The 1st of July is embossed on Ulster calendars on account of two historic events. It was the original date of the Battle of the Boyne (before the Gregorian calendar was adopted, moving the date to the 12th) – and it was the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
The Somme was the ‘Great Push’ that many British Tommies and other inexperienced officers thought would end the Great War. However, this offensive that had been demanded by the French as a means of achieving two objectives – relieving their own embattled troops at Verdun and inflicting as many casualties on the German army as possible – stretched for 141 days, and the war rumbled on for a further two years.
Before this ground offensive began, a merciless artillery bombardment targeted the German lines for seven days and nights, designed to entomb the enemy in their dugouts.
One German letter, written at this time by Unteroffizier Hinkel of the 7th Company 99 RIR, indicated how the stress caused by this artillery barrage made those Germans hope the British would attack with ground infantry: “The torment and fatigue are unspeakable, only competing with the strain on the nerves. Merely a prayer in our hearts, ‘Lord, release the pressure in us, give us escape through battle, give us victory; Lord God! Allow the Englishman finally to come.’ And the desire grew with each successive fall of shell.” Not until 1.7 million shells had rained down on those German lines was this prayer answered.
Many of the men of the 36th Division prepared themselves by Bible reading and prayers, rose from their frontline trenches just before ‘zero hour’ – 7.30am on 1 July 1916 – and advanced towards the first German line in the Thiepval sector. One Company commander from the West Belfasts, Major George Gaffikin, took off his Orange sash, held it high for his men to see and roared the traditional war-cry of the Battle of the Boyne, “Come on, boys! No surrender!”
Yet, despite the bravado in this rallying cry, the truth is:
1. THEIR TASK WAS PRACTICALLY IMPOSSIBLE.
One of Germany’s most meticulous soldiers, Major von Fabeck, arrived in Thiepval in April 1916 to assess the defences. Immediately he ordered the engineers to arrange dugouts in clusters of three, deepen each to seven metres, install three exits per dugout, and connect them by tunnels. By the time they were finished, systems of earthworks sculpted into the Picardy chalk of the Somme landscape rivalled small towns.
Thiepval ridge resembled an anthill, with the main German fortification on it, the Schwaben Redoubt, acting as ‘the nest of the queen.’ On the surface this structure boasted a fantastic complex of trenches, command posts, machine gun nests, while underground were shell-proof shelters, officers’ quarters, a hospital, a telephone exchange. It could accommodate over 1000 men at a depth of thirty feet.
So formidable were these defences that even the seven day British bombardment did little more than force a flicker from the newly installed electric lights.
This installation became key to the battle in the Thiepval area. If the Schwaben could be taken, then Thiepval Village would be exposed to an attack from the north and would then become vulnerable.
Multiple Machine Guns
Facing the Ulstermen was the 99th Reserve Infantry Regiment. Its two machine gun companies gave awesome firepower over the entirety of the regiment’s front at Thiepval. Premier positions for each of these guns gave the best fields of fire, and alternative sites had been identified should their forward positions be located by the British artillery and rendered unusable. In effect, the battlefield around Thiepval was practically impassable.
So it proved for the X Corps of the British 32nd Division who tried to attack Thiepval Village on the right flank of the advancing Ulstermen. They were quickly wiped out. Twenty-one machine guns in the village survived the bombardment, firing 210,000 rounds into the British attack. Only 280 out of 800 attackers were able to crawl back to their lines that night. The observation of the British Official History that, “only bullet-proof soldiers could have taken Thiepval on this day,” is no exaggeration.
The same fate awaited the 107th battalion of the 36th Ulster Division, mostly Belfast men. By the time they emerged from Thiepval Wood as the second wave of the attack, the 32nd Division to their right had collapsed, and on their left, beyond the Ancre River, the men from Antrim, Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan had also been scythed down. Thus, all the German machine guns in the area were now trained on the 107th battalion.
The soldiers were assured that the seven-day bombardment had cut the German wire to shreds, but that day the British soldiers discovered to their horror that the artillery shells had caused most of the wire to bounce but not break.
The barbed wire obstacles were horrendous: intertwined wire, of double and triple thickness, 3-5 feet high, laid in two belts, each covering 30 yards of ground and placed 15 yards apart. No wonder the comment that men saw ‘a black wall’ in front of them!
It was incredible that so many of the first wave of Ulstermen did breach the German defences and were able to swarm over the Schwaben. Their unique tactics in leaving their forward trenches ten minutes early, and taking up positions close to the German front line, brought success. The Germans were slow to climb the many steps out of their deep shelters. As they emerged, the Riflemen “potted them like ferreted rabbits.”
The 11th Royal Irish Rifles, with men from the 9th and 10th Inniskillings (‘Skins’), pressed up onto the Schwaben from three sides. In what was described as, “a Belfast riot on top of Mount Vesuvius,” the Ulstermen fought with grenades, trench knives and rifle butts. One ‘Skin’ gave a gruesome summary of the aftermath of the fighting: “The blood had got about the tongue of our boots and our socks were soaked with it.”
A seventeen year old from Belfast’s Grosvenor Road, Private Herbie Beattie, wrote to his mother: “If hell is any worse, I would not like to go to it.”
These brief reports open the door on another observation:
2. THEIR SACRIFICE WAS ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE.
Sacrifice started early that morning on the 1st of July. At 6.45am, men of the 14th Royal Irish Rifles witnessed an astonishing sacrifice. In Thiepval Wood, in a densely packed trench, a box of grenades was knocked to the ground by a shell blast, dislodging two of the pins. Without hesitation, a 20-year-old line apprentice from Cregagh Road, Belfast, William McFadzean, dived onto the grenades before they exploded. Despite the air being filled with shrapnel, men removed their helmets as William McFadzean’s remains were taken out on a stretcher. McFadzean was one of 4 Ulstermen that day to earn a Victoria Cross.
Division HQ had issued orders that no battalion staff should join their men in the battle, but Lieutenant-Colonel F.P. Crozier and Lieutenant-Colonel H.C. Bernard, commanding officers of the 9th and 10th RIRs (West and South Belfast), disobeyed. A trench mortar barrage from Thiepval Village killed Bernard as he left the wood. Rallying the remainder of the men, Crozier flung himself across the sunken road that led to the enemy lines, followed by his breathless batman. The same Crozier described Thiepval as being, “masked with a wall of corpses,” and pictured the sight of waves of soldiers engaged in attacking the village: “I see rows upon rows of British soldiers lying dead, dying or wounded in No Man’s Land. … Again I look southward and perceive heaped-up masses of British corpses suspended on the German wire in front of the Thiepval stronghold, while live men rush forward in orderly procession to swell the weight of numbers in the spider’s web. Will the last available and previously detailed man soon appear to do his futile duty unto death on the altar of sacrifice?”
This one day witnessed almost 2000 brave Ulstermen offer themselves on this sacrificial altar.
By 8.15 am, the war diarist of the YCVs reordered, “Corpses were piling high on the Sunken Road.” One survivor described any onward push at this time as, “Playing leapfrog with death.”
By 6.00pm fewer than 300 men remained inside the Schwaben Redoubt. Major Peacock of the 9th Inniskillings sent an urgent message to the rear: “Please do all that you can to send up Vickers machine gun belts, bombs and SAA (small arms ammunition). I think we shall hold on only men are rather done up.”
At 10.00pm, Peacock ordered all remaining men to withdraw to the German front line. By midnight, every able-bodied Ulsterman was back where he started.
Nearly 10,000 volunteer soldiers of the 36th Division had gone into battle. They advanced further into enemy territory than any other unit that day. Yet by the end they been forced to give up their gains, and 5,500 of them had become casualties.
Commented Crozier: “Most of my officers are dead and wounded. I send for twelve more who have been held in reserve, to swell the corpse roll. Other reinforcements arrive only to be thrown into the melting pot for a similar result. At 10pm the curtain rings down on hell. The cost? Enormous. I have seventy men left, all told, out of seven hundred.”
The British Army sustained its largest ever loss in a single day on 1 July 1916 – 57,470 casualties, 19,240 dead. Before the Somme offensive concluded in mid-November, it had cost a million lives – one third of all combatants contesting this 15 mile front.
This tremendous bravery and awesome sacrifice deserves to be remembered.
3. THEIR MEMORY IS FOREVER INDELIBLE.
Commander of the 36th Ulster Division, Major-General Nugent, wrote on 2 July 1916: “The Ulster Division has been too superb for words. … I did not believe men were made who could do such gallant work under the conditions of modern war.”
Captain Wilfred Spender of the Ulster Division’s HQ staff was quoted as saying, “I am not an Ulsterman but yesterday, the 1st July, as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world. My pen cannot describe adequately the hundreds of heroic acts that I witnessed … . The Ulster Volunteer Force, from which the division was made, has won a name which equals any in history. Their devotion deserves the gratitude of the British Empire.”
To recognise the contribution made by the 36th Ulster Division in the First World War, the Ulster Memorial Tower was unveiled in November 1921; multitudes of its ‘missing’ are included among almost 73,000 names on Thiepval’s Memorial To The Missing.
This is why, 100 years later, we still celebrate and cherish their memory.
Of course their courage – and sacrifice – pulls into view another field of conflict, another gruesome struggle, another sacrificial victim: Christ Jesus, our Lord, on Calvary. Jesus left the splendour of heaven and descended onto the battlefield of earth to die for sinners – His open, avowed enemies (Romans 5:6-8). He was assaulted from every side: men, devils – and, because He was our Substitute, having volunteered to pay the full, hellish price of our sin – God the Father directed all the wrath of heaven against Him.
They nailed my Lord upon the tree
And left Him, dying, there:
Thro’ love He suffered there for me;
‘Twas love beyond compare.
“Forgive them, O forgive!” He cried,
Then bowed His sacred head;
O Lamb of God! my sacrifice!
For me Thy blood was shed.
And nailed upon the tree!
With pierced hands and feet and side!
For you! For me!
Many of the Ulster soldiers who served and sacrificed at the Somme had found salvation in Christ’s substitutionary death. One soldier who once entertained the ‘modern thought’ theories wrote home from the Front and said: “You are right, father. There were times, I know, when I caused you sorrow, but this I know (this cruel war has taught it to me), your teaching is true, and is the only comfort I have in this time of danger. There is no comfort in the other ideas of the teachings of Christ. Only in the true teaching is there any strength or security for the life beyond.”
Have you yielded to Him? Claimed Him as your Substitute, strength and security for time and eternity? Signed up to His army and started to march with Him to heaven? If not, do so today!
Dr Ian Brown.