The Battle Of Somme

PART 1: (Fiction)

They Say War is Hell, Well, They Got That One Right.        

June 26th 1916 (Three days before “going over the top.”)

“Watch your footing here lads, it’s a bit muddy.” Sergeant O’Roke[1] shouted in an Irish accent to the men behind him.

There were about fifteen men, mostly from Liverpool, Britain heading in the direction they were ordered to go. They were being sent to a portion of the line which had been under heavy enemy attack for the last three days. Germany sent wave after wave on this section of the line to try and break through, but that hasn’t happened yet.

The commander in this particular area had called for reinforcements, but that was the last time they had heard from him. They have been trying to contact the commander here, but all attempts seemed to be lost. The messages sent by pigeons weren’t returning and even runners sent on foot weren’t coming back

WWI First picture (2)
Solider’s on their way to the front lines. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/36641199)

The British high command could only spare fifteen of its loyal men because they had other tasks to attend to. The higher command had sent word to the artillery to bombard the German line in an attempt to weaken the forces there which started three days ago. Then the infantry would be sent in to finish the job.

Pvt. Alfred Ball[3] enlisted in the Liverpool “pals” in January 1915 when he was 21. He and the others around him had seen their fair share of war. Though he has been around everyone out here for a year , he grew close to two of them. Their names were Cpl. Andy  Amherst[4] and Pvt. John Fryer .[5] They were each the same age and enlisted at the same place so it only seemed natural that they would become friends.

Sergeant O’Roke was easily the most experienced man here, he was serving in the army even before the war broke out. He was smaller than normal, but probably the strongest one in the platoon. He rose through the ranks in his four years of service. Some called him reckless and dangerous to be around. He wasn’t afraid to stand up when the bullets were flying. As long as you listened to O’Roke, you would make it out alive and that is what Alfred has been doing.

WWI Sec Picture
The field of battle at Somme. (http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-battle-of-somme)

Alfred let out a small chuckle and shook his head.

“What’s so funny Ball?” Cpl. Andy Amherst asked curiously from behind.

Nothing was really funny. He just had to make light of the situation that faced them. They were in hell and have been in hell ever since they left training and will always be in hell until the war ends.

“This mud and rain will be the death of me, that’s all.” Alfred muttered flashing his friend a smile.

They walked along in no order or formation. They just tried to stay out of the mud and water filled craters. Alfred has never seen so much rain in his entire life, that’s all it seemed to do in France was rain. He used to love the rain, but now it’s the opposite. Everything on him was wet, all the way down to his socks.

He looked up and saw the gloomy clouds. Then water began to sprinkle, cold and wet on his skin. Drops of water trickled down his body as he continued to walk, his gaze fixed on the horizon. There wasn’t a tree or a sign of green in sight. Just mud and water with various military equipment, forgot about because it was stuck.

As the small group got to where they were supposed to be they began to see fellow British soldiers, dead and alive in craters in the ground created by artillery. Some began to shout, “Relief is here! Thank god relief is here.”

The three friends got in a hole as another man began to crawl out. “Where the hell are you going? We aren’t relief, we aren’t even a company, we are just 15 guys.” Andy asked the man.

“If you want me to stay then you are going to have to shoot me.” The man looked terrified as he stared at the three of them.

The three looked at him in bewilderment. “Fine, get out of here. Beat it.” Andy told him as the man left the crater. The three of them laid their rifles over the top of the hole, waiting for an attack.

Several minutes later Sergeant O’Roke jumped into their hole. “Hey boys, I hate to break you up but there is only two to a hole. We don’t have enough men to cover the line as it is. So Fryer, you’re with me.”

“What was that all about Sarge? Why’d they leave us stranded like that?” Andy asked him.

“As you probably heard, they thought we were their relief. Everyone with a stripe was killed off so that makes me commanding this part of the line. You’re second in command Amherst, don’t do anything stupid.”

“But, we are 15 guys.”

“I managed to get about 30 of them to stay. So we are about 40 or 50 strong. Me and Fryer will be in the next hole over if you need us.” And they left.

Alfred and Andy didn’t say anything to each other. They have done this part before. Sit and wait for Fritz to come out of their trenches and then mow them down. It was like clockwork.That is when a flare was sighted on the German side of the field and it landed out in no man’s land.[7] Someone cried out, “Enemy target marker!”

A few seconds later, a second flare went up. “Second target marker!” Someone yelled out from down the line.

The two knew what would happen next. A barrage of artillery shells began to rain down on them, shaking the ground as they hit the earth. It felt like the ground from underneath them was going to explode.

Thankfully, most of the artillery shells fired by the Germans landed in no man’s land. Just as the smoke was clearing off of the field in front of them, they saw silhouettes appear. “Here they come!” A voice shouted out.

“Aim true boys!” They could hear Sergeant O’Roke say out loud to everyone that could hear him. “Don’t be afraid to fight dirty if you have too!”

Slowly and steady, rifle shots began to be heard from Alfred’s left and right. He fired his first round, and missed his target. The enemy was 50 yards and closing fast. His rifle, the Lee Enfield[8], proved extremely fast while working the bolt. He fired a shot, hit, right in the middle of the stomach. Killing another person never got easy for him, he felt like a machine since he had to do it over and over again. He fired off another bullet, missing.

He grew to love his rifle like it were a son. He fired another shot, missed. The gun cocks on closing the bolt and the lugs lock the bolt in place are in the rear serve to ensure speed and reliability, even with mud and/or grit in the action, which there was nearly all the time.[9] Another shot, his last, which hit the target and the man fell. Reloading the gun with five round clips was simple, and the ejector bar flings the clips out of the way with little trouble.

He reloaded with ease, as fast as he could. A good soldier could get off 12 rounds a minute and he was pretty darn close to that.

The Germans were swarming all around him. He could hear the sounds of hand-to-hand combat in the area around him. The reason he was fighting didn’t matter anymore, it was all about survival now, at any cost.

A German stared down at Alfred and Andy as he stood on the edge of their crater. Alfred looked at him and the German did the same. The German seemed to be shocked to see the two British soldiers, like he hadn’t expected to come across them. He stopped hesitating and went to cock his rifle, but it jammed. Andy wasted no time, he dropped his rifle and grabbed his trench knife, which was connected to his belt. The German frantically tried to unjam his, but it wasn’t working.

Alfred looked away he could only imagine the scene behind him unfolding. He heard a scuffle, a scream, then he heard the muffled gasps and that was all. Then he heard commotion outside of his crater.

“We can’t hold this position boys, come on, we are bugging out.” Sergeant O’Roke spoke with defeat in his voice.

 

 

Part 2: (Alfred Ball’s Personal Account)

The Day of Days

On the night of the 29th they began their journey to the front lines once again. The noise of the artillery was like a thunder as it guided them to their next destination.

The company stumbled along the darkness, every once in awhile the intensity of their mission would vanish and a couple of the people in the company would jump, being startled from an explosion.

Two horses dashed pasted them towards the rear. Later they would know that the horses were released from their load by a shell that killed the driver and destroyed their wagon. With a crash, one of the horses collapsed within a yard of Alfred, it landed on a bed of barbed wire, showing the horrible pain that disembowelment came with. They continued going forward.

Just before they arrived at their jumping-off trench. A soldier from his battalion was struck in the face, right between the eyes, with a shell fragment. “Mother of God!” The young soldier shouted out. “Mother of God!” His cries were haunting. “I’m blind!” They could not do anything for him, so they left him behind, whimpering.

Zero was 7:15 a.m. on July 1st.[10] 

WWI Third Picture
Soldiers “going over the top.” (https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Somme)

In a few minutes Alfred and the others around him would endure the supreme test. A few of the men in front of him, including Andy, peaked over the trench in order to look at the enemy but they couldn’t see anything because a slight mist hung in the air.

Questions began to form in Alfred’s mind. What if the artillery had failed to cut the enemy’s wire? What if his machine guns were still fortified and waiting to mow him down?

Strangely, Alfred felt calm. A feeling of carelessness which he wished would have lasted for the whole war. But that feeling was short lived as the sound of the artillery faded off. It was eerily quiet for a second or two. Then the fury of the British barrage dropped like a wall around them.

Through the barrage, somehow the order to advance was given and understood.[12] Alfred followed Andy up the ladder, towards hell. Before Cpl. Andy Amherst got off the ladder, he fell back into the trench, his head missing.  Mother of God, Alfred thought to himself as he had to force himself up out of the trench.

He ran with other men, as they ran towards the enemy trenches. They advanced through the mud, water and dirt all the while the mist seemed to grow thicker and thicker.

He found himself running beside Fryer and strangely enough, that was all. The other men seemed to be gone. They were lost in the mist, cut off from the rest of the British army. They didn’t know how far they had come, they didn’t even know if they went in the right direction.

WWI Fourth Picture
British soliders charging into battle during the Battle of the Somme. (Artist: J.P. Beadle; http://creativecentenaries.org/content/battle-somme-artwork)

What should they do? They did what irresponsible privates should do, they jumped into the nearest shell hole. They discussed their position and then, weirdly enough, went to sleep.

Alfred was nudged out of sleep by Fryer. It was quieter now, but bullets were still flying through the air because they could hear them. The mist was gone and one could see about 400 to 500 yards in all directions. Together, they slowly and cautiously lifted their heads and saw a single German, in a section of a trench that had been blown to bits. He was firing in the direction of their old line.

The German was a braver man than either Alfred or Fryer seemed to be. A rifle to his shoulder, he kept up a steady rate of fire. By his side was another German, busingly reloading a second rifle.

Alfred raised his rifle to shoot the first active German, but Fryer pulled him back. “Don’t be a bloodily fool.” Fryer told him. “Don’t you see we are surrounded?”

The two began to argue about what their duty was. To Fryer, his duty was to go back home alive and not to put himself at any more risk than necessary.[14] But to Alfred, his duty was to his country and that every dead German was a good German. Then they began to talk about who might have won the battle. They talked about Andy. Then they went back to sleep.

They awoke a second time and began to discuss their plans on getting back to friendly lines. If worse came to worse, they would simply be taken prisoner and be safe that way.

Once more they carefully peeped over the side of their hole. They looked in the direction the two Germans have been. But the heros were no longer there. Their action was getting on Alfred’s nerves. He wanted to look around to see what was happening. Fryer did not want to come, he began to crack.

Gingerly, Alfred climbed out of the friendly hole. The attack was at the stage where one might walk around almost carefree. There were too many targets, he guessed, for one to attract attention. Besides, everyone was busy, either finding out where they were or were digging themselves in.

He stumbled upon another shell hole just like the one he and Fryer had, here he found Sergeant O’Roke.

Together, with Fryer and O’Roke, Alfred made his way back to friendly lines. They reported back to the Adjutant of one the the battalions of the brigade who was acting brigadier, all of his superiors had been killed or wounded. He gave them the order to remain in the trench. Messages had already gone out ordering a general withdrawal to the starting point. The attack had failed.[15] Alfred prayed that he did not have to do it all over again .[16]

 

[1] Fictional Character.

[3] He also crossed to France on November 7th, 1915; served in France continuously during the remainder of the War.  Was wounded once – very slightly – near Arras in August or September 1918.  After the Armistice went into Germany with the Army of Occupation, leaving there to be demobilized at the end of March 1919.  He neither sought nor received promotion. A segment of his diary can be found here: http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/ordinarywaronthesomme.htm

[4] Fictional Character

[5] Fryer will not survive the Battle of Somme. He will die at the hands of enemy artillery, which blew his trench to pieces. For more on Fryer go here: http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/ordinarywaronthesomme.htm

[7] Flares were used to mark the range for artillery.

[8] The Lee Enfield enjoyed a good reputation with those who were issued with it. It had a ten-bullet magazine and its rate of fire in the hands of well-trained men was high. (Trueman, C.N. “Lee Enfield Rifle” historylearningsite.co.uk. The History Learning Site, 31 Mar 2015.)

[9] Keeping your rifle clean in the muddy environment of the trenches was of paramount importance. When not in battle, many men simply covered the firing mechanism with cloth in an effort to keep out dirt which would clog up the rifle. (Trueman, C.N. “Lee Enfield Rifle” historylearningsite.co.uk. The History Learning Site, 31 Mar 2015.)

[10] The first day of the battle, July 1 1916, was also the bloodiest, and remains the worst in the British Army’s history. Of Britain’s first-day casualties, a staggering 19,240 died. Dodds, Laurence and Rozina Sabur. “Ten facts about the Battle of the Somme.” 30 June 2016. The Telegraph. Web. 1 March 2017.

[12] There was the battalion from the island of Newfoundland, now part of Canada, which suffered the heaviest losses with 90 percent of their 2,000 men on the opening day of the battle. This is equivalent to one in ten people.(Dodds Laurence, and Rozina Sabur. “Ten facts about the Battle of the Somme.” 30 June 2016. The Telegraph. Web. 1 March 2017.

[14] The men and women who served in the First World War endured some of the most brutal forms of warfare ever known. Millions were sent to fight away from home for months, even years at a time, and underwent a series of terrible physical and emotional experiences. An important explanation for soldiers’ resilience is the idea of the primary group: men were motivated above all by comradeship as they fought alongside friends and companions. (Wilcox, Vanda. “Combat and the Soldier’s Experience in World War One.” n.d. British Library. Web. 1 March 2017.)

[15] The progress by the British army was slow. Due to poor weather and snow the army brought a halt to the Somme offensive on November 18th. During the attack 420,000 British casualties, which included many of “Pal’s” battalion. Plus 200,000 French casualties. German casualties were estimated to run at around 500,000. (Cowley, Robert and Geoffrey Parker. “Battle of the Somme.” 1996. History. Web. 1 March 2017.)

[16] Only 15 miles of ground were gained by the Allied forces from July 1st- November 19th.

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