Battle of the Somme

The following text is the first part of Arthur Linfoot’s own typescript note entitled “Battle of the Somme”. It is derived from his own diary transcription of 1976 but is distinct from it, was also written in 1976 and covers the dates 16 June – 8 August 1916. Illustrations and footnotes have been added by this site’s curators and are not included in the original typescript.

ALL's 1914 - 1918 medal, his 'Victory' medal, and his RAMC armband and brass shoulder-plate
ALL’s 1914 – 1918 medal, his ‘Victory’ medal, and his RAMC armband and brass shoulder-plate
58th Field Ambulance, 57th Brigade, 19th (Butterfly) Division

June 16th 1916. The Division moved up towards the line. 58th Field Ambulance moved with 57th Brigade, and the mass of troops along with transport and field artillery was an impressive sight. At this time a division was 20,000 men and the 19th was at full strength. We reached Rainneville – a small village – late in the afternoon and found our billets better than those we had left. The barns were larger, brighter and the straw cleaner. The farmhouse was a large quaint old fashioned place.

June 17th to June 26th was spent training for the offensive which was to start at the end of the month. The weather was fine for the first few days and the men were called up by their buglers at 7 in the morning and followed a routine of hard physical drill in the mornings and a route march in the afternoons. The only slight variations were Church parade on Sunday, pay parade, kit inspection and so on. We usually went into the village at night. Occasionally the band of the 8th Gloucesters played in front of the Church, as a change from the dull booming of the guns as the bombardment of the German trenches increased in intensity. Observation balloons drew our attention. At first there were one or two, but after a few days they had increased to about a score.

The life was strenuous but very pleasant especially in the perfect summer evenings when we strolled down to the village. One unpleasant exception for me was caused by toffee received in a parcel from home. It pulled out the filling of an eye tooth so that my tongue was lacerated. I reported sick; was told to sit on a cart shaft in the farmyard where an orderly held my head between his knees and an officer (doctor – not dentist) extracted the tooth without an anaesthetic.

Life was also primitive. We bathed in a biscuit tin, washed our smalls at the village pump and our sanitary ‘convenience’ was a hole in the ground.

June 27th, Tuesday. Reveille at 7 as usual. At the morning parade we were told to prepare for moving off that day. After a midday meal of stew and biscuit, we loaded the transport waggons and after tea our kits. Paraded and marched off at 6.40 p.m. It was a long arduous march with few rests and several men fell out and were picked up by the horse ambulances which followed at the end of the column. More than once the officers lost their way in the dark and we stood at the roadside until they found their bearings. Near the end of the march we approached a steep bank up which the tired mules could not pull the heavy waggons, so we had to lay aside our packs and push the waggons up the hill. We reached journey’s end about 1.30 a.m., a plateau above the village of Laviéville with the little town of Albert about four kilometres beyond in the bottom of the valley and the battle line on the rising ground just beyond Albert. The cooks had gone on before us in a car and were waiting with welcome tea, cheese and bread when we arrived. I was detailed for a stretcher squad and marched with the stretcher bearers down to a barn billet in the village. Head quarters and the transport stayed behind on the open ground on the plateau. I slept well. The sky was ablaze with gun flashes of the bombarding batteries a few kilometres away.

June 28th, Wednesday. Very heavy rain all night and all day. Up at 9 o’clock. Got wet through walking up the bank to the plateau for meals. Our billet is a squalid barn in a farmyard where a shrewish farmer’s wife blackguarded us all day in a shrill French we couldn’t understand. To pay her back, Charlie Ford, a lively Cornishman (he was killed later at Messines) taught her son, a boy of about five, a few dreadful English oaths swearwords. Orders to parade at 5 o’clock were countermanded. We had bully and biscuits for midday meal. An engineer told us that owing to the heavy rains the attack had been postponed for forty-eight hours. In the evening when it was fair, we walked to the end of the village and watched the German shells bursting in Albert. Most of the men played housey-housey.

Thursday, June 29th. Walked up the bank for breakfast. Lee gave me a slice of bread; a nice change from biscuits. In the evening we walked to the next village and on the way counted twenty-two balloons in the air. Watched the Germans shelling our planes and saw one plane shot down. Turned in about nine o’clock.

Friday, 30th June. Up at 7 o’clock and breakfast up at the field as usual. A fine summer morning and I was very keenly aware of the contrast between the peaceful sunny country behind us to the West and the shells bursting continuously a mile or two before us to the East. Bearers of B and C sections were ordered to go up the line tonight. We paraded in the afternoon wearing skeleton equipment (i.e., no pack) and issued with two days’ extra iron rations. Packs were handed in to the Q. M. stores. A perfect June evening. I read 23rd Psalm and a few verses of St. John. Detailed off in bearer squads. I was with Paddy Graham, Duggins and Leaky. A meal at 8.30. Everybody intensely excited and yet very quiet. As we stood on parade in the farmyard a troop of cavalry went through the village – dramatic and picturesque with their sabres hanging down the sides of their horses. We looked up at aeroplanes being shelled in the sky above us and could hear a gramophone playing familiar tunes in the officers’ mess in the farmhouse. The battalions of the 57th brigade – 10th Warwicks, 8th Gloucesters, 10th Worcestershires, and 8th North Staffordshires – marched through the village and we left the farmyard and joined them at about ten o’clock. The roads ahead were overfilled owing to the masses of troops moving forward, and we moved very slowly with long halts. The Welsh regiments of our Division sang quietly most of the way which somehow added to the eerie quietness. No sound from the guns which had bombarded so fiercely for so many days and nights – and only one lone gun spoke out at long intervals.

Saturday, 1st July 1916. The ATTACK. It was after midnight when we reached the assembly trenches which were shelters dug into a bank just to the left of Albert. They had a thin covering of earth on top and were divided into four compartments each with an expended wire mesh bed and more compact than a second class sleeper compartment . We took off our puttees and boots and lay down. It was very cold and uncomfortable and I didn’t get much sleep.

The terrific barrage which heralded the Battle of the Somme broke loose at six o’clock. Hundreds of guns of all calibres opened up as one gun when the mines went up in front of La Boisselle. Massed field guns and French 75s were in front of us and the heavy batteries just behind, and their noise with the screech of shells from the heavies was deafening. No shave or wash, and we broke our fast with tea, cheese and biscuits. On our raised ground we could overlook Albert and the roads leading into it and from it to the line. All day we stood idle and watched masses of troops go forward to the battle while the guns scarcely abated their heavy fire.

(Later we learned that the plan had been for the 8th and 34th Divisions to take La Boisselle and for the 19th (my Division) to go through them and capture Fricourt and possibly Bapaume. The first attacks failed and it was two or three days later when the 19th took La Boisselle after desperate fighting when the three Divisions were reduced to the strength of one.)

As we waited all day anxiously for news we heard that the Lincolns of the 8th Division had been badly cut up in capturing a section of the German front line. The air was thick with aeroplanes and many Germans flew over our lines. Crowds of wounded walked or were carried back to Albert and all manner of vehicles were used including even old horse ambulances which galloped to and fro crammed with wounded men. As darkness fell at about ten we were ordered to lie down for the night but before I got my boots off were given counter orders to fall in. There seemed to be a lot of confusion and after about twenty minutes we marched off through Albert and up the road towards La Boisselle. We rested a few minutes in Albert and were given steel helmets, probably from wounded men. The heavy batteries were still firing and tiers of our field guns and French 75s were lined out in the fields on both sides of the road as we marched towards the line. Before us above the line Very bluey-green Very lights and red lights calling for artillery support were going up in scores and the bewildering noise and flashes from the massed guns was like Bedlam, and very thrilling. After half a mile or so up the road we turned to the right and entered a communication trench and presently reached an aid post. There we left our skeleton equipment and were each given two shell dressings and of course we retained our stretchers. A guide joined our officers and we set off in single file up the trench which was crowded with men: reinforcements, ammunition and ration parties and stretcher bearers. The guide lost his way several times and we wasted a lot of time and energy while the word was passed and we moved back and forwards. After the recent heavy rains there was a few inches of very sticky mud in the trench and this made the going heavy. After a tiring and frustrating night at dawn we reached a newly captured dugout which had been taken over as an aid post. By the light of two candles an unshaven and weary doctor was trying to cope with an endless queue of wounded. The dugout would be about twenty feet deep with two flights of steps down into it. The ceiling was very low and the air foul with the breath of men, and the smell of blood, sweat and damp earth. After a few minutes we were given a man the doctor hadn’t bothered with: a compound fracture of his left tibia. The wounds were bound up with a bloody shell dressing and two entrenching tool handles were tied round his leg with telephone wire as a splint. They were loosely tied and quite useless and the bone ends must have jarred every step we took. The man showed no concern about his leg; his one wish was to get out of German range. The return through the crowded trench was as irksome as the outward journey had been. We were jammed against the trench side by anxious ammunition carriers who demanded a right of way. Shelling was heavy and more than once we were held up until the shelling of a section in front had eased off. At the aid post there was more confusion than organisation and we went out and collected wounded very much as we liked for the rest of the day. Everywhere was chaos with no idea of time, no meals and such rest as we could get from time to time. During the night when we were resting on the roadside there was a gas alarm and we had to put on gas masks.

Sunday, 2nd July. Germans shelled the trenches heavily and we were constantly ducking and cowering when shells dropped near and splinters whistled past. Lost touch with Leeky and Duggins so Paddy Graham and I set out up the communication trench with Bill Jolly and a stranger. The shelling was very heavy and Jolly (a professional boxer) lost his nerve and wanted to turn back. We went on and found a 34th Division N. F. sergeant with a thigh wound who had been waiting in a sap since the first attack yesterday morning. We had only carried him a few hundred yards when the trench was blown in just in front of us, so we waited a few minutes until it was quieter before continuing down the trench. Had a drink of tea at the aid post and then fell in with Sgt. Brown and about seventy squads under his charge. No idea of time but it was now dark and we climbed out of the trench on to open ground. Green flares were going up all round us and we had to lie flat every few yards until the bright lights died down.

Weird to see the black silhouette of one’s head and shoulders against the green ground. Real Bedlam with machine gun bullets whistling just overhead and the occasional crump of a near shell against the background of never ceasing gunfire. We reached a newly captured trench and were ordered to lie there until dawn.

Early on the morning of the 2nd of the 7th East Lancs. captured the Heligoland redoubt and later in the day the 9th Welsh Fusiliers and the 6th Wilts. captured La Boisselle which the 8th and 34th Divisions had failed to do the previous day.

Monday, 3rd July. Everywhere strangely quiet at daybreak and we moved along the trench to a German dugout aid post to collect wounded. An appalling number of dead lying around. Seven or eight lay in a sap on top of one another, like sardines in a tin. We carried our man down a trench which was new to me and where the shelling had been severe. At one point a stretcher squad had all been killed by a shell and were partially buried by the blown-in parapet. Further down several bodies lay in a waterlogged sap. The water was pink. Our guns were now putting up a terrific barrage over our heads and we heard that a slight advance had been made in the last few hours. One man we carried had his genitals shot off. During the day we moved up and down this trench and brought down many stretcher cases and strings of walking wounded. German snipers were paying close attention to this trench, especially at a spot where the parapet had been blown in. I used my own first-aid dressing on the hand of a one of our snipers who had just had his thumb blown off. He said, laconically, “The German fired first”. We usually got a drink of tea when we returned to the aid post, but nothing to eat, and were very hungry. I ate two army biscuits I found in a discarded haversack in a trench. Late at night, after dark, were given orders to rest at the aid post. Saw a man there who had gone mad and heard that Sgt More and two bearers had gone down with shell shock. Lay down and rested until dawn by the side of the road.

Tuesday, 4th July. Stretcher squads mustered again and we were given biscuits, cheese and tea. Relieved at midday and marched back to Albert. We were given tea at our main dressing station there and told to rest. No sooner had we lain down when we were soaked with by torrential rain. Captain Johnson came round and led us to an old coach house which must have been out of use for years and was filthy. Some men lay on the stone floor and others climbed into cabs. I found a two wheeled trap leaning forward on its shafts and slept in it all night. Everything was festooned with big dirty cobwebs. Early in the morning we were moved from this coach house to a big house with a stream running alongside its gable wall. The lower storey was an estaminet with a red tile floor and a billiard table in it. The toilet was a sort of wooden hut projecting from the first floor out over the stream so that excreta fell about 12 feet into the stream; a fascinating place. Shaved and washed first time since Friday. A rat ran up my arm as I was writing up this diary. (There were no civilians in Albert and all buildings were more or less damaged.) Heard that since the battle commenced on 1st our main dressing station in Albert had treated about 1000 stretcher cases, 10,000 walking cases and 80 German wounded. We spent the night in the estaminet and slept on the red tile floor. One man slept on the billiard table: he said the baize made it softer to lie on.

Wednesday, 5th July. Breakfast at 8 o’clock. Paraded at 9.15 and marched off again to the line. Shelled heavily as we went to the aid post. Heavy rain had flooded a section of the communication trench and we had to wade waist deep at one point in muddy water. Brought down a case through the water. More dead lying around and smelling badly. Heavy gunfire on both sides. Got out bright after a wet morning and a fine afternoon. A man in a stretcher squad lost his nerve but recovered after a short time. I felt remarkably well and cheerful. Returned to aid post and was sent down with a gang of walking wounded. Lent one of them my steel helmet (he had lost his own) as we passed a sniping point. Wet to the waist and when we reached the dressing station I took off my boots and puttees and tried to dry them and scraped off the thick of the mud. Back up to the aid post with the bearers and we returned to the dressing station with cases about midnight. Ordered forward again and went out over the old No Man’s Land where the first attack had been made. Heaps of dead like sheaves of corn at harvest time and all beginning to smell badly. Ordered to lie down until daybreak.

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