Friday, 10 June 2016

The Tyneside Irish and the Somme part 5: Raiding parties

The fifth part in John Sheen's series following the Tyneside Irish Brigade of the Northumberland Fusiliers to the Somme.

In the last blog we left the 103 (Tyneside Irish) Brigade on their way to the Somme Front at the end of May 1916.

Captain George Swinburn also recorded the march from the station.
'We marched through a large town with the Pipers at the head of the Battalion, under the command of the Major [Prior] because the Colonel is away sick. It is the best reception we just have ever had and the streets and avenues were lined with hundreds of people on both sides. The residents seemed to be greatly impressed by the fitness of the men. We are all sunburnt and look absolutely in the pink. There were shouts of "Vive La France and Vive Angleterre" and the scene was thrilling. I felt quite proud riding at the head of my company. It took us a good hour to march through the town and when we halted in one of the suburbs the people were most kind to the men.'
Men of the 25th Battalion , Northumberland Fusiliers, on the line of march. This photo was taken in Wiltshire but they would have looked very similar on the Somme. From Tyneside Irish by John Sheen.
Men of the 25th Battalion , Northumberland Fusiliers, on the line of march. This photo was taken in Wiltshire but they would have looked very similar on the Somme. The John Sheen Collection.
The battalions took their turn in the trenches in front of the village of La Boiselle and the 25th Battalion had only been in the line a short while when on the night of 21 May, a German raiding party tried to enter the British trenches on the right, held by D Company of the Battalion. They were forced back after a desperate bombing fight around a post held by six men commanded by Lance Corporal Tom Hilton of Hebburn. After all of his men were either dead or badly wounded, Lance Corporal Hilton kept throwing bombs at the raiders until they were compelled to retire. For this brave action he was awarded the Military Medal.

These German raiders came from Wurttemberg and came from II/RIR 110 - that is 2nd Battalion Reserve Infantry Regiment 110 - who had been holding the area around La Boiselle since 1914. Unlike the British the Germans, in the early years of the war, tried to keep their units fairly static so they got to know the ground they were defending. This would prove costly for the men of the British 34th Division on 1 July 1916.

The writing on the right of the card shows the senders unit to be II/RIR110. The man marked X is named Carl and is the sender of the card.  The John Sheen Collection.
The writing on the right of the card shows the senders unit to be II/RIR110. The man marked X is named Carl and is the sender of the card.  The John Sheen Collection.
On 20 May, Brigadier Cameron attended a conference at Divisional Headquarters, and was warned to prepare 103 Brigade to carry out a series of trench raids on the enemy near the village of La Boisselle. Accordingly, the battalions were warned to form and start training raiding parties, in preparation. The parties from the 24th and 26th Battalions were selected to carry out the operation, the 24th to be on the right, and the 26th on the left. Meanwhile the officers and non-commissioned officers [NCO] of both parties visited the front line several times to reconnoitre the objective. 

The raid was postponed, initially to 3 June and then to the night of 5/6 of June. Meetings were held at Divisional Headquarters to ensure that the Artillery programme was fully understood by everyone concerned. Meanwhile the raiders kept practising. Special stores required for the raid by the 24th Battalion were supplied by Division as follows: 
140 Mills Grenades
4 Grenade waistcoats
19 Small hand axes
18 Traverser mats
6 Torch rifles
6 Small electric torches
6 Whistles
40 Pairs of wire gloves
300 Yards White tape
3 Sets silent signalling apparatus
4 Wire cutters large
2 Wrist watches

102 (Tyneside Scottish) Brigade were holding the front line. The passwords were chosen as follows:
A soldier of the Scottish, challenging, would say 'SCOTCH',
A soldier from the Irish would answer, 'GEORDIE'.
A soldier of the Irish, challenging, would say 'IRISH',
A soldier from the Scottish would answer, 'GEORDIE'.

The 24th Battalion raid was to be commanded by Major J P Gallwey and would be in two squads, each commanded by a subaltern, comprising:
1 Officer
1 Sergeant
7 Bayonetmen
4 Bombers
3 Carriers
2 Scouts
2 Signallers
2 Stretcher bearers

No 1 squad would come from D Company and No 2 squad from C Company. In each party there would be at least one corporal and one lance corporal. Raid HQ would be made up of the officer commanding the raid and two telephone operators.

The plan was for the raiders to leave the British Front Line at the same spot and pass through the British wire. They would then spread out and on reaching the German wire, two bombers and one
carrier would throw their traversing mats over the wire and quickly cross, followed by the remainder of the squad, except for one scout, who would return to raid HQ and report that the enemy wire had been crossed. Two signallers would remain outside the wire and send a signal reporting the wire crossed.

Having crossed the enemy wire, No 1 squad would work to the right and No 2 to the left, and enter the enemy trench. Immediately the second scout would return to Raid HQ and report that the trench had been entered, and the signallers would also report by sending the prearranged signal. 

The bombers and bayonetmen, accompanied by a carrier, would begin working along the trench protecting the rest of the squad. The remaining bayonetmen, along with the officer and sergeant, would try to capture a prisoner, and if possible, obtain identification. The second party of bombers and bayonetmen would protect the rear of the squad and one stretcher bearer would remain on top of the parapet, whilst the other would enter the enemy trench to assist with the evacuation of any wounded. A late addition to the plan was the inclusion of a Lewis gun team of an officer and two men, who would go out and protect the flank. This was the plan then for the 24th Battalion raid but what actually happened was something quite different.

The raiding party left Franvillers in a motor bus at 6:30pm on the evening of 5 June, and were conveyed to Albert, reaching the town at about 8pm. By 10pm they were assembled in the large dugout at the enemy end of Mercer Street. By the same hour the Brigade and Battalion Commanders were in their respective positions, and communications had been tested and found to be in working order. 

At 11pm (zero hour), the bombardment started according to the plan, and during this, the raiders left their dugout and made their way along the trench. At the time the barrage was supposed to lift, it did not. With British shells landing all around their location, Major Gallwey waited for an opportunity to leave the and cross No Man’s Land, but time ran out. By now, the party had several casualties. Private Joseph Hughes of Spennymoor was killed. Lance Corporals Stockhill and Blades, and Privates Brierley, Cain, and Brown, along with Major Gallwey, were wounded by the British shellfire. Sergeant Patrick Butler and four others were awarded Divisional Cards of Honour for the part they played in the raid.

Seated Private Jack Reardon of Thornley took part in the trench raid as a bayonetman but was to lose a leg on 1 July 1916.  From Tyneside Irish by John Sheen.
Seated Private Jack Reardon of Thornley took part in the trench raid as a bayonetman but was to lose a leg on 1 July 1916.  From Tyneside Irish by John Sheen. 
But what of the 26th Battalion's raiding party?
Their raid was planned slightly differently, for, although there were two bombing parties, an NCO with nine men would provide a covering force. Things went better for this raid, and as the barrage moved forward, they crossed No Man’s Land and entered the enemy front line, where some dugouts were bombed, but no prisoners taken before it was time to withdraw.

More successful than the 24th Battalion raid, it resulted in the award of the Military Cross to Captain Harold Price, the officer commanding the raid. Captain Price was born in Vancouver and had travelled half way around the world to enlist and receive his commission in the battalion. 26/389 Lance Corporal Joseph Lee of Craghead was awarded the Military Medal in the same action and promoted to full Corporal.

After the somewhat unsuccessful raids on the night of the 5/6 June, Divisional HQ decided that the raiding parties should try again, on the night of 25/26 June. The plan was identical to the previous one with hardly any changes except to the personnel involved; even the objectives in the German trenches remained the same.

This time the Germans were well and truly ready for them. On the right, the raiding party under Major Prior reached the enemy parapet but then met with very intense rifle and machine-gun fire and very effective bombing. Forced to retire, they had two men wounded; one managed to walk in under his own power, but the other had a more serious wound, and was carried in by Lieutenant Brady and Private E Hedley of Newcastle. Private Hedley had been constantly absent, while the Battalion was training in England, but he was a good soldier when in the line. He was to be killed in action the following year.

Meanwhile, not far to the left, the Germans were playing a more cunning game. As the raiders approached all was quiet and they were allowed to enter the German trenches, but as soon as they were in, they were met with a shower of bombs from each flank and from behind the fortifications. A hand-to-hand fight ensued in which it was estimated that the enemy suffered more casualties than the raiders. The bombers, moving quickly, fought their way along the enemy trench and the leading man, 26/73 Private William Bullock, of Blaydon, had a fierce struggle with a German soldier, who had no desire to be taken prisoner. Unable to capture the man, Private Bullock threw him down the steps of a deep dugout, then threw a grenade after him.

During the withdrawal another bomber, 26/850 Private John Clark of Newcastle, assisted those of the raiding party who were wounded. Looking back he spotted two Germans about to open fire, so he threw his last bomb at them, then opened fire with his rifle, before helping the wounded through the German wire. As they crossed No Man’s Land, the covering party under the command of 26/1386 Sergeant John Connolly of Jarrow, headed off a German flank attack, and remained in position until the main party had withdrawn. 

These members of the 26th Battalion Raiding Party received the Military Medal for their actions during the raid, and Sergeant Connolly was eventually commissioned in the Leinster Regiment. Captain Price was killed as he came back over No Man’s Land, and other casualties were Captain BD Mullally and six other ranks wounded but they remained at duty. Second Lieutenant I Russell and two other ranks were evacuated wounded and one other rank was missing - 25/1458 Private William Burgess of Blyth. Of the two Royal Engineers who accompanied the raiding party, one was wounded and one was missing so that again the results of the raid were somewhat disappointing. 

The raiders did not get much rest, for on the 27th and 28th the battalions began to move forward, in preparation for the opening of the big attack. For the previous four days the British artillery had been pounding the German trenches, and every man in the Brigade was aware that the opening of the offensive was very close.

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