Dorset & the Somme: 100 years on
Claire Vera tells the story of the Dorsetshire regiment at the Somme in their own words
Published in November ’16
Hanging silently in pride of place in a display case is a bugle; the instrument is part of the Somme exhibit at the Keep Military Museum in Dorchester and it has not played a note in a hundred years.
The bugle belonged to Drummer Starn, of the 1st Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment, and it is entirely possible that it saved his life.
The last call made on the bugle would have been ‘Strike Tents’ on the night of 30 June 1916, giving the signal to the Dorsets to dismantle the camp and to pack up ready to move forward with their planned attack, early the following morning.
On 1 July 1916, 120,000 British and Commonwealth troops were to attack German positions along a seventeen-mile-wide front, north of the River Somme. Great things were expected; a week-long, 1500-gun barrage had fired 1.5 million shells and it was assumed that minimal opposition would be encountered, enemy trenches having been destroyed and the barbed wire cut.
Instead, the troops leaving their trenches advanced into a storm of machine gun and artillery fire and found, in many places, the wire still intact.
At Authuille Wood, the Dorsets suffered huge casualties even before reaching the British front line. 69 men died on the first day. Drummer Starn was one of the wounded, but he survived. The German machine gun bullet still lodged in his bugle should probably have his name on it.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme is seared into our history because of the astounding waste of life. But the Somme was not just one day. It was 141 days. And by day three, more than 500 Dorsets lay dead or wounded.
On the table in the library of the Keep Museum, Curator Chris Copson unfolds an old map. It is slightly worn and marked with various small brown patches. When you realise that it is a century old and travelled with the Dorsets on the Somme, it is remarkable to be able to touch it. The brown patches are mud, the mud the Dorsets trudged through, the mud we all learn about, but can’t possibly understand.
‘This map screams “I was there” at you,’ says Chris. ‘It’s the centre of the Somme battlefield with the woods and villages. And it has the German trenches marked on it in red. We didn’t put our trenches on our maps, in case they were captured. This one would have been carried by an officer of the 1st Dorsets through Authuille Wood, where so many Dorsets died on the first day. Opposition was supposed to have been obliterated by the huge bombardment, but it was a miscalculation. A lot of the shells were duds and a lot were field artillery – designed to explode on the surface – whilst a lot of the enemy were deep in bunkers.
‘The other exciting thing about this map is on the back,’ says Chris. ‘If you turn it over the officer who carried it has made a field sketch of the enemy trenches and the woods behind. It is most likely to have been drawn while looking through a periscope over the parapet of his trench.’
At the Keep there is a reconstruction of part of a trench. For millions of men on both sides the trench became the way of life throughout World War 1. Trenches stretched across from the North Sea coast to the Swiss border, a distance of 500 miles. But it has been estimated that there were around 10,000 miles of trenches, if you include the fighting trenches, communication trenches and second lines.
‘The trenches were vast and complex,’ Chris explains. ‘Signposts were needed and men regularly got lost. But when you were in the trench you were relatively safe, barring a direct hit. The time you were in danger was when you had to leave the trench or to look over the top. Both sides employed snipers and they were very accurate. The slightest movement would attract their attention, with deadly consequences.
‘So a variety of devices were created to enable a soldier to have a look around without quite literally getting their head shot off. There are large periscopes, there are things of considerable optical sophistication. Then there’s the little tin plate mirror called the sentinel trench mirror. It’s a clever little thing, a folding little box with a mirror glass inside. It attaches to the bayonet on the end of the rifle and opens up. The soldier held it up with the mirror facing outwards and tilted it so as to see across no man’s land and the enemy trenches. A simple object, that undoubtedly saved lives.’
Ernest Shephard, from Lyme Regis, had been at the terrible gas attack at Hill 60 on 1 May 1915. By the time of the Somme, he’d been promoted to Company Sergeant-Major with the 1st Dorsets. Against the rules, he kept a diary. On 1 July 1916 – aged 24 – he wrote: ‘Place already nearly crammed, only 4 dugouts for Company, two thirds of us slept outside, enemy sending heavy shell and shrapnel all round us. A heavy shell caught a store containing flares, etc. a big fire caught some petrol and Bangalore Torpedoes. Some troops of the KOYLI were there, 10 were killed by shell, 2 burnt to death. Fire continued until dawn. I got no sleep, it was bitterly cold….
‘At 7.30am we moved to ‘the attack’ by companies at 200 yrds intervals…We took the track in rear of the batteries by Brookers Pass, turned left on and over the road, into Authuille Wood (which we call Blighty Wood) and followed the Dumbarton Track. A battery of artillery was in action half way in wood, enemy sending heavy shrapnel all over the place searching for us…
‘We had a terrible dose of machine gun fire sweeping us through wood, could not understand why. If front and second line had been carried, enemy machine guns would be out of action. We found reason quick enough.
‘…I went forward to see what was happening. Across the opening I saw the last platoon of A (Company) going over the open ground in front of wood to our original front line trench, a distance of about 120 yards. Half of this platoon were killed and almost all of remainder wounded in the crossing and I at once realised that some part of the attack had gone radically wrong, as we were being enfiladed by batteries of enemy machine guns from the ridge on our right front held by the enemy.
‘…We were told to cross as quick as possible. I went on ahead. Grey the Company Orderly behind, and No. 5 platoon behind him. How I got over I cannot imagine, the bullets were cracking and whizzing all round me. I got bullet holes through my clothing and equipment in several places and was hit in the left side. The ground was covered with our dead and wounded men. When nearly over I dropped into a shell hole for breath and to see how the platoon was getting on. Grey was shot dead alongside me, and very few of No.5 platoon left. I pulled 2 wounded men of A Coy into the shell hole for cover, and then went on again, and got to a communicating trench. This I could not get into as it was simply crammed with troops of all units in utter confusion, some badly wounded and a number of dead. I pushed on again half left and got into our fire trench which was almost level from shell fire in places.’
After describing a great deal more about casualties and confusion, the following day he writes: ‘This is a repetition of Hill 60, where we lost nearly the Battalion with hardly a fighting chance. That happened on the 1st of the month as well.’ He suggests that a communications breakdown may have been the problem, but adds ‘if our General did know and yet decided that we should carry on, he is not fit for his job’
‘Ernest Shephard’s diary is invaluable’ says Chris Copson. ‘It gives the perspective of an ordinary, experienced soldier. He’s eloquent, intelligent and knows what he’s talking about and it is not an officer’s point of view, it’s something you seldom get and to have written about events like Hill 60 and the Somme – it is a wonderful thing to have.’
Aged 24, Ernest was promoted and became an officer in the 5th Dorsets; he was posted back to the Somme on 19 November 1916.
On 16 January 1917, Ernest’s father received the following telegram: ‘Deeply regret inform you 2/Lt E A Shephard Dorset Reg’t was killed in action Jan eleventh. The Army Council express their sympathy.’
For more information about the Dorsetshire Regiment in World War 1 – and for a Roll of Honour for those killed on the Somme – go to www.keepmilitarymuseum.org