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Webmatters : The Battle of the Somme 1916: The Ancre Valley
Rough Map of Area

The Ancre

1st July 1916

The 36th (Ulster) Division

The battle of the Somme — or the Big Push as it was known at the time, brought the 36th (Ulster) Division to the area of Thiepval, and the vast majority of its soldiers would fight the first day in the area of the Ulster Tower Memorial.

On their extreme left and across the River Ancre were two battalions of the 108th Brigade: 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 12th Royal Irish Rifles.

The area is easily reached driving down from the Tower following the signs towards the Newfoundland Memorial Park. At the bottom of the ravine you come to the River and the railway line. Once across the railway line onto the road, turning right takes you along the route of the attack towards Beaucourt Station.

The junction at the railway line is a standard French crossroads – Priority from the right. Traffic coming from your left should stop for you.

Ancre British Cemetery

Ancre British Cemetery

Not far along you will come to the Ancre British Cemetery, which holds the graves of 2,540 servicemen, of whom, 1,335 are unidentified.

The majority were killed on 1st July, 3 September or 13 November 1916 the three great attempts to wrest Beaucourt from the Germans.

It was only in November 1916 that the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division would finally reach and take Beaucourt, a short distance further along the road from the Cemetery.

The cemetery also contains memorials to soldiers who were buried here but whose graves were lost in further fighting.

It was the task of 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers with 12th Royal Irish Rifles in support to advance along the valley taking the German 1st, 2nd, and 3rd lines, together with the mill (Which sat near the bridge you have crossed) and then to move on towards Beaucourt Railway Station.

The location of the Cemetery lay in no man’s land in 1916. You can see that it is situated in quite a steep dip in the ground. On the day it proved an almost impossible hazard to the advancing troops as they ran for the German lines up the hill.

On the east bank the remainder of the 108th Brigade were to launch an attack on the south-west side of the Schwaben Redoubt so it was important that the German machine gun emplacements on the Beaucourt redoubt were at worst occupied, and at best dealt with.

The 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers and 12th Royal Irish Rifles formed the western edge of the 36th Division. To their immediate left the 29th Division were attacking towards Beaumont Hamel. If you look out across the valley from the Ulster Tower you can see the Ancre cemetery and up on the skyline the trees of the Newfoundland Memorial Park. It gives you some idea as to just how easy it was for the German defenders to pour fire from one side of the valley into the other.

The two lines in this sector were about 350 metres apart and the initial waves of Fusiliers crept out into jumping off points only 150 metres from the German trenches. As soon as the British bombardment had finished the Fusiliers were to be up and out of their positions ready to take part in the great walk over.

Like so many other plans that day, everything fell apart. The attack by the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers was halted almost in its tracks by murderous machine gun fire coming from Beaucourt and from across the valley from St Pierre Divion.

Despite the fact that the wire in front of them had been pretty well cut, the sad fact remained that the trenches and dugouts of the German lines remained almost intact. As the Fusiliers leapt to the attack they were met by machine gun fire, which became steadily heavier as more German defenders recovered from the final shells of the bombardment and scrambled to man their positions.

Thus the attack on the left bank of the Ancre ground to a halt. This allowed the machine guns, which had inflicted the casualties on them to turn their attention to the other side of the river where the 13th Royal Irish Fusiliers were now placed under increasing fire from their left flank as well as their front.

 

Lieutenant Geoffrey Cather VC

VC Memorial at the Ulster Tower

VC Memorial at the Ulster Tower

As night fell the Adjutant of 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, Lieutenant Geoffrey Cather went out into no man’s land and brought back three wounded men.

At 0800 the following morning he went back out again to look for more wounded, bringing in a fourth man, whilst organising the rescue of others.

At 1030 he went back out again after a soldier had waved in acknowledgement of Cather’s calling out to the wounded.

This time he did not return.

Throughout the morning he had been under the direct eye of the Germans and the subject of both firearms and artillery fire.

For his splendid example of courage and self sacrifice he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. His body was never recovered and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial (Pier and Face 15A).

Rifleman Robert Quigg VC

Robert Quigg had worked for a while on the Macnaghten estates in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. He was quick to join the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1913 and joined the 12th Royal Irish Rifles (Mid Antrim Volunteers) on the outbreak of war. By chance his platoon commander happened to be Sir Harry Macnaghten.

Immediately after the battle Sir Harry was listed as being missing. It was thought that he had been hit by machine gun fire. Robert Quigg went out to search for Sir Harry seven times. Though failing to find him, Quigg brought in a wounded man on each occasion. Each attempt had been made under gruelling fire from the Germans, the last man being dragged in on a groundsheet from only yards in front of the German positions.

Sir Harry was never found and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial (Pier and Face 15A).

 

From the area of the Ulster Tower

From the area of the Ulster Tower, the Ancre Cemetery can be seen to the right
The trees on the horizon are the Newfoundland Memorial Park

 

Regimental Accounts

 


The fall of Beaucourt in November 1916

It would take four more months before the British would eventually take the village of Beaucourt.

The assault by the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division would be their baptism in France and a proof of their valour and steadfastness under terrible conditions. Today their Divisional Memorial lies at the entrance to the hard won village.