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The Dorsets on the Somme

The area is chalk downland, rather like Cranbourne Chase. Watered by the River Somme and its tributary, the Ancre, visitors remark on the beauty of this bucolic piece of French countryside. Yet a century ago, this area was the scene of one of the most notorious killing matches that the world has ever seen – the Battle of the Somme.

Conceived as a joint Anglo-French offensive, the River Somme being the division between the British and French armies, this was to be the major Allied effort on the Western Front in the summer of 1916. In the event, a German offensive against the French at Verdun, a vile, attritional slaughter that sucked in much of the French Army, meant the French effort was much reduced and pressure was exerted on General Douglas Haig, the British GOC, to mount an action to distract the enemy. Haig was reluctant to commit to a major offensive at this point; the British Army had grown massively since 1914, swollen by over a million patriotic volunteers. These “New Army” troops were however untested, most having never been in combat before and he was dubious of their performance when put to the test.

Haig’s misgivings were however swept aside by political insistence and the opening day of the battle – the notorious “First day on the Somme” – was scheduled for 1st July.

The attack, by a first wave of 120,000 British and Commonwealth troops, was to take place over a 17 mile frontage from Gommecourt in the north, down past Serre, Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval and across the Ancre valley to the Somme itself. South of the river, a reduced French offensive would continue to widen the expected breach in the German line.

Prior to the attack, a week long artillery barrage was to take place: 1,500 guns firing 1.5 million shells. Received wisdom had it that nothing could survive this, not even the rats. The massive barbed wire entanglements would be cut and the enemy trenches utterly destroyed.

Amongst the units waiting for Zero hour at 07:30, The Dorset Regiment’s 1st Battalion, as part of the second wave of attackers, was to pass through Authuille Wood before crossing no man’s land. It was expected that the enemy front line would have been cleared by the first wave and the Dorsets were to pass through on their way to a secondary objective, Mouquet Farm. 1/Dorsets were a regular battalion and had been on the Western Front since the start of the war, although the attrition rate of wounded and killed meant that few of the original strength of around 800 remained. Of those present, two in particular, Lt Charles Douie and Company Sergeant Major Ernest Shephard would leave written accounts, Douie’s in the form of a memoir, Shephard’s as a diary. 

The Dorset’s 6th Battalion, also part of the order of battle on 1st July, were a service battalion, raised for war service from among the mass of 1914 volunteers who answered Kitchener’s call. As part of 50th Infantry Brigade, they were to assault the enemy held village of Fricourt.

The morning of 1st July dawned hot. As 07:20 approached, the artillery barrage increased in intensity before ceasing abruptly. For a moment there was quiet and men remarked on being able to hear the skylarks in the clear blue sky.

As the whistles blew at 07:30, men of the first wave left the trenches and formed up in no man’s land to begin the advance.

As 1st Dorsets began the advance through Authuille Wood following the Dumbarton Track, it became apparent that all was not well. As CSM Shephard noted in his diary “We had a terrible dose of machine gun fire sweeping us through the wood, could not understand why. If front and second lines had been carried, enemy machine guns would be out of action…..Across the opening, I saw the last platoon of A Coy going over the open ground to our original front line trench, a distance of about 120 yds. Half of this platoon were killed and almost all the remainder wounded in the crossing and I realised that some part of the attack had gone radically wrong, as we were being enfiladed by batteries of enemy machine guns from the ridge on our right front”.

Unfortunately what CSM Shephard was seeing was happening along most of the line. The barrage had been ineffective and a combination of dud shells and a lack of heavy artillery to penetrate deep enemy emplacements meant that attacking troops were facing uncut barbed wire and a storm of enemy machine gun and artillery fire.

The First day on the Somme was the worst day in the history of the British Army: almost 58,000 dead and wounded.

North of the Albert-Bapaume road, the long, straight Roman road that bisects the battlefield, little progress was made. Few made it as far as the enemy front line and those that did were forced to withdraw or killed by counterattacking German troops. South of the road however, the story was slightly different; the enemy front line was broken and, despite heavy losses, gains of up to two miles were made. 6th Dorsets were spared because an evening attack on Fricourt was called off as the enemy seemed to be withdrawing. South of the river Somme, the French achieved considerable gains.

Following the substantial failure of the first day, offensive operations were minimized for the next two weeks, allowing the General Staff to analyse what had gone so badly wrong. It was rapidly realised that the artillery barrage had been ineffective; 1.5 million rounds is a vast amount, but spread over a 17-mile-wide frontage was simply not enough. Furthermore anything up to a third of the shells were duds, the quality of shell fuse manufacture having suffered in the rush to ramp up production. The guns were also overwhelmingly field guns – light 13- and 18-Pounder pieces whose shell were unable to penetrate the deep enemy bunkers.

When operations resumed on July 14th, it was decided to reinforce success; two thirds of the available artillery was moved to the southern part of the battlefield, where the enemy line had been broken. The British Army would blast its way through by sheer weight of metal.

As the summer wore on, both sides were sucked into the “Battle of the Woods” – High Wood, Trones Wood, Delville Wood and others. The German defenders fought tenaciously amongst the jumble of smashed and tangled trees and were only dislodged after severe casualties had been inflicted on the attackers, including 6th Dorsets who, as part of 17th (Northern) Division, were part of the assaulting force at Delville or “Devils” Wood, now home to a dignified memorial to the South African troops who fought and died there.

At High Wood, Pte “Tommy” Veale of 8th Devons won his regiment’s second Victoria Cross for rescuing a wounded officer under fire. The medal is now displayed in The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester.

5th Dorsets, who had previously endured the horrors of the Gallipoli campaign, arrived on the Somme in time for the assault on Moquet Farm. “Mucky Farm” had been the objective for 1st Dorsets on the first day. By September, the farm buildings had been turned into a fortress, incorporating a huge dug out beneath able to house over a hundred defenders. On September 16th, 5th Dorsets lost over two thirds of their strength killed and wounded in attacking this objective.

As the battle unfolded, the British Army was slowly and painfully learning its trade: the artillery began to perfect the “creeping barrage”, which advanced before attacking troops; new infantry techniques were adopted; the use of aircraft was improved, both for attack and observation and wireless began to play a significant role in maintain command and control.

On 15th September near the village of Flers, a weapon which has profound Dorset associations was first used in combat - the tank. In commemoration of this, a dignified memorial sits alongside the road just outside the village of Pozieres.

As the battle of the Somme petered out in the foul weather of November, British and Commonwealth forces had driven the German Army back around six miles. The strategic objective of Bapaume, a major transport hub, had not fallen, although the German Army would withdraw past it in a move back to their prepared positions on the Siegfried Stellung, or, to the British, Hindenburg Line, the following spring. This was in itself partly as a result of the battle. Both sides had suffered over 600,000 casualties.

When considering the effects of the battle, long considered the supreme example of British military stupidity, perhaps the final word should go to Hauptmann von Hentig of the Imperial German General Staff:

“The Somme was the muddy grave of the German Field Army and of the soldier’s faith in his leadership”.

A few years ago, a fine Portland stone obelisk was erected outside the village of Authuille in memory of the Dorset Regiment’s fallen of the Somme. If you park and walk the short distance to the CWGC Lonsdale Cemetery, you are on the fringe of Authuille Wood. Turn and look back at the skyline and a copse of trees marks the site of the Wundtwerk, an enemy machine gun post which inflicted many of the Dorset’s casualties on July 1st. Now returned to peaceful farmland, only the cemeteries, memorials and scraps of iron amongst the plough – the “iron harvest” – act as reminders of the events of a century ago.