BATTLE OF THE SOMME 1 JUL – 18 NOV 1916
BATTLE OF THE SOMME
1 JUL – 18 NOV 1916
A month after Lord Kitchener’s call for volunteer recruits a total of three battalions had been raised in Norwich from city and county men. These became the 7th, 8th and 9th (Service) Battalions, The Norfolk Regiment.
On the first day of the Somme, the 8th (Service) Battalion were in action and went over the top into a hail of machine gun fire.
All three Service Battalions and the 1st Battalion
(a Regular Army battalion) of The Norfolk
Regiment would see action on the Somme front
over the months between July and November 1916.
YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU!
On 5 August 1914, the day after Britain declared war on Germany, Britain’s Prime Minister Herbert Asquith announced Field Marshal Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener was to be made Secretary of State for War.
Kitchener was a national military hero who had come to prominence leading troops on major foreign campaigns during the reign of Queen Victoria. He didn’t get on with many senior officers in the Regular army because he liked to do things his way. The problem for the army was that when he did things his way they usually worked. Kitchener had not been in favour of the ‘part time soldiering’ of the Territorial Force and going against popular belief he predicted the war would not be over by Christmas. Instead, he pressed for the expansion of the British Army by 500,000 and it was sanctioned the same day. Announcements appeared in the press that recruitment for the first 100,000 volunteers for the ‘New Army’ would begin on 11 August 1914 and within two weeks of recruitment Kitchener had his first 100,000 recruits. Thus, he raised his first ‘New Army’ a force that would soon be dubbed ‘Kitchener’s Army.’
In Norfolk local men initially walked up to Britannia Barracks in Norwich to volunteer but space soon ran out and the main recruitment centre in the city was established in the Blackfriar’s and St. Andrew’s Halls. There were a good many men to come forward when the call first went out for volunteers but even more followed in September when all the harvest had been gathered in and recruitment rallies were held in towns and villages all across the county.
The New Army battalions adopted by county regiments were formally designated Service Battalions. On establishment each battalion contained just over 1,000 men. By September 1914 a total of three battalions for Kitchener’s Army had been raised in Norwich from city and county men. These became the 7th, 8th and 9th (Service) Battalions, The Norfolk Regiment.
Norfolk did not have ‘pals’ battalions by name, although all the Norfolk battalions were filled with friends, neighbours and even family members. The nearest we had was the ‘Norwich Businessmen’s Company,’ a group of around 100 men made up of clerks, bank employees and the younger sons of business houses who, following a newspaper appeal, all went together to volunteer for Kitchener’s Army at St. Andrew’s Hall on Wednesday 2 September 1914. The Businessmen’s Company became part of 8th (Service) Battalion, The Norfolk Regiment.
TRAINING AND UNIFORM
Once established the New Army battalions were sent away to military camps to train as units. Sleeping at least 12 to a tent, most men still had no uniforms, wore their own boots and training rifles were in short supply. In fact, everything was in short supply even eating utensils had to be shared. Training concentrated on drill, route marches and teaching men to obey orders.
Pte. Don Grey wrote in October 1914 when he and his pals in the 8th (Service) Battalion, The Norfolk Regiment were at Shorncliffe Camp:
“Our officers are gentlemen in the true sense of the word and the man who does his duty has much pleasure in being under such men. Our bodies are bags of straw, and we turn in at 9.30pm, having to rise at reveille, which sounds at 4.30am. After a cup of cocoa and biscuit we parade for drill until 7.45am, when we partake of breakfast (bread, boiled bacon and tea). 9am again sees us at it and after a march of 3 miles we spend the morning skirmishing. Returning at 12.30, we are quite ready for our dinner – stew (beef, onions and carrots), potatoes (in jackets) and bread. After this from 2 till 4pm we parade for drill. Tea at 4.45pm and now we are free for the day, unless we have a night march. When on night march we are forbidden to talk or smoke and the three hours marching etc seem much longer, but it is all in the game, so we don’t mind.”
The first uniform the men were issued was known as the ‘Kitchener Blue’ which comprised a side-hat, jacket and trousers that had been sourced from extant uniform stocks held by the likes of the HM Prisons and hastily dyed blue. Shapeless and not colour fast they even turned the recruit’s skin blue if he sweated or got wet.
Khaki uniform came through piecemeal as did more training rifles and the 1914 leather equipment. Training also improved to include skill-at-arms, shooting, bayonet fighting, trench and latrine digging and manoeuvres. Specialist courses were also set up to train the likes of bombers, machine gunners, signallers or cooks and bring on the new non-commissioned officers. By early 1915 the men were really looking and feeling like soldiers. By September 1915 all three Norfolk Service Battalions were on active service in the trenches on the Western Front.
THE FIRST DAY OF THE SOMME – 1 JULY 1916
The men of all the Norfolk Regiment Service Battalions had weathered a winter and springtime rotating in and out of the front line trenches. They had lived in squalor, suffered freezing cold, liquid mud, torrents of water and filth.
Their bodies rapidly became infested with lice and vermin were all around. They had suffered poison gas attacks and had seen friends killed and injured in trench raids, by being sniped at or as a result of shell or mortar fire; many of them wanted a ‘Big Push’ on the Western Front to break out of the hellish deadlock.
In the week before the date set for the ‘Big Push’ a million and a half shells were fired at the enemy lines and barbed wire entanglements. The men of the attacking battalions were assured by their Brigade Commanders that the wire would be cut to shreds and the enemy shelled out of its trenches. This was not to be the case, the Germans had constructed dug outs over twenty feet deep that, for the most part, withstood the bombardment. When the huge mine explosions were detonated along the Somme front shortly before the attacking battalions went over on 1 July 1916, the two minutes wait they had for the debris to settle only meant the Germans had time to deploy to their parapets and mount their machine guns ready to repel the attack.
The only Norfolk Regiment battalion in action on the First Day of the Somme was the 8th (Service) Battalion that were part of 53rd Brigade, 18th (Eastern) Division. The battalion’s assembly trenches were just north of Carnoy, their objective was to be the enemy trenches south-west of Montauban.
Tragically all battalions went over the top into a hail of machine gun fire but the 8th (Service) Battalion was able to make good ground and was one of the few battalions to take its objective on the day. But it cost them four Officers and 104 other ranks were killed and over two hundred wounded.
The First Day of the Somme saw Kitchener’s New Armies engaged in a major action for the very first time. Tragically, many of them didn’t make enough ground to even get close to the enemy before they were gunned down. Almost 60,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed or wounded on the First Day of the Somme.
All three Service Battalions and the 1st Battalion (a Regular Army battalion) of The Norfolk Regiment would see action on the Somme front over the months between July and November 1916.
Local men also served in all the major Corps on the battlefront such as the Royal Artillery, Army Service Corps, Royal Engineers and Royal Army Medical Corps. Other local lads that had emigrated and started new lives in countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, joined the Regiments local to them. As a result you will see the names of soldiers from across Britain and around the Empire, Colonies and Dominions remembered on the War Memorials of Norfolk.