It was now the early hours of Saturday morning - 1st July at last.
From Brigade HQ in ‘Paisley Avenue’, zero hour was finalised. Watches were synchronised and tear-gas shells and goggles were used. Zero hour was passed on to all the officers in the assembly trenches.
The Armagh Volunteers had by now reached their positions north of the Ancre and awaited the dawn. The Belfast Brigade was further back in Auelvy Wood.
Dawn started to break through. Birds could be heard singing and the company cooks started to get ready. The Ulster men were to be well prepared for the day ahead - strong sweet tea, rashers, fried bread and jam. Cold tea and lemon was put in their water bottles.
Some men tried to keep themselves calm by an almost ostentatious show of everyday rituals.......
‘There was a fellow Hobbs from Lurgan, and would you believe it, he was shaving. When he was finished, he took out a clean pair of socks and put them on, just as if he was back in barracks’.
By now the command posts were occupied. One post in Hamel Village was in a stone-walled cottage with sandbagged windows and the only ventilation through the fire place. On one wall was a large map of the entire British front and another of the 36ths area of attack.
The Germans were now shelling the Ulster lines in a concentrated way and the Armagh Volunteers were to suffer fifty casualties from shell-fire before zero hour.
The final British barrage opened up, soon to be joined by the trench mortars in short bursts of intense fire. This was the ‘hurricane’ bombardment.
Usually an intense bombardment had gone each morning from 6.25 to 7.45. It would lift at 7.30 this morning. Hopefully the Germans would be caught all the more unawares when the Infantry poured across at them.
The mist of the early morning was beginning to clear. It was warm and the sun shone down on the fury of the bombardment. Some men in the ulster trenches knelt and prayed; some made out their wills in paybooks. Others starred at photographs of family, or thought of what might be happening at home just at this hour of the morning.
By now the traditional issue of rum had been distributed. Many men in the 36th, being tee-totallers, did not drink their share and others got double or even triple the amount. As it was very strong rum, some men awaited zero hour in a considerable degree of intoxication. Some men had acquired Orange Lilies, the symbolic flower of the Battle of the Boyne celebration and placed them in their tunics. A few men had managed to stow away their Orange Sashes and now placed them around their shoulders. Orange Lodge meetings were held in the last minutes.
By now lane ways had been cut through the 36ths own barbed wire by special groups of wire cutters. Gaps had also been cut in the parapet within the last hour, to give platoons easy access to no-mans-land.
General Nugents plan, unlike that of most other Divisional Commanders, was to send his men out into no-mans-land just before zero-hour; there they would wait, protected by the curtain of shell-fire on the German lines, and that much closer to their objective when the whistle blew. So at 7.10am the first Ulstermen of the day crossed the parapet north of the Ancre - a first wave of Armagh Volunteers who would lie down in long lines and await the cessation of the bombardment. The second wave would follow five minutes later, the third at 7.20 and the final wave at 7.30am. Hidden by smoke and by the earth thrown up in the explosions and especially by smoke shells and tear-gas shells fired into the Ancre Valley, they nervously anticipated the crucial moment.
Then the first troops south of the river began to move out into no-mans-land, the Derry, Tyrone, Down and South Antrim. Five minutes later the second line of Battalions began to move into the front trenches which the first wave of troops had vacated.
In the last moments the bombardment seemed to reach its horific crescendo. All along the Somme front a whole generation of young men awaited battle, tensing themselves for the silence that would herald the start, at long last, of the big push.
The gunfire ceased......There was a few moments of stillness before the officers whistles were blown and the men rose to their feet to commence the walk to the German parapet. There was no fuss, no shouting, no running; everything orderly, solid and through, just like the men themselves. This was the last few seconds in which communities, villages and families would remain intact. The Ulster Volunteers waved farewell to the world, strode towards the ‘Devils Dwelling place’ and into the steel muzzles of machine-guns..................
Zero Hour - 'Over the top'
The men clamber out of their trenches to attack the German lines.
Many men do not even make it out of the trenches.
[Footage © the Imperial War Museum]
of the Ancre 7.30 - 9.00am
...I Prepared myself for Heaven, but I walked straight into Hell...
Soldiers (not wearing packs)advancing at a slow run through
low barbed wire towards the German trenches
[Footage © the Imperial War Museum]
of the Ancre 7.30 - 9.00am
The leading soldiers advanced towards the first German line, their walk turning to a charge as they neared the objective. There were cries of ‘NO SURRENDER BOYS’. As they reached the German trenches and the first men jumped into them, through the shattered wire, the German machine-guns began to open up from Thiepval and from across the river to the north. The enemy were out of their dugouts and shelters and manning their guns, not just on the Schwaben Redoubt but on the high ground on either side of the Ulster sector. The bombardment had not been as effective as promised and now the heavily burdened Infantrymen faced fierce and accurate gunfire.
A new source of destruction became apparent when the German artillery fire that had been concentrated on the British lines shifted to no-mans-land. Many men sheltered in shell holes; some were blown to pieces; others pushed on.
The south Antrim Volunteers, especially the later waves; were met by a hail of machine gun bullets and the Down Volunteers who were very vulnerable to fire from the north of the river were devastated.
The third line had to reached by 7.48, so the men who had got to the German trenches immediately began to bomb dug-outs and engage in hand-to-hand combat with those Germans they could find. But the bombing of the dugouts was not as effective as might have been. Often the stairways descended in a spiral, so that the explosion of a Mills bomb on the steps did not damage the entire dugout. Survivors were often left and the Ulstermen, because of the rigorous timetable for advance, could not investigate each bunker thoroughly. Germans could emerge and attack the Ulstermen from the rear.
troops were heading off in the second great wave of the Ulster Divisions
assault. At 7.30 the YCVs had moved into the positions vacated by the
leading Inniskillings. It was a terrifying prospect to see and hear the
onslaught that had greeted the Inniskillings. But at 7.40 the Young Citizens
climbed over and into the hell of no-mans-land. THe Battalion war diarist
recorded that at 7.45 his worst fears had been realised.....”No
sooner were they clear of our own line than the slow tat-tat of the Hun
machine-guns from Thiepval village and Beaumont-Hamel caught the advance
under a deadly crossfire”.
The clearest memory by far that was recalled from that fateful morning was that of John Kennedy Hope. A memory that Hope would probably have forgotten:
“A 9th Inniskilling lying at the top has got a bullet through his steel hat. He rolls over into the trenches at my feet. He is an awful sight. HIs brain is oozing out of the side of his head and he is calling for his pal. An occasional cry of ‘Billy Gray, Billy Gray, will you not come to me?’ In a short time all is quiet, he is dead. He’s the servant to an officer who is lying in the trench with a fractured thigh and wont let anyone touch him, and he is bleeding badly. They die together.”
The battle for the Schwaben Redoubt was at its height and the Donegal and Fermanagh Volunteers were busy trying to take the Crucifix. These men had seen, at close quarter, some of the destruction that had greeted the first waves going in at 7.30. Many of them sat in trenches and joined together in the Lords Prayer. At 7.40 they got up and went over on the sound of the whistle. Some men were to recall vividly the beauty of the sunshine and the blue sky......”It was as fair a morning as ever graced God’s earth”.
Before long the shell-fire and the machine-gun bullets were pinning men down in shell-holes and it took a long time to get to German lines, but of course, other men never managed to get further than their own parapet and the stretcher-bearers prepared to gather them and take them back for treatment, or if need be, for burial.
By 8.15 am, the war diarist of the YCVs reordered, "Corpses were piling high on the Sunken Road”.
It was a matter of what one survivor was to call “Playing leapfrog with death”. There was bitter hand-to-hand fighting to capture the third line. Then, when the barrage lifted at 8.48, came an intense struggle for the fourth line - described by one man as “A Belfast riot on the top of Mount Vesuvius”.
South of the Ancre : 9am - Midday
Shortly after nine o’clock the German fourth line had been successfully assaulted - and the Crucifix and the Schwaben Redoubt had, at a terrific cost, been captured. Parties cleared trenches north towards the river. Under pressure, the Ulstermen continued to consolidate their position, awaiting the moment, at 10.00 of shortly after, when the Belfast Brigade - who had already crossed no-mans-land - could attempt their assault on the fifth line. However, it appeared highly debatable to the Divisions commanding officers whether any attack should be launched on the final line. The Divisions on the 36th’s flanks had made no gains whatsoever, and their reserve Battalions were not being committed in an attempt to wrest from the Germans what their first waves had signally failed to obtain. The Ulstermen were driving a very exposed wedge into German territory and were venerable. The Belfast Battalions might be heading for destruction, if they tried to push further on. At 8.32 a request had been sent to 10th Corps HQ asking whether the 107th Brigade might be stopped from advancing on the fifth line. The reply was given that new assaults were being planned north and south of the Ulstermen, so the Belfast Battalions really ought to go ahead. Three quarters of an hour later and order was received to withhold the 107th Brigade until the situation on the Ulstermen’s flanks had improved. But the Belfast Brigade had already crossed no-mans-land to the Schwaben Redoubt and the men were waiting for the barrage to lift, to launch their big assault. Because telephone lines taken forward had been cut by German fire, and runners were few, isolated and confused, the attempt to inform the Belfast Brigade was to fail, and their assault on the final line took place after all.
Assualting the final German line
6.30 the Belfast Battalions had been assembling behind the leading waves
of troops. As zero hour arrived and the leading Battalions headed towards
the German lines, the Belfast men moved up to occupy their places. On
their way they picked up coils of wire and iron posts. Already the South
Belfast Volunteers were being mauled on the right, due to the inadequate
cover of a denuded Thiepval Wood. Then at 8.30 an oppourtunity came as
the shell-fire eased for a few minutes. This was the moment, and Colonel
Crozier ordered his men to rush forward into no-mans-land in small groups
and to occupy the Sunken Road, then he went out and stood there in full
view of everyone, giving orders. Lt Colonel N.G. Bernard of the South
Belfast Volunteers, in league with Crozier, was to follow suit, sending
his South Belfast men in small squads to the Sunken Road as the West Belfast
Battalion vacated it in a second mad dash for the German front line.The
East Belfast men were at last to leave for the German lines also.
At 8.45 a runner had brought a message back that the Belfast Brigade was, despite considerable casualties, implanted on the far side of no-mans-land, itching to help take the fourth line and then await the moment for the rush to the last line.
Meanwhile, even before the barrage had lifted off the fifth line, men of the Belfast Brigade, aided by some from the other Battalions, were thrusting out across the inhospitable, bullet-raked stretch of land between them and their objectives. This would prove a foolish move - some of the artillery fire was landing short and men were killed by their own shells, but the Ulstermen - trying to learn lessons of earlier in the day - were determined to get as close as possible to the final trench system before the barrage lifted off it. Few recollections exist of that final struggle for the fifth line. The 36th was the only Division on the Somme to break this far into the enemy’s trench system. Those who survived the fight for the last line were to be very few : ‘in the final rush...only about half our men made it. Even fewer made it back’.
An enormous uphill struggle up the Schwaben Redoubt towards the German positions
men who got there managed to maintain their position for a while, under
enormous pressure - they even contrived to rewire and fortify a section
of about a hundred yards of trench. Above all else they engaged in hand-to-hand
struggles in which only the only the most aggressive soldiers were able
to survive. But the fifth line was a venerable position for so few British
soldiers to try to hold, and they were exposed to both shells and machine-gun
fire. So by midday the line had been cleared of Ulstermen as the Germans
began to surge up the trenches from St-Pierre-Division. The tide of advance
had reached its furthest point and the German counterattack was beginning
to gather force. Not only that, but because German gun-fire dominated
no-mans-land, the Ulstermen were in trouble at the rear. The 36th Division
was virtually besieged by the late morning, in the four lines they had
just taken. During the morning the men of the 49th Division’s 146th
Brigade, who were the official reinforcements in the Ulster sector, moved
up to the South-east corner of Thiepval Wood to take up a reserve position.
At midday the Ulster Division, south of the river, was besieged, but it still had a firm grip of the German trenches. What would the commanders do? Would they press the attack again on each flank of the Ulstermen? Could the 36th be reinforced by the 146th Brigade? Could the artillery not be concentrated on Thiepval village, wiping out, if possible, the German machine gunners? Surely the advances that the Ulstermen had made ought to be exploited? Two thirds of the Somme battlefield had seen complete failure and some 50,000 British soldiers had fallen casualties by noon. What hard-won gains the 36th had made deserved to be followed up and not let slip.
North of the Ancre 7.30am - midday
A famous photograph from the war : a ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles resting in a communication
trench at the Somme 1 July 1916. Most of the men in this photograph have now been identified and
you can find out more about this photograph in the Remembrance section.
of the Ancre 7.30am - midday
North of the river, the front line troops had made for the German trenches. The first waves encountered the ravine - seventy yards wide, fifteen to twenty feet high in places, and steep. Despite instructions to walk, they broke into a gallop. They arrived at the first German line and found the wire fairly well cut and their path to the parapet easy. There was little opposition. They were in the front trenches. One group of men made it right through the third line and headed for Beaucourt Station.
But the second wave was just beginning to be caught by machine-gun fire, as Germans who had come up from their dugouts began to man their posts. In particular, gun-fire came from Beaumont-Hamel with its elevated position. As the third and fourth waves clambered up the ravine the fire intensified and men fell to the ground, bleeding and in agony.
The Mid Antrim Volunteers, arriving at the German lines, encountered ‘great rolls of wire with barbs as long as a mans thumb’. They found that the artillery shells had not done a wholly effective job in their area. The gaps in the wire were few and far between, so the men quickly clustered there, and on them the German machine-guns were quickly trained. Clearly the dugouts had not been severely damaged by the barrage. The clusters of Ulstermen were prime targets. On three occasions the mid Antrim men tried to get into the German trenches. Only a group of five to ten men managed it: scores were casualties. Severely injured and dying soldiers lay all around. The orders had been not to assist wounded colleagues, but to leave them to be picked up by supporting platoons and stretcher bearers.
While some advance parties of the Armagh Volunteers and a few Mid Antrim men pushed on towards Beaucourt station, in considerable isolation, German Infantry filtered in from the flanks. These Ulstermen were soon fired on from three sides - from Germans guarding the station, from the Germans re-entering the lines to the rear and from the enemy positions to the north of Beaumont-Hamel. The 29th Division had made no progress against the Germans in that sector, so they were able to turn south and fire down on the Ulstermen.
Divisional HQ was informed that the enemy had regained his front line. A substational part of both attacking Battalions were dead or wounded, most of the rest trapped. The remainder of the morning would merely involve salvage operations and the minimisation of damage. The British artillery could hardly land shells on the German front lines again for fear of hitting many of their own men, who, at least in theory if not in practice, ought to be there.
Those who made it into the German trenches came back, retreating one by one, or else paid the price as the enemy attacked them. The men trapped near the station had to decide whether to surrender or try to jettison heavier equipment and head back; if they could, to their lines ......
“When we were in an old German trench, a sargent asked us if we wanted to surrender ‘NO SURRENDER, NO HOME RULE, FOR GOD AND ULSTER’ was the reply”.
A long scene at the junction of a communication trench and a reserve trench shows a Corporal, a Warrant Officer, and their men fixing bayonets and moving up the communication trench directed by a Second Lieutenant.
[Footage © the Imperial War Museum]
the wounded, lying in agony in the blaze of the sun in no-mans-land, the
arrival of stretcher bearers or returning comrades was a heavenly sight,
but the journey back to the home trenches could be excruciating. Throughout
the rest of the morning, stragglers and the slightly and seriously wounded
arrived back in little groups. Sometimes lone individuals arrived.
The attack north of the Ancre cannont be seen as anything other than a military failure. The sheer waste of that July morning is apparent from a look at the fate of one Battalion. The Armagh Volunteers had been decimated. Nearly two years of hard work and training in the Army and, for many, several months of previous training in the UVF had come to nothing, due to a complete inadequacy in military strategy. The bombardment had failed to cut wire and destroy dugouts, and it was quite inflexible for the targeting in emergency situations. The ravine had been far too difficult to negotiate. The Germans had been very swift to their guns, and their machine-gun superiority had been visible and effective. The German occupation of the high ground was invaluable, and the rigid wave formation of attack was quite inappropriate. And above all, it had been a nonsense to expect less than a massacre if the Divisions flanking the Ulstermen to the North did not wipe out the Beaumont-Hamel machine-guns. There were no emergency procedures for such an eventuality.
The statistics speak for themselves. Blacker’s Boys, the Armagh, Monaghan and Cavan Volunteers, like any Infantry Battalion, had a fighting strength of roughly 800 men. Approximately 600 with 15 officers, went over the parapet at zero hour, according to the war diarist, who used the not inappropriate word ‘annihilated’ in describing what happened to his men. According to the figures given by Martin Middlebrook, the 9th Fusiliers lost a minium of 518 and 14 officers in their assault on the German lines - this included the dead, wounded and missing. By the end of the day 532 of Blackers Boys were victims. A mere handful of those who had gone over the top at zero hour were left unscathed. In the space of a hours a fine Battalion had been destroyed, in a monumental waste of military resource and human potential.
The attack of the 36th , north of the Ancre
Midday to nightfall: gradual retreat
At about one o’clock in the afternoon it became apparent that the enemy was gathering south of the Ancre for a large counter-attack. Before long it could be seen that German reinforcements were arriving by train into Grandcourt - fresh, fit men of the 8th Baverian Reserve. Meanwhile, the southern flank of the Schwaben Redoubt was under strain. By 2.45 Montgomery and his men - holding the third line - were aware of Germans advancing steadily up the communication trenches from the fourth line. Some men in the Belfast Battalions began to turn and run for it, and many were stopped by their own officers at the point of a revolver.
At 3.45 a fierce fight developed around a trench on the southern slope of the redoubt : Ulstermen were sandbagged in at one end of it and Germans at the Other. What Montgomery was later to call ‘a very pretty fight’ continued until the Germans forced through about an hour later.
German reinforcements moving back into the trench systems.
[photograph copyright © courtesy of John Wilson]
Spirits were revived when Montgomery was informed that strong reinforcements were due to reach him at 6.00 - there was reason to hold on hard and fight to the death. His troops were particularly handicapped by lack of water and ammunition for their machine-guns. The guns could now be fired only in short bursts, and soon rifle cartridges were being used for the machine guns, but the reinforcing soldiers would bring plenty of ammunition.
However, the promised reinforcements did not arrive until too late, because of a serious misunderstanding about the deployment of the 146th Brigade. At 4.00 the 36ths Divisional command had now been informed that the 146th was at their disposal, and this resulted in the message to Montgomery. But two Battalions of the 146th had already been committed to the attack on Thiepval village, and by the time sufficient numbers of the Yorkshiremen had been requisitioned and sent forward towards the Schwaben Redoubt. It was well after 7.00 and too late to make an impact. The Germans by this time had made even more inroads on their third line and now taken back the greatest part of the fourth line. Those reinforcements who survived the journey across no-mans-land - the bulk of eight companies of Yorkshiremen - joined the Ulstermen in the front German trenches. Many of them looked grim faced and terrified by the ordeal they had become part of. The machine-guns in Thiepval continued to kill, and were unmolested by British artillery because it was wrongly supposed that a British company had managed to penetrate the village.
The battle was now taking place on ground strewn with corpses from earlier in the day, and a fierce German counter attack was gaining real headway.
A German troop seen outside his dugout after falling victim to the 'Bangalore Tube'
In the final battle over the third line, came a chance to employ the ‘Bangalore Tube’ (a kind of flame thrower used to burn wire) for unorthodox purposes :
“A squad of German soldiers went from the trench to the dugout...these soldiers of ours...managed to get the tubes burning and pushed them into the dugout where the Germans were. We were a right distance away but we could smell the burning flesh as the Germans inside their dugout were burnt to death”.
As the stretcher-bearers crossed no-mans-land, they would have seen the Sunken Road, now full of blood and bodies - earning its new nickname, the ‘Bloody Road’.
Gradually the unevenness of the contest became apparent - fresh German reinforcements pushing exhausted Ulstermen back into the first two lines. Many men had been fighting for well over twelve hours and they had reached a point when morale could sustain them no longer. As nightfall approached some did try to settle into the German front line and hold it overnight : ‘No Surrender’ would be the watchword once again. But other men had had enough and started to turn their backs on the enemy and make for the home trenches. On seeing over 150 men making across the open for Thiepval Wood, Montgomery ran after them shouting. He managed to persuade some forty men to stay in the front line for a while, firing their rifles, but twenty minutes later they too broke and headed for home in the gathering gloom. Despondently Montgomery followed them, re-crossing his front line at 10.30 and reporting to the 9th Rifles HQ. Meanwhile out in the darkness, the German soldiers filled up the trenches he and his men had fought for.
Wounded soldier being carried on a stretcher.
[Footage © the Imperial War Museum]