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Over the Top: Remembering the Sacrifices of the Somme

I’m driving northeast from Paris with the intention of doing something seemingly pointless, at best, and mawkishly self-indulgent at worst. I’m rolling along manicured autoroutes, passing medieval villages and fields which have been cultivated for millennia. In an hour or so, I’ll park, walk a couple hundred yards and look at a few letters chipped into a rock. Then, I’ll bow my head, shed a tear and, after a while, reverse the journey. Like I said, pointless and self-indulgent.

One hundred years ago today, Lance Corporal Alfred Madden of D Company, 22nd Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers attempted to close with and destroy the enemy on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Like so many young infantrymen taking part in that slaughter, he never returned and his body was not recovered. Those few letters chipped into a rock at the memorial at Thiepval are scant evidence of an otherwise unremarkable existence. He went to school, worked, loved, married and began to raise a family in a country that, for centuries, was the traditional enemy of the one in which he lost his life. When war came, he enlisted in his local regiment, one that’d been operational for more than two hundred years across the Empire. Ironically, one of the first battle honors they won was against the French.

Northumberland Fusiliers in Review 1915

Review of all four battalions, 102 Brigade, Northumberland Fusiliers (Tyneside Scottish) at Alnwick, 1915, by the Duke of Northumberland KG.

At 07:28 on July 1st, two enormous mines under the German lines at La Boiselle, each containing 26 tons of high explosive, were detonated – the signal for the infantry of the British 34th Division to advance. Alfred Madden’s battalion hurled itself into a maelstrom of machine gun and rifle fire, crossing open ground to attack the village to their front. One of four battalions comprising the Tyneside Scottish Brigade, they formed on November 16th, 1915 as part of a recruitment drive that saw groups of friends from the area’s various mining communities walking dozens of miles to sign up together. Drawing from a population that already led hard, gritty lives of physical labor, the camaraderie found in these ‘Pals Battalions‘ was unheard of. The downside of forming units from small villages was the certainty that almost every family in the community would lose a father, son, uncle or brother in the coming carnage.

Within a few minutes of the British artillery barrage lifting, German defenders emerged from their deep dugouts, largely unscathed despite the 1.5 million shells rained up them across the front over the past five days. As the 22nd Northumberland Fusiliers slogged uphill, they were cut to pieces. At the end of that fateful day, 537 men from the battalion were killed, wounded or missing.

“Heavy casualties were at once incurred, many men of our first line even being hit while getting over our front line parapet. Each company was played over into No Man’s Land by its piper who continued to play until either killed or wounded.” Northumberland Fusiliers War Diary, the Somme Offensive, 1916

I’m rolling along on manicured autoroutes, passing medieval villages and fields, on my way to remember Lance Corporal Alfred Madden, my great grandfather, a man I never met, and whose sacrifice I can never repay.

La-Boisselle-WWI

A view of the La Boisselle battlefield as it looked on 03 July, 1916, as seen from just behind British positions. Artillery can be seen impacting in the distance beyond the Y Sap crater near Alte Jager Strasse.

Standing Vigil at Thiepval

WO1 (RSM) James Grantham, the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, leads an all-night vigil at the Thiepval Memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. He stands near the engraved name of his great uncle, Pvt. George Henry Grantham, who died 01 July 16 during the first day of the battle.  Photo credit unknown (HM Armed Forces).
Cover photo: a WWI era 13-pdr field gun belong to King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, at the Thiepval Memorial. Unknown photo credit. Superimposed over the picture is the shoulder rocker of a soldier from the Northumberland Fusiliers. The letters here being red, it would have been worn by a member of 20th Battalion (1st Tyneside Scottish). The letters of those worn the other battalions would have been: yellow (21st), black (22nd), and light blue (23rd).

Remembering the Sacrifices of the Somme

The Northumberland Fusiliers went “over the top” on 01 July 16 at 07h30 with Maj. Gen. Ingouville-Williams’s division. The Tyneside battalions suffered more casualties than any other brigade in the battle, including all of their battalion commanders and 90% of their officers. The division lost a brigade commander, seven of eight battalion commanders and, on average, 600 men (all ranks) in each battalion. The four Tyneside battalions of the division lost 6,380 killed, wounded and missing. Despite losing 3/4 of its infantry that morning the division carried the attack through to its initial objectives, though one might argue that just a few acres of ground was hardly worth the lives of so many young men.

“Never have I seen men go through such a barrage of artillery…they advanced as on parade and never flinched.” (Maj-Gen Ingouville-Williams)

The Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, is perhaps the most iconic of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries — upon it are the names of more than 72,00 officers and men who died in the Somme sector prior to March, 1918 and were never identified. Approximately 90% of those commemorated were killed in the first five months of WWII. 

“…it became evident that the attack had been pressed on without avail. Officers and men had been literally mowed down, but in rapidly diminishing numbers they had resolutely pushed on to meet their deaths close to the enemy’s wire. No Man’s Land was reported to be heaped with dead. It was impossible to estimate at all accurately the extent of our losses…” (Brigadier-General Trevor Ternan, 102nd Bde Tyneside Scottish; by 3 July BGen. Ternan made contact with scattered pockets of surviving Fusiliers, including a handful commanded by a surviving officer called Major Acklom. The 102nd Brigade, 2 years in the making and training, had effectively ceased to exist.)


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