T.E. Sandall, History of the 5th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment (1922)


The Battle of Gommecourt

At daybreak on July 1st, 1916, the Battalion was resting in the Corps Line 1,000 yards East of Souastre, the 138th Brigade being the Reserve Brigade in the Divisional attack on Gommecourt, which was carried out by the 137th and 139th Brigades. In spite of a very gallant advance the attack was unsuccessful; the attacking waves who had entered the German trenches could not be supported owing to the very heavy German artillery barrage, and although they held out for many hours, they were gradually surrounded and overwhelmed.

At 8.30 a.m., the Battalion advanced by platoons in artillery formation across the open ground between Souastre and Fonquevillers, and reached the Midland trench in the rear of that village without casualties. The whole day was spent in this trench under a heavy bombardment during the afternoon, which caused some casualties, ten Other Ranks being killed and one wounded. We could obtain no information as to the success or otherwise of the operations, but as the day wore on, and no further orders to advance were received, it was realised that the attack must have failed. At length at 8.30 p.m., orders were received to send up two officers per Company to reconnoitre the enemy front line trenches in front of Gommecourt Wood, which had been unsuccessfully attacked by the 137th Brigade, and the situation, as far as it could be ascertained was explained by the Brigade Commander. It was supposed that [p75] isolated parties of the 139th Brigade were still holding out in the enemy trenches, possibly in their front line, and orders were received that the Battalion would attack at 11 p.m., occupy and consolidate the German front line, getting into touch if possible with any parties of the Sherwood Foresters, who might be still holding out in the German trenches on the left of the frontage assigned for the Battalion attack, while on the right the 1/5th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment would dig a defensive flank connecting the German with our own front line. These orders were received at 9 p.m. but it was represented that as the Company Commanders had gone up to the front to reconnoitre according to previous orders, it would be impossible by 11 p.m. for them to organise their Companies for attack, as it would first be necessary to reach the front line, and relieve the 139th Brigade; accordingly the hour of attack was fixed for 12 midnight, and an artillery barrage on the German second line arranged for that hour. At 9.30 p.m., the Battalion started to leave the Midland Trench, and proceed through Fonquevillers up to the front line. The communication trenches were found badly battered by shell fire, with many dead bodies in them, and very congested by stragglers and wounded coming in from No Man's Land, and consequently progress was very slow, and it was 11 p.m. before the Company Commanders were met and received their orders from the O.C. Battalion. The whole Battalion was ordered to attack in four lines of platoons on a four company frontage, and as quickly as possible was drawn up in this formation in No Man's Land. At 11.30 p.m., the orders from Brigade were suddenly changed, and the Battalion was ordered not to consolidate the German front line trench when occupied, but to retire as soon as touch with the [p76] parties of the Sherwood Foresters was obtained, and bring them back, and in any case to retire to our own lines before dawn; this change of orders did not reach the Company Commanders until the advance had begun. At 12 midnight on July 1st-2nd, although only one Company was really ready, the first line of platoons went forward, but in the darkness lost touch and direction almost at once, and only two platoons reached the enemy wire, which was found uncut. The enemy trench was found to be strongly held, and very heavy rifle and machine gun fire was opened on the Battalion, while innumerable flares and Verey lights lit up the front line. Further advance was obviously impossible, and to avoid further useless casualties, the O.C. ordered a halt, and every man was ordered to lie down, but no retirement was made. Meanwhile the situation was pointed out to the Brigade Commander by telephone, explaining that the enemy front line was strongly held, that the wire was uncut, that it was obvious that no parties of Sherwoods were in the objective assigned to the Battalion, and that it was impossible to gain this objective. In spite of this the O.C. Battalion was informed that the Divisional Commander insisted on another attempt being made as soon as the attack could be reorganised and accordingly a valiant attempt was made to regain direction and touch within the Battalion, preparatory to another advance. The night was intensely dark, and the task was very difficult, and before the Battalion was ready to advance again instructions were received by telephone from the Brigadier that the Divisional Commander had reconsidered the matter, and that no further attack would be made; the Battalion would withdraw to our old front line, and during the remaining hours of darkness endeavour to bring in all wounded in [p77] No Man's Land, of whom there were many from the 137th and 138th Brigades. In accordance with these instructions the Battalion retired, having one officer, Lieut. G. F. Walcott, killed and two, Lieuts. O. M. H. Lorenzon (who subsequently died of wounds) and J. J. Pearson, wounded, with forty-five other casualties. The conduct of all ranks was excellent, and the officers did their best in most adverse circumstances, but the task allotted to the Battalion was really hopeless from the beginning. To expect a single Battalion in a night attack to capture an enemy trench with uncut wire, which a Brigade had failed to take earlier in the day, with the enemy very much on the alert in consequence, is at the best a forlorn hope; when it is realised that the time to organize the attack was far too short, that owing to darkness, blocking of trenches, and the confusion produced by numerous stragglers and wounded from other units, communication of orders and preliminary organisation for the assembly before the advance were very difficult, it is obvious that failure was inevitable, and that no discredit is reflected on the Battalion. On the contrary the fact that, when the first attack was held up, no retirement was made but the Battalion lay out in No Man's Land under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, and maintained its position until the O.C. ordered the retirement when this had been sanctioned by the Divisional Commander, is a striking testimony to the high standard of discipline; and the re-organization for a second attack in the same circumstances in intense darkness reflects very great credit on the Company Officers and all ranks as well.

No attempt has been made to describe the operations of other Units or the Division as a whole, but the foregoing account represents simply the actual [p78] part played by the Battalion on the night of July 1st-2nd. The following Complimentary Order was issued from VII. Corps:

The Corps Commander wishes to congratulate the troops of the 46th Division for the manner in which they fought and endured during the fighting on July 1st. Many gallant acts both by units and individuals are to hand.

Although Gommecourt has not fallen into our hands the purpose of the attack, which was mainly to contain and kill Germans, was accomplished.

The following order was issued by the 46th Division:

The Major-General Commanding wishes all ranks to thoroughly understand that our recent attack on the Gommecourt salient in concert with the 56th Division embraced two purposes,

(a) The capture of the position; (b) The retaining of considerable numbers of German troops in our immediate front in order to prevent them taking part in resisting the advance of our troops in the South. Although the first purpose was not achieved, the second was fulfilled and there is no doubt that our action on July 1st materially assisted our troops in the Fourth Army and contributed to their successes.

As soon as the retirement to our trenches had been effected, and trench garrisons organised, all available men were sent out to bring in wounded from No Man's Land, and 39 cases were rescued before dawn. Many gallant actions were performed during the night and the conspicuous gallantry of Sergeant A. Coppin must be recorded, for which he was awarded the Military Medal. After the first attack on the German lines he returned carrying a wounded man on his back. He asked permission to go out and [p79] bring in another wounded man whom he knew to be lying but within 40 yards of the German wire, and succeeded in doing so. He went out a third time to search for other wounded of his Company, working the whole time alone in the darkness and under heavy fire.

About 4 a.m. after it was light on July 2nd, a body lying about 60 yards in front of our wire was noticed to move, and Lieut. I. Welby went out to investigate and found a private of 1/7th Sherwood Foresters wounded in the head and just recovering consciousness. He returned and called for volunteers to help with a stretcher, but they were heavily sniped, and compelled to lie down until the position of the sniper was located, and a Lewis Gun from our trenches directed on the spot, and under cover of its fire the wounded man was brought in at 4.45 a.m. Lieut. Welby received the Military Cross, and Lance-Corporal Bowness and Private Austin, who assisted him, the Military Medal.

The day passed quietly, and several wounded men succeeded in crawling back from No Man's Land into our trenches. Battalion Headquarters which had been situated in the Support Line, were moved back to Fonquevillers village, and the usual routine of trenches was resumed. About 4 p.m., Sergeant S. Willerton showed conspicuous gallantry, for which he was subsequently awarded the Military Medal, when he went out about 100 yards in front of our trenches to take some water to a wounded N.C.O. of the Sherwood Foresters who was lying in the open. He placed the wounded man in a shell hole, and stayed with him till 10.50 p.m., when under cover of darkness he assisted to bring him in. During the next night 5 wounded and 21 bodies were recovered by search parties in No Man's Land in front of our line, and also four Lewis Guns. Sergeant T. G. Goodchild [p80] showed great courage, going out close to the German wire, and spending considerable time under fire in a determined but unsuccessful search for the body of his Platoon Officer, Lieut. Walcott, who had been killed the night before. This N.C.O. subsequently exhibited conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on several occasions, and was awarded the D.C.M.

The next day, July 3rd, was again very quiet on our sector, and was spent in clearing and repairing trenches, and about 7.30 p.m. the 1/4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers began to arrive to relieve us, and relief was completed by 11 p.m. The Battalion proceeded to Fonquevillers, but instead of returning to billets, was directed to relieve the 11th Royal Warwickshire Regiment in a sector of trenches immediately North of those previously occupied, our right resting on the La Brayelle road, the relief being completed by 4 a.m. on the 4th. The trenches in this sector were more than 1,000 yards from the enemy lines, with the exception of two advanced lines of trenches 150 and 300 yards respectively in front of the original front line, which were in an unfinished state, and devoid of shelter, and were therefore not occupied by day and only patrolled at night to prevent the enemy taking advantage of them. Three Companies were distributed in the front line, with one Company in support at Battalion Headquarters in dug-outs near the cross roads in front of Hannescamps village.

The weather now suddenly changed; the last week had been gloriously fine with brilliant sunshine, but heavy rain fell during the next few days at intervals, and the trenches became flooded, the advanced trenches were 4 feet deep in water, and the communication trenches in places were waist deep. At the same time the weather was very warm, [p81] and although there was much discomfort, there was little real hardship, and the carrying parties to the front line became a source of much amusement, and the subject of much friendly chaff in the matter of their dress, as trousers were abandoned, their clothing consisting of shirts, jackets, boots, supplemented in the case of the more modest spirits by home-made bathing drawers made from sandbags. The sector was a very quiet one, and with the exception of rather heavy shelling of the dug-outs of the Support Company, and Battalion Headquarters, from 11 a.m. to 12 noon on July 5th, no special incident occurred until the 9th, when the right Company were relieved by the Queen's Westminsters at 9 a.m. No warning of this proposed relief had been given by the Brigade, and as a consequence the Queen's Westminster Officers, who had arrived early in the morning, stating that they wished to reconnoitre the trenches before taking over, were promptly put under arrest by the O.C. Company and were only released when telephonic communication with Brigade established the fact that the relief was quite in order, although the Division had entirely forgotten to inform the Brigade, and consequently ourselves, that it had been arranged. On the 10th, the O.C. 8th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment visited the sector, as it was arranged that our two right Companies in the line should be relieved by the 8th Lincolns next day, while the left Company would be relieved by a Company of the 8th Somerset Light Infantry. On the nights of of the 9th and 10th, a strong carrying party was supplied by the Support Company to carry gas cylinders under supervision of the R.E. from Hannescamps to the front line trenches held by the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment before Monchy, in preparation for a gas cloud attack on the German trenches opposite.


At 5.30 p.m. on July 11th, the 8th Lincolnshire Regiment began to arrive in Hannescamps, and our relief was completed by 7.30 p. m. We marched back by platoons to rest billets in huts immediately N. of Bavincourt, and by 12 midnight the whole Battalion, with stores and Transport, were in comfortable shelter in good huts with plenty of room, enjoying their first real rest since they left the huts at Warlincourt on June 30th to take their part in the Battle of the Somme.