THIS month marks the 95th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, which took place in France during the First World War.
The battle, on the banks of the River Somme, consisted of an offensive by the British and French forces against the German army which, since invading France in August 1914, had occupied large areas of the country.
It turned out to be one of the bloodiest military operations ever recorded, with more than one million casualties in five months.
The opening day of the battle saw the British Army suffer 60,000 casualties — the worst one-day combat losses in its history. Because many battalions comprised men from specific local areas, these losses had a profound social impact. Hucknall alone lost 16 soldiers on that fateful day. Here is a special report by local historian and councillor JIM GRUNDY.
IN Hucknall, July 1 1916 was a bright and clear, sunny and warm Saturday summer’s day.
Men and women went about their work. The mines were working at full capacity and many women were busy filling the gaps left in industry by the 1,000-plus local men who had gone away to the war by that time.
In Linby, the Great Northern Railway Company apologised for any inconvenience caused by the closure of the station to passenger traffic.
But in France, 100,000 British soldiers were counting down the time towards 7.30 am — the time set for the start of the Battle of the Somme, known among the troops as ‘The Big Push’.
By the time night fell, a new shift had started in the mines. Linby residents had worn away a little more shoe leather. But more than 56,000 khaki-clad men lay dead or wounded on the rolling countryside of the Somme.
Sixteen of those were from Hucknall. This is the story of what happened to a few from the area who were lucky enough to survive.
One of the objectives for the day was the capture of the German-held ‘Mouquet Farm’. To the Tommies, including some from ‘Mucky Hucknall’, it was, inevitably, ‘Mucky Farm’. The 11th Sherwood Foresters were assured that the week-long preliminary bombardment by the British would have wiped out everything in front of them. It hadn’t.
The Foresters were sent in to renew the attack. Private Frank Carroll, of Glebe Street, Hucknall, remembered what it was like to be there.
“At six o’clock, the whole guns opened fire along the line for an hour’s bombardment before we went forward,” Frank said. “The earth shook with the guns and the mines somewhat resembling an earthquake.
“At the end of the hour, the guns lifted from the Huns’ front line to his second and the time had come for the infantry to go over to the Huns’ first line. They took Fritz with surprise, and he was soon on the run. The next line were more prepared for them and got their machine guns to mow them down.
“At nine o’clock, our time had come. We had waited and we were in a hurry to get over. At last, the words came — Sherwood’s over! We were soon over but not a man out of my platoon got more than 60 yards. Nothing could live in it.
“We were enfiladed by machine-gun fire on both sides, also on our front. I think I was the last one on my pins in our lot. I got one in the right elbow, and went down close to one of our officers, who had the calf of his leg blown away.”
The officer commanding 11th Notts & Derby, Lieutenant Colonel Watson CMG DSO, was among those wounded. Writing to a fellow officer during his convalescence, he described his experience:
“I was wounded about 100 yards from the German line. The advance was practically at a standstill. Every man who endeavoured to follow me to the German line was hit, and a very large number of our men lay dead close to our wire.”
Frank Carroll was not dead but pretended to be, so to avoid any further attention from the Germans. He continued:
“I crawled into a shell hole and began to remove the pack as best I could. I dared not show myself much, as Hun snipers were about, and I could hear the crack, crack of the explosive bullets as they were picking off our wounded as they tried to crawl back to our lines.
“I then decided to be dead for a few hours. It is not very nice being dead when there is someone whom you can’t see keeps having a pot at you. After four hours, things began to steady down a little, so I crawled out of the shell hole. But when I had gone a few yards, I had to give up. I was weak through loss of blood. After a time, I thought I would risk it, so I got up and walked the rest of the way.”
Lt Col Watson had to wait a little longer. He owed his life to three of his men who carried him back to safety, one of whom was Hucknall man, Private Alfred Tolley.
“Most of the wounded crawled back to safety after dark,” recalled Lt Col Watson. “I was carried in by three unwounded men of the battalion, who did not leave me until I was in an ambulance.”
Alfred Tolley’s reward was a silver pocket-watch as a token of thanks from his commanding officer. Others were left with a different kind of souvenir to remind them of the Somme’s opening day.
Further north, at Gommecourt, the Robin Hood Rifles, the 1st/7th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, were given the job of diverting the Germans away from the main attack.
They attracted enough attention to suffer some of the worst losses during a day of appalling casualties but did not manage to divert a single German from what was going on elsewhere.
One of several Hucknall men with the battalion was Albert Street resident, Robert Edwards. He described what happened when they went over the top. “It was like going into hell, and I thank God I got through alive, as there are not many Robin Hoods left,” he said.
“I was wounded between the first and second of their lines, and we were still advancing when I got pipped by their murderous machine-gun fire. We were going strong, but it was costing us a lot of lives.”
The Robin Hoods got nowhere and the few who made it as far as Robert Edwards were quickly mopped up by German counter-attacks. But he remained philosophical.
“I have several wounds, which are going on all right except one in my left hand,” he said. “The bones are shot away and I don’t think I shall use it any more. So if you hear of any one-handed jobs, just think of me.
“ I thought I should have lost the arm altogether but I am spared this. But never mind, it was for the good of Old England. I am a lot better off than some who have been killed and others who have had legs and arms shot away.”
In only one section of the line did the British achieve all of their objectives. It was a small return for the expenditure of so much blood.