Whitby High School

Battlefields Tour 11-14th March 2004

France - Vimy Ridge, Peronne and Somme Tour - Saturday 13th March

Thiepval Memorial

Thiepval Memorial

Built on the spur, the Thiepval Memorial dominates the area and can be seen from most of the Somme battlefield. Designed by Edwin Lutyens, it is the largest memorial to British missing on the Western Front with more names than any other (73,357) and was the last to be completed, finally being inaugurated in 1932.

There are also two cemeteries, British and French. In the late 1920's, as the memorial neared completion, it was decided to create these cemeteries to make the point that the Battle of the Somme was a joint Anglo-French assault. Both countries provided 300 burials and the two cemeteries face the old German position as the armies had done in the battlefield. French on the right flank, British on the left.

The Somme Offensive, 1916

The Somme area saw two periods of heavy fighting in World War One; the first from July-November 1916 and the second in the summer of 1918, where a successful Allied counter attack after the retreats of spring 1918 led to the first great armoured breakthrough of modern warfare.

The first day of the offensive, the 1st July 1916, saw the most terrible losses in the history of the British Army - 60,000 casualties of whom about 20,000 were dead.

The Area

The Somme is a largely agricultural area in the old principality of Picardy. The regional centre is the city of Amiens. In 1914, as today, the main crops were wheat and sugar beet, farmed on low chalk ridge intersected by small sleepy rivers such as the Somme and the Ancre. The main town behind the British lines was Albert, a quiet provincial town of about 7,000 people. From Albert, an old Roman Road ran westward to Bapaume. The front line ran across this road about 3km from the town. This was to be the centre of the 1916 offensive.

The German Defences

The Germans had had 18 months to construct an elaborate series of defences along the tops of the chalk ridges. Where the ridges were cut by valleys, the German front line pulled back along the contour line. The dry chalk soil enabled tunnels and dug outs to cut deep. There were 3-4 systems of defences, giving a total of anything up to 12 trench lines.

The dug outs sheltered troops from shell fire. They were up to 40ft deep and contained electricity and water supplies. Redoubts were behind the front line. On prominent landscape features, the Germans had constructed strongholds, trench fortresses, e.g. The Schwaben Redoubt, with especially deep dug outs designed to withstand attack from all sides.

There were also fortified villages: these were the strongest points of the German defences, elaborate fortresses built in the ruins of the old villages. There were 9 of these in the area to be attacked e.g. La Boiselle, Thiepval, Beaumont Hamel.

The Attacking Troops

The area was new to the B.E.F in 1916. They took it over from the French in the spring. Although conscription had begun by July 1916, the men who attacked on 1st July were all volunteers. Of the 143 battalions to take part, 97 were New Army, the rest were Regulars or Territorials. (The Regular Army Battalions were units of the professional army of pre-1914. The Territorial Army Battalions (the TA) had come into existence as a part time reserve force in 1908. It had been called up at the start of the war and most units had been overseas since February 1915).

In the above battalions only about 25% of the original members had survived to June 1916 and most men had had little or no combat experience. The Somme offensive was to be the first major test of Kitchener's Army of Volunteers, raised in 1914 and under training ever since. In the first rush of enthusiasm, battalions had been raised so quickly that they were able to group together by district or occupations. In the industrial North, the City Battalions were often known as Pals Battalions, e.g. Accrington Pals, Grimsby Chums. Some were drawn form specific occupations, e.g. Glasgow City Tramsways Battalion. In some, e.g. Liverpool Commercials, companies could also have a common link, one being made up of clerks from the White Star Shipping office, another from Cunards.

The Plan

The original plan was for a joint offensive by the British and French along a 43 mile front. After the German attack on the French at Verdun in February 1916, this was reduced to a 26 mile front, of which the British were to have 18 miles. The French were desperate for a British offensive to take the pressure off Verdun. The main attack was to be carried out by Rawlinson's 4th Army. He mistrusted the ability of his infantry, because of its lack of experience, and drew up a starkly simple plan of attack for them, which relied on heavy preparatory bombardment.

A week-long bombardment would destroy the German defences, break down the barbed wire and kill all the defenders. The infantry would simple walk over and occupy the German front line. Reserves would move through them to the German second line. Once they were secure, the artillery would move up and repeat the process on the German third and fourth lines. The normal procedure for troops in No Man's Land was to rush across, but Rawlinson thought this would lead to chaos among his raw troops. The men would leave their trenches, form into open order and walk across at a speed of 2 m.p.h. Each battalion was divided into 9 waves, each 1 minute apart.

The Bombardment

There was 1 artillery piece for 17 yards of front, in the week before the attack they fired more shells that had been fired in the first year of the war, about 1 1/2 million. The job of cutting the wire was given to the 18lb shrapnel shells.

The Mines

The final destruction of strong points on the German line was to be achieved using mines. There were 7 small ones, and 3 larger ones, two of which were at La Boisselle. These were to be blown 2 minutes before zero, with the exception of Hawthorn Redoubt mine at Beaumont Hamel which was blown 10 minutes before.

The Attack

At 4.00am on the 1st July as it was getting light on what was to be a gloriously hot summer day, 60,000 British troops were ready in the front line trenches, each weighed down with 60-8Olb equipment.

At 6.25am the final barrage started. At 7.20 the Hawthorn mine was blown, followed by the others at 7.30.

At 7.30 the barrage lifted and the infantry attack began along an 18 mile front, with an 8 mile wide French assault on the right of the British line.

The attack went disastrously wrong within moments. German machine gun crews, who had survived the artillery barrage, emerged from their dug outs and were presented with perfect targets. As they cut down the attacking troops, German artillery batteries, thought by the British to have been knocked out, opened fire causing further confusion in No Man's Land and heavy casualties in the reserve trenches.

The pattern was the same more or less all along the line, and was repeated many times throughout the day. Some 40,000 more troops were committed as the day went on, as plans were rigidly followed despite the inevitable slaughter and failure. By the end of the day there had been some slight gain to the south of the Albert-Bapaume Road, but in the centre and the north nothing had been gained at all. At no point had the German second line been breached. These slight gains were made at a terrible cost.


The final casualty figures were:

Killed ...................................... 19,300
Wounded ................................ 35,500
Missing ...................................... 2,100
Prisoners ...................................... 600
Total Casualties .................. 57,000
(figures rounded to nearest 100)
Officer casualties were about 75%.
German losses were about 8,000 of whom 2,000+ were prisoners.

Four battalions suffered more that 600 casualties, the two worst being the 10th West Yorks and the 1st Newfoundland.

A great part of Kitchener's New Army had been destroyed in a day, much of it in the first few minutes of the attack.

More British soldiers died on the 1st July than in the Crimean, Boer and Korean wars combined.

What Went Wrong

1. The greatest mistake was over-estimating the effects of the artillery in killing German front line troops. The bombardment wasn't heavy enough. Any 1,000 sq. yds. only got 30 shells average, of which 20 would be shrapnel. Each square mile received about 30 tons of high explosive in 7 days. (In Normandy in 1944 each square mile received 800 tons in minutes.) For all its noise, the Somme bombardment wasn't sufficient to penetrate the deep bunkers in which the German machine gunners were sheltering.

2. As the Germans in the dug outs were still alive, once the barrage lifted, both sides were effectively in a race for the German parapet. If the British got there first, the Germans would be trapped and killed. If the Germans got there first, the British would be caught in the open. So confident were the British of the success of their bombardment that they failed to hurry and lost the race.
There were two major points but there were others;

3. The shrapnel had failed to cut the German wire along much of the line.

4. The British line had been cut in too few places so that troops had to punch up in gaps to get through. Here they presented excellent targets.

5. The mines, particularly Hawthorn by being blown 10 minutes early, gave the Germans warning that the attack was about to start.

6. The British counter-battery fire failed to find and destroy much of the German artillery whose guns were trained on No Man's Land ready for the attack.

7. Lack of adequate communications meant that plans laid down were followed through long after events had made them useless, so that artillery spend most of the day firing well into the German rear and throughout the day repeated attacks were made on the same strongholds long after it was clear that their was no point.

The Months That Followed

The Somme battle lasted until 14th November. Many of the day-one objectives didn't fall until the very end. The maximum British gain for all this effort was 7 miles. In February 1917 the Germans voluntarily withdrew to a line of defences that they had been building for months, the Hindenburg Line, and in so doing they gave up ten times the ground that the Allies had taken from them in 1916.

Thiepval and the Schwaben Redoubt

Border Regiment troops near Thiepval Wood, August 1916 during the Battle of the Somme

Here again, the attackers faced formidable obstacles, largely intact after the bombardment. The Salford Pals and the Newcastle Commercials were to attack the fortified village of Thiepval, on a spur of high ground projecting into the British front line. On their left, the 36th (Ulster) Division was to take the ridge as far as the river Ancre, including one of the trench fortifications, the Schwaben Redoubt, which lay just behind the German front.

The Attack

The attack on Thiepval proceeded as ordered - the troops left their trenches at 7.30 and began to walk across. None reached the German wire. Repeated attempts during the morning led to further heavy casualties and the attempt on Thiepval was eventually abandoned.

The Ulster battalions had more success. They had moved into No Man's Land before 7.30 and lain down. At 7.30 they had rushed the German line and reached it before the defenders could emerge. They captured the Schwaben Redoubt after heavy fighting. This left them in an extremely dangerous situation. The attacks on either side had failed, leaving them in a salient. German machine gunners from Thiepval were able to dominate No Man's Land and prevent reinforcements reaching them. They withstood counter attacks from three sides for the rest of the day, but at darkness the few survivors withdrew from the Redoubt to the German front line.

The Ulsters had been the only Division to reach the German Second Line. Now they had given up most of their gains. The total gain was 800 yards of German front line, for which they had lost 2,000 dead, 2,700 wounded and 165 prisoners. The Schwaben Redoubt was not retaken for 3 months.

While at Thiepval we met the Lancashire Fusilier who had read the exhortation with Lauren in Belgium the previous evening

On 1 July 1916, supported by a French attack to the south, thirteen divisions of Commonwealth forces launched an offensive on a line from north of Gommecourt to Maricourt. Despite a preliminary bombardment lasting seven days, the German defences were barely touched and the attack met unexpectedly fierce resistance. Losses were catastrophic and with only minimal advances on the southern flank, the initial attack was a failure.

In the following weeks, huge resources of manpower and equipment were deployed in an attempt to exploit the modest successes of the first day. However, the German Army resisted tenaciously and repeated attacks and counter attacks meant a major battle for every village, copse and farmhouse gained. At the end of September, Thiepval was finally captured. The village had been an original objective of 1 July. Attacks north and east continued throughout October and into November in increasingly difficult weather conditions. The Battle of the Somme finally ended on 18 November with the onset of winter.

In the spring of 1917, the German forces fell back to their newly prepared defences, the Hindenburg Line, and there were no further significant engagements in the Somme sector until the Germans mounted their major offensive in March 1918.

The Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave. Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916. The memorial also serves as an Anglo-French Battle Memorial in recognition of the joint nature of the 1916 offensive and a small cemetery containing equal numbers of Commonwealth and French graves lies at the foot of the memorial.

The memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, was built between 1928 and 1932 and unveiled by the Prince of Wales, in the presence of the President of France, on 31 July 1932. The dead of other Commonwealth countries who died on the Somme and have no known graves are commemorated on national memorials elsewhere.

Tracing relatives from the register

Thomas U. Royden, a cousin of Mr M. Royden recorded on the memorial

In Memory of

19th Bn. attd. 1st Bn., King's Royal Rifle Corps
who died age 20
on 14 November 1916
Son of Thomas and Louisa Royden, of 67, Willow Bank Rd., Devonshire Park, Birkenhead.

Remembered with honour


Commemorated in perpetuity by
the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Connaught Cemetery

This is near to the memorial and the battlefield at this point is particularly easy to envisage. The wood behind the cemetery is Thiepval Wood. The British front line on 1st July ran along the side of the wood nearest to the back of the cemetery. This was part of the Ulster Division front. The German front line ran along the side of Mill Road Cemetery (visible up the slope across the road, about 250 metres away). This is a fairly typical width of No Man's Land on the Somme front on 1st July. It is also typical in the slope up which the British were hoping to advance and in the very open nature of the countryside.

The Ulster Tower

The Ulster Tower was raised as a memorial to the soldiers of the Ulster Division who fought in the Great War. It was officially opened on 19th November, 1921 and is a very close copy of Helen's Tower which stands in the grounds of the Clandeboye Estate which is located in Northern Ireland east of Belfast and near the seaside town of Bangor. Many of the men of the Ulster Division trained in the estate before moving to England and then France early in 1916.

From here we could see the northernmost 4 or 5 miles of the Somme battlefield. We were looking down onto the valley of the River Ancre. On top of the hillside opposite about 3km away, was a large wooded area of pine trees. This was Newfoundland Park - the site of our next visit.

In the valley, about halfway up the slope opposite, was a village whose church spire was clearly visible. This was Beaumont Hamel, another fortified village, which was just behind the German Front Line on 1st July 1916. Looking directly up from the spire, there were some farm buildings on the horizon. To the left of the trees, between Newfoundland Park and Beaumont Hamel, was a large clump of trees and bushes. This was the Hawthorn Redoubt mine crater.

Home    Top    back    forward   

Updated 8th April 2004 by Mike Royden
The Whitby High School, Cheshire County Council.