By Nick Thornicroft – Author of Dauntless Courage on the Somme. Officers of the 19th Division who fell at La Boisselle 1 – 10 July 1916.
On 1 July 2016, commemorations of the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme took place across the UK and in France – attended by royalty, dignitaries, descendants of those who took part in the fighting, and interested onlookers. The casualty figures of exactly a hundred years previously – well-known to Great War enthusiasts – were poignantly re-iterated on a number of occasions, as was the fact that the Somme campaign did not last for one day, but for well over four months.
In the early hours of 2 July 1916, the 19th (Western) Division was brought up from its reserve position behind the lines to attack the heavily-fortified, German-held village of La Boisselle, which had resolutely repulsed the opening assault of the 34th Division. As the British wounded were being evacuated in their droves, and many more of the dead and dying were reported to be still lying out in No Man’s Land, men of the 19th Division were afforded the most shocking visual and verbal scenario of what awaited them beyond the parapet.
What followed was a systematic, bloody, brutal fight to secure the artillery-pummelled hamlet in a sequence of close-quarter, hand-to-hand and (initially) nocturnal forms of combat which were almost medieval in their methods – clearing out deep dug-outs and heavily-entrenched pockets of resistance.
Between the 2nd and 10th of July, the Division pushed relentlessly forward at heavy cost, finally ejecting their enemy in an astonishing feat of arms which, in the wider history of the Somme battles, is often overlooked. The horrific ‘first day’ losses, the attacks on infamous woodlands, the introduction of tanks, and the mounting casualty lists, have all been focused upon in depth, and yet La Boisselle continues to be classed as one of many ‘tactical incidents’ of the battle, described in a few lines (if at all) within many narratives.
Focusing upon the officers who fell, Dauntless Courage On The Somme is an attempt to tell this remarkable story via personal accounts, contemporary newspaper reports, eye-witnesses and battalion war diaries. Many photographs of the fallen have been collated and published as a group for the first time, as have their backgrounds – that often multi-faceted and perceived structure of elitism and public school hierarchy which, though certainly true of some individuals, cannot be said of others.
The long-standing social, class and military differences between officers and the men under their command is also dealt with. Whilst some rose from a humble private to reach their status through merit at the time of the Somme campaign, others were far from distant and aloof from the common soldier (as is sometimes reported). Indeed, there was a tangible, widespread and enduring respect throughout all ranks who experienced, shoulder-to-shoulder, terrible privations and danger.
‘He died as he lived – splendidly, at the head of his men, who would have followed him everywhere… He was loved by everyone, and I regarded him as the best officer I had’.
A significant number of subalterns had joined Kitchener’s Army straight from school or university, and were often younger than the troops under their command.
‘Many unrecorded acts of bravery and devotion to duty were performed. The entire action, in fact, resolved itself into a series of individual efforts of junior officers and men, rather than a concentrated action’.
To gain a personal insight into the layout of the topography itself, I drove to France and spent several days walking the battlefield, taking notes and photographs. The Great War has been a long-standing source of fascination and horror for me personally, and I have always been interested in the human aspect of conflict. The sepia photographs looking back at us from over a century ago are haunting and inspiring.
I hope the book will appeal to a wide cross-section of readers, from those knowledgeable souls who wish to improve their understanding of the fighting at La Boisselle, to others whose ancestors took part in the battle, or the ones who – in the absence of significant volumes on the subject – simply want to know exactly what happened in early July 1916.
To those who are considering assembling a similar book themselves, I would only submit two thoughts: write from the heart, and know your subject. Dauntless Courage is not what I would consider a ‘high-brow’ text, full of complicated trench co-ordinates, intricate maps and stark brigade orders; it is perhaps more simply a retrospective study of humanity and inhumanity, of triumph and suffering, of courage and perseverance on both sides of the wire.
As British casualties mounted, the man given overall control of the soldiers on the ground at La Boisselle – Lieutenant Colonel Adrian Carton de Wiart – issued orders, controlled his troops, kept on the offensive, and ensured the attack was successfully driven home despite a withering and constant hail of machine-gun bullets and bombs. His subsequent citation for the award of a Victoria Cross included the words:
‘It was owing in great measure to his dauntless courage and inspiring example that a serious reverse was averted’.
When he later wrote his autobiography, Lieutenant Colonel Carton de Wiart omitted to mention he had even received a VC at La Boisselle. It is this kind of humble (and sometimes anonymous) bravery which inspired me to write the book in the first place.
- Letter written by Lieutenant Colonel RB Morgan to Captain Jackson’s parents, re-printed in the Mid Cumberland & Westmoreland Herald, 15 July 1916
- Crewe, F., The History of the 8th North Staffords (Stoke-on-Trent: Hughes & Harber 1921), p48