Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the darkest days in British military history - The Battle of the Somme.
By 7.40am on July 1, 1916, hundreds of men and boys from Sheffield and South Yorkshire, some just 16-years-old, had been slaughtered attacking the heavily fortified village of Serre in northern France.
“Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history,” said John Harris, a soldier who fought in the Sheffield Pals.
Enlistment for the Sheffield Pals began on September 10, 1914 – and in just two days almost 1,000 men from a wide range of professions had been recruited. At 7.30am on July 1, the Sheffield Battalion rose from their trenches in four waves, attacking at the extreme left of the British line, at Serre. It took minutes for German machine guns to all but wipe out the battalion.
Within three minutes the offensive was declared a disaster. The British sounded the retreat. The wounded crawled back to their trenches, the rats started to gnaw at them and the dead were left where they fell. On July 3, the Sheffield Pals were removed from the frontline – 513 men had been killed, wounded or captured.
Here are some of their stories...
FRANK MEAKIN WAR DIARIES
By sunset on the first day of the Somme 19,000 men lay dead. Sheffield soldier Frank Meakin survived the battle, along with his diary, which is now an intimate record of a titanic conflict.
In an entry around four weeks before, he jokes about his cold breakfast and the lack of sleep.
But jovial spirits were soon dashed and he later recalls his experiences of 7.30am on July 1, 1916...
“May 3 1916: Breakfast: Very indifferent cold bacon. Dinner: bully beef. Tea: jam. We were allowed from 6-12 to sleep. I didn’t get much as the Germans shelled us. In the afternoon they fired shells and rifle grenades. The accuracy is steadily improving. One rifle grenade hit above me. Atkinson got shell shock. Todd gets a slight wound in his leg and expresses disappointment at it not being good enough for Blighty. While having it dressed a shell does the seven of them, poor fellows. They were all instantly killed apart from Todd, who lived nearly until they got him to hospital.
Trench life is a long round of sharing personal space with lice and rats, patrols into no man’s land, one-to-one combat with the enemy, dodging barrages, rain and mud, consuming food and snatching sleep. I am now putting this diary away with my private things. My last thought as I close this, Doll my darling, is how dearly I love you and my mother, too.”
Four days later the offensive begins. Frank would later claim that of the 650 men in his battalion, only 47 survived unwounded. On July 18 he recovers his diary and fills in the blanks.
“At about 7.15am on July 1 I looked over to see what the section on the right had done and saw the small trench filled up. Then I saw the first wave going over. We got into the front line and followed at 7.25am. I found Captain Colley in the front bay and asked him the correct time. He pulled out his watch but could scarcely hold it, so shattered were his nerves. The poor fellow followed us all the same and was killed before he got very far.”
On going over the top one of the first things Frank witnessed was a comrade with his rifle slung and ‘apparently off his head’, shouting and swearing at the enemy. Frank took cover in a shell hole and waited for the British bombardment to stop. Arriving at the German wire with seven other men, he engaged the enemy.
A British shell eventually knocked out the machine gun but Frank and his group were subjected to ‘showers of stick grenades’. The first and second lines of British soldiers were pinned down by aggressive fire from the German positions, preventing reinforcements from reaching them. Frank dug a short trench into the crater he was in, giving him shelter and, amazingly, allowed him to doze.
The Pals’ objective, the village of Serre, remained held by the Germans until they withdrew the following year.
Frank survived the Battle of the Somme, and lived through the Great War. He died in 1935 while on holiday with his family, drowning in the sea at Bridlington as a result of a diabetic attack.
Thought to be the oldest Sheffield survivor, at 102 when he was interviewed in 1996, Frank Sellers of Woodhouse recalled the ‘hell on earth’ of the Somme.
As a plucky 22-year-old, he developed a nasty bout of pneumonia which ended his time on the front line. Corpses, rats and lice were the norm.
“You got used to death,” said Frank. “I remember talking to two lads who then had their heads blown clean off by a bomb a few yards away from us.
“It was just one of those things – although later on you were just pleased it hadn’t been you.
“Soldiers like me were cannon fodder.”
In 1986, Sheffield’s Battle of the Somme survivor Alfred Holt returned to the killing fields for the first time, aged 89.
Mr Holt, formerly of Mawfa Avenue, Hemsworth, wanted to return to the place he believed his friends had fallen from bullets and shell fire.
Speaking to The Star reporter 30 years ago, he said the horrors had lived with him – right until his death a year after he was interviewed.
On this day in 1986, Alfred revealed he previously couldn’t face returning to where his brothers were butchered but wanted to make the trip to educate younger generations.
Aged just 19 in 1916, he said he remembered ‘too many atrocities’ on both sides.
Alfred was shot in the foot just four yards beyond his own trench – and in the chaos a fellow soldier stopped to help his wounded comrade.
Despite everything going on around the pair, the unknown private flung Alfred on his shoulders because there were no stretchers left.
But moments later, Alfred’s saviour was shot in the chest.
Alfred recalls blood spurting all over him and for a split second, thinking he had been shot himself. He managed to crawl to safety and that was Alfred’s end to the horrors which unfolded at the Somme.
The plucky soldier was treated back in Britain at Wharncliffe War Hospital, now the defunct Middlewood Hospital in Sheffield.
Having no close relatives from his native Liverpool, a young Alfred had been adopted by a market trader who worked on Castle Market – and he returned to the city to marry after the war.
YORKSHIRE TELEGRAPH AND STAR REPORTER
A Sheffield journalist serving as a private wrote a first hand account from his hospital bed after his battalion was one of the first to go ‘over the top’.
The unnamed Yorkshire Telegraph and Star reporter was injured during the Battle of the Somme.
Many of his friends were butchered by German machine gun fire and shells.
“During the last ten minutes before we advanced, the bombardment reached its zenith,” he wrote. “It was terrific. The masked guns, great and small were thundering their hardest.
“The noise was no longer a gigantic discord, it became a terrible rhythm, like some super- human machinery. It drummed in our ears until we were nearly deaf.
“The air was full of hurling death, a constant stream of shells.
“The suspense was so intense, but the signal came at last. It was impossible in the almighty din to pass on the message. We signalled to each other then climbed the parapet.
“We started to make our way over No Man’s Land to the German front line. It was a wonderful sight.
“Right in front of us we could see the third wave (we the fourth) advancing steadily and grimly across.
“We passed through a terrible curtain of shell fire and German machine guns were rattling out the sounds of death.
“But the line, growing ever thinner, went on unwavering. Here and there a shell would burst right among us and when the smoke cleared, the line would be thinner still.
“No sooner than we set off, the Germans got busy on us. My chum was hit before we had gone 20 yards. I could not stop to find out if he was killed.
“Our orders were to press forward without stopping for anything. And we obeyed these orders.
“Still I trudged on. We must have got a dozen yards from the Germans when I was hit. I thought somebody had struck me in the back with a red-hot sledge hammer. I know now it was shrapnel. The force of the blow sent me staggering.
“In the smoke and the screams I managed to pick myself up and made for the nearest shell hole.
“There were three of us in that hole. One poor chap who I had known ever since I had joined the army was badly hit in several places. He was bleeding to death – there wasn’t anything we could do.
“Outside, dozens lay dead or dying. I peeped over the edge of the crater hole and it revealed a scene which I shall remember as long as I live. It was a sight appalling in its grandeur. It was like some fanatic’s picture of the world ending in fire, smoke and utter destruction.”
The soldier journalist managed to hide in the crater hole for 14 hours before crawling and eventually running back to his trench. He was later transferred to a French field hospital before being sent back to Britain.
In a column next to his account, published on July 18, the latest round of brave Sheffield men who fell during the battle are listed in alphabetical order. The list of dead and wounded is a full 12 inches long.
Reg Glenn, aged just 22, witnessed the horror of his friends being mowed down by German machine guns at the Somme.
Speaking to The Star in 1986, the 92-year-old recalled in vivid detail the sunny summer’s morning which for many would be their last.
Nine months later Reg had the horrific task of identifying the bodies of men killed during the battle.
Reg, formerly of Oughtibridge, recalled the day he joined the Sheffield Pals, trudging out of his office where he worked as a clerk for the council, and the euphoria of a patriotic escape to the daily routine.
“We put on our caps and when we returned, we were soldiers,” he said.
After being posted to the Suez Canal in Egypt, the exotic weather made way for trench warfare in France.
“We were walking over bodies all the time – you took it for granted.
“Some of the men went mad, but one thing about our battalion was that we were all dedicated people, we did as were told.”
A British commander relayed a message to the soldiers that the Germans had a lack of food and ammunition.
Reg said: “They said everything would be straight forward, they said nothing would be stopping us.”
How wrong this turned out to be – it was carnage.
The Somme advance was called off before Reg was sent through No Man’s Land.
He survived the rest of the war unscathed.