141 Days: The Battle of
The First Day of the Somme
1st July 1916
At 7.30 am 60,000 British soldiers on a 14 mile front climbed out of
their trenches and advanced towards the German lines. The 1st Battalion
was part of this massive attack. Their objective was a position between
the villages of Beaumont Hamel and Serre.
With the battalion 906 men strong, only 507 went into action. The 399
left behind included soldiers who worked in the Quartermaster’s
Department, some who were sick and a group of soldiers who, should the
worse happen, would form the nucleus for recreating the battalion.
The battalion’s action started at 7.41 am when 2nd Lieutenant MacWalter
led his party of 20 scouts covering the battalion’s front of 500 metres.
They were followed by two fighting patrols, each including a Lewis Gun
section. All four companies followed them, along with Battalion
No sooner had some of the men left their trenches than they were cut
down by very heavy German machine gun fire. This was aimed at the gaps
in the British barbed wire, cut by the British to allow their advance. A
few soldiers of the 1st Battalion made it as far as the German trenches
and it was at around this time that Major Bromilow, the commanding
officer, disappeared. On account of all the smoke and dust it was
difficult to establish what was actually happening. It was known that
some men who got as far as Serre and were being shot down by Germans who
had come in behind them from the trenches which the 29th and 30th
Divisions had failed to capture. At about 12.30pm the Germans bombed
their own front line trenches, now occupied by soldiers of the 1st
Battalion. They could do nothing but withdraw.
At the end of the day the battalion had made no territorial gains, but
had suffered 400 casualties that were killed, wounded or missing.
Major Henry Dearden Matson’s Letter
Transcript of a letter from the Somme battlefield. It was written by
Major Henry Dearden Matson, 1st Battalion, King’s Own, to his sister,
Arziles Matson, living in Douglas, on the Isle of Man.
10th July 1916
We are now out for a rest after 9 days of strenuousness, to reorganise
after our somewhat severe losses. The Battalion is full of kick and
ready to go until it drops, but the powers that be seem to think we have
done enough for the present. I can’t even yet realize so many have gone
from us, but coming back to the same mess room we occupied before the
battle brings it home to one. No use to dwell on that however. They die
that England may live. The Battalion advanced – ‘went over the top’ at
7.30 am on Saturday 1st July. It was the left leading Battalion of the
Brigade and the men marched out into a withering fire of machine guns
and shells as if they were on manoeuvres. Whole sections were swept away
but nothing stopped them. They surged up over the German front trenches
in their proper formations until they reached a point from which it was
impossible to proceed any further. A village which should have been
taken by a division on the left was not taken. A hill and another
village on the right resisted the efforts of another division to take
it, so the poor old Bn. was left out alone in the front unsupported on
either flank rapidly crumbling away under the concentrated crossfire of
the Bosches were able to bring on it. Orders had to be sent up to retire
and by nightfall it was back again in its assembly trenches and its
glorious charge had achieved no result. Three officers were left of
those who went over but others have come up and we are reorganising. For
the first few days, I was in command as poor Bromilow is missing, the
whole of Headquarters except me wiped out. We had to work our hardest in
the worst conditions clearing the battlefield & preparing for another
attack, being heavily shelled all the time. I have many mentions to make
& at least two of my officers should get DSOs. The conditions were most
difficult, but I managed to get a supply of hot soup for the men, who
could cook nothing – too wet – greatcoats – they were in fighting order
– change of socks, and did a lot of talking & cheering of them up. We
could get no sleep that was the worst – work had to be done & we had to
do it, and hold the enemy as well.
The 4th Division has done its work which was to draw the strongest
possible German force to its front so that the French could smash
through on the right, and they have done it, so that our Battalion
according to all the Generals who had been interviewing us lately has
covered itself with glory, even if it is reduced to half its strength. I
feel poor Young’s death too much. I love the merry young fellow; only 19
& a company commander and veteran too. Then there’s Weatherhead, and
Rowley and Hablutzel and Clegg, MacWalk’s, the fearless, Melly, with the
bull’s roar in a fight, all killed and fourteen others wounded or
missing; nearly all our gallant crew of officers. When a man is posted
as missing it means that nobody present could say whether he was killed
or wounded – there was no information. He may be killed, or wounded, or
a prisoner. So now we are having this much needed rest. It is only a
rest from the shelling and fighting, as there is hard work to be done
straightening out companies and bringing them up to strength replacing
specialists, signallers, Lewis gunners and so forth. We can do it in a
week and be ready to fight again as we have fought before. Three times
in this war this Battalion has been practically wiped out but it has
always got going again. The discipline was magnificent, no regiment
could have behaved better and all through the bitter days following not
a murmur from the men. They are wonderful. Nothing daunts them and they
are ready as they were this time to achieve the impossible.
Much love to you both from
Extracts from notes made in France and Belgium by
Rev C J K Burnell CF attached 1st Battalion King’s Own Regiment
1st July 1916
Mine exploded. McWalter killed. Attack on Beaumont-Hamel. Bromilow, Jack
Young and Hablutzel killed.
1st-5th July 1916
Was detailed for duty with 12th Field Ambulance at Beaussart; saw little
of what was happening. Took funerals each day at Bertrancourt.
6th July 1916
Visited Brigade Headquarters in Mailly-Mailly. Obtained leave warrant;
handed over canteen to Lewis.
Message from Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston, KCB, DSO,
to All Officers, Non Commissioned Officers and Men of the VIII Army
Corps, dated 4th July 1916, concerning the attack at Beaumont-Hamel-Serre.
Accession Number: KO2590/226
Next: La Boisselle
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