In this series of 12 articles, Rugby historian Nigel Stanley traces the part played by thousands of Rugby’s men, women and children in the Great War, saluting over 1400 local men and Rugby School old boys who lost their lives in the war.
Part 7: 1916: Rugby and the Battle of the Somme
Sir Douglas Haig was now the British commander, and 1916 saw extensive preparations for a major attack on the German trenches near the River Somme in France. In June, a week of heavy artillery bombardment of the German lines preceded the attack, but this failed to destroy the sophisticated German defences. The bombardment included high explosive shells and chemical weapons, namely poison gas shells. Shells of both types were made at the BTH factory on Mill Road in Rugby. Some of the gas blew back onto the British lines in the wind, causing numerous casualties.
The British attack on 1st July 1916 was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces, including regular troops in 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (RWR), emerged from their trenches, going ‘over the top’ to attack the German lines on an 18-mile front. Over 20,000 British troops were killed, mainly by German machine-gun fire, and over 40,000 more were injured, many seriously, producing a total of over 60,000 British casualties in one day.
The first of July 1916 was a sunny morning on the Somme battlefield in France, when the British artillery stopped firing at 5.50 a.m.. As the smoke cleared, four battalions of Warwickshire TA troops in 143rd Brigade (part of 48th Division) waited in their trenches near Gommecourt for the attack on the German lines. The 5th and 7th Battalions, including Rugby’s ‘E’ company in 7th Battalion, were under orders to hold the British frontline trenches. On the sound of the whistles at 6 a.m., around 2,000 Warwickshire men from 6th and 8th Battalions went ‘over the top’. Their orders were to attack the seemingly impregnable German fortress known as the Quadrilateral (Heidenkopf). After fierce fighting, they succeeded in capturing the third line of German defences. However, the attack was not reinforced, and the RWRs were forced back, suffering heavy losses. Captain C T Morris-Davies of Lower Hillmorton Road, and Sgt F L Browne, both of 6th Battalion, were amongst RWR casualties on 1st July of over 400 killed and 600 injured. Rugby’s ‘E’ Company in 7th Battalion suffered some casualties on 1st July 1916, such as AJ Watson of New Bilton, but by holding the British frontline trenches, ‘E’ Company was lucky to escape the worst of the battle at Gommecourt, near the town of Albert.
Rugby’s losses on the Somme
Many Rugby men in other battalions on the Somme went ‘over the top’ on 1st July, and several fell that day. These included Pte G Eadon of RWR 1st Battalion, along with Pte C H Bland of Pinders Lane (aged 19) and Pte F H Boyes, both in the Royal Berkshire Regt. Sgt J Cooper, L/Cpl C A Jeeves and Pte E Scotton, of the Rifle Brigade, also fell. Capt. G H Neville of Dunchurch, of the Somerset Light Infantry, who won a Military Cross, fell on 2nd July, along with Pte William Seeney, aged 18, of Bourton-on-Dunsmore. Rugby’s losses in the first two days of the Battle of the Somme were, fortunately, below the heavy casualty rates of the Pals’ Battalions from several northern cities. On the Somme, and in the war as a whole, villages around Rugby lost a higher proportion of their men than the town did. Many village men were keen to volunteer for the war, and urban workers more likely to be in ‘reserved occupations’ exempt from conscription.
Over the next few months, the British attempt to break the German lines continued, and more troops were poured into the attack, including Warwickshire’s TA battalions in 143rd Brigade. Advances of a few miles were made at heavy cost in lives. Pte Harold Hopkins of Victoria Street, New Bilton, was just 17, below the official enlisting age of 18, and fell near Ovillers on 14th July. On 23rd July, 143rd Brigade went into action again, helping in the capture of the village of Pozieres by 26th July. Losses included, in 7th Battalion, CSM W. J. Bryant of York Street, and Corporal Edwin Iliff of Dunchurch.
The highest-ranking Rugby casualty in the First World War was Lt Col Frank (Francis) West, aged 33. A successful young barrister, Frank West lived with his wife Agatha and their family, at Bawnmore, a house with 23 rooms, 6 servants, and land at the top of Overslade Lane in Bilton. He was commanding officer of the 4th Howitzer Brigade (RFA), based in Coventry, including Rugby’s 5th Howitzers. Lt Col West was killed on the Somme by a stray shell in September 1916, and buried near the town of Albert. Several more of Rugby’s Somme casualties were buried in cemeteries nearby.
By November 1916, the mud on the Somme battlefield made further progress impossible, and the offensive was halted. A few miles had been gained since the start of July, at a cost of over 600,000 British and French casualties. German losses were also heavy. In all, over 50 Rugby men were killed on the Somme in 1916. Over 20 Rugby names appear on the huge Thiepval Memorial, which commemorates 60,000 British troops whose bodies were lost without trace in the mud and chaos of the Somme battlefield in 1916. Many of the British casualties resulted from General Haig’s strategies and decisions. Haig later set up the Poppy Appeal to help servicemen injured in the war.
BSM George Hopewell, of Rugby’s 5th Howitzer Battery, describes his experiences in 1916:
“On June 24th, 1916, the artillery preparation for the Somme offensive began, and we occupied a position on the right rear of Hebuterne, known as Earl’s Court, and during this week we had five N.C.O.s and men wounded....The Battle of the Somme started on July 1st.”
“Moving forward on July 27th, after marching to St Ouen, we enjoyed a well-earned rest there until August 13th. On this date we returned to our position near Orvillers, and during the following fortnight the Division made several splendid captures of trenches and strongholds, with a good haul of prisoners.”
“On September 14th we changed our position to Pozieres Cemetery, and this was our hottest place during the whole of the Somme Battle....On September 26th Thiepval fell, the artillery preparation being organised by our late commanding officer, Lieut. Col. West, who was unfortunately killed two days later, the Territorial Army losing one of its keenest and most efficient senior officers.”
“On November 27th, after a five days’ march, we arrived at Fricourt, where the weather conditions were appalling. The mud was over knee deep, and during the first two days three horses were drowned in the mud at the watering troughs, while the men had to sleep in the mud with nothing but bivouacs as cover.”