The assault on Gommecourt – 1 July 1916 – The day Jack went over the top
The aim of the assault on Gommecourt was to provide a diversion, draw artillery fire and reinforcements from attacks in the south. In addition, it was envisaged that this would also remove a bulge (referred to as a salient) in the German line that projected into the British lines. In fact, nothing depended on the capture of Gommecourt.
The assault was to be executed by two Territorial Divisions, 46th (North Midland) to the north and the 56th (London) [Jack’s Division] to the south. The concept of operations was to deliver the attacks into the flanks then converge on the village of Gommecourt and pinch out the salient here.
The advance of the 56th Division went quite well initially, with the enemy’s first two lines taken, but there was more resistance from the third line. The 46th Division did not fare so well. The wire in front of the German trenches had not been cut by the barrage, and so the British had little success and were driven back with significant losses. To the south, men from the 56th Division eventually withdrew in the evening, and the net gain that day was effectively zero.
Jack was injured three times this day. At 10 in the morning a bullet went through his lower jaw and 10 hours later, when retiring, he was hit in the left forearm and had a piece blown out of his right thigh. It’s amazing that he struggled to continue after being hit in the jaw. Most of his two divisions were wiped out and he was one of only 14 in a trench to survive.
The following is a transcript from the War Diaries (held at The National Archives) from the 1 July 1916. It has been truncated to include the parts referring to the 56th Division – London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade).
References to FERRET, FERN, FEN and FIR – these are codenames for areas to be taken.
1 JULY 1916
8am – [having already gone over the top] Bad casualties began to occur and A Coy in FIR had to be reinforced by a platoon as they were having a hard fight in GOMMECOURT Park where hostile bombers were particularly active. Bombs now began to run short and German ones were freely used. Owing to the very heavy and accurate barrage across No Man’s Land, the reserve Coy although attempting it several times were unable to get across with reinforcements and extra ammunition & bombs. The situation now became serious as our men were being driven out of the enemy’s 2nd and 3rd line trenches by stray bombing parties and finally men began to withdraw to our own lines.
9am – L.R.B. [London Rifle Brigade] were engaged in vigorous grenade fighting in GOMMECOURT PARK. Their consolidation was being checked by heavy rifle and machine gun fire from the left.
10.15am – Company of L.R.B. in GOMMECOURT PARK had been reinforced by two platoons and were still fighting hard with grenades.
[Jack incurred his first injury to his jaw at 10am]
11.15am – … others [Germans] were seen advancing through GOMMECOURT PARK.
11.40am – L.R.B. fourth company unable to advance through barrage.
12.30pm – Supply of bombs taken over in assault practically exhausted and German grenades being freely used.
12.40pm – L.R.B. seen from our Battn HQ to be sending “S.O.S. – BOMBS” on a shutter signalling board.
2.00pm – On the left, FERRET, FIBRE and corner of GOMMECOURT PARK [were being held by Division]
3.30pm – … parts of FERRET, FERN, FEN and FIR were being gallantly held by about 100 men of L.R.B., Q.V.R. and Q.W.R. [Queen Victoria’s Rifles and Queens Westminster Rifles]
6.50pm – Orders to hold German front line tonight confirmed.
7.10pm – Verbal orders from B.G.C. [Brigadier General Commanding] to reconnoitre after dusk. He would then decide whether or not German front line should be held. At present the only hold we appeared to have on the enemy trenches was about 70 men in FERRET.
8pm – Last survivors on German lines were seen to be coming back.
[Jack sustained his 2nd and 3rd wounds at this time]
8.45pm – Men coming in state that there are now no unwounded men in the German trenches.
2 July 1916
12.30pm – M.O’s of our Battn and L.R.B. and about 50 men went down GOMMECOURT ROAD with stretchers and got in about 45 wounded, the enemy also leaving their trenches for the same purpose. This truce lasted about an hour and was honourably kept by the enemy, who gave us ten minutes warning to get back to our trenches at its expiration and sent over shells behind us to help us to do so quickly! Some of the wounded lying near the German wire stated that the Germans had come to them in the night and given them coffee.
The events were vividly described by war journalist Philip Gibbs in his post-war book “Now it can be told”.
The Londoners of the 56th Division had no luck at all. Theirs was the worst luck because, by a desperate courage in assault, they did break through the German lines at Gommecourt. Their left was held by the London Rifle Brigade …But they escaped annihilation by machine-gun fire and stormed through the upheaved earth into Gommecourt Park, killing many Germans and sending back batches of prisoners. They had done what they had been asked to do, and started building up barricades of earth and sand-bags, and then found they were in a death-trap. There were no [British] troops on their right or left. They had thrust out into a salient, which presently the enemy saw. The German gunners, with deadly skill, boxed it round with shell-fire, so that the Londoners were enclosed by explosive walls, and then very slowly and carefully drew a line of bursting shells up and down, up and down that captured ground, ravaging its earth anew and smashing the life that crouched there – London life.”
At Gommecourt, the two attacking divisions had suffered 6,769 casualties with the 56th Division suffering over 60% of the total. They had failed to take Gommecourt and they had failed to protect the northern wing of the main offensive at Serre where the attack had been brief and bloody. The Gommecourt ‘diversion’ was a costly and fatally flawed failure for which 2,206 men paid the ultimate price.