Early morning advance into the Somme village of Guillemont ended in disaster, writes Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
The torment suffered by British soldiers who advanced towards the Germans on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 100 years ago on Friday is well known. On 1 July 1916 in excess of 57,000 men were mown down, including more that 19,000 killed. But in his new book, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore has unveiled a previously unpublished account which exposes the suffering experienced by Scottish soldiers when they attacked the Germans after 1 July at the Somme village of Guillemont.
The soldiers belonging to the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers could not believe their luck as they flitted through the early morning mist on 30 July 1916 into the village of Guillemont. They barely saw a German, and those they found in a trench surrendered without a shot being fired.
But according to the account by Company Quartermaster Sergeant A.E. Borland, whose account has only recently come to light, the German absence from their frontline was nothing but a ruse. No sooner had the Scots started to dig themselves in than an ominous report came in stating that the Germans were massing in front.
Worse was to follow: There was no trace of the Manchester regiment who were supposed to be protecting the Fusiliers’ left.
A patrol was sent back to No Man’s Land to search for them. But all they could find was a captain and about 20 men. The new intake took the party to around 200 men, enough to hold the line for a while, but not enough to resist a determined counter-attack.
This was all the more worrying since they had seen that a group of Germans were moving round their left flank, evidently preparing to counter-attack them from the side or rear. The Fusiliers countered by swinging their left wing around toward the left so that it was facing the would-be German infiltrators.
But the officer in charge of the Fusiliers decided to go back to Trones Wood, where they had started that morning, to seek reinforcements. He left the Manchester’s captain in charge. The Fusiliers’ 2nd Lieutenant Small, who had not seen action before, was beyond helping. “It was his first time in action,” Borland explained, “and his nerves would not allow him to move from the shell hole, or take any part in the coming fight.”
But according to Borland, Lieutenant Small was not the only man amongst the defenders who had cold feet:
“Lieutenant Murray had barely disappeared before the Captain called me over and told me ‘We must retire.’ I pointed out to him that our position was quite good, that Lieutenant Murray would be back with ammunition and reinforcements long before the counter-attack, and that if the rest of his battalion came up as he assured us it would, there wouldn’t even be a counter-attack.”
The upshot was that the Fusiliers and the Manchesters stayed where they were. But when Murray had been away 45 minutes, Borland admits he began to fear the worst:
“At 9.15 am I called in the covering party and Lewis guns, as they were being enfiladed. I was afraid to leave them out any longer in case I should not be able to get them in later.
“I then asked the Captain if he would send a message back to Battalion HQ, as I feared Lieutenant Murray had been knocked out. He replied: ‘I can’t address your Commanding Officer; send it yourself.’ I therefore wrote the message saying that our position was likely to become untenable.”
Before the message was sent, the Manchester’s Captain once again said that they should all retire. Borland’s account contains his response: “I replied: ‘It’s up to you then to give the order.’
“He said: “I don’t belong to the Royal Scots Fusiliers, so I can’t give the order.’
“I answered: ‘I do belong to the Royal Scots Fusiliers, and I’ll never give that order’.”
His account describes the action he took, as the Germans, who by this time were firing at anyone who showed themselves above the trench parapet, closed in:
“About 10am one Lewis gun was knocked out. I called to the other gunner to come and take its place as that position was the best in the trench. The gunner was killed as he ran to do my bidding, but another gunner crawled out under murderous fire, retrieved the gun and got it into action.
“However the loss of the gun crippled us. The German fire became even more intense. So, although I knew it was only a forlorn hope, I asked Lieutenant Small if he would try to get back to HQ, with a view to bringing relief. He immediately assented, and started off moving to the rear, bobbing from one shell hole to another in a wonderfully cool way. The Germans concentrated their fire on him, but as long as I could see him, he kept bobbing on.”
Shortly afterwards Borland was distracted by another piece of bad news. About a dozen men from the Battalion’s C Company had come into the trench from the rear. They informed Borland that their Company had been more or less wiped out, including their commander and company sergeant major, who had both been killed. Sure enough when he peered out of the trench, he saw that Germans were now advancing towards their rear.
Until that point he had been lying on the lip of the shell hole behind the trench, using the parados of the trench as a rifle rest. It was a relatively safe position since his head was concealed from the Germans by a tree and its foliage. But this new development changed all that. The sight of the approaching Germans from the rear meant the game was up. While the Manchester’s Captain ran off shouting ‘Retire!’, Borland endeavoured to direct the men towards the platoon of A Company away to their right.
“The men were out of the trench, and they were bunching. They were being shot down like sheep. I shouted to them to get back into the trench, and then to move along towards A Company. About 20 of them did so. I ran along the parados and reached A Company too. But the Germans seemed to be everywhere. I jumped into a shell hole, and had just managed to bury my haversack which contained important documents and maps, when three Germans leaped on top of me, and stripped me of my equipment. I was a prisoner.”
It was a humiliating end to a courageous last stand in the course of which the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers sustained no less than 650 casualties. It was only later that it was discovered that not taking Guillemont at the first attempt was no shame. The village was attacked time after time, always with the same result. It was only finally taken on 3 September, over one month later.
• Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s book Somme: Into the Breach is published by Viking Penguin, price £25.