Lt Downman’s Damning Decree on the Disaster of Gommecourt

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The main thrust of the British attack on the Somme on 1st July 1916 was to be carried out by eleven infantry divisions from General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army. However, two miles to the north, a couple of territorial divisions from General Edmund Allenby’s Third Army (VII Corps) were all set to launch their ‘diversionary’ attack on the village of Gommecourt, designed to attract as much German artillery and infantry attention as possible away from the northern flank of the Fourth Army assault around Serre.

The attack on Gommecourt would follow a classic ‘pincer’ movement with the 46th (North Midland) Division attacking from the north and the 56th (1st London) Division coming up from the south. All being well they would both make progress through the second and third lines of German defences, meet up on the east side of the village and force the German garrison to surrender.

The attack from the North Midland’s Division started off terribly and then got substantially worse as the morning drew on. Everything that could go wrong for the North Midlanders did so.

At 07:20, ten minutes before zero hour, white smoke was poured onto the battlefield across the front of both divisions. Not even the British high command wanted their men to walk over No Man’s Land in full view of the enemy – regardless of whether this was just a diversion or not. So, to try and hide the impending attack from the enemy, a thick smokescreen was used. On paper this was a smart thing to do, and in some parts of the line it helped, but for the 48th Division the smoke became so dense the men became disorientated and were unable to get to their jumping off points. If that wasn’t bad enough, the wisps of smoke rolling over No Man’s Land had alerted the Germans and they immediately started lobbing over dozens of heavy shrapnel shells which caused nothing buy havoc and mayhem to the men trying desperately to launch their advance.

The attack had begun to falter before it had even started.

The delay and confusion in setting off, combined with the muddy conditions of No Man’s Land meant that progress towards the German lines was pretty slow. When the smoke suddenly started to clear after just thirty minutes, the first waves of the attack were only halfway across No Man’s Land. As the smoke cleared and their targets became visible, the German defenders, who had already taken up their positions amid the mish-mash of shell holes and smashed trenches started to open fire with machine-gun and rifle. They could hardly miss.

Lieutenant Theodore Frank Cyril Downman took part in the attack on Gommecourt with 1/5th Sherwood Foresters and was one of the few men from the 46th Division that managed to get across No Man’s Land safely and occupy German front line positions. During the attack he sustained a gun shot wound to his arm and was taken prisoner.

In a series of notes made in June 1918 and attached to the Regimental War Diary of the period, Lieutenant Downman eloquently summed up his thoughts on the reasons for failure at Gommecourt thus:

The attack failed through various causes of which the following are the chief:

The absurdly inadequate strength of some of the attacking units; my own battalion went over between 50 and 600 strong. My own platoon consisted of 15.

Lack of knowledge on the part of the higher commands of the conditions prevailing in the trenches and of what was likely to take place in an attack on trenches from trenches.

The absurd distribution of equipment; those in 1st waves who got into German lines having to wait for 4th waves who never got there.

Overloading of all attackers, especially ‘carriers’.

Very bad management regarding cutting of German barbed wire; this was absolutely uncut on a 2-battalion front, letting down our right flank and the 56th Division’s left flank. The wire on my own front was sufficiently cut owing to the energies of Lt. Lilley who had taken patrols out to do this work, the artillery not being sufficiently competent to do it properly.

Half-heartedness in regard to the attack by Divisional General (46th Division). Only 4 battalions went into attack at 7.30am. They were not supported, and no reinforcements were sent.  I understood that subsequent attacks by the rest of the division took place during the day, none of which reached the German lines. If these troops had all attacked between 7.30 and 8am we should have gained our objectives and held them, presuming that the wire was cut.1

It is difficult to argue against any of his points.

Lt T.F.C. Downman

The text above has been taken from my forthcoming book – The Battle of the Somme: A Layman’s Guide

Image of Lt. Downman copied from the brilliant blog which covers all things Derbyshire Territorials – https://derbyshireterritorials.wordpress.com/

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