The 17th (Service) Battalion Manchester Regiment

2nd City Pals Battalion

 

Part Two The Battle of the Somme July 1916

 

The “Great” Day

 

The assembly trenches for the Battalion had been dug in two lines on the reverse slope of a slight rise and were, therefore in dead ground. As the men awaited their allotted zero hour of 08.30 a rolling barrage of artillery fire crept forward towards the village of Montauban as the 19th Manchester’s and the 17th Kings Liverpool Regiment prepared the way.

 

A and B companies occupied the first line of trenches and C and D the second. At 08.30 the battalion left the assembly trenches and proceeded up the slight rise.

 

As the men reached the top of the slope some 100yards in front of them, shrapnel and machine gun fire started to take its toll. Only 400 yards from his original starting position, the Commanding Officer, Colonel Johnson  was wounded. He took no further part in the advance. Major MacDonald assumed command of the Battalion and pressed on with the assault. The assault had, by necessity been carried out at slow walk as the amount of extra kit carried by the men made anything else impossible. The ground had been very badly cut up and the going was difficult but as the German trenches were so battered the scaling ladders the men carried were hardly required. As the leading waves reached Glatz redoubt, they were held up by their own creeping barrage of artillery and were forced to take cover in the shell holes and battered trenches for 45 Minutes until the barrage lifted to the North side of the village. As C Company moved into extended line formation, heavy casualties were taken by machine gun fire from the direction of the village of Mametz.

 

As the barrage lifted to the village, the advance was continued. By this time the 1st and 2nd lines had all but amalgamated and the advance of the Men was held up by wide trench which could only be crossed at one or two places. With German prisoners streaming out of the village and moving towards the British lines the advance faltered slightly as the men regained their extended line formation on the other side of the trench. The men pushed on towards their objective and the first waves led by Captain Madden entered the village at 10.20am. The men moved quickly through the village to its Northern edge and from this position could observe the enemy retreating in disorder towards the Villages of Longueval and Bazentin-le-Grand.

 

The advance had been rehearsed so exhaustively on the training ground at Briquemesnil that the movements had become stale with repetition that one man was heard to remark: “Now we’ll go back and do it all over again before tea !”

 

Parties of men were at once set to work to consolidate strong points and reverse the trenches-cutting fire steps to face the direction of the inevitable counter attack. This proved to be immensely difficult as the ground was a mass of shell holes, rubble and loose crumbling earth. The total inadequacy of the trenches was to become abundantly proved over the next 48 hours. A working party of 10 Platoon under Lieutenant Sproat was observed by the enemy gunners and shelled, suffering heavy casualties and killing the Officer.

 

Lewis gun posts were established at several points, one being on a sunken road and commanded by Sergeant Fred Wilkinson which was wiped out, killing the Sergeant and his crew. A second gun operated in the open between A and C Companies firing in the direction of Longueval and Bernafay wood. The gun was manned by Privates Clough, Evans, Gordon, Worthington and Wright and remained in action until the Battalion was relieved. Two further guns manned by Private Worthington and Corporal Allison also did good work.

 

Battalion headquarters was established in an old German dugout by the crossroads outside the village and was commanded by the Adjutant, Captain MacDonald. The acting Commanding Officer stressed to his men that it was essential for them to be underground before the shelling began in earnest. The Men fully realised this, and by Evening when the bombardment began again, they were well under cover and no further casualties occurred. The counter attack failed to materialise and the Battalion was relieved in the early hours of the 3rd July by the 12th Royal Scots and moved off down the valley towards the village of Carnoy.

 

The battered remnants of the Battalion reached Bronfay farm where the rolls were called and out of a total of about 900 Officers and Men who went over the top 48 Hours previously, Eight Officers and 350 other ranks had been left behind on the shattered battlefield.

 

1st July Casualties

The Battalion then proceeded to bivouac camp at Happy Valley off the Bray to Albert Road for rest and reorganisation.

 

Trones Wood and Guillemont


The assault and capture of the village of Montauban had been one of the few successes of an otherwise disastrous 1st July. The 17th had done all that was asked of it and as the Men rested in the bivouac camp at Happy Valley they assumed a move to the rear to reorganise and re-equip themselves would be the next move. The Battalion had dwindled to just less than 450 all ranks. The weather had taken a change for the worst and heavy rain washed the Men out of their bivouacs.


Contrary to expectations, orders were received on the 7th July to “bomb up” and be ready to move at a moments notice. At noon on the 8th July the Battalion were ordered into the assembly trenches at Oxford copse near the village of Maricourt, arriving at 4.00pm The acting Commanding Officer, Major Whitehead was still unsure of the Battalions ultimate destination, but the general opinion was that they were heading for Trones wood.


Tactically, Trones wood was of great importance. Until the wood was taken, no attack could be made against the village of Guillemont, 800 yards to the East. The village was a stronghold of the German second line defences and the whole Somme offensive would be held up until it was captured.


The Battalion remained at Oxford copse until 1.00am on the 9th July when it moved across the old “No mans land” it had crossed on the 1st July to Glatz redoubt. The Battalion was then ordered to proceed “At all speed” to the Briqueterie which it reached as daylight broke. An attack was ordered on the Northern half of Trones wood within the hour and a conference of officers and N.C.O’s was hastily convened where plans and arrangements were settled.

Unobserved by the enemy, the Battalion got into position South of Bernafay wood and moved off towards Trones wood some 600 yards distant.


The first 200 yards were crossed without incident. Then the Battalion came under heavy shell fire from the front of the wood. The Men covered the distance with renewed vigour and entered the wood at a rush, chasing the enemy out of a shallow trench, killing and capturing the majority. Few escaped.


The Battalion now tried to consolidate their position on the North and Eastern sides of the wood, but the enemy put down a terrific bombardment and the place became an absolute inferno. One officer wrote: “It seemed as if every gun in the sector had been switched on to this one small area”. Owing to the great number of casualties sustained in the bombardment it was found impossible to hold the entire length of the wood and it was decided the North East and North West ends-where there were already some trenches dug-should be consolidated. A party of 3 Officers and 50 Men fought their way to the North Western end and consolidated and reversed the German trenches.


Lieutenant McCardle and 6 Men attempted to link up with a South African company who were supposed to be holding a trench that linked Trones wood with Bernafay wood, but instead they encountered a small party of the enemy, killing 3 and dispersing the rest. Lieutenant McCardle and the 6 men returned safely. The only survivor from the northern part of the wood was Sergeant Bingham, and he was wounded.
 The denseness of the wood made it awkward to reorganise the various Companies as they were scattered over a distance of about half a mile, making communication and movement in the fallen timber and thick undergrowth almost impossible.


At about 2.00pm, the Germans launched a counter attack from the South East of the wood, which was repulsed and the position was established. The bombardment intensified and losses continued to be heavy, so much so that orders were issued for the entire evacuation of the wood. As the evacuation was carried out, the Germans attacked in force at 4.15pm and quickly occupied the entire wood cutting of the detachments of A and B Companies in the North West of the wood. The order to withdraw had not reached them and although the Men held out for as long as was possible they were eventually bombed out. A few Men tried to escape across the open but were cut down by the enemy. None returned. All were either killed or captured.


The 17th Battalions casualties in the action amounted to 10 Officers and 196 Men Killed, Wounded or Missing.

Trones Wood Casualties

Casualty list for men injured in the heavy fighting on the 1st and 10th July at Montauban and Trones Wood.

 


On the 11th, the Battalion was relieved and marched to Bois Celestins.
A draft of 569 N.C.O’s and men were received to fill the ranks of the depleted Battalion and on the 13th they moved into billets at Daours and Vecquemont where it reorganised itself. A further draft of 144 Men was received.


On the 15th, Lieutenant Colonel Grisewood took over command of the Battalion and on the 19th the Battalion was back at Bois Celestins and the following day moved to the Happy valley Bivouac site. The 22nd saw the Battalion at the Mansel copse bivouac and on the 24th the 17th assembled at Cambridge copse at 1.00am, moving to the old front line system at Talus Boise at 10am.

From the 24th to the 29th the Men worked on assembly trenches between Bernafay and Trones woods and made final preparations for the forth coming attack on the village of Guillemont. The frontal attack on the village promised to be as difficult an operation as could be conceived. The distance of 1000 yards would have to be crossed without any cover whatsoever, and into face of the artillery defending the village.
The attack was planned for the 30th July and the 17th’s orders were:                  

A Company to support the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers who were to attack the village from the East side of Trones wood. The other Companies were to follow if necessary.

On the Evening of the 29th, at about 9.30pm, the Battalion began to move up the assembly trenches between Bernafay and Trones wood. Zero hour had been set for 3.45am and the Men had to be in position by 2.30am. As the Battalion approached Glatz redoubt, the enemy commenced a very heavy phosgene gas bombardment. (Believed to be the first occasion it had been used) and the Men speedily put on their gas helmets. Although a number of casualties were sustained, the Battalion reached the assembly trenches at 2.45am. The Men had 45 minutes to wait for Zero hour when they were informed that an aeroplane had spotted the enemy massing in a sunken road running behind the Village and the attack was to start at once. Dawn was just breaking and a thick mist enveloped the battlefield. A company moved off round the Southern edge of Trones wood until they reached the road that ran between Montauban and Guillemont. The Company moved into an extended line on both sides of the road and moved forwards towards the village some 1000 yards distant. The Men arrived at a thick belt of barbed wire that was impossible to penetrate and moved along it to the right until they came to an opening where the road cut through it. The Men were now subjected to rifle and machine gun fire and began to take casualties. Nothing could be seen of the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers, but at the corner of a crossroads, a machine gun of the Machine Gun Corps, the only one still operating out of a total of 28 which had been sent up for the attack was being commanded by a badly injured Officer who believed that the 2nd Royal Scots were on the other side of the village. Considerable rifle and machine gun fire was opened up at the party at short range. A bombing party attempted to move forward but was forced to fall back under a counter attack.

Captain Fearenside's reports from the trenches


The Battalion was relieved just before day break on the 31st and marched to happy valley.


The attack on Guillemont had proved a costly failure. Although the 2nd Royal Scots had made it into the village, they had been completely surrounded and fought to the last cartridge. Of those that entered the village, none returned.


The 17th Battalions casualties for the attack on Guillemont were 5 Officers and 274 other ranks Killed, Wounded and Missing.

The Guillemont Casualties


From Happy valley the Battalion entrained for Berguette and a month well earned rest.
The Month of July had taken a heavy toll on the Battalion. A total of 23 Officers and 820 other ranks were killed wounded or missing. Of the original volunteers of September 1914-few remained and it now contained a mixture of Men from outside of Manchester. Many of the bodies of the Men killed in the July battles were never recovered and still lie on the Battlefield, their names commemorated on the Thiepval memorial to the missing. The injured Men were evacuated to England. Some were patched up and returned to fight in France-others were so badly wounded that they never fought again. The battalion went on to fight another day.

17th Battalion Bugle Band 

 

 

Part Three The Flers Attack

 

 

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