Courtesy of Diana Stockford, extract from the memoirs of Brigadier-General Hubert Conway Rees C.M.G. D.S.O. describing the attack on Serre by the Pals battalions of 94th Brigade (31st Division) on 1st July 1916. Rees held temporary command of the brigade from 15th June to 2nd July. His memoirs are held at the Imperial War Museum Department of Documents (IWM 77/179/1).
"The attack was finally fixed to take place on the 29th. One of my criticisms of the general plan of operations was that the time allowed for the capture of each objective was too short. I had a severe argument with Hunter Weston1 before I induced him to give me an extra ten minutes for the capture of one orchard, 300 yards beyond the village of Serre. I was looked on as something of a heretic for saying that everything had been arranged for except the unexpected, which usually occurs in war.
On the 24th June the bombardment began. There was no question of surprise. The enemy could hardly fail to know the extent of the attack & very little bombardment went on towards the North, between me & Gommecourt, where a subsidiary operation was to take place. I suggested one day to the Corps Comdr that a number of dummy assembly trenches might be dug to attempt to deceive the enemy & cause him to waste shells on that area. Hunter Weston congratulated me on the idea, but whether it was put into execution or not I don't know.
The short space of time allowed for the capture of each objective made it essential for the whole of my Bde, with the exception of three companies, to advance at zero hour, otherwise they would not reach the positions assigned to them at the time laid down. In twenty minutes I had to capture the first four lines of trenches in front of Serre. After a check of twenty minutes, I was allowed forty minutes to capture Serre, a village 800 yards deep, & twenty minutes later to capture an orchard on a knoll 300 yds beyond. My criticisms on these points are not altogether a case of being wise after the event. I did not like them at the time, but I do not profess to have foreseen the result of these arrangements should a failure occur. A great spirit of optimism prevailed in all quarters. The corps was using 600 pieces of artillery to support the attack, & the arrangements made were based on the experience gained at Loos.
On the 24th June the bombardment began, the first two days being chiefly employed in registering & wire cutting by 18 pounders. Infantry officers daily inspected the progress of the wire cutting on their particular lines of advance.
On the 28th June it poured with rain all day & at about 4.0pm a message was sent over the phone to say that the attack had been postponed 48 hours. I heard the news shouted down the village street, which was anything but desirable.
The corps commander came round on the 29th & addressed the battns. It was a magnificent speech & obviously strongly impressed the men. As far as the men were concerned - they were convinced they could beat any number of Germans &, if they had had a chance, I have no doubt that they would have done so. We had been informed on several occasions that the enemy had only 55 guns N. of the Ancre, a statement about which I was a trifle sceptical at the time; my scepticism was fully justified as the enemy were reported on the 3rd July to have no less than 66 batteries in action behind Serre alone.
Owing to a support trench getting a severe shelling from the German guns I had been obliged to move the whole attacking force back one trench, which may have delayed matters a little. In any case it would have been better to move most of the troops over the top by the tracks, & let them risk the shells, rather than fatigue them by moving up the C.Ts. Piggott2 & I watched the brigade pass Bus & then went on to the entrance to the communication trench to watch them file in. This was at a point just N. of Colincamps. Colincamps was being shelled with some very high explosive shells which went off with a vicious crack. They gave us rather a sharp dose of shrapnel as well.
Piggott & I eventually moved into the trench & made our way to advanced Bde Hdqtrs in front of Observation Wood. H.Q. consisted of a steel shelter, with two exits, some 10 feet underground, capable of holding about 15 people. A similar shelter was provided close to for the signallers.
A splendid view was obtainable from the trench outside over the whole of the ground as far as Serre. We were about 500 yards behind the front trench. From the front line trench two galleries had been driven halfway across No Mans Land, 10 feet below the surface. During the night these shafts were broken out at the end & a Stokes mortar placed in each to open fire at zero which was at 7.30am. The remainder of the gallery housed the C.Os of the leading two battns.
The Somme - 1st July
As I said before the attack began at 7.30am, but ten minutes before zero our guns opened an intense fire. I stood on top to watch. It was magnificent. The trenches in front of Serre changed shape and dissolved minute by minute under the terrific hail of steel. Watching, I began to believe in the possibility of a great success, but I reckoned without the Hun artillery. This ten minutes intense bombardment combined with the explosion of twenty tons of dynamite under the Hawthorn Redoubt near Beaumont Hamel must have convinced any enemy observer that the attack was in progress &, as our infantry advanced, down came a perfect wall of explosive along the front trenches of my Bde & the 93rd. It was the most frightful artillery display that I had seen up to that time & in some ways I think it was the heaviest barrage I have seen put down by the defence on any occasion.
At the time this barrage really became intense, the last waves of the attack were crossing the trench I was in. I have never seen a finer display of individual and collective bravery than the advance of that brigade. I never saw a man waver from the exact line prescribed for him. Each line disappeared in the thick cloud of dust & smoke which rapidly blotted out the whole area. I can safely pay a tribute also to the bravery of the enemy, whom I saw standing up in their trenches to fire their rifles in a storm of fire. They actually ran a machine gun out into No Mans Land to help repel the attack.
I saw a few groups of men through gaps in the smoke cloud, but I knew that no troops could hope to get through such a fire. My two staff officers, Piggott and Stirling, were considerably surprised when I stopped the advance of the rest of the machine gun company & certain other small bodies now passing my Headquarters. It was their first experience of a great battle & all that morning they obviously found it difficult to believe that the whole brigade had been destroyed as a fighting unit. Messages now began to pour in. An aeroplane reported that my men were in Serre. The Corps & the division urged me to support the attack with all the force at my disposal. I was quite sure that we had not got anyone into Serre except a few prisoners, but the 93rd Bde on my right reported that their left had got on, whilst the 4th Division beyond them again claimed the first four lines of German trenches & were said to be bombing down our way3. It was obviously necessary to attempt to get a footing in the German front trenches to assist these two attacks. The hostile barrage had eased off by now & was no longer formidable so I ordered two companies of the 13th York & Lancs to make the attempt. I did not know that the German barrage was an observed barrage, but thought it was probably mechanical. As soon as this fresh attack was launched down came the barrage again.
One company was badly mauled, whilst the other wisely halted short of it. The wildest reports were rife at divisional headquarters at this time. I was ordered to send a company to bomb the Germans out of the front trench of the 93rd Bde. I expostulated & said that no front trenches existed, but to no purpose. I therefore ordered seventy men near Bde Hdqtrs to draw bombs from the dump & take their time about it. A little later I was talking to General O'Gowan4 & told him that I didn't believe the Germans were in the 93rd's trench at all. He said, to my considerable astonishment, "Nor do I". "In that case" said I "I will stop the attack which you have just ordered me to make" & rushed out of the dug out to cancel the order. Baumgartner5 told me afterwards that he had had a circumstantial report that the Germans were in possession of my Bde Hdqtrs.
When people had recovered from the unbalancing effect of this disaster, I was asked whether I recommended making an attack with the 92nd Bde. I said "no", very decidedly.
Colonel Wilford, commanding the 13th York & Lancs, came in to say that two shelters, which he had occupied as his Hdqtrs, had been blown in in succession & that on the last occasion, his adjutant had been killed. Wilford was nicknamed "the swashbuckler" & he lived up to his reputation on the 1st July. He said "As far as I can make out, general, I have two companies left. If you would like me to charge at their head I shall be delighted to do so." There were many brave men in that battle. Stirling went through the barrage to see if he could find out what was going on. Piggott did the same later. One man was buried three times by shells, whilst bringing a message to Bde Hdqtrs. A sergt. major belonging to the 93rd Bde arrived about midday to say that as he was the sole survivor, as far as he knew, in that trench he had come away. He was quite calm and collected6.
General Ingles came over to see me early in the afternoon & a member of the corps intelligence branch arrived. I gave the whole lot a lecture on the situation as I saw it & at last convinced my own staff that the whole attack was a terrible failure.
Later on news came in of great successes further S., of the capture of Fricourt & a great advance by the French S. of the Somme. This cheered us up a little. We reorganized the remnants of the Bde to defend our own line. The two leading battns were annihilated & the two supporting battns had lost heavily. Out of some 2600 men, who were launched to the attack, very few returned. I had only some 550 men left as far as I could find out.
The whole of the VIIIth Corps, 31st, 4th, 29th & 36th Divns, had failed to gain a yard of ground & had suffered stupendous losses. The subsidiary attack launched against the Gommecourt salient by two divisions was likewise a complete failure.
The result of the time table in this attack was that it was impossible to alter the artillery barrage before the artillery had completed their programme, owing to the danger of firing on parties of our own troops, who might have got through & be holding positions of the German positions. The cause of failure as far as we were concerned was the skilful assembly by the enemy of a great mass of guns between Serre & Puisieux undetected by us & the concentration of all these guns on a comparatively small, but most important, stretch of front. In front of Beaumont Hamel, on the lower ground, the hostile artillery fire was not excessively violent. On this frontage the Huns reckoned on the stopping power of large numbers of machine guns in concrete emplacements & his confidence was justified by events.
From the VIIIth Corps I went on to the 4th Divn where I was posted to command the 11th Bde, poor Prowse7 having been killed & every one of his commanding officers as well."
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