This article was written by Andrew Hesketh, as part of his research into the WW1 service of his great uncle, Herbert Burman, killed in action, age 19, on 1 July 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
Herbert had been a member of the Sherwood Forester’s Territorial Force and on August 4th 1914 he made himself available for duty in Chesterfield, following a short journey from where he was living in Old Brampton. It is probable that Herbert lied about his age. One could enlist in the Territorials at the age of seventeen but had to be nineteen to be eligible to serve overseas. Private Burman was almost certainly not yet quite eighteen, but such ‘oversights’ in the early days of war euphoria and rampant patriotism were not uncommon. No doubt his parents, Samuel and Violet Burman of Ruddington near Nottingham where proud if a little concerned.
Private Burman, number 2065, was placed in the 1/7th (Robin Hood) Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, which had assembled on August 4th at the Drill Hall on Derby Road in Nottingham. In civilian life Herbert was a groom and his talents were not lost on his new battalion commander since he was duly appointed groom and batman to Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrence Arthur Hind. Lt-Col Hind, aged 36 when war broke out and married to an Irish woman called Eliza Montgomery Andrews, came from Edwalton in Nottingham. Presumably some of Herbert’s comrades saw his appointment as a ‘cushy number’. He would have fewer days stumbling around in filthy and waterlogged front line trenches than the rest of them.
In May 1916 the 1/7th Sherwood Foresters, part of the 139th Brigade, 46th (North Midland) Division, moved to Fonquevillers on the Somme to prepare for the upcoming offensive. In total 18 Divisions would be committed to the attack. The Robin Hoods’ went into the line opposite Gommecourt on the very northern limit of the planned battlefield.
What the rank and file of the Robin Hood’s, like Private Burman, would not have known was that their planned assault on Gommecourt was merely a diversionary attack. It’s success would be nice, but the mere fact that it would keep some Germans occupied would keep the military planners happy as they awaited reports from more crucial sectors of the Somme battlefield.
The Germans in question were the 2nd Guard Reserve Division, part of Stein’s XIV Reserve Corps. Manning the trenches opposite the 139th Brigade was the 3rd battalion of the 91st Reserve Regiment. Two companies, the 9th and the 12th, of the 3rd battalion would face the Robin Hoods. The commanding officers of the 9th and 12th companies were Leutnant der Reserve Metzner and Leutnant der Reserve Overesch.
The 1st of July 1916 dawned beautifully. A bright, warm summer’s day, 72 degrees Fahrenheit, with a clear, blue sky. Visibility was excellent, a fact that no doubt was of great concern to the British soldiers and added to the tension in the trenches. At 7.27 a.m. the Sherwood Foresters began discharging smoke into no-man’s-land to give their advance an element of concealment.
The plan was simple and predictable. The 139th Brigade, exclusively made up of Sherwood Forester territorial battalions divided as follows: the 1/7th Robin Hoods would be in the first attacking wave with the 1/5th to their right. The 1/6th would move in support of this two-battalion attack and the 1/8th would act as a reserve.
Specifically the Robin Hood Battalion was to capture the German trenches directly opposite them, Food Trench and Fork trench, between an area code-named ‘Little Z’ and the communication trench called ‘Orinocho’. To the left of the attack would be ‘Z’, the Schwalben Nest, a protruding piece of German trench that would be able to fire on the Sherwood Foresters flank. No diversionary attack or shelling was ordered on the Schwalben Nest, which was to prove a ludicrous and costly error.
The 137th Brigade would attack to the right of the 139th and further south the 56th Division would assault Gommecourt, completing a classic pincer manoeuvre and encircling German positions in the village. The leading Brigades of the 46th and 56th Divisions would then link up and seal the victory.
The 139th Brigade would attack in five waves. The first four waves would be comprised of ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ companies. They would assault and take the enemy trenches up to at least the third line. ‘D’ company would form the fifth wave and was equipped as a “carrying and digging” party. Its’ job would be to help consolidate the captured trenches in case of a German counter-attack. If all went to plan, Private Burman alongside his Lieutenant-Colonel, would be in the fifth wave.
“The first wave was formed up in our new Front line trench, the 2nd and 3rd waves in our Old front line trench, the 4th wave in the first Retrenchment and the 5th wave in Green Street.”
The Robin Hoods’ smoke was drifting thickly across no-man’s land. At the same moment it was released, 7.27 a.m., the 2nd wave started moving towards the new front line trench which contained the 1st wave, through deliberate gaps in their own barbed wire. At 7.30 the 1st wave went ‘over the top’, closely followed by the 2nd wave and the emerging 3rd wave. The first three waves would have totalled between 600-700 men.
Opposition to the first three waves, as along the whole line, was to be stiffer than predicted but for the Sherwood Foresters the German reaction was also swifter than expected. A lot of the men who walked into the smokescreen would not return.
“Owing to the density of the smoke these three waves were soon lost to sight from the old front line.”
This would have been the view of Private Burman, if indeed he had a view, from the communication trench called Green Street. However, the German view was not much clearer, as their war diary recorded:-
“Amidst the dust and smoke-clouds, made thicker still through smoke bombs that enveloped the battlefield, impenetrable to the peering eyes of the trench sentries...."
Nevertheless, German observers from the 91st Reserve Regiment facing the Robin Hoods had noticed the British massing through gaps in the smoke during the final intense barrage. Their reaction to the lifting of the barrage was therefore quicker than in most sectors of the front line and their trench, hammered for days by artillery, was quickly filled by German soldiers, emerging from deep dug outs, the moment the barrage lifted. Their senses would have been deeply affected by the days of hell they had endured and their desire for bloody revenge would have been overwhelming. As they scrambled to their fire steps they hastily set up their deadly machine guns.
The Robin Hoods were now committed. Casualties were incurred almost immediately the men rose from the trenches as German machine guns opened up. The gaps in the British barbed wire were insufficiently wide forcing the men to huddle together unnecessarily in certain areas as they funnelled through. Naturally these gaps were quickly under intense enemy machine gun fire.
“Saturday July 1st we go over the top. Lieut Wilkins leads 5 platoon. ‘Come on the Robins’. Out of the smoke comes bullets. Someone falls dead. On we go. Thro’ the German wire and into their front line trench.” [Private Bernard Stevenson]
The first wave was virtually wiped out but scattered parties of the second and third waves reached the German front line trench, and a few brave men even pushed on to the German second-line trench. According to the regimental war diary:-
“...only about 12 men reached the German 2nd line; they found the wire was sufficiently cut to enable them to get through; this small party was in the second line until the smoke cleared, and finding that they were not supported by any other of our men and that a number of Germans were approaching them from dugouts, they fell back on the German 1st line trench, about 5 reaching it.”
The German war diary recorded similar observations:-
“the invading Englishmen….were made low in the fighting, part thrown back into the (wire) entanglements, part taken prisoner. Further storm waves were cut up under well-aimed rifle and machine gun fire, flooded back...”
Unfortunately the British artillery were accidentally adding to the casualty list, as Private Stevenson recalled:-
“Our artillery has not stopped and is dropping shells near us. A red light is burned to try and stop them. Wilkins wounded in arm. Sgt Buckley slightly wounded, also Berry.”
The ‘red light’, almost certainly flares, was designed as a signal for the British artillery in the rear. The red flare however was also a signal used by the Germans to call in divisional artillery support, though the German defenders were already issuing such signals. Clearly both sets of artillery would have got the message. The resultant German artillery fire was to wreak havoc on the Robin Hoods. The German war diary reported:-
“Red light balls cause immediate barrage fire from the batteries of the 2nd G.R.D.(the attackers) were devastatingly seized upon by the superbly placed artillery barrage fire.”
Beyond the smoke, a disaster was befalling the first three waves, a scenario that was repeating itself all along the front of the ill-fated offensive. Only five of the Robin Hoods lived to fall back from the momentary glory of capturing the German second line trench. The Sherwood Forester’s regimental war diary reports the scene they would have witnessed as they slid back into the captured German front line trench:-
“In this trench were about 24 of our men who had been endeavouring to make some sort of fire position; before this could be done the Germans made a bombing (hand grenade) attack, both from the right and the left; our men were unable to offer much resistance, their rifles in some cases being muddy, and having no supply of bombs, eventually those that were left retired and took shelter in shell holes, immediately west of the German wire, remaining there until dark.”
Private Stevenson was one of the men who took shelter in a hole awaiting darkness and he gives a more personalised account:-
“Capt. Leman sees Germans emerging from the smoke between their first and second lines. Shoots at them with his revolver. Is shot in arm and face. Germans advance with bombs from right and left. Everyone attends to himself. I tumble out of trench and see small trench just behind their wire, about six yards away. Get in this. Germans throw a bomb into it and the dirt half buries me. Lie doggo. Cpl Small of 6 platoon and a C company private with me. Take subdued counsel and decide to wait till nightfall and then attempt an escape. Wait 15 hours. British bombarding German trench all day with heavies, whiz-bangs, rifle grenades and trench mortars. Earth keeps falling on us. Can hear Germans talking and firing.”
Nevertheless one heroic officer, 2nd Lieutenant Burton, the Battalion Bomb Officer, and a small party of men had followed a communication trench from the German 2nd line trench and penetrated more deeply towards Font Trench in the German third line, throwing hand grenades down several dugouts on the way, before also being forced to withdraw.
In the meantime the 4th wave had reached the Robin Hoods’ ‘new’ front line trench the moment the smoke began to dissipate. Their attempts to go ‘over the top’ in support of the first three waves was held back savagely by machine gun fire from the Schwalben Nest, which it will be recalled, had a perfect angle of fire and was under no personal threat. Only a few men succeeded in stumbling across No Man’s land but many did not. Major E.H. Spalding included in his report a description of the 4th waves’ problems:-
“In the meantime the 4th Wave moving up from the retrenchment, their advance being delayed by the state of the trench, moved out from the fire trench, but found, when reaching the new advance trench, the smoke had cleared and (though a number of men attempted and a few succeeded) it was practically impossible to advance owing to the Machine Gun fire.”
In a letter written from his hospital bed, Pte. Alfred Bennett gives a description of the final stages of the assault by the Sherwood Foresters:-
“I was in the fourth wave to go across ‘no man’s land’ and as soon as we got the order it was a sight to turn any man’s brain as the bombardment was still on.... Then after wading through water up to the waist – we had been up to the knees in mud all Friday night until Saturday at 7.30 a.m. – we got the order to go for the German trenches. Every man living of the Sherwoods that was not wounded answered the call like men. It was worse than Dante’s inferno, worse than hell fire.”
“German machine guns and shells and all kind of explosives made ‘no man’s land’ tremble like a jelly, and the air was nothing but blue flame. . . . . I was just getting ready to for mounting the German trench when I got my wound and what made it worse was that I had to get back to my own lines across ‘no man’s land’. I kept creeping in one hole and then another and expecting every minute to be blown to bits...at last I came to a dressing post. They had just dressed one of our officers, and the doctor dressed me next.”
The 5th wave, including Private Burman, had started moving up Green Street to occupy the retrenchment, followed by the second and finally first line trenches before entering No Mans Land, at the same time as the rest of the battalion began their movement. However their progress was slow. By now the trenches, especially the communication trenches, along which hundred had already passed, were becoming difficult to negotiate as Major Spalding reported:-
“The 5th wave, (the carrying and digging party) were delayed in getting into position in the fire trench, by the state of the C.T.s.”
Eventually the 5th wave reached the second (old front) line trench, the trench directly behind the pinned 4th wave. At this point, about fifteen minutes into the battle, German artillery, summoned by the red flares, began pounding the Sherwood Foresters’ trenches. The German 91st Reserve Regiment had called in fire support from its divisional artillery. The response was overwhelming and the 4th and 5th waves began receiving their punishment.
Lieutenant-Colonel Hind had very few choices and little time to consider them. To withdraw was unthinkable. He could not abandon the first three waves and retreat would be open to accusations of cowardice. To stay put may well have resulted in the same accusation and, in any case, the German artillery was causing casualties whilst they hid. It was possible, if unlikely, that some of his battalion were clinging grimly to captured trenches and he could not abandon them. An advance in the middle of a storm of shells would be suicidal but he had to make contact with the 4th wave and get it moving. He ordered the advance. At his side was Private Burman and Private A.H. Tomlinson who had been “ordered to stay with Colonel Hind at all costs”.
As the 5th wave climbed over the parapet to rush through the explosions and thousands of shrapnel fragments, several shells landed squarely amongst them. Their attempted advance was recorded by Major Spalding:-
“The trenches by this time were subjected to a very heavy enfilade Artillery fire from the direction of Monchy, and the carrying company (5th wave) when getting over the parapet and moving through the wire suffered heavy casualties, the O.C. Company was killed, and the only two subalterns wounded, very few of this wave advanced beyond the old fire trench.”
According to Private Tomlinson the Lieutenant-Colonel miraculously made it across No Mans Land as far as the German barbed wire:-
“We got to the German wire (and) I was absolutely amazed to see it intact, after what we had been told. The Colonel and I took cover behind a small bank but after a bit the Colonel raised himself on his hands and knees to see better. Immediately, he was hit in the forehead by a single bullet.” [Pte Tomlinson]
Most of his men had not even made it as far as no mans land and lay dead or wounded within their own lines. Private Burman was almost certainly one of them. Faced by the impossibility of the task the 5th wave, like the 4th wave before them, dived for cover in any available shelter.
By 7.55 a.m. virtually all the smoke had drifted away and all attempts to shift the 4th and 5th waves from the comparative safety of their trenches proved impossible. The loss of the commanding officer in such a crisis left a void. The German artillery fire was maintained all morning and claimed many men as casualties. The Robin Hoods made no other advance on the northern part of Gommecourt that day, nor did any of the Brigades available in reserve, whose plans were cancelled after a futile last attempt at 9.30 a.m.
During the night survivors of the attack gradually began to reappear, following a harrowing crawl through no-mans-land back to the safety of their own trenches. Their number included Private Bernard Stevenson who had spent fifteen hours in no mans land:-
“At about 11 p.m. when it is really dark wait till a rifle grenade has just exploded and then crawl out one after the other. I go last but join the second chap in the German barbed wire. Lose direction but also have to stop in deep shell hole during lively exchange of artillery fire. Find three men with broken legs in a shell hole and help two out onto side. Finally find our way into trench held by the 8th. Make our way out via Green and Regent Street trenches. Latter blocked in one place by dead bodies. Find Robin H’s have gone to Bienvillers. Have Rum and tea and go for a sleep into billet with wire bedsteads.”
As the 2nd of July dawned British soldiers who had moved into the front line trenches during the night were greeted to a horrific sight. Thousands of British dead lay scattered all around. Groans and shouts for help from the wounded or stranded could be heard from shell holes in no mans land, and every now and again a survivor of the previous days ordeal would reappear. Many hundreds of men were simply unaccounted for. Amongst them, and listed as missing in action for some time, was Private Herbert Burman, officially aged 20, but actually still 19.
The thousands of dead and dying ‘other ranks’ did not receive the same degree of concern from the senior officers as they showed for their social equals as Lance Corporal H. Hickman of the 1/8th Sherwood Foresters recalled:-
“We battalion scouts were sent for by the C.O and he asked for volunteers to go out into No Man’s Land to find out what had happened to the rest of the 1/7th. He hinted that the highest possible award might go to anyone who could find Colonel Hind.”
At midnight two platoons of the 1/5th Lincoln’s advanced as far as the German wire to confirm or deny rumours that a handful of Sherwood Foresters were still holding German trenches. The troops were illuminated by a German flare and raked by machine guns. 48 of them became casualties in order to report that the rumours were false.
Private Stevenson, who had miraculously survived the ordeal, immediately sent home a postcard to allay the fears of his relatives. In it he commented, accurately:-
“I’m sorry to say that Nottingham will be plunged into mourning when the casualty lists are published.”
Private Stevenson was proved correct; 181 men who had enlisted in Nottingham were killed on July 1st 1916, 43 of whom had been born in the City.
The 1/7th battalion had to be withdrawn and rebuilt, its commanding officer had been killed and half of its fighting strength was dead, wounded or missing. The scars of the first day on the Somme ran deep, and the Robin Hoods would not participate in another major offensive until October 1918.
The German 2nd Guard Reserve Division had fought against two British divisions that day, the 46th and the 56th, a total of approximately 24,000 men. Their divisional war diary recorded a total of 601 casualties, of whom 185 were killed. In contrast the Robin Hoods, at dawn, would have numbered a maximum of 1,000 men and more likely around 700-800. The next roll call revealed that about 450 of them had become casualties, the majority from the first three waves. The German war diary could justifiably boast:-
“The 1st July terminated in a complete victory for the 2nd Guard Reserve Division. Every man in the Division is proud of this result and of the success won.”
Many of the men who died near Gommecourt have no known grave. Herbert lies in Gommecourt New Wood Cemetery: just one of the 20,000 who died that day on the Somme.
Total casualties for the Robin Hoods on the 1st of July were 424 officers and men.