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France 1916: The Battle of the Somme
The Road to Pozières
The sound of far off rifle firing
Running from Albert to the north–east is the D929 to Bapaume. This road bisects a region whose name has gone down in British history, let alone British military history – the Somme. At the right–hand side of the road, as it climbs a gradual hill just up from a large roundabout, is Bapaume Post Military Cemetery. It is worth pausing here to view the graves of the men of the Northumberland Fusiliers.
There are 28 graves of men from this British regiment in Bapaume Post. All but one carry the date, 1 July 1916. In Plot 1, Row G, Grave 1 is Lieutenant Colonel William Lyle, age 40, commanding officer of the 23rd Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, one of the four battalions of the regiment called the ‘Tyneside Scottish’. These battalions were raised in the Tyneside industrial region of the north–east of England and associated themselves with a Scottish background. Further back in Plot 1 is Row A, just inside the entrance gate, and in Grave 34 lies Private John McCann, 25th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers. McCann’s battalion, along with three other battalions, was also raised in Tyneside but from individuals claiming Irish ancestry, hence they were known as the ‘Tyneside Irish’. Before dawn on 1 July 1916 the ‘Tyneside Irish’, the reserve unit of the 34th British Division, were in positions just a little further up the hill from Bapaume Post. On the other side of the hill the ‘Tyneside Scottish’ were already in the British front–line trenches waiting for zero hour.
Not far away, somewhere on this hillside, Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent and later official historian, had come with other journalists to witness the beginning of the Battle of the Somme at 7.30 am. Bean could not see the attack but he heard it:
7.29 am. One minute to go. I have not seen a single German shell burst yet …
7.32 am. Ever so distant, but quite distinctly, under the thunder of the bombardment I can hear the sound of far off rifle firing.
So they are into it – and there are Germans still left in those trenches.
7.35 am. Through the bombardment I can hear the chatter of a machine gun. And there is a new thunder added, quite distinguishable from the previous sounds. It is only the last minute or so that one has noticed it – a low, ceaseless pulsation.
It is the drumming of the German artillery upon our charging infantry. Behind that blue screen they must be in the thick of it. God be with our men!
CEW Bean Letters from France, Melbourne, 1917, pp.76–7
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010