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1 July 1916 - we expect a walk-over

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The (unpublished) diary of Sgt. T.H. Bisgood, 2nd London Regiment

30 June 1916 - Have taken over Y Sector trenches directly opposite Gommecourt Wood. All the while, our artillery is at it hammer and tongs and the din is terrible; will it never cease? Tonight the bombardment is intense as the attack all along the line comes off tomorrow. To be quite honest we expect a "walk-over" as our guns have not been replied to, and barely a German has been seen. Rain is now falling heavily making the trenches very uncomfortable

1 July - At last the long looked for day and hour has arrived; broad daylight, the rain has ceased and the day is quite bright. The din now is beyond all imagination, every gun in France seems to be turned on the Hun on our front, surely none can live in this hail of shells and still the German guns remain quiet. Meanwhile all our front line men had been engaged in lighting smoke candles and firing hugh smoke bombs. Now arises a dense cloud of smoke all along our line and the time has arrived when we must show our hands and advance.

The Germans as soon as they saw the smoke knew what was to follow and rapid fire was opened at once. Nothing daunted the London boys climbed up the parapet ready for the fray, they advanced in the face of terrible fire, the Germans now found their hidden artillery and belched forth a tornado of shells on the advancing line. Men fell by the dozen, yet nothing daunted the remainder pushed on. When our brave lads were nearing the German front line batches of the enemy were seen to be clambering out of their trenches (minus their equipment) they rushed forwards hands in the air calling out in their bad French "mercy comrade". Our batt'n alone were responsible for 182 hun prisoners, they were thin and hungry, but quite a decent class and very clean. Only a small percentage of each regiment ever got into the German trenches these few however gallantly hacked their way right into the 3rd line from where they sent us the SOS signal. We, the 2nd London were the reserve batt'n and as soon as the battalions in front sent the signal two companies were up and over despite the fact that all fire was now concentrated on our particular sectors. The reason for this concentration was that the Division on our right (46th Div) let us down and failed to attack. The sight of our boys advancing in the face of this terrible fire was wonderful though terrible; losses in our two companies alone numbered 250. But for the fact of our officers the whole batt'n would have been wiped out. These officers refused to allow the remaining two companies to go over and so saved them. Our trenches were now blocked with dead and dying, only a dozen or so of our lads ever reached Fritz's trenches at all, hundreds were lying in no man's land mostly dead, some however alive though badly wounded managed to crawl into shell holes of which there were thousands; later in the day in one shell hole I found four chaps. We held on to the German 3 front lines for a matter of 10 hours using all our own bombs and ammunition besides that which we found in the trenches.

At about 7 pm all ammunition ran out and as it was impossible to get any more from our own lines owing to the heavy barrage of fire, we had to retire; first from the 3rd German line, then from the 2nd into the 1st and finally the 100 or so that were left had to retire over the top towards our own lines. What a horrible journey midst a hail of bullets, past heaps of dead and dying eventually (with only 27 instead of the 100 odd that started) covered in mud and blood. 23 of the 27 badly wounded. Suddenly at about 7.30 pm the firing died down to a minimum and looking out I noticed a man had boldly climbed out of the German trench and was holding up a large white board with a brilliant red cross painted on it. This man advanced well into the centre of no mans land and beckoned to us, whereupon one of our stretcher bearers jumped over the parapet and went to meet him. The man with the board was a German doctor who spoke quite good English; he offered an Armistice of one hour and this after much ado was accepted by our people. The Hun doctor then signalled with his hand and immediately a party of about 50 German stretcher bearers doubled out and started attending to the wounded. This was good enough for us and over we went again. I was not quite sure whether they were playing the game or not so I went armed and this bit of caution nearly cost me my life. The German doctor told me to cover my revolver with a mackintosh or I would most certainly be shot. The Germans were real bricks and kept their word to the letter, extending the armistice 10 minutes to allow us time to get into our trenches again. Our people however did not play the game as after we had been out about half an hour they put some shells right into the German lines. We thought our time had come and said goodbye to each other, but still the Hun kept his promise and not a shot was fired, this little episode made us feel awful cads. As may be imagined the sight out there was terrible, there were men in every attitude, dead mostly, many blown to fragments. Most of the wounded we found in shell holes, I found 3 chums in 1 hole all unable to move but cuddled together and it was a hard job to persuade one to leave alone, they decided that age should settle it and the youngest left first. The look of amazement and relief on the poor devils faces when they saw us peering over the shell hole was good to see. One boy could not believe it and asked me amid sobs if he was dreaming. I am glad to be able to write and say that we got all our wounded in. The dead we could do nothing for, as time would not permit I covered over a few of the most hideous cases and returned to the line sick, sad and very fatigued. Wounded were trooping out of all the trenches like the crowd from a football match. The trenches were appallingly blocked here and there with dead men and one could not help but walk over them. Passing along Young St. I came along a tableau of 3 of my chums, 1 standing, 1 sitting (headless) and the other lying, all 3 had been hit by the same shell. In the dusk in Yiddish St. I stumbled over something and bending down to my horror found it was a mans head, so as to save some other chaps a similar shock I tried to pick up the offending napper but found that it was rigid as the whole body was beneath the ground and it remained there the whole night and part of the next day. In Yellow St. I was clutched at and caught by a hand protruding from the side of the trench, all that was visible was a hand and arm, the sleeve showed it to be an officer (1st Lt) of the L.R.B.'s There are many other frightful scenes that go to make up this nightmare, but I will refrain from writing more about them. The remnant of our boys hung on to our sector of trenches all night and have had no sleep for 3 days and nights. We were all knocked to the world when the Kensingtons relieved us at 5 pm. We straggled in penny numbers to Sailley, a small village in the rear of the line and disappeared into cellars hoping for a nights rest. Ere many minutes however over came heaps of big shells both gas and tear. Some pierced the dugouts others hit the church and houses. Several of us crawled out intent on rescue work. I was making for a heap of ruins that had been a house when the doctor grabbed me and insisted on me going to bed. I tried to sleep, but the shells kept coming round with a whizz and crump. Every moment, I expected one to drop through my house (a tin roofed hut). I shall always remember this night, I completely broke down.

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The horror of that day is beyond our comprehension today. It makes the combat situation in Iraq seem like a picnic by comparison. Cheers for posting that vivid account of one mans battle at the start of that infamous battle which saw 20,000 British Empire troops killed with 40,000 wounded that day, and a total of 420,000 wounded and 150,000 killed (British Empire troops) in the five months it lasted.

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Very interesting - thanks Joe for bringing this old thread back up -

My Grandfather, then a young soldier in the 52. German Division, was in the first trench at Serre south of Gommecourt facing the British onslaught on July 1st 1916.

See here: http://www.pals.org.uk/ir169_e1.htm

Regards, Hardy

Edited by Naxos

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Naxos, I have a few original photos of the battlefield at Serre, taken at the beginning of July 1916.

I'll see if I can find them.......

That would be great - thank you!

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