The ruins of Fricourt

1st Battalion, the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Fricourt and Mametz

1st to 5th July 1916

At 07.30 hrs on Saturday, 1st July 1916 General Sir Henry Rawlinson's Fourth Army launched its attack on the Somme against the German Second Army. In the vicinity of Fricourt and Mametz Lieutenant General Sir Henry Horne's XV Corps had the task of securing the two fortified villages at the curve in the frontline. Lieutenant General Horne had three divisions under command: 7th Division, 17th (Northern) Division and 21st Division.

1st Battalion, the Royal Welch Fusiliers [1 RWF] commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Clifton Inglis Stockwell was part of Brigadier- General Julian McCarty Steele's 22nd Brigade in the 7th Division. For the attack at Fricourt and Mametz on 1st July 1916 the 22nd Brigade's role was subordinate to that of the rest of the 7th Division on their right and the 21st Division on their left.

Fricourt 1st July 1916

The Southern Sector of the Somme on 1st July 1916. [© Ian R Gumm, 2016]

The task set for the 22nd Brigade was to assault and capture the German trenches to the south of Fricourt known as Bois Francais Trench and Support, Sunken Road Trench, The Rectangle and Rectangle Support and its final objective Rose Trench. This attack was scheduled to take place after the rest of the 7th Division and the 21st Division had secured their objective and was to be carried out in conjunction with two battalions of the 50th Brigade, 17th (Northern) Division. Zero hour for the 22nd Brigade's assault was to be fixed when the 7th Division and 21st Division had gained touch at Bottom Wood on the far side of Fricourt which would cut off the sector that the 22nd Brigade and 50th Brigade were to assault.

Fricourt Sector 1st July 1916

The Fricourt Sector on 1st July 1916. [© Ian R Gumm, 2016]

The 20th (Service) Battalion (5th City), the Manchester Regiment [20 MANCH] was to be the 22nd Brigade's assaulting battalion with 1 RWF in support. 20 MANCH was assault from New Trench against Sunken Road Trench and from the western craters against Bois Francais Trench. 1 RWF was to support the principle attack against Sunken Road Trench moving forward as 20 MANCH pushed on until the Battalion stood: Lieutenant C D Morgan's A Company in Sunken Road Trench, Lieutenant H B Williams' B Company in New Trench and Captain E I Jones' D Company in reserve in the Quarries, Captain Edward John Greaves' C Company was at the disposal of the 22nd Brigade as a carrying party. A Brigade mobile reserve under Captain E H Dadd consisting of two sections of infantry, two sections of bombers, two Lewis guns and two Stokes mortars was established in the Quarry.

At 09.30 hrs on 1st July 1916 a verbal message was received from Brigade headquarters that zero hour would be 10.30 hrs and the companies were ordered to move to the allotted jumping off positions. At 10.00 hrs, owing to a check on the right, the necessary juncture of the 7th and 21st Divisions was not achieved and zero hour for the 22nd Brigade was postponed. At 13.00 hrs zero hour was reset to 14.30 hrs.

At 14.30 hrs on 1st July 1916 20 MANCH assaulted. The leading wave of the 20 MANCH crossed the German frontline without any significant opposition, but soon thereafter lost direction and swung to the right. They hit the enemy in the vicinity of Bois Francais and a bombing battle began. The second wave did not fare so well and suffered badly due to heavy machine gun fire. The 50th Brigade to their left had failed to get forward and this enabled the German machine gunners at Wing Corner and in Fricourt to concentrate their fire on the 20 MANCH. Very few of them, however, reached Sunken Road Trench and the Battalion owing to the loss of officers became disorientated.

22nd Brigade's Assault on 1st July 1916

The 22nd Brigade's Assault on 1st July 1916. [© Ian R Gumm, 2016]

At 16.20 hrs A Company 1 RWF and the Battalion's bombers under Lieutenant Robert Macmillan Stevens were ordered to cross under cover of the craters behind the defensive flank already formed by the 91st Brigade. B Company was ordered forward to support A Company. They pushed up via the craters to Bois Francias in order to avoid the machine gun fire from Wing Corner. They got mixed up with 20 MANCH but managed to establish communication with 20th Brigade who were on the right as well as stop the German bombers that had been active in that area. The Germans still held onto the their main position at The Rectangle, the assaulting troops were jammed into Bois Francais Trench and Support and Fricourt has still to be taken. With A Company making little progress on the left the Brigade reserve under Captain Dadd was called forward to cooperate and clear Zinc Trench and guard the exposed flank.

A Company 1 RWF got across by 17:00 hrs and reports came back to Lieutenant Colonel Stockwell that Lieutenant Colonel Harold Lewis, commanding the 20 MANCH, had been killed. It appeared to the CO that A Company were dithering and not getting on with it and so the Adjutant, Captain B Reeves, was sent forward to get them moving. The Battalion's bombers had great success and it was largely thanks to their efforts that by 22:30 hrs A and B Companies had taken The Rectangle and were consolidating. B Company had pushed up the Sunken Road as far as Wing Corner which was strongly defended. Around 100 prisoners had been taken and these had been sent back to the British lines. Fricourt, however, despite being enveloped on three sides was still in enemy hands.

The 20th Brigade had by now captured Mametz and were firmly established on their objective. Orders were received that the 22nd Brigade was to remain where they were and that Fricourt would be taken by bombardment and assault the next morning. Lieutenant Colonel Stockwell, sensing that the enemy had been badly shaken during the day, sent forward some bombing parties during the night to see if they could get into the village. They found little resistance and in the morning Fricourt was taken ahead of the scheduled assault. Although Lieutenant Colonel Stockwell's actions had saved an unnecessary bombardment he was admonished by the Corps Commander for exceeding his orders and upsetting the programme.

1 RWF had captured 800 yards of the German defensive system in front of the village which consisted of five lines of strong trenches. In addition they had been instrumental in the capture of Fricourt itself. They had performed excellently and sustained relatively light casualties; just 4 other ranks killed and 35 wounded.

On 3rd July 1916 the assault was renewed with the 17th (Northern) Division pushing north from Fricourt Wood towards Bottom Wood resulting in the capture of Railway Alley up to a line running along the forward edge of Bottom Wood and along the hedge line to Shelter Wood. To the left of the 17th (Northern) Division the 21st Division pushed forward to capture Crucifix Trench and Shelter Wood. To the right the 7th Division consolidated its gains and linked up with the 17th (Northern) Division in Bottom Wood. It was on the night of 3rd/4th July 1916 that the first attempt to occupy Mametz Wood took place.

At 15.00 hrs patrols pushed forward reported that Mametz Wood and Quadrangle Trench were empty. At 17.00 hrs orders were issued for the 7th Division to move forward and occupy a line along the southern end of Mametz Wood continuing along Strip Trench, Wood Trench and the eastern end of Quadrangle Trench after dark.

Soon after midnight on 3rd/4th July two Battalions of Brigadier-General Julian Steele's 22nd Brigade moved forward from Mametz Halt intent on occupying this line. During the night the guides of 1 RWF lost their way resulting in the Battalion arriving late. The 2nd Battalion, the Royal Irish Rifles [2 R I RIF], believing that Quadrangle Trench was unoccupied, approached and came under heavy crossfire from the trench and the wood. By the time 1 RWF arrived an assault made the assault by 2 R I RIF had been pushed back and holding the ground gained was untenable. Both battalions were forced to withdraw.

Following this failed attempt to occupy Mametz Wood, and in the absence of further orders being received, the troops in front of the Wood began clearing the battlefield of its dead. The wounded had previously been attended to, but the dead had been left lying where they had fallen.

In the afternoon of the 4th heavy rain fell with thunderstorms adding to the sound of the battlefields below. Trenches began to fill with water and the shattered fields swiftly turned to clinging mud. The soldiers were soon soaked to the skin and everything seemed to get clogged up.

It was not until late in the day of the 4th that orders for a renewal of the attack were received. The plan was to mount a surprise attack at midnight on 4th/5th July 1916 against Quadrangle Trench and Wood Trench. However, Major General Herbert Watts, commanding the 7th Division, telephoned Corps Headquarters and informed Lieutenant-General Horne that a surprise attack was impossible because of the conditions.

Unwilling to postpone the attack Lieutenant General Horne modified the plan to include a preliminary bombardment and set a new Zero Hour of 00:45hrs. The assault was to be mounted across a frontage of about 1,800 yards with four assaulting Battalions. On the left were the 10th Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers [10 LAN FUS] and 9th Battalion, the Northumberland Fusiliers [9 NORTH'D FUS] from 52nd Brigade, 17th (Northern) Division and on the right were 1 RWF and 2 R I RIF of the 22nd Brigade.

During the bombardment the assaulting troops pushed forward into no-man's land. As the bombardment lifted a hail of machine gun bullets tore across the battlefield.

On the left the two Battalions of 52 Brigade were met by hostile machine gun and rifle fire and a hotly contested fight ensued, but the assaulting British managed to push the enemy out of Shelter Alley and their section of Quadrangle Trench.

On the right things did not go so well. The left assaulting Company of the 1 RWF were met by fierce machine gun and rifle fire. They managed to penetrate the German defences and linked up with 9 NORTH'D FUS before they bombed along the trench to the right meeting yet more stiff resistance. The right assaulting Company got held up on the wire and were bombed by the enemy and caught in the open by their own supporting artillery falling short. Half of the Reserve Company waiting in Bottom Wood was sent forward to assist and with this added strength the 1 RWF captured their portion of Quadrangle Trench.

To their right 2 R I RIF had an encouraging start crossing 150 yards of wet clinging mud in the first ten minutes. Then the Germans counterattacked and drove them backwards. 1 RWF tried to assist from their left by bombing along Quadrangle Trench and into Wood Trench. However there was a gap between these two trenches where the light railway ran and this was swept by machine gun fire making it impossible to cross in any significant numbers. One patrol did manage to cross which was led by Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, but by then it was too late as 2 R I RIF had withdrawn. Quadrangle Trench was now in British hands, but Wood Trench and Mametz Wood were still firmly held by the Germans. During the afternoon of 5th July 1916 the 38th (Welsh) Division relieved the 7th Division opposite Mametz Wood. 1 RWF had sustained 65 casualties: two officers wounded; 8 other ranks killed and 55 wounded.

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Last updated: 17th December 2018