This, the second of a three-part series of articles to mark the centenary of the 1916 Battles of the Somme, a campaign which lasted from June 24 to November 18, 1916, again reflects on its impact on the wider Alnwick district embracing a large part of north Northumberland.
The focus, on this occasion, is the second phase of the Somme campaign which began on July 18, and ended on September 14. It comprised attacks at Fromelles on the Aubers Ridge (July 19); on High Wood (July 20 to 25); and the Battles of Delville Wood (July 15 to September 3); Pozières (July 23 to September 3); Guillemont (September 3 to 6); and Ginchy (September 9).
There would be another six battles in the third phase before the campaign was finally brought to a close on November 18.
The first phase of the Somme campaign (the Battle of Albert between July 1 and 13, including the attack on the Gommecourt Salient on July 1, and the Battle of Bazentin, July 14 to 17, ended with the British in possession of the Bazentin Ridge, Contalmaison and Mametz Wood. There was never any question of shutting down the offensive notwithstanding the disaster on July 1, when 19,240 men were killed and 38,500 wounded. It was politically impossible given that the French were still under heavy pressure at Verdun. In truth, British casualties were dwarfed in comparison to those the French had sustained since the beginning of the war.
The second phase of the campaign was marked by a series of smaller attacks while the British Army sought to re-organise, re-equip and re-align itself ready for another major ‘push’. In his book, Forgotten Victory: The First World War Myths and Realities, Professor Gary Sheffield, one of today’s most prominent military historians, provides an excellent summary of this period:
‘The story of the two months from 15 July to 14 September is one of struggles of awesome ferocity for individual objectives. The Germans continued to fight for Delville Wood after most of it was captured on 27 July, and it was not finally cleared... for another month. Elsewhere division after division attacked, painfully advancing the British line a few hundred yards. Not only was artillery mishandled but infantry also continued to attack in penny-packets on narrow fronts... Well might the British official historian refer to the ‘slow and costly advance throughout July and August’.’
In his book, The 23rd Division 1914-1919, Lieutenant-Colonel H. R. Sandilands, CMG, DSO (a Northumberland Fusiliers’ Regiment officer) wrote: ‘At this period the main British effort was being made against Longueval and Delville Wood and southward of these points, in order to straighten out the salient caused by the sharp southerly bend in the line which occurred at Longueval. Further advance west of Longueval was not contemplated for the present, but it was necessary to maintain pressure all along the line to prevent the enemy reinforcing the front against our main offensive. In carrying out the action necessary to this it would be possible to secure points of tactical importance to future operations.’
Sandilands’ following remarks probably applied equally to all British Army formations present in the Somme sector at that time: ‘In reading of the events in which troops of the Division were concerned in the next few weeks, it should be borne in mind that operations, which in a history of war on the Western Front represented a mere nibbling process, were seen in a different perspective by those who took part in a ‘nibble’. Such ‘nibbles’ in a war of lesser magnitude would have been classed as grand battles...’
Using 23rd Division as a typical example of what most divisions will have experienced, during July casualties amounted to 212 officers and 4,461 other ranks killed and wounded, and 28 officers and 709 other ranks sick. At full strength a division would have numbered about 18,000 men (12,000 infantry) but few would have been at full strength for any length of time. Reinforcements for the Division during the same period totalled only 138 officers and 2,862 other ranks. Even if formations were taken up to establishment strength in numbers, they were not immediately efficient and reliable and much training was needed before they were.
One reason previously highlighted for the failure of the July 1 attacks was the total inadequacy in the number of artillery pieces available to crush complex defensive systems over a wide and deep front. In preparation for those attacks, the Royal Artillery was tasked to shell 22,000 yards of front and 300,000 yards of trenches lying in support. For the later attack on the Bazentin Ridge, which started on July 14, comparative figures were 6,000 and 12,000 yards, showing that lessons were immediately learned about the need for formidable concentration of firepower.
Unfortunately, subsequent operations largely ignored that particular lesson and allowed artillery to split its fire between different targets rather concentrating it – an exception was the attack on Delville Wood, on July 27, which with heavy artillery support allowed most of the Wood to be secured and held. As a result, losses during the second phase of the Somme campaign amounted to about 100,000 casualties killed and wounded for gains of approximately 5.5 square miles. The proportion of casualties to ground gained was similar to that of July 1.
The earlier article (published in the June 23 and 30 editions of the Gazette) mentioned that more than 20 local families lost two or more sons during the war. Although the Roll of Honour here is shorter than those for the first and third phases of the campaign, another three casualties are included who were one of two or more sons lost by local families.
Cuthbert and Catherine Turnbull lost three sons, two in France and one at Naval School. Private Norman Turnbull is one of 72,195 missing British and South African officers and men who died in the Battles of the Somme between 1915 and 1918, with no known grave and commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. He’s also commemorated locally at the Dovecote Centre, Amble. His 20-years old brother, Robert Henry, had been killed less than three months earlier, on April 15, 1916, while serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery, 15th Siege Battery – he is buried at Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No.1. A 17-year-old brother, James, later died, on February 10, 1918, when training as a telegraphist at HMS Ganges and he is buried at Shotley (St Mary) Churchyard, Suffolk.
Lance Corporal Edward Walter Egdell enlisted at Newcastle and joined the 1st Battalion of the Cameronian Regiment (Scottish Rifles). He was 35 when he was killed in action, on July 20. Born at Alnwick, the son of Robert and Thomisine Blyth Egdell, of Kirk’s Buildings, New Row, Alnwick, his parents were to lose a second son also serving with the 1st Battalion of the Cameronian Regiment when Private David James Blyth Egdell, 25, was killed in action on April 13, 1918. Both are commemorated on Alnwick War Memorial. Edward Walter Edgell’s name is on the Thiepval Memorial while his younger brother’s name appears on the Ploegsteert Memorial (Berks Cemetery Extension).
The third family to share such grievous loss was that of Archibald and Elizabeth Inglis, of 21 Howick Street, Alnwick. Two of their sons are commemorated on the Alnwick War Memorial. Andrew, 23, was killed on July 21, 1916, while serving with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, 2nd Battalion. His brother, James, was killed the following year, on April 9, 1917. James was 24, so it’s possible the brothers were twins but this possibility has yet to be investigated. Andrew’s name is another on the Thiepval Memorial and James is buried at Tilloy British Cemetery, Tilloy-Les- Mofflaines.
Private Robert Murray Rutherford enlisted at Wooler and served with the Northumberland Fusiliers, 11th (Service) Battalion. He died on July 30, 1916, of wounds received and his grave is at Etaples Military Cemetery, which suggests he must have been wounded sometime beforehand and passed along the medical treatment chain to reach Etaples which, from a small town with a population of 5,000 before the war, became a vast Allied military camp and then a giant ‘hospital city’. Wounded soldiers were consequently often sent to Etaples to recover or en route for Britain. Aside from its reputation for medical facilities, Etaples also hosted a vast military cemetery, containing about 12,000 graves.
Rutherford was 22 when he died. According to Ancestry.co.uk, he was born at Chalton, Hampshire, but this is almost certainly mistaken given that his parents, Robert and Margaret Ann Rutherford, lived at Chatton, Northumberland. He is commemorated on the Memorial Cross there.
Private George Young Thompson enlisted at Newcastle. He landed in France on December 31, 1915, as a member of the 6th Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers, which was part of 9th Division. While his unit successfully took Bernafray Wood on the second day of the Battle of Albert, George is likely to have received his serious wounds in the subsequent battle for the Bazentin Ridge, probably during the ferocious dawn attack on the Longueval Redoubt.
Repatriated to England, George was sent to a military hospital in Liverpool for further treatment, but succumbed to his injuries, dying on August 4, 1916, exactly two years after the war began.
Thompson was born about 1896 at Horncliffe, Northumberland, the son of Thomas Y Thompson (born 1866 at Eglingham) and his wife Jane Patterson Thompson (née Moore; born 1868 at Spittal). According to the 1901 Census, the family lived in Mr Gauld’s garden house at Horncliffe. Thomas was a market gardener assisted by 14-year-old James Herbertson from Newcastle. George had two younger sisters, Maggie (born 1897) and Janet (born 1900).
Tragedy hit the family one year later when, first, George’s six-month-old brother, Thomas Moore, died on January 5, 1902, shortly followed by the death of his father, just 36, on January 28.
The 1911 Census records Jane, now widowed, as a shop keeper and living at 13 West Street, Spittal, with her two daughters, both of whom were still at school. George Young Thompson, 15, was working as a farm labourer at Lemmington Cottages and living with farmer Thomas Stephenson.
Thompson was 21 when he died. He is buried at Norham (St Cuthbert’s) Churchyard, and he’s also commemorated on St Bartholomew’s Church, Whittingham, Roll of Honour and on a Tablet in St John the Baptist Church, Edlingham.
Rifleman Mark Telford Turnbull re-enlisted at Newcastle. It is unclear precisely when he did so, but 47 images of his service records are available via Ancestry.co.uk and these show him to have been wounded in action on October 27, 1914, admitted to a hospital at Boulogne on November 1, 1914, before being transferred to England the following day.
Turnbull had first enlisted on September 25, 1906. His early posting is indecipherable, but he served at Malta in 1909/10 and in India from November 12, 1910, until discharged in 1912.
On recovering from his wounds, Turnbull was posted to the King’s Royal Rifle Corp 5th (Reserve) Battalion, on February 7, 1915, then to the regiment’s 9th (Service) Battalion on October 19, 1915. He embarked for France on October 17, 1915. He was reported missing then killed in action on August 24, 1916.
Turnbull, who was born at Belford, was one of eight children of the late Mark and Elizabeth Turnbull, of 22 Northbourne Avenue, Morpeth. He had three brothers – James William; Nicholas Alfred; and George – and four sisters – Elizabeth; Jane Ellen; Jessie; and Catherine Ann.
He was living at Morpeth when he re-enlisted. His name is on the Thiepval Memorial. He was awarded the 1914 Star in addition to the British War and Victory Medals.
The Northumberland Fusiliers’ 18th (Service) Battalion (1st Tyneside Pioneers) formed part of 34th Division which, on August 15, was relieved by 1st Division and moved away from the Somme battlefields to Armentières.
Ten days later the Division’s 103rd Brigade returned to the Somme area for attachment to 15th Division, which was about to take part in the big offensive of September 15, prior to which it was necessary to give troops a rest and allow for suitable training, so 103rd Brigade was called on to hold the divisional front for about 12 days. As the Brigade was very short of trained men, the Northumberland Fusiliers’ 18th (Service) Battalion was sent along with it.
Both units spent an uncomfortable fortnight holding the line just in front of Martinpuich, in what were described in the divisional history as very unsavoury trenches and under a considerable amount of shell fire.
It was towards the end of this period that Lance Corporal William Potts and Private John Thomas Douglas were killed, respectively on September 8 and 10. Both are buried at Contalmaison Château Cemetery.
15th Division, refreshed by their rest, took over the line again on September 12 and carried all its objectives on September 15, duly supported once more by 34th Division’s attached units.
The third part of this article will feature in September and deal with the final phase of the Somme campaign. In the meantime, anyone with information on ancestors with a wider Alnwick connection who were lost in the Battles of the Somme is encouraged to contact the local branch of the Western Front Association via firstname.lastname@example.org
Roll of honour – July 24 to September 14
For each entry, the format is the name and rank; regiment/battalion; date of death; age; where commemorated (or buried if found).
Private Norman Turnbull; Northumberland Fusiliers, 13th (Service) Battalion; 18 July; as yet, unknown; Thiepval Memorial
Lance Corporal Edward Walker Egdell; Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), 1st Battalion; 20 July; 35; Thiepval Memorial
Private Andrew Inglis; King’s Own Scottish Borderers, 2 nd Battalion; 21 July; 23; Thiepval Memorial
Temporary Captain Alexander Torrance Laing; Northumberland Fusiliers, 13th (Service) Battalion; 24 July; 27; St Sever Cemetery and Extension, Rouen
Private John Steel Aitchison; Northumberland Fusiliers, 10th (Service) Battalion; 27 July; 31; Thiepval Memorial
Private Robert Murray Rutherford; Northumberland Fusiliers, 11th (Service) Battalion; 30 July; 22; Etaples Military Cemetery
Private George Young Thompson; King’s Own Scottish Borderers, 6th (Service) Battalion; 4 August; 21; Norham (St Cuthbert’s) Churchyard
Corporal James Patton; Machine Gun Corps (Infantry), 51 st Company; 8 August; 30; Thiepval Memorial
Lance Corporal Robert Mitchell; Northumberland Fusiliers, 11th (Service) Battalion; 11 August; as yet, unknown; Thiepval Memorial
Private James Arthur Athey; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/6th Battalion Territorial Force; 18 August; 33; Ieper, Menin Gate Memorial
Private William Paton; Northumberland Fusiliers (Depot); 21 August; 42; Alnwick Cemetery
Rifleman Mark Telford Turnbull; King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 9th (Service) Battalion; 24 August; as yet, unknown; Thiepval Memorial
Private John Thomas Goodman; Gloucestershire Regiment, 10th (Service) Battalion; 1 September; as yet, unknown; Thiepval Memorial
Private George Albert McLaughlan; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 3 September; as yet, unknown; Mill Road Cemetery, Thiepval
Private John McEwan; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 3 September; as yet, unknown; Connaught Cemetery, Thiepval
Corporal Robert Penny; Highland Light Infantry, 10th/11th (Service) Battalion; 3 September; as yet, unknown; Thiepval Memorial
Private Matthew R Stewart; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 3 September; as yet, unknown; Thiepval Memorial
Private Edgar William Burn; Machine Gun Corps, 59th Company; 4 September; 22; Thiepval Memorial
Rifleman Robert William Wood; King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 10th (Service) Battalion; 4 September; as yet, unknown; La Neuville British Cemetery, Corbie
Lance Corporal William Potts; Northumberland Fusiliers, 18th (Service) Battalion (1st Tyneside Pioneers); 8 September; as yet, unknown; Contalmaison Château Cemetery, Contalmaison
Private John Thomas Douglas; Northumberland Fusiliers, 18th (Service) Battalion (1st Tyneside Pioneers); 10 September; 21; Contalmaison Château Cemetery, Contalmaison
Lance Corporal Joseph Watson; Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment), 9th (Service) Battalion; 14 September; 26; Thiepval Memorial