Tuesday 13 December 2016

'My Father's Recollections of 1st July 1916' by Major Philip Wright OBE: Cambs Suffolks on the Somme

The first of July 1916 dawned with a light mist and all the signs of a glorious summer’s day. A thousand yards from the German line, my father’s battalion, the 11th Suffolk (about 900 men), spent the night in and around the small château in trench-riddled Bécourt Wood. From here, despite the unrelenting British bombardment, war seemed remote. Cuckoos called, nightingales sang, dogs barked at the guns; wild and garden flowers grew in profusion. At 4am on 1st July the soldiers breakfasted with the help of a dose of treacly army rum in their tea. At 5am, they filed into position and my father marched his platoon (about 40 men) out of the wood along the trenches. He, like everyone else, was carrying about sixty pounds of equipment. 

Andrew Wright of the Cambs Suffolks
                      The Battalion arrived in trenches to the rear of another unit from Grimsby. My father’s platoon, comprised largely of men from Cambridgeshire, was in the battalion’s third ‘wave’. At 7.20am, ten minutes to ‘zero hour’, every gun in the artillery accelerated to its maximum rate of fire in a hurricane bombardment. Then, with two minutes to go, the ground reeled. Across No Man’s Land and a little to my father’s left, the earth erupted thousands of feet into the air as the Lochnagar mine containing twenty-four tons of explosive ammonal was detonated under the enemy’s trenches. Clods of soil and chunks of chalk rained down as large as wheel barrows.

                            For the first time in a week all the guns stopped and long ranks of men rose from where they had been crouching on the ground. The skirl of bagpipes started up nearby. The British artillery lengthened its range and resumed its bombardment. My father waited for the Battalion’s second wave to leave. He checked his watch and at two and a half minutes after zero hour, blew his whistle and waved his platoon forward some hundred yards to the front line. There was a scramble for ladders and footholds over the parapets, to the tune of German machine guns very much alive to what was coming.

Lieutenant Andrew Wright and D Company - Ripon 1915

                     As soon as the barrage lifted from their front line, the Germans emerged from their deep dugouts hauling their machine guns with them. No Man’s Land was up to six hundred yards wide here but soldiers from the first three waves of the 11th Suffolk had begun to fall within the first one hundred. They went down ’just like corn in front of the farmer’s reaper’, one of my father’s men remembered. But the advance went on, somehow: men with heads bowed as if walking into a gale. At one point my father was advancing alone among small groups of survivors sheltering in shell holes. He got down until he saw a line of men going forward on his right and then continued up to the white lip of the newly blasted crater. With about two hundred men of all units, he remained in the crater until early evening, only leaving its sanctuary to attend to and give water to the wounded strewn in the waste land around.

Captured Enemy Dugout at La Boisselle, France
Mor               More than five hundred of the 11th Suffolk were wounded or killed. Of the sixteen officers, the Battalion had fielded, four had been killed, two more were never found and only my father emerged unhurt. Having done all he could for the wounded and dying, Captain James Fiddian, Medical Officer of 11th Suffolk, wrote to my father “Perhaps the most poignant memory of all is of the march next morning, when of some 800 who went in on 1st July about 125 mustered. I know that as I marched at the rear of the column I could not trust myself to speak, that my face was twitching in extraordinary ways and my mind was filled with the feeling that if the potentates themselves had to take part it the wars they made we should have no more of them.” 

                         Note: After the 1st July 1916, Andrew Wright went on to a distinguished career in the British Army and, later, the Diplomatic Service. Wright was awarded the MC for an action as Company Commander, 11th Suffolk during an attack on Hargicourt (Aisne) in August 1917. He was awarded a Bar to his MC during the 1918 Battle of the Lys where he showed outstanding leadership as the second in command of 11th Suffolk. Wright received further awards for active service in WW2 before being appointed Governor to the Gambia and later Governor of Cyprus. He ended his career as Sir Andrew Wright KCMG, CBE, MC.