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France 1916: The Battle of the Somme
Thiepval, Thiepval Memorial
Young men in their prime
Before they were to attack the German line at Thiepval on 1 July 1916 the men of the 16th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers (Newcastle Commercials) were given this comforting message from their General:
You will be able to go over the top with a walking stick, you will not need rifles. When you get to Thiepval you will find the Germans all dead, not even a rat will have survived.
Quoted in Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme, London, 1977, p.97
So confident were the British that artillery bombardment would have destroyed the German lines before the great attack! When the Newcastle men went ‘over the top’ at zero hour on 1 July they found to their cost that the Germans were not dead. The men of a Württemberg regiment were waiting for them and the six advancing waves of the 16th Northumberland Fusiliers and the 15th Lancashire Fusiliers (the ‘Salford Pals’) were cut to pieces by the enemy machine guns. None of them reached the German line. Any wounded survivors who moved in no–man’s–land were similarly dealt with. Mercifully, the commanding officers of both battalions stopped the last companies and told them to simply man their parapets.
The Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, is in the village of Thiepval on the D73 from Poziéres. The cemetery behind it, is built right across the front lines of 1 July 1916, a day when the British Army suffered nearly 20,000 men killed and a further 40,000 wounded. The memorial, however, speaks not simply of that first day but of the whole Battle of the Somme. On stone panels around the memorial’s arches are recorded the names of more than 73,000 British ‘missing’ soldiers whose bodies were never found for burial or, if found, could not be identified. There are also 858 South Africans recorded here and one man from the West India Regiment. Appropriately, but sadly, the regiment with the second highest number of names at Thiepval is the Northumberland Fusiliers (2,931 names) and among them are undoubtedly some who perished on 1 July on this very spot.
The personal loss and grief symbolised by the Theipval memorial is hard to grasp. Years later Private G B Gledhill, who had fought on 1 July 1916 in this area, wrote:
It is easy to read that 20,000 men were killed in one day but only when one sees the cemeteries on the old battlefield with their rows and rows of white headstones does the figure begin to mean anything. It is a hard heart that is not moved by the beauty of these cemeteries and the sadness of the graves. Oh, the heartache, seeing all those thousands upon thousands of graves of young men in their prime, my eldest brother among them, who had come all the way from Australia. For what? Can anyone give the answer?
Gledhill, quoted in Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme, London, 1977, p.315
At Thiepval there are many stories of courage, death and despair. One of them concerns the fate of Sir Edward Harry Macnaghten, 1st Battalion the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) of Dunderave House, Bushmills, County Antrim, Ireland. His name can be found low on Pier and Face 10 A . Sir Harry went missing on 1 July and his body lay out there somewhere in no–man’s–land. For hours his soldier–servant, Private Robert Quigg, 12th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, went out looking for him and seven times returned with a wounded man. Quigg dragged the last man in on a groundsheet from within a few metres of the German line. However, Sir Harry was never found. For his bravery, Quigg was awarded the Victoria Cross. When Quigg returned home to Bushmills Sir Harry’s mother, Lady Macnaghten, presented him with a gold watch inscribed:
Presented to Robert Quigg VC, 12th RIR [12th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles], by Lady Macnaghten in remembrance of his great bravery in searching for her son, Sir Harry, under fire on 1 July 1916.
A family legend goes that she had told Quigg when he left for war not to come back without Sir Harry!
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010