THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME 1916
The long awaited “Great Push” of July 1916, the Battle of the Somme, began, according to the local press, very successfully: “The infantry attack … was launched with great swiftness …. The German first line trenches, probably pulverised by the artillery, could offer little or no resistance”. The Argus, repeating War Office propaganda, was reporting what should have happened rather than what actually happened. The first day of the Somme was in fact the most costly day in British military history, with almost 20,000 killed and a further 40,000 wounded. The battle continued until November, by which time British casualties had risen to more than half a million. The three battalions of the Monmouthshire Regiment, which had now been converted into Pioneers, responsible for such tasks as constructing trenches and building roads, were, however, to escape relatively lightly from the carnage of the Somme. Nevertheless, the casualties were still to be significant.
The 3rd Mons had been on the Somme since February, building roads, light railways, dugouts and ammunition dumps in the area around Bouzincourt, work it was continued performing until August. On the morning of July 1st they were 5kms behind the front line and, although they were moved up to the front that evening, the failure of the attack along much of the line meant they never took part in any assault on the enemy trenches on the Somme. They were, nevertheless, carrying out work close to the front throughout July and were constantly in danger. 13 men from the battalion were killed during the month, with many more being wounded and falling sick. As a result, the battalion became seriously under strength, with only 360 fit men compared to over a thousand when they came to France, and was disbanded on 5th August, with the men being transferred to other battalions.
On July 1st, the 1st Mons were at Gommecourt, on the northern end of the offensive. The men had spent the previous weeks digging saps into no-man’s land and were due to follow-up the attack by digging communications trenches between the British lines and those captured from the Germans. The failure of the initial assault meant that the plan was abandoned during the morning and few of the 1st Mons got even as far as the front line. Nevertheless, as they stood in deep mud in the support trenches, heavy German shelling took its toll, killing 23 and wounding a further 76.
Further south, the 2nd SWBs had been in the first wave of the assault on Beaumont Hamel. They were cut to shreds. Within minutes 15 out of their 21 officers and 384 of their 578 men had been killed or wounded. The 2nd Mons were due to follow them in as Pioneers, but as with the 1st Mons at Gommecourt, the carnage in front of them meant they never got beyond the front line. Even so, the battalion sustained 98 casualties, including 13 dead. The next three weeks were spent on the highly dangerous task of digging trenches in no-man’s land to allow future attacks to be launched closer to the enemy. The work was done at night but the men were in constant danger from enemy patrols and shellfire. By the time they were transferred from the Somme on 24th July, the 2nd Mons had lost 278 men killed and wounded.
In spite of the failure of most of the attacks on July 1st, it was decided to continue the offensive. On July 7th the 38th (Welsh) Division, including the 1st and 2nd Gwents, was ordered to capture Mametz Wood. This wood was one of the few that were relatively intact, since it not been heavily shelled. It was made of mainly of oak trees with very heavy undergrowth –and was full of Germans. The preliminary artillery bombardment had failed to dislodge the German machine guns posts in nearby copses. As the Welsh troops attacked across open ground in broad daylight and heavy rain, they were cut down by machine gun fire from the wood itself and from Sabot Copse to their right. The 1st Gwents had been part of the second wave of attack, backing up their comrades in the 2nd Gwents, who had born the brunt in the first wave. Far from capturing the wood, they did not even reach it. A further attack was ordered but then cancelled.
On July 10th they tried again. Once again, the 1st Gwents were held in reserve, while the 2nd Gwents were in the first line of attack. This attack was highly successful. A smokescreen allowed the men to cross 500 yards of open ground and enter the wood itself. In bitter hand-to-hand fighting, which lasted for much of the day, large parts of the wood were cleared. Early in the afternoon, the 1st Gwents were ordered forward, and in spite of heavy opposition help clear the remaining Germans from the south-eastern part of the woods. It took another day of bitter fighting, with virtually the whole of the Welsh Division being deployed before the remainder of the wood was secured. Taking the wood had cost the Welsh Division dearly, with 4,000 dead or wounded.