This guest post is by Dr John Cleaver: Life Fellow, Archivist, and editor of ‘Fitzwilliam: the first 150 years of a Cambridge College’.
Remember 1 July 2016, a day on which so much was written and said about the centenary of the Battle of the Somme? It’s a fortnight ago, so probably you have forgotten it already, particularly if you are preoccupied with the depressing events of the present day – but the men who took part did not have the luxury to forget: from a hundred years ago today, the battle still had about another seventeen weeks to run.
Ten Fitzwilliam men died in the Battle of the Somme – the first exactly a century ago on 14 July 1916, towards the end of the relatively active phase of the battle. The other nine died in the area over the following four months, as the battle degenerated into an exercise in attrition.
The battle of the Somme put to a very substantial test the New Army introduced by Kitchener. Its establishment had been a remarkable experiment. The mass army was improvised rapidly and, although there had been significant improvements to both Regular and Territorial forces in the period after the Boer War, there was rather little provision for expansion and a very small cadre of trained men as a basis. Tactics reflected the limited competence that was expected from the recruits.
An illustration of the poor understanding of training requirements is given in a letter in May 1915 from a Fitzwilliam man, Second Lieutenant William Carter, to William Fiddian Reddaway – the Censor of Non-Collegiate Students, the principal officer of Fitzwilliam Hall – claiming of his rather basically trained recruits that
as discipline is now becoming more and more pronounced, by the time we have finished our musketry course we shall be just about ready for service in any part of the world.
It speaks volumes for the men that they still show considerable keenness in their work, when consideration is made for the fact that their training has been hindered by lack of equipment and material. The routine here is rather monotonous but it is now and then varied by a few ceremonial parades.
Such provision, which was all that was practicable, could not meet the requirements for men who were to tackle well-prepared defensive positions. The emphasis in training was to instil discipline rather than intelligent competence and, consistent with that, the new recruits spent a high proportion of their training time on close-order drill. This was a particular failing of the British army, and contrasted strongly with what could be achieved in the German army (which had based its pre-war system on much higher quality conscript recruits: before the war the British army had recruited predominantly from the unemployed, and had to reject a high proportion as they failed to meet even basic physical standards). The disregard for initiative was consistent with the belief that orders simply needed to be passed down and followed by the lower ranks, such control in turn necessitating a higher proportion of junior officers and non-commissioned officers to men than in the German army, and resulting in inactivity or severely-degraded performance when officers and NCOs were incapacitated. Indeed, this did not apply solely to the management of private soldiers; at all levels amongst the officers there was an inflexible emphasis on top-down command without delegation of responsibility for decision-making, and grossly inadequate provision for the feedback either of long-term practical experience or of urgent information.
William Carter – by that time Lieutenant Carter – was to be the first Fitzwilliam man to be killed in the battle of the Somme, on 14 July 1916. He died without identifiable trace and, like so many others, is commemorated on Sir Edwin Lutyens’ great arch at Thiepval, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.
Temporary Lieutenant Frederic Scott wrote to Reddaway with an account of other action on 14 July. A week previously, on 8 July, he had
moved up to Contalmaison where we completed the capture of that place by surrounding and demolishing three houses at its northern end, capturing about 100 of the Prussian Guard.
After four days consolidating and holding on there, we were withdrawn to Fricourt , where our Brigade was concentrated. There we were told that to us had been given the honour of making the first attack on the German second-line system. The 13th was spent in preparing for our attack by carrying up bombs and ammunition to the northern edge of Mametz Wood, from which we were to debouch and attack. Our task was to take Bazentin-le-Petit Wood and village, and hold a line north of them.
We attacked at dawn on the 14th, ‘France’s Day’, and by 8:00 am we had captured the wood, with five lines of trenches in it, every tree acting as a staple for barbed wire, and by 8:50 we had taken the village (and 600 prisoners) and reached our objective. We had the supreme satisfaction of seeing the cavalry come through us into the open, and then we resisted five massed counter-attacks, in which the Huns suffered enormously.
I was hit about noon and left the fighting line about 4:00 pm, when we had lost about 75% of our strength. However, our line held strong, until the night of the 15th when the remnant of the Leicestershire Brigade was relieved. It was a great fight – hand to hand, mostly, and the enemy fought desperately. ‘Bazentin, c’est la gloire anglaise’ say the French, and my wound seems a trivial price to pay for the honour of having a hand in it.
Actually, his action was recognised more tangibly. He was awarded a Military Cross, and the citation read
For conspicuous gallantry during an attack. Although badly shaken by a bursting shell, he collected thirty men and dug himself in in a forward position, holding it under heavy fire for a day and night. He was wounded, but refused attention until he had withdrawn his party.
Scott survived the Somme, but was to die in May 1918.
Overall, the Somme offensive achieved an advance of about 13 km on a 30 km front, with more than a quarter of that area captured in the first two-week period.
In the later attritional phase nine more Fitzwilliam men were to die – identifiable remains of four of them were never recovered so, like Carter, they are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial: Allan Alford, Cyril Allison, George Stout, and John Swallow. The bodies of the other five men – Alec Boucher, Bernard Downman, Oswald Elliott, Eric Player, and William Shaw – were recovered and buried in various cemeteries in the area.
The Somme deaths between July and November 1916 represent about a quarter of the Fitzwilliam deaths in the Great War. During the war a total of forty-four men died, out of about 300 from the Hall who served abroad – about 230 of them as combatants, and about 13 as members of the Royal Army Medical Corps. There were also about 46 chaplains, and about 14 provided welfare for troops through the YMCA.