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Webmatters : Serre: 1st July 1916, The fate of the Pals Battalions
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Serre: 1st July 1916

31st Division’s Objectives

To their north there would be a diversionary attack by the 46th (North Midland) and 56th (London) Divisions at Gommecourt but in essence 31st Division formed the northern point of the Somme battle line and left flank of VIII Corps – who were also charged with the taking of the village of Beaumont-Hamel.

To their left, the 48th Division’s input would be limited to covering smoke screens and the loan of two battalions to the 4th Division on the 31st’s right flank.

The 31st were required to swing up and round on a pivot at Serre to face northwards and thus act as a guard for the remainder of 4th Army to the south.

The front line for the 31st was formed by four small copses: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A distance of about 1600 metres and about 1000 metres distant from the village of Serre.

The tiny patch of trees that formed John Copse was therefore the pivot point on which hundreds of thousands of men would be rotating.

The small village of Serre had already defied three murderous assaults by the French in June 1915 and it was known that the Germans had made good use of the landscape and the buildings to turn the area into what they hoped was an impregnable fortress.

The German soldiers within the village were from the 169th Regiment (8th Baden) and had been familiarising themselves with the area for well over a year. The French assaults in June 1915 had knocked them off the ridge opposite and given the French (and now the British) their current front line, but the French had paid dearly for their meagre gain.

Whilst it might have appeared at a casual glance to be insignificant Serre was to prove like Thiepval to the south that outward appearances could be deceptive.

Just to the south of Serre and within 4th Division’s remit was the remnants of the pre-French assault front line. Known as the Heidenkopf, after a local commander, the British called it the Quadrilateral.

 

The build up

On 24 June 1916 the British artillery commenced what was to become a week long bombardment of the German positions. A bombardment which was designed to not only destroy the German positions but either obliterate or so mentally derange the German infantrymen that resistance would be minimal.

The 31st Divisional base was at Bus-lès-Artois and on the 30th June, just as their French counterparts had done from the same village a year earlier, the Division moved off towards their jumping off positions in the front line.

Spirits were high despite the poor weather which had caused the two day postponement of the battle. Everybody knew that the following morning, right across the front, men from so many different walks of British life; professional soldiers, clerks, miners, fishermen, sportsmen, would be attacking an already beaten foe and pushing on to ultimate victory.


That morning Sir Henry Rawlinson commanding the Fourth Army had sent out a message to all his men wishing them luck, and highlighting that they were to hold tight every yard of ground gained:

The accurate and sustained fire of the artillery during the bombardment should greatly assist the task of the infantry.

However as they had marched forward past the Sucrerie at Colincamps they could hardly not notice the great trenches being prepared for the dead (and where many of them lie today).

 

The positioning of the troops

The left flank of the battle was allotted to 94th Brigade and they placed half of the 14th York and Lancs to form a north facing buffer to the north of John Copse.

Formed up between John and Luke Copse, the 12th Bn York and Lancs (Sheffield City) would be attacking Serre village along with the 11th Bn East Lancs (Accrington Pals) who were positioned on their right as far as Matthew Copse.

As the essence of their manoeuvre was an uppercut the 31st Division placed the weight of its might on the right flank.

Thus, the 93rd Brigade were formed up in a column of all four battalions ready to deliver the swinging blow to the underside of Serre. 15th Bn West Yorkshires were in the lead followed by the 16th and 18th West Yorkshires with the 18th DLI in the rear.

Units would advance in a leap-frogging motion passing through each other allowing them to reorganise and consolidate their positions.

These men would be passing to the north of the Quadrilateral, under Serre and then as far as the ridge opposite and Pendant Copse before turning northwards.

To the south 1/8th and 1/6th Bn Royal Warwickshires (from 48th Division) would be assaulting the Quadrilateral redoubt.