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

The Attack

Throughout the previous week the British artillery had commenced an intense bombardment on the German lines at 06:25 hours each morning. This usually continued until 07:45 hours, but this morning at 07:20 hours and 3 kilometres to the south of the Pals’ positions a huge mine was detonated under the German position at Hawthorne Ridge.

At the same time, men along the line were moving out from their own trenches into no-mans land and getting ready for Zero Hour at 07:30 hours.

During the night holes had been cut in the British barbed wire to allow the men passage and white guiding tapes had been placed to aid the men find gaps in the German defences.

At 07:28 hours further massive explosions could be heard to the south around La Boisselle as huge mines were detonated. As the dust from the mines fell, a line of soldiers 25 kilometres wide stood up and advanced towards the German lines.

The story of what happened in the next couple of hours has gone into the history books as the British Army’s bloodiest day.

 

94th Brigade

Whistles were blown and the men from Sheffield and Accrington commenced their advance against Serre. In places the barbed wire had been cut by the bombardment but the theory that the Germans would all be dead had been proved miscalculated from the moment the Hawthorne Ridge mine had been blown.

The mine had served as a warning signal to the Germans that the long awaited attack was about to take place and their own artillery – pretty well untouched by counter-battery fire – started to put down its own barrage with horrifying accuracy.

Machine gun posts that should have been knocked out sprang to life as their crews emerged from deep bunkers.

The gaps in the British wire through which men were trying to advance were now clearly evident and some of the attackers found that their guiding tapes had in fact been retrieved by the defenders.

With 48th Division sitting out the offensive the Germans opposite their positions found themselves with a free hand and the men from Yorkshire in particular found themselves coming under a hail of long range machine gun fire from as far away as Rossignol Wood.

The smoke screen put down by 48th Division blew across their path and served more to hinder the advance than help as soldiers lost touch with each other. Bunching occurred as men tried to get away from the flanking fire and this only added to the confusion.

As they steadily made their way forward the British infantrymen found that their own barrage was receding into the distance. The timetable had been meticulously thought out, but allowed no room
for change. It soon passed over the German front line trenches and on towards the rear leaving the defenders unmolested. The control and accurate coordination of artillery was still a thing of the future in 1916.

The Sheffield City Battalion did manage to reach the enemy’s front line trenches but found their position unsustainable and were forced to retreat again.

The Accrington Pals emerged from their positions into a field described as being waist high grass and started up the slight incline towards the German defences.

They were to be scythed down just like blades of grass.

Those soldiers that managed to get through the German lines were swallowed up in the fighting as though they had walked off into the smoke screen never to be seen again.

A handful from both lead battalions did reach Serre but it was to become their last resting place until their bodies were found later in the year when a second unsuccessful attempt would be made by the same Division to take Serre.

 

93rd Brigade

The 15th West Yorkshires, as the lead unit, were destroyed almost before they had moved out of their own lines and the 16th and 18th coming up behind them suffered a similar fate as they advanced over open ground towards their own front lines.

Despite the carnage in front of them the 18th DLI (Durham Pals) moved forward on time at 09:30 hours, passing through the remnants of the other three battalions. They too found that they could make little progress in the face of the hail of rounds and shells falling about them.

Some of their men from D Company, however, who had gone forward in the second wave managed to reach the German front lines and it is thought that some even managed to make it as far as Pendant Copse, but none ever returned.


The four battalion fist forming the main blow of the uppercut had been stopped dead by the vice like grip of artillery, barbed wire and machine guns.

A quiet came over the battlefield for a while and the Germans allowed stretcher parties to go about their business for the most part unmolested.

As the Official History puts it so eloquently:

The extended lines started in excellent order, but gradually melted away. There was no wavering or attempting to come back, the men fell in their ranks, mostly before the first 100
yards of no-man’s land had been crossed.

The magnificent gallantry, discipline and determination displayed by all ranks of this North Country division were of no avail against the concentrated fire effect of the enemy’s unshaken infantry and artillery, whose barrage has been described as so consistent and severe that the cones of the explosions gave the impression of a thick belt of poplar trees.

 

On the right in 4th Division’s front some success was achieved and the Quadrilateral was to fall to its attackers.