carrying period. "C" Company came off worst having lost 60 men out of 140 by shelling alone, by the time we withdrew to supports and carry again. The whole of this time preparations for an attack by the Division on Poziers ridge were under way and while in the line we dug a jumping off trench half way across No Man’s Land. This was a rather remarkable performance as in one section of it 80 men dug 240 yards of trench, plus traverses to a depth of 5 feet between 9.15 pm and 3.45 am under a very heavy fire. Lt. Col. Hutchinson was wounded during this tour in the line and Major Forbes was appointed C.O. and promoted to Lt. Col.

The division attacked the ridge at 9.15 pm on the 4th August with all three infantry Brigades in the line. The 22nd took the brunt of the fighting for the 6th Brigade followed by the 24th and 23rd with the 21st carrying. The action was successful and from the new line in O.G. 2 (the official name of our final objective) an extensive view towards Bapaume was obtained with Courcelette and Martinpuich in the foreground. The main job to be done in the succeeding days was stretcher bearing as the casualties were heavy. At 3 pm on the 6th August the 6th Brigade was relieved by the 4th Brigade of the 4th Division and moved back to Tara Hill for the night. Here we were again disturbed by shelling which cost the 24th Battalion the lives of four of its head quarters staff besides inflicting a number of other casualties and spoiling our night’s rest completely.

Moving by road as usual we reached Berteaucourt (29 miles) via Warloy (9 miles) and La Vicogne (12 miles) on the 11th. Here we stayed training, reorganising and resting for six days. By this time we had absorbed our 9th and 10th Reinforcements who had been arriving form the base in small parties for a couple of months. While at Vadencourt on the way to La Vicogne the Brigade was inspected by His Majesty the King.

On the 18th we started back for the line, this time staging at La Vicogne, Rubempre and Vadencourt and arrived in Wire Trench behind Poziers at 8 am on the 22nd. That night "A", "C" and "D" Companies took over the line from the remnants of the 3rd Brigade on the right of Mouquet Farm. It was a thick night and conditions hot until we changed over with the 24th on our left 2 days later and found ourselves confronting the redoubtable Farm itself with our Company headquarters and centre of resistance in the Mouquet Farm Quarry. In this sector shellfire was even hotter than where we had come from. Knowing that we were next for a stunt we were not surprised when we received orders to attack the Farm on 26th. "A" Company from supports and "B" Company from salvage work were brought up to form the point of the arrow. "C" and "D" Companies had been holding the line since the 22nd and made the preliminary reconnaissances and provided supports and carrying parties. The 24th assisted on the right and the sadly depleted 22nd sent up a Company to form a defensive flank on the left towards Thiepoel.

The barrage opened at 4.45 am on the 26th August and "A" Company with its right on the farm and "B" Company with its left on Point 54 assaulted on a 500 yards front. The Hun protected in deep dugouts and reinforced by supports housed in an extensive underground system under Mouquet Farm orchid fought well. Our "A" Company attracted by the flares and noise from the ruins of the Farm buildings lost direction to the right and became hopelessly mixed up among the maze of trenches round and beyond their objective. Fighting like tigers many men got past their objective and when daylight broke were shot down by the enemy and some were captured. All the "A" Company officers were lost but the remnants of the Company hung on to a line passing just in front of the Farm and connected up with the 24th on their right and "B" Company on their left during the day.

"B" Company on the left had better luck and although badly mauled about took a large toll of the enemy and established themselves on their objective except on the extreme left where point 54 held out. During the day the Huns reinforced from Theipoal and our Stokes mortars played havoc with them coming down a communications trench, finally driving them back over the open minus their rifles and equipment when our machine guns and rifles knocked out many more.

The 24th on our right became embroiled in the fighting round ruins and were not sorted out until the evening. The 22nd Company on the left flank not knowing the sector also lost direction but assisted greatly in what ever fighting they found themselves. Several attempts were made on Point 54 during the morning but our numbers were depleted and it was impossible to get a strong enough party together to overcome this formidable position.

On the same night (26/27th) we were relieved by the 14th Battalion and the newly won territory was handed over. On the relief the unit moved direct to Albert where we were rejoined by the details who had been left behind.

This action was typical of the Somme Push in 1916. The Hun was holding the position in strength, had plenty of guns and was fighting in good heart. Our troops were as yet inexperienced and the staff work was not at the high pitch of efficiency, which it attained, in the latter days of the war. The results were heavy losses on both sides and comparitavely small territorial gain to us but above all the establishment in our hearts of the fact that man for man we were better than out opponents. Hence, though the material gain was small, the First Battle of the Somme was a turning point of the war as it showed that given equal chances we were the better side. From July 1916 till Mach 1918, the German army as a whole was on the defensive for the first time since the battle of the Marne.

We have been in hotter holes since then but never has the Battalion suffered under intense shellfire for such long periods and with such little movement. The causality lists bear this out. The conditions were vile. The weather being hot and everyone fully occupied on other tasks, the dead lay unburied for weeks and the stench was frightful. To come through a period such as this and then go on fighting is evidence of the temper of the British armies in general and of our unit in particular. In later pages the reader will learn of more spectacular accomplishments but under the heading of the First Battle of the Somme is told the story of our first and heaviest try out. The time which is vividly imprinted in the memories of those who saw the whole show through.

VI  Winter in the Line