An Ordeal of Honour: The 13th King’s and the Somme Offensive

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     This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Somme Offensive, the costliest and bloodiest offensive in British military history. This was the first major military action in which the so-called ‘New Armies’ played a prominent part. The New Armies were comprised of the service battalions raised after the declaration of war in August 1914. Up until this point, most of the BEF’s military campaigns had been fought by the battalions consisting of the Army’s pre-war regulars and territorials, but as the war continued, heavy casualties, a constant rate of attrition and the need to provide a fresh impetus for a renewed offensive to try and finally win the war meant that by 1916, these well trained, but as yet relatively inexperienced ‘citizen soldiers’ where for the first time expected to play a prominent role in the next big push.

     This is the story of one of those battalions, the 13th Kings Liverpool Regiment, in which my Great Grandfather, Harvey Beswick served.

Formation and Training

     Shortly after the outbreak of war in August 1914, many young men throughout Britain, as in other belligerent nations, flocked to sign up and join the Army to fight for their country. One of them, my Great Grandfather, then aged 23 and then working as a machinist at Platts in Oldham was sent, for reasons unknown to him, to join the King’s Liverpool Regiment rather than the usual Manchester Regiment which usually did its recruiting from that area. Nevertheless, having signed up, he was sent to Liverpool to join his new regiment the following month and the 13th Kings was officially formed up at Seaforth in October of 1914.

    The first year of the 13th Kings’ existence was relatively uneventful, revolving around training and garrison duty in Aldershot and elsewhere. Finally, almost a year after it was stood up, the battalion landed at Havre on September 27th 1915. During the first few weeks of October it was engaged in training in trench warfare alongside a Canadian unit and once this was completed, it was transferred to the 8th Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, itself part of XIII Corps within the 4th Army under the command of Sir Henry Rawlinson.

First Months in France

    From late 1915 until July 1916 the 13th Kings spent much of its time rotating in and out of trenches and relieving other units as well as being employed as a pioneer battalion dedicated to digging new trenches and labouring for the Division until it was relieved of this role by the 4th South Lancashires. In April of 1916, it was transferred within the division from the 8th to the 9th Brigade.

Battle of the Somme

     The Somme Offensive began on the 1st of July 1916 in an attempt to break a stalemate that had existed since the end of the Battle of the Marne in September of 1914. The first day alone saw over 50,000 British troops killed, wounded or missing and despite the enormous cost in lives, very little progress was actually made. Two weeks after the start of the offensive, preparations were made by the 4th Army to attack the German 2nd Army at the Bazentin Ridge in an attempt to make a breakthrough there by seizing the high ground and breaking through German lines in the centre of the theatre of operations.

Battle of Bazentin Ridge

    The 3rd Division was given the task of attacking German lines from Delville Wood (often anglicised as ‘Devils Wood’) and the villages of Longueval and Bazentin le Grand. Having learned from costly mistakes made in the earliest stages of the offensive, General Sir Henry Rawlinson decided, against Earl Hague’s own misgivings, that the attack would be made at night, and that the attacking infantry would be sent under cover of darkness on the night of the 13th of July into a position in no man’s land close to the enemy front line before the attack was launched.

     Having assembled in Caterpillar Valley just south of the objective on 13th of July,the 9th brigade, including the 13th Kings crept forward into no-mans land as night fell towards a sunken road between the North West corner of Bernafay Wood and Malboro Wood to the East in a line that stretched from the South and South-East of the village of Bazentin-le-Grand. At the extreme end of the line, the 9th Brigade came to within 120 yards of the enemy front line, concealed by darkness and a fortuitous light mist.

    From right to left ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ companies of the 13th Kings were formed up, with ‘D’ Company in support. The 13th Kings were also joined by 12th West Yorkshire Regiment, who were placed on their left near Malboro Wood. Both battalions were screened by four platoons of Lewis gunners to protect and support the attack. A brief but intense ‘hurricane bombardment’ of the German trenches by the artillery of XIII Corps was intended to soften up German defences, but was also intended to be brief enough to surprise the German defenders, who had become accustomed to preliminary bombardments lasting over half an hour before an attack came.

     At 3.20 AM, the bombardment commenced and 5 minutes later, at precisely 3.25 A.M the sound of whistles all along the line signalled the order to advance. The 13th Kings and the 12th West Yorks emerged from the sunken road and proceeded to advance through the mist towards the German trenches. Fortunately for the 13th, the bombardment had done its intended work well and the barbed wire laid before them had been well cut. Despite enemy artillery, machine guns and small arms fire opening up on them as they loomed into view through the darkness, the limited visibility and element of surprise meant that the King’s men were able to push through to the German front line trench and quickly overwhelmed the defenders before they had a chance to recover fully from the shock of the bombardment.

      Having taken their preliminary objective, the 13th Kings then headed north west to their next objective, a secondary line of German trenches, which had been smashed so successfully by British artillery that they found it difficult to discern them through the misty dawn. Having felt it prudent to retire briefly to their first objective, the 13th Kings reformed themselves before continuing their advance on Bazentin le Grand. As they did so, they came under heavy fire from the main road through Bazentin le Grand and from the house tops, where the Germans had set up machine guns, which inflicted many casualties and checked the 13th King’s advance until the battalion’s own machineguns could be brought up to suppress the enemy positions and allow them to continue forward.

     ‘A’ Company, on the right of the battalion’s line suffered particularly heavy losses from German troops who had infiltrated a nearby communication trench between ‘A’ Company and the left of 8th Brigade. The Germans attacked them with ‘bombs’ (grenades) until a consignment of Mills bombs could be brought up to front line allowed them to flush the Germans out again with the aid of the leftmost company of 8th Brigade. At this point, the 13th King’s own commanding officer, Lt Col A .St. H. GIBBONS was mortally wounded and the battalion taken over by Major (later Lt. Col) C.H. Seton. In the meantime, the rest of the battalion carried on their advance and made it to Bezantin-le-Grand, where they drove out the defenders and held their position it until they were later relieved by the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers.

     In spite of their success in this, their first major offensive action, the 13th Kings suffered the heaviest casualties of the 9th Brigade. 8 officers were killed, with 1 missing and 9 wounded (including the battalion’s C.O. Who died of his wounds the day after the action) 117 other ranks were killed, 243 wounded and 61 missing, totalling some 438 casualties (to put that into context, a WWI era infantry battalion at full strength was nominally 1,007 strong, though usually less). Having retired to the first captured trench after being relieved by the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, the King’s men were pulled out of the line on the 19th of July and marched back to Talus Boise.

Battle of Delville Wood

     The 13th Kings did not have much time to recover however, as on the 22nd of July, a dull and overcast day, they were sent, along with the rest of 9th Brigade to support an attack by the Northumberland Fusiliers and the West Yorks to recapture Delville, or ‘Devil’s Wood’ and secure the north end of the village of Longueval. The attack was not successful however. The preliminary bombardment had not been as effective as in the earlier attack and The 9th Brigade suffered heavily from enfilading fire from the left as well as the front as they tried to advance towards the wood. The 13th Kings were pinned down by intense enemy fire from the north end of the village and lost contact with the attacking batallions. This day saw a further 50 casualties inflicted upon the already decimated battalion.

     The 13th Kings remained in the line until the end of July, before retiring to billets in Ville-Sur-Ancre.

Guillemont

    The 13th Kings had two weeks to recover from their ordeal, and then on the 16th of August, they were ordered to participate in an attack on German lines just south of the village of Guillemont near Devil’s Wood. However, the Germans were well dug in a well fortified and concealed position known as ‘lonely trench’. The preliminary bombardment by XIII Corps gunners had not only been ineffective, but had fallen so far short that 13th Kings suffered at least 40 casualties from friendly fire alone. When they tried to leave their trenches at 5.40 P.M. that bright, sunny summer day they were hit by intensive machinegun fire from both the front and flanks, and forced to fall back into their original positions.

     They were relieved the following day by the West Yorks and retired to reserve trenches before eventually being relieved from them and retiring to Ville-Sur-Ancre once again.

End of the Somme Offensive

The exhausted King’s men did not take part in any further offensive action for the duration of the Somme campaign, although they were present at the Battle of Ancre during the last part of the offensive in reserve trenches near Serre between 13th and 18th of November, they were not called into action.

The 13th Kings spent January and February the following year recovering from their ordeal. It is however, incredibly sobering to think that over half the battalion’s original strength was killed, wounded or missing over the course of the Somme Offensive alone, and yet there were further ordeals to come as the war continued.

By Matthew Hill-Spur

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