8th Battalion in the Battle of the Somme (First Phase)

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The beginning of the Battle

The morning of the 1st July 1916 was beautiful and sunny. At around 11am the 8th Border Regiment received orders in haste that they should be prepared and ready move out at a moment's notice. This they did as instructed but further orders to move out did not arrive until the following day. They marched to Martinsart Wood, just west of Authuille Wood where the 11th Border Regiment had been waiting on the eve of battle, then soon after arrival they took up positions in the front-line trenches south of Thiepval in readiness for their attack. At this point the 2nd South Lancashire Regiment was on the right and the 11th Cheshire Regiment on the left. The attack on the Thiepval Ridge by the 75th Brigade was to be fought in conjunction with VIIIth Corps to engage the enemy to the north of the River Ancre whilst the 49th Division was to engage at the south as far as the Thiepval Spur. However, these attacks were cancelled but the planned attack to be made by the 12th Division, which was to attack Ovillers and surrounding defences to the north of the village at 3am, remained unchanged. The 75th Brigade's attack was to commence at 6am but due to the cancellation of the other attacks and the subsequent failure of the 12th Division to complete or even reach its objectives, this meant that a successful attack by the 75th Brigade did not look promising. As Colonel H.C. Wylly states in his accounts:

This images shows a British trench near the Albert-Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. The men are from A Company of the 11th Cheshire Regiment, who were on the right of the 8th Border Regiment in readiness for the attack.
At 6am on the 3rd the 8th Border Regiment advanced in four waves, “D” and “A” Companies from the front line and “B” and “C” from the support line, each company with two platoons in line and covering a front of from 150 to 200 yards. The two leading lines went over punctually at the appointed hour, the two others being held back in the front line until it was seen how things were going and until reinforcements should be called for. Before long a message came back from the leading companies asking for support in men and for supplies of bombs, and these were sent up until all the supports were exhausted, nothing having arrived to replace them from the reserve.[1]

This attack is mentioned in the Divisional Records which states:

The four companies of the Cheshire, the 8th Borders with 'A', 'B', 'C' and 'D' Companies, commanded respectively by Captain Bishop, Major Birt, Captain Miller and Captain Coxon, and the 2nd South Lancs., suffered very heavy casualties, were met by heavy flanking machine-gun fire and never reached their objectives. In the centre the Borders were more successful, but were unable, owing to pressure on their flanks, to maintain themselves in the German front line for more than one and a half hours.[2]

The frontage of the German trench the 8th Border Regiment had to hold was 180 yards and was severely damaged by the previous British barrage. As a result there was very little in the way of safe usable cover. The call to retire was made along the right flank as it could no longer be held. Telephone communications were down and so runners were used to communicate between the front and HQ. The situation they were in resulted in chaos simply because the runners were new to the trenches and found it virtually impossible to find their way back and forth to effectively communicate between the two. Performing this dangerous task in the day is difficult enough but in the dark under a heavy fire, the odds were stacked against them. The outcome of this meant that organising the bombing parties to clear the German communication trenches could not be done; it was impossible to predict the complexities of ever changing actions of front line fighting in hellish conditions.

On the evening of the 4th July the 8th Border Regiment had been ordered to withdraw to Aveluy Wood where it bivouacked throughout the 5th and 6th on the southern side. The bitter fighting that had taken place on the opening of the Battle of the Somme (and subsequent couple of days thereafter) caused serious losses to the Battalion's strength. The following casualties were recorded: other ranks totalled 430 missing, wounded and killed; 10 officers were wounded and 4 were killed, the names of these officers as follows:

Killed Wounded
2nd Lieut. D.J Gordon Major C.W.H. Birt
2nd Lieut. G.H. Foss Captain A.O. Bishop
2nd Lieut. A.E. Aldous Captain P.H. Coxon
2nd Lieut. L. Curteis Lieut. A. Wingate-Gray
Lieut. G.C. Hutton
Lieut. F.W.H. Renton
2nd Lieut. J.E.K. Bell
2nd Lieut. S.O. Withers
2nd Lieut. J.P. Edgar
2nd Lieut. F.L. Clark

Having spent some time in the reserve trenches around the area of Albert, the 8th Border Regiment had been ordered to move up to the front lines again; the 7th and 75th Brigades worked together in a northward attack on Ovillers. According to the 25th Division's Records, the Border Regiment were successful in driving out the enemy from their front-line trenches under the cover of darkness without hindrance, however, the capture of the communication trenches were problematic and progress was much slower with many casualties as a result. Further orders were given stating that the Battalion, with 'C' and 'D' companies on the left and 'A' and 'B' on the right, had to attack and capture trenches on the south side of Ovillers, which, after little resistance, all the objectives were achieved.

Another attack was put into action and the 8th Borders, who had done sterling work the day before, had to advance further still from their newly acquired trench. Advancing towards the enemy's new trench was met with deadly machine gun fire both highly accurate and thunderous in force. Although Lieutenants Thomson and Stewart from 'B' and 'D' Companies respectively managed to close in to within 50 yards of the well-defended trenches, they had to retire. Moving back to and holding the German trenches the 8th Borders had already taken was much easier and ultimately much safer too. The ground here was difficult to win simply owing to the very nature of the complex and extremely well dug-in enemy trenches and machine gun emplacements that commanded superiority over the land. The fighting here drew some of the attention away from other areas of the line and while neither the 7th or 75th Brigade had complete successes in their objectives, on a smaller scale partial successes at least were achieved. The men of the 8th Border Regiment remained in the German trenches and defended it until the 17th July after which they marched to Senlis and bivouacked, needing a much deserved rest. As for the action described above, this was the 8th Border's part in the first phase of the Battle of the Somme.

8th Battalion Maps

Google Maps images of the locations relating to the 8th Battalion's movement mentioned throughout this history.

References / notes

  1. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.85
  2. The 25th Division in France and Flanders, p.11.
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