The overall objectives of the Ulster Division were dominated by and dependant on an attempt to take the Schwaben Redoubt, a parallelogram of trenches, dugouts and fortified machine-gun posts, lying south of the Ancre on the highest ground overlooking the river. Protected by four lines of German trenches, the Redoubt was known to some of the soldiers who looked across at it as the ‘Devils dwelling’, to others as ‘Hells Corner’. Between the Ulster trenches and the stronghold, the ground rose 250 feet in 1,000 yards. An observant artillery officer had counted sixteen rows of wire guarding the front-line trench on one part of the Schwaben Redoubt and an average of five rows guarding the second line. The dugouts could be upto thirty feet deep in the chalky earth and afforded tremendous protection. Having captured the Redoubt, the 36th had to press on and reach the fifth and final line of German trenches, beyond which lay open country. They must dominate the land between Beaucourt, to the north of their sector, and Thiepval village to the south (the capture of Thiepval itself was the task of the 32nd Division). North of the Ancre the 36th had the objective of crossing a ravine to the north of Hamel village and moving through the the German held Beaucourt trenches to take Beaucourt railway station. This would be particular goal of the Armagh Volunteers and the Mid-Antrim Volunteers. They also had to capture a mill situated on the riverbank; and a platoon from the Mid-Antrim Battalion was to patrol the marshy ground around the river.
South of the Ancre, the Down and South Antrim Volunteers were to attack the Northern slopes of the Schwaben Redoubt, with the North Belfast Volunteers in support. Special detachments of men with motor and machine-gun reinforcements were to deputised to clear the trenches north towards the river valley and the road between St. Pierre-Divion and Grandcourt. The assault on the southern flank of the Schwaben Redoubt fell to the four Battalions of the 109th Brigade. The Derry and Tyrone Battalions would go over the top in the first wave, and would advance to the fourth line of the German trenches, which they would hold. Behind them would come the Young Citizens and the Donegal and Fermanagh Battalions. The latter was to have special responsibility for consolidating the vital trench junction known as the ‘crucifix’ on the southern slopes of the Schwaben Redoubt, and both the YCVs and the Donegal and Fermanagh Volunteers had to consolidate the first three lines of trenches against which the Derry and Tyrone men had led the attack. These objectives having been accomplished, the troops were to make their assault on the fifth line of German trenches. The three remaining Belfast Battalions were to be in charge of this attack, marching through land gained by the other Battalions and on to their goal. The East Belfast Volunteers would dominate the northern part of the fifth line, the West Belfast men would occupy the central portion and the South Belfast Battalion would extend southwards...
Artillery, of course,
had a key roll in the overall stratgety. The five-day pre-attack bombardment
- aimed at cutting wire and entombing the Schwabians in their dugouts
- was to conclude with a redoubled ‘hurricane’ bombardment
just before zero-hour, the mortars joining with the heavier artillery.
Then there would be the barrage : as the Ulstermen moved from trench to
trench, so would the shell-fire, in a series of timed ‘lifts’
that would keep the shells falling just ahead of the advancing Infantrymen.
At zero hour, 07.30, as the Ulster Volunteers moved off across no-mans-land, the barrage would lift from the first German line to the second; at 07.33 it would move to the third line; at 07.48 it would move to the third line; then at 07.48 it would advance to an area some 400 yards beyond the third third line; then at 7.58 it would move up to the fourth line. At 08.48 the shell-fire would shift to the distant fifth line, then there would be a halt to allow the three Battalions of the Belfast Brigade to move through and effect the capture of the fifth line. At 10.08 the barrage would finally move to an area 300 yards beyond the final German line. At each ‘lift’ the 18-pounder and 4.5 Howitzer guns had to ‘walk’ up the communication trenches to the next main trench line.
A member of a trench mortar battery with mortar in Thiepval Wood
artillery was reinforced by French guns which were to drop tear-gas shells
in the Ancre Valley.The mode of Infantry attack was much the same as elsewhere
on the Somme front. The Infantry men would have moved forward into the
the front trenches in the Thiepval Wood and Hamel subsectors, in the hours before zero. At 07.30 the would march
across no-mans-land under the cover of the barrage; at their head would
be officers carrying the polished Blackthorn stick of the Irish Regiments
and if the wished, a revolver. (Commanding Officers of each Battalion
were however, asked to stay out of the assault - a controversial decision)
The Battalions varied their formations of attack, but generally the went in eight successive waves of men, at fifty-yard intervals. With the Division would go eighteen stokes mortars and twenty-four machine-guns - a number that seems small in consideration to the formidable objectives being assaulted. If the gunfire of the heavy artillery had done its job, and the Germans had been physically and morally devastated by it, then the Infantry might obtain their objectives with relatively light casualties. The Ulster Volunteers also needed to be sure that the 32nd and 29th Divisions on either side of them were going to capture their objectives. For no mater how well the Ulstermen advanced, if Thiepval village to the south or Beaumont-Hamel to the north remained in German hands, then the 36th would be exposed to fire from each flank and indeed, virtually from the rear.