Title - Personal Testimony

The following are contemporary accounts relating to the attack on Serre made by the Pals battalions of 94th Brigade on the morning of 1st July 1916. Every effort has been made to obtain permission from the relevant copyright holders.

Lt. Frank Bailey (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.). Report of wire examining patrol on night of 29th/30th June 1916 (PRO CAB45/191).

I went out at 10.35pm leaving our lines at post No. 6. We walked through our wire and lay in No Man's Land for 5 mins. until our artillery lifted. We then proceeded to crawl out towards the enemy's wire, but were found by the enemy's flares about half-way. We were not fired on by machine guns, but about 3 rifles from slightly to our right kept up fire for about 15 minutes. We then proceeded toward the wire, and examined same for about 40 yards north, but could only find one thickness of concertina wire into which we put the Bangalore torpedo and fired same. We immediately retired as it was now about 11.30 and the artillery were trying to come back. we got back into No. 6 post at 11.45.

Lt. Cecil Herbert Woodhouse (12th Bn., York & Lancaster Regt.). Report of wire examining patrol on night of 29th/30th June 1916 (PRO CAB45/191).

I went out with a patrol tonight from No 27 Bay (opp. Luke Copse) at 10.35p.m. The enemy wire is now considerably damaged opposite this place, but a fair amount of loose wire remains. I do not consider that it would be a serious obstacle to infantry. Another patrol from my party went out opposite Bay 34, and report a similar state of affairs. Two Bangalore torpedoes were placed in position and fired at 11.10, but the one opposite 27 Bay failed to explode. Some flares were sent up from the 2nd German line, but none from the 1st. No other signs of the enemy could be seen or heard.

Extract from "Solidus", the unpublished autobiography of Fred Sayer (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.), by kind permission of Judy Langton. Despite having been told that he was out of the attack, Sayer volunteered to guard the bomb dump, situated just to the rear of the front line. Here he describes his journey up to the bomb dump during the night of 30th June/1st July.

About 21-00, I had reached the field gun positions just at the rear of our trenches, when a nice smell wafted from over some wrecked buildings. Climbing through the debris, I found one of our platoons having soup from their field kitchen. I managed to get a helping, which was more than welcome, then, after a little chat with the fellows, I was on my lonely way. I felt confident that I would be at my post in good time, but on entering the trenches I had a problem which could prove my undoing. The shelling and movement of so many troops and casualties had created a gluey mud sometimes knee deep. The duckboards were missing, being buried in the mud and telephone lines scattered around making progress difficult. It was now dark but there was light from guns and shells and star shells. Fortunately, I had travelled these trenches so many times that it was part of my make-up, but I was sorely tempted to go overland and risk dis-obeying strict orders.

As the dawn broke, I reached the main communicator to the sap from the 2nd line to the first. This 2nd line was lined with the men of 15 Platoon, all waiting for Zero. They were singing quietly and as I turned to go towards the sap, one of two brothers, called Charlie Holt, said "you can't get up there Fred, they're dropping shells every minute"....I made my way up to the sap.

Extract from a letter written by Pte. Frank Thomas (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to his father, reproduced here by kind courtesy of Frank's son, Ian Thomas.

Then at 7.20 we had to crawl into "No Mans land" and get as near to our artillery fire as possible. The Huns were ready for us and their artillery played on No Mans land and their machine guns, in fact everything they had, came at us. It was terrible and the men were falling fast.

Extracts from a letter written by Pte. Jack Hindle (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) (published in the Accrington Observer & Times of 22nd July 1916). [See complete text]

On Friday, the last day of June, we were told that we were going in the trenches that night to start the attack in the morning. We did not worry, as we expected it, and you may judge how cheerful we were when I tell you that as we were going to the trenches that night there were a lot of the R.F.A. on the wayside and one of our chaps would say to one of them, "What do you want bringing back - a German helmet or an officer's wrist watch?" and this was not the only joke, as all were promising to have a drink with each other at a village we had to take. Well, at last we got to the trenches, through which we had to walk three miles to get to our position, and it was no joke, as the trenches were deep in mud and water, and by the time we got to our post (about 11p.m.) we were wet through.

At 6.30 a terrific bombardment started, and Fritz gave us a little in return, sending all kinds of shells, including whiz-bangs, aerial torpedoes, canister shells, and rifle grenades. At 7.20 our trench mortars started, and we went over the top. I myself felt more at ease when we got over than I did in the trench, simply because I had a chance of firing back. At 7.30 the bombardment lifted to the German second line, and we looked for someone to lead us, but all the officers and the N.C.O.'s seemed to have been put out of action, and while we were waiting (which was only a matter of seconds) the Germans came out.

Extract from a letter written by Pte. Walter Peart (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to his sister and brother (published in the Burnley Express & Advertiser of 22nd July 1916). [See complete text]

We went up to the trenches on Friday night, June 30th, and after getting shelled on our way, we got in the trenches at 2-0 a.m. Saturday morning. Word came round that we were to go over the 'lid' at 7-30 a.m. At 6 o'clock a thick fog came on, and we got ready to make the attack. It got 7 o'clock, the bombardment being on all the time, and word came round that there were '20 minutes to go, boys'. We were singing at the time. Word then was sent out to us to get our packs on. When ready, Capt. Riley shouted, 'Over the top you get, boys', and we all jumped the 'lid' at 7-30 a.m.

Extract from a letter written by Pte. Harry Kay (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) (published in the Accrington Observer & Times of 15th July 1916).

I know we caught a cold, and no wonder, for before we had got over the top of the parapet they had the machine guns on us. But we went on. Some of us were stopped in front of their barbed wire and waited for our artillery to lift fire from first to second line. It was whilst we were waiting that I got it, so I crawled back as best I could.

Extract from a letter written by Pte. Harry Wilkinson (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) (published in the Accrington Observer & Times of 15th July 1916). [See complete text]

We were the first wave to go over and out of that first wave only seven reached the German first line; all the others were either killed or wounded. We started to attack about 7-30. You can imagine what went through our minds waiting for the time to go. We knew we were going to certain death, but not one man faltered. It was simply marvellous. But the Germans gave us a gruelling, shrapnel, universal and high explosive shells simply rained down on us. Every two or three yards of the German lines seemed to hold a machine gun, and the bullets simply rained across No Man's Land. But we went on until we got dropped.

Extract from a letter written by Pte. Frank Thomas (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to his father, reproduced here by kind courtesy of Frank's son, Ian Thomas.

At 7 30 we had to go forward. We tried but were mown down by machine guns. I got to their wire and they were on the parapets with machine guns, rifles, bombs, and their shells were playing havoc with our men. We had to take cover as much as we could and wear them down. Twas here I got a bit of shrapnel or a bullet through my heel. I kept on firing and got two of the devils. Then we tried to go forward and I got hit in the back and I thought I was done for. It laid me out but it didn't go far in and I could feel it and pulled it out.

Extract from a letter written by Pte. James Henry Roberts (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to his wife (published in the Burnley Express & Advertiser of 19th August 1916). [See complete text]

Our sergeant called out, 'Ten minutes to go'. We stood in the trenches as you would stand with your head six inches below a wall. The Germans were sweeping the wall or trench top with their machine guns at the rate of over 400 bullets per minute, and shells were bursting all around. Five minutes to go, and every man ready, joking and smoking....Three minutes to go; still they smoke and joke. And now, 'Over you go, lads.' Not a waver. We were in the last of four waves. And to see those waves! It was just as you would see four long lines of soldiers in peace times. On we went in a steady walk. The bullets from the German machine guns just looked like one big glistening fan as they flew through the air. I marvel at us getting so near the enemy as we did. With machine guns everywhere and thousands of shells bursting, how that choir of hell sang.

Extract from a letter written by Cpl. Henry Hale (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to Mrs. James Duerden concerning her son, Pte. Orrell Taylor Duerden (published in the Accrington Observer & Times of 5th August 1916). [See complete text]

There were three of us, signallers, with Z Company, and we went over the top with the rest of the lads. We had gone about a hundred yards when a shell burst about a hundred yards away. The force of the explosion knocked me down. Orrell and the other chap said "Are you hit?" I said "No! I am O.K.", and we went forward again. We could see the lads dropping all round and we remarked that it was marvellous how we were being missed. We passed over three lines of trenches and got to the Germans' first line when I got hit in the hand by a bullet.

Extract from a letter written by Pte. Will Clarke (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to his sister (published in the Accrington Observer & Times of 15th July 1916). [See complete text]

I ventured to look around me as with a whizz, ping, pang the bullets flew around me. "God spare my soul" I cried, and saw to my surprise living beings. How had they escaped being blown to pieces? Heaven only knows. But there they were throwing bombs at us. Full length on the ground I flung myself, when "biff!" a piece of spent shrapnel hit me behind the ear. I slipped into a huge shell-hole twenty-five yards from the Huns' first trench, and there wiped away the blood, pulling the small offender out. Creeping forward I again spotted a few Germans. Taking aim, I fired one shot. Then "thud!" "Oh, God!" I cried, "my poor head is blown in two", so great was the shock.

Blinded almost with blood from my wound, I commenced to roll back to our own lines, but my equipment prevented me. In spite of the machine guns that were still playing on us (and, by the way, they killed many of our wounded), I knelt up, and God only knows how I threw off my equipment, but I did it, and crawling, pulling, stumbling over barbed wire, etc., I reached our own lines.

Extract from a letter written by Pte. Frank Thomas (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to his father, reproduced here by kind courtesy of Frank's son, Ian Thomas.

I was in a shell hole and decided to go back, for it was death to stop where I was as shells were falling all around. I hobbled across no mans land and I got half way when a lump of shrapnel hit me on the cheek taking pieces clean out. I was lucky to only get that for the air was filled with lead and iron. I could feel the bullets from their machine guns whistling round me and I was thankful when I threw myself in our front line close to the stretcher bearers who bandaged me up and sent me to the dressing station.

Extract from a letter written by Pte. Jack Haining (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to his parents (published in the Accrington Observer & Times of 11th July 1916). [See complete text]

We were in the worst of the fight and have lost a terrible lot of men. I had a miraculous escape, having to pass 14 hours in a shell hole with three comrades, one of them being badly wounded. While we were there shells were dropping all around us and rifles and machine-guns were blazing away as if they were alive. How many came back from the charge I don't know. Neither do I know how I got back. Poor Captain Tough was killed. I heard he was twice wounded but still kept going till he was killed. I think it was very courageous of him.

Extract from a letter written by Pte. Albert Naylor (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to a friend in the Accrington Tramways Department (published in the Accrington Observer & Times of 15th July 1916). [See complete text]

We made the attack at 7.30 on the morning of July 1st, my platoon being in the third wave, or line of men, after the first and second wave had gone. We moved on and we caught up to them in good time - what there was left of them. Well, we kept moving on until we got to the first German line. We started throwing bombs, but I was not so long before I was hit in the leg with a piece of German bomb, so I got out of the trench and got in a shell-hole just over the top of the trench. I stopped there all day, but towards night a shell burst behind me and put a couple of pieces in my left arm, and a piece right through my shrapnel helmet into my head. Well, I bandaged myself up as best I could, and as soon as it went dark I made towards our line, in my way, but instead of landing there I got to another line of German trenches. I only found it out by them throwing a bomb which dropped beside my head, and it didn't half make blood fly - it poured out of my nose, ears and mouth - but there was very little shrapnel which I got about the face and into my right arm. After this I managed to get into our own lines, and I can tell you it was a great relief, as I was three days and a half without food, as I had to drop all my equipment as soon as I was hit.

Extract from a letter written by Sgt. Ernest Kay (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to his wife (published in the Burnley Express & Advertiser of 12th July 1916). [See complete text]

I led my platoon in at 7-29. Captain Riley was in command of the company by eight o'clock. There were few of us left, but although it was almost sure death all the boys moved steadily forward, one dropping every few yards. We moved through a fearful hurricane of shot and shell. Captain Riley is gone - a real gentleman. I am afraid there is a lot more, too. I got up to the wire in front of the German's first line when I got my first hit - a piece of shrapnel or bullet through the right forearm, clean through, but not at all bad. I could use my arm. I got down then and waited for my men to come up, but could not see any. I crept up nearer to the German lines. I wanted to get close enough to drop a few bombs in their trench, but had not gone far before I got put out for a bit with one in the back. I thought it had finished me. I told a fellow so next to me. It was one in the back, and took away all feeling. I thought it had touched my backbone, but happily the use came back in a few minutes. But this was a very lucky escape, as the shot went clean through the pack on my back and missed the spine by just a fraction. The next wound was just a bit of shrapnel in the shoulder - nothing to speak of.

Letter written by Pte. John Thomas Martin (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to his parents (published in the Accrington Observer & Times of 8th August 1916).

It was an explosive bullet which caught me on my right hand and made two big holes in it. It is a nasty mess. I lay down for 16 hours afraid to stir, and was bleeding all the time. I thought my time had come, but I stuck to it. At last I and another lad made a dash for it, and when it got dark we managed to crawl back to our own trenches, safe but fagged out. We had to walk two miles before I got my wounds dressed.

Letter written by Pte. John Hindle (11th Bn., East Lancs. Regt.) to Mr. and Mrs. F. Iley concerning their son, James Iley (published in the Accrington Observer & Times of 5th August 1916).

I am proud to say your son was one of my platoon and he died like a hero. I was wounded on the same day as Jim and as I was crawling back to our lines after being hit, I saw your son trying to work a machine gun on his own. He was badly hit then and bleeding on the head, so I tried to persuade him to go along with me, but he would not do so. He said there was no one to look after the gun and he could not leave it. I gave him a drink and he said he was all right. Whether it was that wound which caused his death or whether he was hit again afterwards, I cannot say. But you can always say he was a son to be proud of and a son who stuck to his gun to the last. He was a good Catholic, and received both absolution and holy communion along with myself, before he went into the trenches.

More accounts of the 1st July 1916 Battle for Serre can be found on the pages for Ernest Ashwell, Harry Bloor, Otto Lais, Will Marshall, Hubert Rees and Arthur Rickman.

Email author: andrew.jackson@btinternet.com

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