On the 1st of July 1916 Manchester newspapers carried exultant headlines. The Manchester Evening News reported that the British had broken into the enemy forward line over a distance of 20 miles, capturing many prisoners. ‘The public had for some days been led to believe that we were on the eve of a great advance,’ the paper went on, ‘and the fact that the British report was so cheering has caused the greatest joy.’ British casualties, it was stated, were not heavy. There were ‘exuberant demonstrations of delight’ in Manchester.[i]
Over the course of the next few days, reports specific to the Manchester Battalions began to come in. They had ‘done excellent work and covered themselves with glory’ Lord Derby told the papers.[ii]
The 30th Division, which included four of the Liverpool Pals Battalions and the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th Manchester Battalions, had been on the extreme right flank of the British attack on the 1st of July. With the Liverpool Pals making the initial assault on the German front lines facing Maricourt, the Manchesters were then tasked with securing the well-fortified village of Montauban. The English and French lines met at Maricourt, and the support of the French heavy artillery had a significant impact on the outcome of the British attack here. The bombardment of Montauban had been substantial and effective. It was pulverised. The Manchesters entered a village of smoking ruins and dying Germans. Many more came forward with their hands in the air.[iii]
The attack on Montauban was one of the few ‘success’ stories of the 1st of July. By 11 a.m. 30th Division had succeeded in taking all of its objectives. It achieved the most substantial penetration into enemy lines of any of the New Army units. Lord Derby conveyed his congratulations by telegram:
‘Convey to the 30th Division my best congratulations on their splendid work. Lancashire will indeed be proud of them.’[iv]
‘Manchester has every right to be proud of the men she breeds,’ asserted the Manchester Evening News. ‘Happily nowhere on the front had our artillery fire been more utterly destructive than in Montauban itself. The Manchesters would have got it, whatever the resistance had been. As it was, they romped into it almost without a check… they held on, beat off the counter-attacks, and since Monday last the place has been solidly ours.’[v]
Though the 30th Division’s experience compared favourably with what had been happening further to the north, it was still a gruelling and a costly day. They didn’t exactly romp forwards without a check. The Division suffered 3,011 casualties on the 1st of July.
‘It is utterly impossible to locate the site of a street or house,’ the Michelin Guide to the Somme battlefields would write of Montauban in 1919. ‘The only remaining landmarks are the pond and the cemetery – the latter considerably enlarged by the addition of numerous German graves. Everywhere else nothing is to be seen, except heaps of stones and rubbish, beams, scrap-iron, and debris of all kinds.’[vi]
With the southern end of the British front suddenly looking like it had more potential than the line further north, priorities and plans were reshuffled. Now the country north and east of Montauban, with its crescent of woodlands, would become the focus for a series of attacks.
The 23rd Manchester Battalion, meanwhile, were en-route to the Somme. On the 2nd of July, at short notice, the 104th Brigade entrained from Béthune and headed towards Arras. The weather was oppressively hot as the Battalion transports then took them south. The Brigade was now based around Bouquemaison, with the 23rd Manchesters camped around the hamlet of Neuvillette. (‘A more delightful little bit of country is not to be found elsewhere in France,’ Eustace Maxwell told his family.[vii]) They would remain here for the next four days, their time occupied with cleaning, inspections and training. The 35th Division was now allotted to VIII Corps, Reserve Army. ‘We are now in Reserve,’ Bernard Montgomery wrote home, ‘behind the big offensive, waiting to be used if required.’[viii]
The weather broke on the 4th of July. There was a thunderstorm and then heavy rain in the afternoon; roads and trenches quickly began turning to mud. Bernard Montgomery wrote to his mother:
‘It is pouring hard now and must be very unpleasant for the troops actually attacking. The beginning of the offensive was put off two days on account of the rain, and it will be very bad luck if it goes on. We have had big casualties, motor ambulances with wounded go through our present village all day and night. I don’t know our total losses but they must of course be very large.’[ix]
On the 6th of July the 23rd Manchesters travelled south-east to Bus-les-Artois (north of Albert), where they were accommodated in a wood. They were now in the Département of the Somme. ‘In the wood were huts and much mud,’ Eustace Maxwell wrote. ‘That day it rained harder than I think I have ever seen previously in Europe; it really was like monsoon rain, with the result that the wood was not the driest place in the world, while our huts moreover were flooded.’[x]
Also on the 6th of July, the Germans counter-attacked at Bois Favières, south-east of Montauban, and managed to take back the northern edge of the wood. With this unexpected action, the next British attack, which had been scheduled for the 7th of July, was postponed until the 8th. The 23rd Manchesters, though, seem to have known little of what was happening further south. Maxwell wrote home: ‘It’s queer that tho’ within a dozen miles of this great fight we should know less of what is going on than you do; we really depend on the home papers for what we hear, and as these have failed today we have to go hungry.’[xi] Had the Bantams been able to access the Manchester papers, they would have seen Lord Derby was saying that ‘Losses are not excessive’. But, over the course of the next week, it started to become apparent that losses were on-going and of a significantly larger scale than had first been reported.[xii]
Manchester Evening News, 8th July 1916.
[i] Manchester Evening News, 1st July 1916.
[ii] Manchester Evening News, 6th July 1916.
[iii] The French 39th Division were advancing to the right of the British 30th Division. They succeeded in their objective of capturing Bois Favières (to the south-east of Montauban).
[iv] Quoted in The History of the King’s Regiment (Liverpool), 1914-1919, by Everard Wyrall, Volume II (1930), p. 274.
[v] Manchester Evening News, 10th July 1916.
[vi] Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battlefields (1914-1918): The Somme, Part I (1919), p. 63. Quotations and images from the Michelin Guides are reproduced with the kind permission of Michelin Tyre PLC.
[vii] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-35.
[viii] IWM, BLM 1/47.
[ix] IWM, BLM 1/47.
[x] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-35.
[xi] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-34.
[xii] Manchester Evening News, 6th July 1916.