As we entered the month of July 2016, our memories went back to the Battle of the Somme which began 100 years earlier on the 1st July 1916. In the space of four and a half months about 500,000 British and Empire soldiers were killed, the greatest loss of life in a single campaign in the entire history of the British Army.
Some of us older Chipstead residents will remember Reg Emmett, of Toby Cottage, Starrock Lane, but may not have heard of his experiences in the later stages of this battle. Reg went “over the top” on the 26th September 1916 at Thiepval, near the centre of the Somme deployment.
Reg was born in 1895, and joined up as a private soldier in 1915, age 20, in the 11th Royal Fusiliers. After training in Essex and Scotland, he was sent to France, where he was subjected to tough battle training at the "Bull Ring" in Etables. He was then sent to the front, where he was involved with support work, until in August he was told that his unit, D Company, 11th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, 54th Brigade, 18th Division was to lead the assault on Thiepval and special training followed.
Reg Emmett, aged 20, enlists into the British Army
They were told how tough it would be as the defendants were a crack German Unit, the 180th Regiment of Wurtenbergers, who had been there since 1914 and had beaten off all previous attacks. This is Reg’s personal account of the battle on the 26th September 1916, at Thiepval:
In September 1916 I was serving on the Somme as a private in D Company of the 11th (Service)Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (54th Brigade, 18th Division) that, together with the rest of the Division, had been withdrawn from the line in mid-August for a period of intensive special training in preparation for the forthcoming assault on Thiepval.
Total British Expeditionary Force deployment in June 1916. Reg is part of the British 4th army in the south, adjacent to the French 6th army
Infantry attack plan by the 4th army in the Somme area, 1st July 1916. Reg is deployed to attack Theipval in the centre of the campaign, as part of the 11th Battalion,18th Division of the Royal Fusiliers
This important strong point on rising ground commanded a wide area of the battlefield and had withstood all previous attacks. It had been defended throughout the battle by the 18Oth Regiment of Wurtembergers (26th Reserve Division) who were reputed to be so sure of their strength that they had refused to be relieved and would defend their posts until the end.
Reg’s advance with the Royal Fusiliers, shown highlighted in blue. The Royal Fusiliers are on the left flank, advancing with the Essex, Suffolk and Middlesex.
We were addressed by officers who told us that our artillery strength was greater than hadever before been used and this would blast the German trenches before we got there. There would be a creeping barrage of shell fire going before us and we were to follow this closely so that the Germans would not have time to get up out of their dug-outs and man their machine-guns before we were on them.
We were also to have the assistance of tanks which would blast a way through for us, but those who had been in action with tanks before knew enough to keep away from them: the Germans concentrated their fire on them and the ricochets were dangerous.
HMLS “Crème de Menthe”, ditched just north of Thiepval Chateau having lost part of its rear steering mechanism. This tank was not recovered and lay there throughout subsequent operations in the area, being used as an oil lamp signalling station and shelter
These preparations built up a great feeling of tension which was not lessened when one daywe were marched out to a piece of spare ground and formed up in a hollow square with our officers. The Adjutant then arrived and stood to attention and with much ceremony he read from Divisional Orders:
“On the -- day of --- 1916, Private --- of the --- Regiment was tried by Court Martial and found guilty of Desertion in the face of the enemy.He was sentenced to death and the sentence was duly carried out on the --- day of --- 1916."
The officers then took charge and marched us back to our billets. The effect of this announcement was mixed - some were just sorry for the poor devil. Others, myself included, were inclined to doubt if it really happened and thought it was put on just to frighten us. Afterwards I actually met a man who said he had been one of just such a firing party at the Base, so maybe it was true.
But still the preparations for the great day had not finished for we were marched out onceagain and lined up in battle order, The Divisional Commander, Major-General F.I, Maxse, drove in and addressed us from the back of his staff car:
"The 180th Regiment of Wurtembergers have withstood attacks on Thiepvalfor two years. but the 18th Divisionwill take it tomorrow.”
We did not think much of this and there were mutterings: "All very well for you, you old so-and-so", etc.
That night, stretched out on the floor with my head on a sack of bombs. I joined in singing one of our favourite songs:
“I want to go home,
I want to go home,
I don't want to go in the trenches no more,
Jack Johnsons and whizz-bangs they whistle and roar,
Take me over the sea
Where the Alleymans can't get at me.
I don't want to die,
I want to go home."
The next day we moved up to the front line under the deafening roar of our artillery pounding the German lines. For this attack our packs and greatcoats were left behind and our haversacks, which were marked with yellow strips, were to be worn on our backs so that our planes could see how far the advance had gone and could report to HQ. There had been a special issue of ammunition and bombs and I went into action carrying live Mills bombs in a small canvas sack which I carried over my right shoulder resting on top of my haversack, Not the sort of parcel one would wish to have with machine-gun bullets flying about!
We were given a final rum ration supposed to go into the water bottle but in this instance mostly drunk at once in case we never had another chance: while for some this was to be the first time "over the top" we had no illusion - we had seen too much of it before.
Zero Hour was at l2.35pm, 26th September. The officers compared watches and gave the order to advance. So we climbed out of our trenches and all hell was let loose. Shells crashed over and around us, machine-guns chattered as their fire swept to and fro across our path as we stumbled forward through no-man's-land, doubled over in the faint hope of dodging the bullets.
We had been told not to bunch together as that would be an easy target, so from the first eachman was on his own~ Here and there were men crumpled up in a shell hole, or writhing in agony tangled up in barbed wire, many dead. The ground was up hill and we did not have far to go to reach the German front line that had been smashed by our artillery fire: and where we found a few Germans. We shot anything that moved and dragged ourselves out over the parados and on to the next trench.
We had been told to make for the ruin of the Chateau and dazed and exhausted as I was I dragged myself to a little hill where there was a pile of stones - all that was left of the Chateau I supposed. Here the German machine-gun fire became fiercer than ever, just sweeping above the ground. I threw myself into a shell hole and seizing my chance as the bullets whistled over my head I slid from shell hole to shell hole into a third German trench where some of our boys were held up.
The Chateau at Thiepval as it was before war visited the area in 1914
The heap of rubble that was once the Chateau at Thiepval, in September 1916
Hand to hand fighting followed, the Germans contesting every yard. Two of our Officers were killed and another wounded. Eventually, the arrival of a Lewis gun enabled us to clear the trench. This allowed us to get on with the special job our company had been given: "mopping up" the German dug-outs, making sure there were no live Germans in them.
An officer allotted each of us a number of dug-outs to clear. These dug-outs had been well built - very different from our scratched out holes - real engineering jobs and many were intact, not touched by our shelling . They were 20 to 30 feet deep and it was a perilous job tackling them. I started by shouting down them, telling any Germans left to come up. If there was no response I fired a few shots and then threw down a Mills bomb.
We got quite a few - some came holding their hands up and shouting "Kamerad", others held up photographs of their wives and children. We had to be very quick on them for some still had a bit of fight in them . One dug-out in particular contained a large number of Germans with a couple of machine-guns and since they could not be got out the place was set on fire. Several were killed as they came out, the others died in the fire.
The prisoners were sent back down the line in the charge of a corporal and escort, but many got shot on the way down. The escorts told me later that many of our boys were mad with what they had gone through and the strain of it all and just shot at anything in a German uniform.
It was getting dark now and although the firing seemed to have moved on we were warned that there would probably be a German counter attack so we started to get the trench ready to resist, building up the parados into a parapet facing the enemy. This meant heaving the German dead over the top - a gruesome job which covered us with blood. This done we waited through the night - some explored the dug-outs that were found to be well stocked with drink and cigars and came up wearing German helmets. Those who had them divided up their rations and tried to get a little sleep through sheer exhaustion.
The counter attack never came and next morning we were relieved. So we drifted back in small parties to find a small group had set up on the road with dixies of hot soup. We asked after our friends, who had got a blighty one, who had become a land-owner? Then the Official Photographer came along and for the benefit of those at home. We had to put on a cheerfulness which we were far from feeling.
But we had done it! Thiepval had been captured!
Triumphant soldiers of the 11th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, after the capture of Thiepval. Reg is ringed, back row, centre
The following are extracts from the Official Notes and Orders of Battle at Thiepval on 26th September, 1916. When set against Reg’s personal account, they make poignant reading:
Prior to the attack the Corps artillery paid "special attention to the demoralization and isolation of the enemy's strongholds, Zolern Redoubt, Stuff Redoubt, Theipval and Schwaben". The 18th Divisional artillery had been attached to Ist Canadian Corps, so the 25th and 49th Divisional artilleries were allotted to cover the 18th Divisional attack.
Care was taken to avoid destroying certain hostile trenches which we were determined to occupy and consolidate and some specified communication trenches in the German lines were spared for our own use.
The barrage 'lifts' were to move at the rate of 100 yards in 3 minutes at the start, increasing the pace to 100 yards in 2 minutes when the shelled area was passed .
Four tanks of C Company were employed with the 18th Division on 26th September. Two were assigned to the assault on the Chateau: one became ditched early on and took no part in the action, while the others went on to assist greatly in the fight for the Chateau ruins before being ditched.
Of the 346 officers, other ranks and others who suffered death by sentence of Courts-Martial during the Great War 322 were executed in France and Belgium . One soldier is known to have been executed on 22nd September 1916.
During the period Battalion was at Raincheval refitting was carried out by the Quartermaster. All deficiencies in wire cutting equipment, etc, being made up. Yellow distinction patches were sewn on all haversacks and stencilled with the letter of Company or Headquarters. Smoke helmets inspected and deficiencies made up and Iron Rations completed.
Every man (with the exception of Specialists) will carry: -
Rifle and equipment (less pack).
1 Bandolier in addition to his equipment ammunition (170 rounds in all ) .
1 Iron Ration .
1 Waterproof sheet.
2 Smoke Helmets.
Note: The haversack will be carried on the back.
Heavy shrapnel fire was to give the signal for the first wave of infantry to leave its trenches and advance straight for the main German defences south of THIEPVAL at a slow walk. The distances across No Man's Land averaged 250 yards.
770 guns and mortars would be used in the bombardment. The troops were urged to keep close up to the barrage: “Keep within 30 yards of your barrage . There you will be safe and can fight."
Bosch front line [i .e. working south to north] fighting every yard. They found the Bosches waiting for them in the trench the whole way. The Lewis Guns were pushed up and did useful work shooting along the trench, but the teams suffered a number of casualties. In the meantime the Middlesex had been checked on the right by an intense fire from the CHATEAU but the timely arrival of a TANK enabled them to get on.
' 0' Company cleared altogether 25 dug-outs in the front line and in many of them Germans showed fight. In one of them in particular there was a large number of the enemy with two machine guns and as they could not be got out peaceably the place was set on fire. Several are believed to have perished in the flames and 11 men were killed as they came out; an additional 14 who were only wounded were sent to the rear. In addition to the prisoners mentioned above another 40 men were captured and sent back ....
One specially meritorious bit of work may be mentioned - about half an hour before ' Zero ' Lieut Sulman was given a copy of a German map which showed the position of the telephone headquarters . He showed it to his men and told them to do their best to find the place and put the operators out of commission . L/Cpl Ruddy and four men nosed about until they found the dugout – quite a palatial place, with a magnificent installation. They captured over 20 men inside and cut all the wires.
Prisoners of War. All prisoners will, as far as possible, be handed over to the 11th Royal Fusiliers. Where this is not possible, Battalions capturing prisoners will conduct them to the Divisional Cage. During the period 26th September to 1st October 1916 the 18th Division captured 8 officers and 839 other ranks.
On 26th and 27th September the 11th Royal Fusiliers lost 3 officers killed, 7 officers wounded, and 49 other ranks killed, 171 wounded and 5I missing.
Reg continued on with several less dangerous operations, before being sent home where he was commissioned. He became involved in training new recruits, before he was retired on medical grounds for fainting on parade!
Reg went on to become a very successful banker and family man before he retired in 1965 to Chipstead. He always read the lesson on Remembrance Sunday in St. Margaret’s Church.
Reg was prominent member of the” Western Front Association” and in August 1988, Rupert Courtenay-Evans arranged to join a party and go and revisit his old battle fields, with Rupert’s two teenage sons. This was a fascinating experience for all, especially as Reg played us a tape and sang along with "I want to go Home”.
Reg returns to France, 1988
Thiepval memorial to the 73,000 British and South African troops, killed on the Somme, with no known graves. Reg is in the foreground aged 94
Reg laying a wreath in memory of his fallen comrades at the Thiepval Memorial in 1988
Reg died on the 14th of May 1991 aged 96, a year or two after his beloved wife Jean, to whom he had been married for over 60 years.
"Truly a grand old man" as the Rev. John Wates, then curate at St. Margaret’s Church, said at his funeral.
Rupert Courtenay-Evans 2016