May - June
Throughout the month of May, training the infantry of the 36th Division became the crucial task. Attacks on dummy trenches well behind the line were co-ordinated, and battalions took turns to leave the front for exercises in rapid firing, bayoneting and consolidating newly won ground. Lewis0gunners went to work under their respective commanders, and bombing competitions were organised to encourage accurate use of the Mills bomb.
One note of unease was struck by the war diarist of the YCV’s during a spell in the line that May :
“‘We can get practically no support from our own artillery owing to shortage of shells and what we do get are 50% duds...”
The same complaint was made a few days later on 5 May :
“Duds about 50% - something wrong surely. Record was kept with the following result :- Heavies, out of 24 shells, 15 failed to explode; 18 pounders, out of 12, 8 were duds”.
Despite a reorganisation of the artillery undertaken during May, this inadequacy was to play a role in rendering the great offensive of 1 July less effective than had been hoped and proposed.
Raids on German lines, usually at night, were now given a high priority, in an attempt to step up the sense of oncoming battle.
The first serious and co-ordinated large scale raid carried out by the 36th Division was undertaken on the night of 7 May 1916, a night coincidentally chosen by the Germans to raid the 1st Dorsets, part of the 32nd Division on the right flank of the Ulstermen. The 36th’s raiding party was from the ‘Tyrones’ (9th Inniskillings) and consisted of six officers and eighty-four men. They were already out of their trenches and waiting in deep cut Thiepval-Hamel road (known as the sunken road) when the German bombardment began as a prelude to their attack on the Dorserts. The raid went ahead, though, and six German dugouts were bombed and a machine-gun destroyed. With one of their men killed and two wounded, the Tyrones withdrew, but a great many more casualties occurred when the raiders became trapped in the sunken road on their way back to the trenches. Many had to lie there for a couple of hours pinned down by the German gunfire. Meanwhile the Derry Volunteers came to the support of the Dorsets and held out against German advances. The GOC of the 32nd Division was to express warm appreciation. However, there was a feeling in some quarters that artillery should have been present to cover the enemy machine-gun nests, on the rise behind the German lines, that had caused such havoc for the returning Tyrones. (A full account of this raid as experienced on the German side, which was written by Ralf J. Whitehead can be found in the Resource section)
Aspell of good weather on 16 May made the Thiepval trenches dry and habitable when the South Antrim men took over from the Co. Down Volunteers for a spell on duty. At night the Co. Down men could hear sound from the enemy lines which indicated that they were busy - picking, shovelling and driving stakes into the ground. What the Ulstermen did not seem to realise was that these sounds might spell doom to the offensive, as the Germans dug deep into reinforced dugouts to await, and hopefully to survive, the supposedly devastating British artillery barrage that would precede infantry attack.
At the end of the month the Battalion retired to the large training ground known as Clairfaye Trenches where an exact reproduction of the German trench system opposite the Ulster lines had been re-created from aerial photographs.
The final month before the opening of the battle began with great business and efficiency when on 1 June the 108th and 109th Brigades were taken from the line for a few days of special training at Clairefaye, leaving the 107th Brigade to man the line.
On 5 June the Mid Antrim Volunteers moved again to the front to undertake a raid on the German lines; north of the Ancre. An artillery barrage was laid down and the Ulstermen moved up to the wire, broke through and raided the German trench that ran parallel with the main railway line just north of the river. Dugouts were bombed, an officer shot and two tunnels leading towards the British lines were discovered and blown up. The pre-raid shelling had seemed to do a thorough job and the dangerous assumption was made that under the intense bombardment planned for the few days before the Battle commenced, the entire German front would be similarly smashed up. But the trench destroyed in this raid was not nearly so well fortified as most of the German line, lacking deep bunkers and machine-gun nests, and it was not a good example from which to generalise.
Firing rifle grenades. Cup dischargers are attached to muzzles of SMLE rifles
(which can be done without removal of bayonet). Soldier has his rifle angled.
[Footage © the Imperial War Museum]
Five nights later on Saturday 10 June the Germans paid a visit to the British trenches, in a sector being held by the North Belfast Volunteers, and after a few moments of hand-to-hand fighting the raiders were expelled from the Ulster trenches. However it took several days of hard work to repair the battered line.
On 12 June the YCV were sent along with the rest of their brigade to Aveluy Wood to help the Pioneers with preparation work for the offensive - such as arduous task as carrying ammunition to new gun positions. Other Battalions had to help construct gun-pits and erect shelters for the regiment of French field artillery who had joined the Ulstermen’s ranks.
On 15 June the South Antrim Volunteers joined the Armagh men bivouacking in Martinsart Wood. Working parties were sent down to Thiepval Wood to help dig assembly trenches, and a considerable number of men were wounded by German shells in the process. Meanwhile the war diarist of the YCVs also recorded ‘everyone working at high pressure on the digging of assembly trenches. Everyone looking forward to the Great day’.
He wrote on 16 June despite the fact that the YCVs, along with the 10,000 or so other troops sleeping in Aveluy Wood, encountered, each night, enemy machine-gun fire playing through the trees and high-explosive shells bursting overhead.
On June 19 the preliminary attack orders for the YCVs came through and were read to all the officers. On the following day, final attack orders were given to the Battalion and tools and stores were placed carefully in assembly trenches. The same day the NCOs of the South Antrim Battalion were given a last pep talk and enjoyed a final concert in D company mess.
On FRiday 23 June after a warm day, heavy rain began to fall and made things most unpleasant for the men. By the end of Friday the Infantry who were to occupy the front-line positions during the bombardment were in place - the Tyrone Volunteers and the South Antrim Volunteers in the Thiepval Wood Sector, and the Armagh Volunteers in the Hamel trenches. These troops would have hell to endure under increasingly furious German shelling.
Then on Saturday 24 June the British bombardment started. The final violent prelude to the big push had begun........