A rare war diary detailing the first day of one of history’s bloodiest battles is to be published for the first time.
100 years ago on 1 July, a huge British offensive was launched in Northern France with the aim of breaking the deadlock of the trenches and setting in motion the end of World War I.
For many, the battle symbolizes the sacrifice of the Great War and is infamous today for causing a horrifying 60,000 casualties on the first day – The Battle of the Somme.
Now Staffordshire County Council’s Archives Service have uncovered a rare minute-by-minute eye witness account of the battle. Entries from the diary will also be tweeted in real time on the day exactly one hundred years on.
Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Meynell, originally from Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire, was stationed at the northern end of the battlefield. Meanwhile, his unit, the 232nd Brigade Royal Field Artillery, assisted an assault led by units of the 46th North Midland Division, including the137th Staffordshire Brigade on the German-held village of Gommecourt.
On the day of the attack, Meynell kept a diary of events as they unfolded from his position in a cellar in the nearby village of Foncquevillers.
The first entry in the diary at 6.25am simply read “bombardment begins.”
Minute-by-minute it builds a tragic picture of the day. He reports how divisions down the line were ‘whizz-banged and crumped’, names for the shells used by the Germans for the noise they made.
At 4.34pm, after 10 hours of battle, Meynell reports the “first absolute silence of 20 seconds since 6.50am.”
His final entry, just after 9.52pm, reads only: “The proposed attack was not successful.”
Gill Heath is the Cabinet Lead for the county’s Great War commemorations. Gill said:
We are fortunate enough to hold a number of items relating to this notorious battle, largely remembered for the first day when so many British troops lost their lives.
Meynell’s diary was a really exciting discovery for our Archives staff and gives us a frightening insight into how things unfolded on that terrible day. Publishing the diary for the first time is all part of our plans to commemorate the centenary of the Great War and highlight Staffordshire’s many contributions.
Staffordshire played its part in the Battle of the Somme as one of the first wave of troops in the offensive. The 137th Staffordshire Brigade were part of the diversionary attack on the German-held village of Gommecourt at the northern end of the battlefield. The 1/6th North Staffs and 1/6th South Staffs regiments were in the first wave of troops. As a snap shot of the 523 officers and men of the 1/6th South Staffords who started the attack on 1st July 1916, 239 had been killed, wounded or were missing. The 1/6th North Staffords lost 170 officers and men of whom 126 were never found.
Notes to editor:
TRANSCRIPTION of the diary
16.52a.m. [Handwritten note on top of page] Diary kept by me [Francis Meynell] when liaison officer to Genl. Shipley comdg 139th Bde (Notts & Derby Battns) of 46th Division on the occasion of the attack on Gommecourt July 1st 1916. Sir Hill. Child was in command of the artillery group. I was at the time in command of 232nd Bde RFA though acting as Liaison Officer. We were under the Notary’s House in Fonquevillers.
DIARY of OPERATIONS carried out on
JULY 1st 1916, at GOMMECOURT.
6.25a.m. Bombardment began.
6.33a.m. Mr Bane through D231 reported that heavies were dropping shells short of BUSH (trench?)
6.47a.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported ‘The drift of shell smoke is SW to NE, much of big Z is already obscured. Enemy shelled trench 60 and 37th Divl. Flank.’
6.50a.m. A.323 (O.P.) ‘Not much enemy retaliation. Enfilade gun doing very good work.’
6.52a.m. All communications satisfactory.
6.53a.m. B.232 (O.P.) reported ‘Observation poor. Enemy shelling front line with whizzbangs and crumps. Two 5.9. shells just fallen in front of battery.’
6.57a.m. D.231 reported: ‘18 pounder fire appeared to be short. The 2nd line of enemy above little Z just visible. Right front much clearer than left. GOMMECOURT Wood just visible. Shell smoke blowing parallel to, and with slight inclination towards German lines.’
7.05a.m. All communications satisfactory less forward wires.
7.07a.m. It was reported that gas shells had been fired round batteries.
7.10a.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported ‘enemy are heavily and continuously shelling our left flank trenches. 4.2” and 5.9” appear to be landing behind our front line.’
7.15a.m. C.232 could not tell me the direction enemy fire was coming from.
7.18a.m. Heavy group reported that all known 5.9” batteries of the enemy were active. This came from heavy group straight to me.
7.20a.m. The Right battalion F.O.O. was reported to be in communication; but though we tried for five minutes we could get no sound on the wire.
7.28a.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported ‘At present crumping much less severe. Enemy’s shrapnel continues. Smoke drifting very slowly across front. Obscurity complete at 7.27a.m. Enemy shelling between 7.20.m. and 7.30a.m. much reduced. Some shelling north of FONQUEVILLERS and on HANNESCAMPS road. 7.32a.m. obscurity complete. Hostile trenches invisible. (N.B. This note was taken down as Major Wrottesley observed.)
7.33a.m. We tried to get in touch with Right F.O.O. and Battalion Liaison Officer, but were unable to get any reply.
7.41a.m. It was reported by an officer who came in to 139 Inf. Bde. HQ that gas shells were being fired on FONQUEVILLERS.
7.45a.m. A.232 (O.P.) reported that enfilade gun in ORCHARD (HANNESCAMP road) was being whizzbanged.
7.46a.m. Two infantry officers who came into HQ reported that there appeared to be more heavy enemy guns in action than on any previous occasion. The group (left) told me that they had got reports from the O.P.s to the effect that there was not much machine gun fire; but that a certain amount of rifle fire, which seemed to recede, had been heard.
7.52a.m. Out of communication with R battalion on artillery wire.
7.56a.m. Out of communication with L battalion on artillery wire.
8.06a.m. Infantry reported that the carrying parties were over and that the 6th had gone and that their HQ would be starting soon.
8.08am The orchard was reported as being shelled by 4.2 and 5.9.
8.11a.m. The 139th Bde Major reported that most of the infantry casualties were being caused by a machine gun on their right.
8.15a.m. It was reported that the 137th were held up by wire in front of enemy lines.
8.19a.m. I noticed by the noise from our HQ that there appeared to be a sort of barrage of 5.9 shells between our house and trenches.
8.20a.m. The carrying companies of both battalions were reported over (reported to group).
8.23a.m. 6th battalion supports were reported past 5th battalion HQ. it was reported that the left battalion of the Stafford had gone over, but that the right battalion had been hung up by M.G. fire from the front (reported to group).
8.27a.m. It was reported that Germans had been seen coming out of GOMMECOURT Wood and had given themselves up.
8.33a.m. A.232 (O.P.) reported that enfilade gun was still all right and firing well in spite of shelling. The Gendarmerie was shelled with tear shells. Heavy rifle fire immediately behind GOMMECOURT Wood. It also reported a white rocket having gone up at 8.20a.m. from little Z. The enemy had not shelled their own front line, but the barrage on ours had increased at about 8.25a.m.
8.47a.m. Infantry Brigade HQ reported A & B companies of 6th battalion had gone over.
8.48a.m. D.231 (O.P.) reported smoke clearing away slightly and that the 2nd line was just visible. D.231 confirmed that the enemy had not shelled their own trenches.
8.49a.m. Bde Major 139th, from Inf. Bde O.P. reported smoke again thickening.
8.55a.m. Lt. Villa of 5th batt. Came in to HQ and reported that he had got into enemy first line which he found to be very strongly held. He was wounded in arm and in a bad way. He told us that the enemy came out of their dug outs after the first waves had passed over.
9.06a.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported ‘A signaller seen at 8.50a.m. endeavouring to communicate to us aaa Too much smoke to read message, have noted place to left of little Z. aaa No red flares have been seen.’
9.23a.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported that a signaller was seen at the E point of little Z endeavouring to send a message at 9.15a.m. At 9.21a.m. signaller at little Z signalling in direction of FONQUEVILLERS in semaphore making it impossible to read.
9.29a.m. A report reached us source unknown that the 56th are getting on well and are pushing up E M S trench.
9.30a.m. Col. Goodman (O/C 6th) reported heavy barrage on our newly made front line and old first line. Fire coming from the left.
9.35a.m. Col. Goodman reported, ‘Things have gone badly. Scott (M.O.?) says first two waves started, but 3 and 4 were cut down before they got to first line as smoke apparently thinned.’
9.55a.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported, ‘Orchard still being shelled by 77m/m also our front line about trench 50, but enemy not shelling their own front line.’
10.03a.m. Dr Bailey (?) one of Lt. Davies party reported that according to instructions he remained behind in our sap-head but had been sent back by an officer so reported himself straight to me.
10.05a.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported Venetian shutter seen near GOMMECOURT Wood apparently sending to FONQUEVILLERS. Too far to read. Dr Bailey further said in continuation of above note 10.03a.m. that he believed Lt. Clarke with one telephonist went over with 1st wave. He said he tried signalling with flags but got no answer. The shutter was broken some time before. He knew nothing about Lt. Davies. This man gave his account quite coolly and seemed quite calm and collected.
10.11a.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported, ‘Fresh smoke being emitted apparently from beyond GOMMECOURT Wood. Enemy now shelling theit own front line and GOMMECOURT Wood.’
10.31a.m. D.231 on being asked whether he could confirm above said he had not noticed it.
10.36a.m. The information at this time 3 hours and 6 minutes after 0.0. seemed very conflicting and no conclusion as to what had actually happened could be come to.
10.38a.m. A.232 (O.P.) reported that enfilade gun had ceased firing according to plan but were still being whizzbanged.
10.57a.m. Bde Major 139th reported 7th battn in 1st line of enemy and that there was machine gun fire from PIGEON Wood (reported to group who turned guns on).
11.07a.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported ‘Fresh smoke being emitted beyond GOMMECOURT Wood at 11.05a.m.’
11.04a.m. The following message timed 11.04a.m. was received per aeroplane. ‘Our infantry in FOOT, FOWL, F.O.B. hung up from there to FOOLERY’ (reported to group).
11.50a.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported a lot of M.G. fire could be heard from NE corner of GOMMECOURT Wood (reported to Gen Shipley 139th Inf. Bde.)
12.15p.m. After consultation with Gen. Shipley as to what fire was required from the artillery he told me what he would like, and I handed on to left group commander the following: ‘A steady rate of fire should be carried out at once from the SE corner of the NE face of GOMMECOURT Wood, to a point on FOREIGN trench half way between edge of wood and FORT right along NE to junction of OUSE and FORESIGHT. Section fire 1 minute. Heavies should pour a heavy fire on PIGEON Wood and on trenches to SW at 1.15p.m.’
12.52p.m. D.231 (O.P.) reported white rocket visible to E of GOMMECOURT Wood.
1.06p.m. Request sent back to group that instructions given at 12.15p.m. should be carried out till further notice.
1.12p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported ‘Fancy infantry seen moving between little Z towards big Z. Cannot say for certain whether hostile or friendly. Could we say for certain.’ We reported had no knowledge.
1.15p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported they thought above were English.
1.48p.m. Lt. Faber, Intelligence Officer, came in and reported that he had been round all O.P.s and collected as much information as possible and what he told me confirmed what had already been sent over telephone.
1.55p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported, ‘Fresh smoke is being emitted from SW of GOMMECOURT on our right flank.’
1.57p.m. 139th attack postponed to 3.30pm.
2.10p.m. Rate of fire of artillery reduced.
2.50p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported, ‘One white rocket just dropped in left corner of GOMMECOURT Wood.’
3.11p.m. Group reported to me, ‘Four white lights have gone up on E side of GOMMECOURT Wood about the centre.’
3.40p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported ‘Directly the smoke started at 3.30pm. hostile artillery opened.’
3.50p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported, ‘Smoke very thin, the view not obscured, no men were seen to cross No Man’s Land.’ The enfilade gun though it did not open fire was again whizzbanged.
3.58p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reports, ‘Heavy rifle fire from GOMMECOURT Wood.’
4.06p.m. Reported to group that our attack at 3.30pm did not develop and asked for heavy counter batteries as enemy were crumping our trenches.
4.34p.m. First absolute silence of 20 secs since 6.05a.m.
4.38p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reports all quiet.
5.15p.m. Bdr. Hale and Gr. Richards, A.323 battery, two of Lt. Clarke’s party came to report themselves to me. Their account was as follows: – Just before the attack started they were both put out of action by gas shells. These gas shells apparently affected the infantry as well, for some of them went over with gas helmets on as indeed had Lt. Clarke and Dr. Cade his third telephonist. Noticing that Bdr. Hale and Gr. Richards were temporarily out of action Lt. Clarke ordered them to remain behind till they were all right. As soon as they were all right they went out into the Russian Sap to cross over, but testing the wire before going they found it dead and returned up the trench to find the break. They discovered the wire smashed to atoms for some distance. The reels of wire having been taken over by Lt. Clarke they returned to the battery, procured some more and went down again to the sap head to relay the missing part. Meeting with much difficulty in carrying out the work because of snipers and realizing the impossibility of getting across they decided to return and report to their battery commander who sent them to me. These men appear to have behaved extremely well under great difficulties. This is the second time that Gr. Richards has proved his excellence and courage as a wire-man. These men reported that Lt. Clarke and Dr. Cade went across with the first wave of the attack.
6.10p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported that they saw what they took to be a British Officer looking back at our lines from the junction of OUSE and enemy front line.
6.22p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported that the officer seen was a German as a party of Germans were to be seen moving along the front line towards OUSE and then to move up that C.T.
6.34p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported a party of 40 or 50 Germans were seen to be coming down the little Z fully equipped with blue uniforms, round caps and red bands.
7.19p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported that ‘Germans could be seen passing both ways along little Z to big Z, am firing on them.’
8.10p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported, ‘German infantry seen returning from OUSE via little Z towards N. face of big Z.’
9.47p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported ‘Red rockets continually going up behind GOMMECOURT Wood.’
9.51p.m. B.231 reported, ‘A white and green rocket seen on 56 Divl zone’ ??
9.52p.m. C.232 (O.P.) reported, ‘Bombing seen and heard in German second line also flashes and smoke.’
Further orders for the artillery in connection with the proposed attack in the evening were issued by
46 D.A. 46 D.A. order No. 60.
The proposed attack was not successful.
Notes on the Day
F.O.O.s and Intelligence and Intelligence and Liaison Officers.
1. All the F.O.O and Liaison officers with the attacking waves were either killed or wounded, or at the nest missing. The wires in the trenches were always being broken and over the length of trench it would have required a large staff of men to keep them mended. No infantry wire across to the other side was intact except for one possible moment in spite of an elaborate system of laddering. The F.O.O. of the left group went with the first wave, the Liaison officer with the 4th; in neither case did they get any communications through of any sort. If one officer of the two had gone over at the best moment, and the other had followed at a later time the loss in officers might have been much reduced. It seemed like two men going over to do that which could have been done by one, at any rate for a time.
2. The intelligence officer carried out all that was required of him, but communications being so good it did not appear to have been necessary. If wires had got damaged he would have been of very great assistance to the group commander in sending communications and to the infantry brigadier.
This gun seems to have been a great success in spite of somewhat heavy shelling with lachrymatory and other shells, and Lt. Perkins and the No. 1 deserve great credit for the construction and concealment of the gun position and the firing from it on the day of the attack. The shooting was reported excellent.
Apart from its moral support in the attack I found no one say a good word for it, even the infantry themselves. The waves appeared to find difficulty in keeping straight and various stories – which perhaps are hardly reliable – were told of parties completely losing direction. There appeared from what I could learn a great tendency for men to keep in the smoke rather than go straight on if it was there. From an artillery point of view it entirely blocked the view of the firing and prevented any observation of what was going on.
The communications throughout the day were without fault except to the front line.
Considerable inconvenience was caused by the enemy use of gas shells especially in B. battery. The firing went on however in spite.
The springs of the guns gave out during the early days of bombardment, though on the actual day no gun was out of action for more than 10 minutes. On future occasions a supply of reserve springs should be held near the guns in case of replacement.
Liasion Officer to
139 Inf. Bde