Historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore reveals the torments of an officer in the Lancashire Fusiliers in the first days of the Battle of the Somme
Long before the Big Push on the Somme started on July 1, 1916, there were signs that the British Army was unprepared for what lay ahead.
Lieutenant Edgar Lord, of the 15th Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers, has
described how he learned from bitter experience just how dangerous it was to share the same field, let alone the same trench, with some of his brother officers.
He was one of several hundred officers and NCOs who had the misfortune to be invited to Beauval (15 miles north of the French town of Amiens) to watch a new weapon being put through its paces. It was the Stokes light mortar, which was to be used for lobbing 50 pound bombs shaped like toffee apples (they consisted of a spherical bomb attached to a long pipe) over the German parapets into their trenches.
He wrote: “We sat down in a field near where the Trench Mortar Battery personnel were preparing for the show when suddenly we heard the cry: ‘Run for it!’ I had only gone a few yards, when I felt, rather than heard, a tremendous explosion.
“An enormous roar rent the air, earth and pieces of metal flying everywhere. Everyone there was hit with either or both. Two more explosions followed. When we gathered our scattered wits, my right thigh felt as if it had been beaten with a heavy stick, and the right leg of my trousers felt warm and sticky. A few yards away, a man lay groaning across a few strands of barbed wire. I bandaged him up.
“Then I had to ask Doncaster (a brother officer) to attend to my two small wounds. As the pain became more severe, I found it more comfortable to lie on my stomach. It was at least an hour before the ambulances arrived to take us away. Only one man was killed outright, but several died later from the 70 or 80 casualties.”
Only later did he discover the cause of the explosions. An officer had accidentally, ‘released a striker which fired a ten second fuse. Instead of throwing the shell into an empty emplacement or traverse, he dropped it where it was, among all the bombs – and ran for it.’ He escaped without a scratch.
Lord recovered in time for the July 1, 1916 attack, but avoided having to go over the top. However he later wrote about how, while stationed at Bouzincourt, a few miles behind the front line, after the attack began, he saw, “hundreds of men with wounds of every description” coming down the dusty road towards him.
“A few of the worst cases came in the ambulances. But they were in very short supply. Others came in carts, wagons, lorries, limbers, water tanks, and any other
vehicles which could give a lift. They were crammed to the utmost.
“The walking cases were choked with dust. They were staggering along between the limbers, sometimes helping each other by forming human crutches. Most of them were wearing blood-stained bandages, and many wore improvised splints.”
The remnants of his own battalion only made it back three days later. There were only three officers and 37 men out of 26 officers and around 600 men who had gone into battle. “What a sight this small band presented when we met them,” he wrote. “They had weary, haggard and drawn faces, exhausted bodies and legs that almost could not carry their burden.
“Their thoughts were too tragic for words. All had lost many friends, and as I marched along with them, I felt like a warder escorting a condemned prisoner. The band joined us, and as it played ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning, Till the boys come home’, I nearly wept.”
That was only one of several painful duties this young man carried out over the next days. First he had to write to the mother of his friend Ivan Doncaster to tell her she might never see him again. A private had been brought in after lying in No Man’s Land for three days. He claimed he had seen Ivan being shot in the head ten yards from the German wire. As the man’s mind was wandering, it was difficult to know whether his story was reliable.
He has also described how he had to collect the equipment – and corpses –scattered in the British trenches:
“One night, I was detailed with a dozen men, to bury some of our dead near our new front line. As some of them had been doing this the night before, they were feeling sick and groggy, so I ordered them to dig holes in the ground and make wooden crosses whilst I went with a gunner to handle the corpses.
“It was a ghastly job, which involved feeling for their identity disks and effects in the dark. Most of them were bloated having been killed some days earlier.
“One man whom we handled had lost both feet, and the hand wearing his identity disk had been so badly smashed, that the disk was mixed with the putrefying flesh. After a vain attempt to recover it, we interred him as unknown.”
* The paperback edition of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Somme: Into the Breach published by Penguin is out now price £9.99, as is the updated 75th Anniversary paperback edition of his Enigma: the Battle for the Code with new material added, published by Orion’s Weidenfeld & Nicolson price £10.99.