Braintree District Museum Remembers the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme
1st July 1916
Because of the scale of casualties suffered on that first day ‘The Battle of the Somme’ has become part of British folklore. Around 19,000 men died that day with another 40,000 wounded or missing. The losses that day reached into every city, town and village in the land, few were untouched.
However the Battle of the Somme was not one battle lasting one day but a series of battles that continued into November that year. Each step forward being met with strong counter measures by the enemy ensuring that by November when the battle closed the British and Empire forces suffered almost 400,000 casualties. German casualties were similar however it was said these attacks had ‘broken the back’ of the German army. Added to the 350,000 German casualties at Verdun they too now lacked hardened, experienced troops.
Five battalions of the Essex Regiment participated at some time or other in the Battle and Braintree and Bocking felt the result of this campaign. Telegram boys were eyed nervously as they went about their business and they were to bring bad news to two local homes as two local men of the 2nd Battalion Essex Regiment died on the first day of the Somme, numerous others being wounded.
The Somme battle was part of agreed war policy worked out by the Allies. The Russian ‘Brusilov offensive’ in the east was to be matched by French and British attacks in the west. However the Germans moved first and attempted to ‘Bleed France white’ at Verdun. An offensive at the Somme led by the French had been the intention in the west but as troops were sent to relieve Verdun it soon became a British operation.
The British Commander in Chief General Haig had argued for an offensive in Ypres where experience of the land and better lines of support aided the effort, his view of the rolling hills and many woods close together as difficult ground cut no ice with the London government. The war cabinet, now led by Asquith were in awe of French ability and insisted on the Somme area being the main thrust just as they had done in 1915 when the then Commander in Chief Sir John French refused to fight at Loos. As it turned out Sir John was right, the Loos adventure failed and fighting continued until 1918 in that area.
This operation required the greatest feat of logistics so far undertaken by the British Army. Over 100,000 men, supported by 1500 guns possessed a line some sixteen miles in length, that is the distance from Braintree to Colchester, and were to advance, mostly uphill, to take possession of German trenches some of which were forty feet deep, and break the enemies hold and enable a breakthrough into land beyond. To the south the smaller French contingent, with experienced troops and gunners, took their place alongside the British.
By 1916 the regular army had been devastated by two years of fighting. The majority of the men were now Territorials or volunteers. At the Somme the men who volunteered in 1914 were brought to their biggest test, few having any experience whatsoever of trench life let alone trench fighting. The officer corps as well as the artillery men were also inexperienced and this led to senior officers leading from the top rather than trusting men ‘in the field.’
In 1914 Field Marshall Kitchener had asked for 100,000 volunteers, by 31st December 1915 he had two and a half million, more men than were later conscripted. These were mostly placed in ‘New Army’ battalions allied to local regiments. The 10th, 11th and 12th Essex being formed at this time and leaving for France early in 1915 giving them some limited experience of trench life.
The Battle of Albert July 1st -13th
The attack plan on paper was simple enough. An enormous artillery barrage was to destroy the German trenches, break the wire and enable the advancing troops to walk over ‘No mans land.’ Once in position the captured trenches would be consolidated and the following waves would continue the advance into enemy area.
For an entire week the guns fired continually. Over a million and a half shells headed towards the enemy line. Assembling troops were reassured by their superiors that it would be simple to walk over to the enemy lines.
At 7:28 a.m. on the morning of the 1st of July 1916 powerful mines exploded at several places along the German line however at Hawthorn Ridge, where the 2nd Essex took part in the attack, the mine was blown at 7:20 thereby giving the German defenders early warning of the battle starting.
The ridge made it difficult to observe enemy positions and by keeping large numbers of their guns silent these were hidden from the attacking force and with British artillery following the plan these were therefore free to fire unhindered.
The 11th Brigade attacked first and discovered the wire ahead of them had been cut. As the 12th Brigade, including the 2nd Essex, advanced they came under very heavy machine gun and artillery fire but pressed on. By 9:30 they were fifty yards from the German 2nd line and some troops had penetrated 2000 yards into the German line reaching Pendant Copse.
The Essex men were however using only shell holes for cover and suffered from heavy fire from both Serre on the left and Beaumont Hamel on the right until withdrawing partly at four in the afternoon. Here they spent their time in ‘bombing fights’ with attacking infantry until relieved during the night.
Somewhere during the fighting two local men were killed; Private George Leonard Smoothy and Private Robert Leslie Ratcliff.
Robert Ratcliff was born in Bocking in 1897 and lived in Panfield Lane. He enlisted in the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment (Service Number 10445). It is most likely he did so with friends from the area.
We can build up a picture of the family by looking into historical records.
On the 1911 census the 14-year-old Robert, born “Essex” and working as a Yarn Winder in the Cocoa Fibre industry, is recorded at Panfield Lane, Bocking, four doors down from other Ratcliff’s that he was possibly related to. The household consisted of his widowed grandmother, Martha Ratcliff, then aged 70 and also born “Essex”. Also in the household was her 29-year-old son Ashton, a single man from “Essex” who was working as a Railway Plate Layer.
The 1901 census gives the same 3 people making up a household at the same address. Following the trail back through older brother Ashton, the 1891 census tells us that Martha was the head of the household, giving her birthplace as Chelmsford and her occupation as Charwoman. They are given as living in Panfield Lane. Ashton’s birthplace is given as Panfield. Other children are Alice, (aged 19 and a Silk Weaver from Bocking) and George, (aged 16 and a Butcher’s Boy from Panfield). Finally, following the trail back through Alice in the 1881 census we find the family at Shalford Road, Panfield. Head of the household is father Francis, a General Dealer from Panfield, (Martha describes herself as a Dealer’s Wife). As well as Alice and George, there are two older boys in the household – Alfred, (aged 17 and an agricultural labourer from Bocking) and the 15-year-old Frederick.
George Leonard Smoothy (Service number 21732). Born to Mr.and Mrs. George Smoothy in Bocking George’s family was living on Coggeshall Road in 1901, later he is recorded as living at 59, Chapel Hill, Braintree. George was sixth of eight children, four boys and four girls. Considered unfit to serve because of faulty vision he still managed to be enrolled into the 2nd Battalion by 1st July, possibly because his brother was a ‘regular’ in the 2nd Battalion.
Both of their bodies were never recovered and their names were inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial.
On 2nd July the 9th Essex Battalion as part of the 12th (Eastern) Division were given the job of continuing the attack at Ovillers which had failed in the preceding days. The 9th had marched all night to reach the forming up area and orders for the attack were only confirmed at 17:00 hours that day. Due to heavy German bombardment the 9th Essex were unable to reach their trenches late on the evening of the 2nd July. The attack was to begin at 3:15 on the third.
Problems mounted up in the confusion and the Division on the left did not attack as planned leaving the 12th Divisions attack open to much fire from the left.
Before the attack an artillery bombardment of one hour commenced giving the enemy warning an attack was immanent. Therefore when the first wave of attackers advanced before the barrage had lifted they were in the German front line and able to push through to the second.
However when the following Battalions left the trench they came under heavy artillery and machine gun fire as they attempted to cross 500 -800 yards of open ground. Only two platoons from the 9th Essex managed to reach the German front line, as no support for the first wave was forthcoming German counter attacks forced them to withdraw.
They suffered 2400 casualties in this attack and the 9th Essex battalion lost 108 men during those few hours. These included three local men, two who died during the attack and one wounded man who was brought home but died from his wounds.
Private Fred Bearman came from Bocking Church Street, the son of a shoemaker from a family of five Fred worked for Courtauld’s as a Bleacher when he was 17. Enlisting in the 9th early on he was with the battalion when it arrived in France in April 1915. He was 22 when he was killed and his body never recovered, his name is on the Thiepval Memorial.
Private Harry Butler was from a family with six children and his father was an agricultural worker. Harry came from Stebbing and was probably only 17 when he enlisted in the 9th. Many young men of similar age informed the sergeant they were 19 and were believed as long as they looked fit and capable. His body also was never recovered and his name is now on Thiepval Memorial.
One man made it home when wounded. Private William H. Cornell was the son of a gardener who died when he was 9 years old, the family had lived in Martin’s Yard, now demolished. It appears William was wounded during this fight and quickly evacuated to ‘Blighty.’ Sad to say he died in a Guildford Hospital and now lies buried in Braintree London Road Cemetery.
The Battle of the Somme continued until November. Each individual battle taking ground at great cost. Almost all Regiments in France participated at one time or another and many other Essex men lie there yet.
Let us not forget them.
This text was kindly written for the Museum by volunteer Mr Graham Herriott