A Loughborough boy’s experience of the Battle of the Somme
1 July 2021
July 1st 1916
Pte. W A Deakin* saw services in the trenches in France and Belgium and took part in the Battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916. He wrote home to the Echo after the battle, which published his account. Here it is in full.
ONE of the Loughborough boys, Pte. W. A. Deakin, of the Royal Fusiliers, who took part in the great offensive movement on the 1st July, has written home his impressions of the day.
After referring to the few days prior to the attack, when they were held in readiness, he writes:
The guns continued their bombardment relentlessly. From the edge of the wood at the top of the hill, from behind the hedge bordering the road, from the rising ground beyond our vision, shells of every calibre tore through the air with a plaintive screech or a swishing sound like the roar of an express train.
At night-time the whole heavens were lit up by the brilliance of the flashes. From the guns near at hand there leapt a tongue of liquid light, so pure and brilliant that it dazzled the eyes. From further afield the flashes stabbed the sky as though the very hills were in eruption.
The noise and tumult in the little hollow where we lay, thrown back, as it were, by the higher ground and echoing among the woods, was indescribable.
A scene more fittingly representing hell on earth would be difficult to imagine. What must the Germans have suffered in their trenches, where all these shells were bursting? The days of waiting came at last to an end.
It was now Friday, and the rumour had gone round that we were to attack the following morning. Two hours after dark we filed round the outskirts of the village and wound slowly up the rising ground beyond.
Save for an occasional battery in the woods behind us, and the distant rumble of big guns on the left and right, the air seemed strangely _ quiet. The bombardment had slackened.
So unaccustomed had we become to the comparative quiet, that the effect was instantly soothing to the nerves.
The atmosphere was wonderfully clear, and the heavens, studded with innumerable stars, diffused a faint half-light, which threw the ruins of the village into dark relief against the sky.
As we gained the top of the ridge the sharp rat-tat of machine guns broke in upon us.
Away on our left shrapnel was bursting over the enemy’s lines, and an occasional high-explosive, over our own, while on the right over towards the river, the French ‘75’s’ suddenly opened out with a subdued and mighty rumble.
Star-lights sprang out at intervals over the ‘No Man’s Land,’ wavering unsteadily in the air, and casting their sickly light upon the white chalk outline of the trenches in a huge semi-circle around us.
It was with a feeling of relief that we entered the shelter of a communication trench, from which we finally emerged into the position we were to occupy in the front line.
Now it was that we were told of the postponement of the hour of attack until 7.30. It came as a surprise to us, and we queried the wisdom of such a measure, but, as events proved, the postponement was sound strategy.
It still wanted an hour or so to dawn, and aware that our next opportunity for rest might be far distant, we lay down in the bottom of the trench to get what sleep we could.
We awoke a couple of hours later to the knowledge that the air had become perceptibly colder, and with a firm resolve to do justice to the eggs and bacon (albeit, hard-boiled eggs and cold bacon), which we had brought with us.
By this time the bombardment was becoming more intense than ever all along the line. Shells followed one another through the air in shoals, and the earth shook with the vibration. Our new trench mortars were getting to work and making things hum.
Fritz, too, was very much alive, and the big stuff he threw amongst us often found its mark.
The Skylark’s Song
Among all this tumult and chaos it seemed strange that nature should still persist in having a say. For, as it were, in protest against the unearthly pandemonium which prevailed, a skylark suddenly rose from among the thistles and long grass between the lines and burst forth into joyous song as it soared aloft.
The sweetness of its song rose above the fury of the bombardment and took our thoughts from the present to the ‘past and from the past to what we hoped for in the future.
Strange what an influence a little incident such as this, so insignificant in itself, can have upon one when the senses are quickened and a crisis is at hand.
As the fateful hour drew nearer the heavy mist which had gathered since daybreak melted slowly away under the warm rays of the sun.
The rum ration had been served out, and with hearts beating somewhat faster than usual we waited for the signal to start.
Our platoon officer, dressed in private’s uniform, stood with one foot on the ladder. He was scrutinising the hands of his wrist-watch closely.
‘Five more minutes to go,’ he said, and the word was passed along.
‘Three more minutes to go,’ and then the mine went up.
It was our mine, and was the signal to start. It had been laid under the already existing crater of a former mine explosion – a crater held by the enemy and containing a machine gun.
The rumble of the explosion was indeed terrific. Huge masses of earth and chalk were cast like a fountain into the air. The sides of our trench collapsed, and some of us, crouching low for shelter, were partially buried by the fall.
The unfortunate Germans and their machine gun were heard of no more.
‘Over you go, my lads,’ cried our officer, and, leading the way himself, we followed him up the ladder with rifles ‘at the slope.’
It was a moment when there was little time to look around or think twice.
Once on the top we spread out into open formation. Shells were dropping all around, shrapnel was bursting overhead, and a couple of machine guns from the German fourth or fifth line were sweeping the ground in wide circles.
Thirty yards from the German front line we lay down in the grass, for our artillery curtain fire had not lifted.
An inch or so above our heads the bullets were whistling through the grass with an eerie ‘swish, swish,’ sound, which bade us keep low.
Then the barrage lifted to concentrate on the second line, and we went forward. As we had expected, the front line was unoccupied, and it was at the second line that we encountered our first Germans.
Threw Down Their Arms
They came running out of their dug-outs in a dazed condition, mostly without either arms or equipment, and waving their hands excitedly above their heads. We passed on and over, leaving these men to the care of those who followed us.
At the next lines and at a redoubt which lay in our path, we met with more resistance, but even this broke down as soon as we got to close quarters. The glint of steel as the sun shone on our bayonets wined to take all heart out of them, and they threw down their rifles, such as had them, and with hands in the air, shouted ‘Mercy, Kamerad’
Others, half crazy with fear and fright, began to strip, and with ludicrous gestures, held out to us their helmets, caps and even shirts.
If they were lucky they obtained mercy; if they were not, they didn’t. It was a case of touch and go, our safety or theirs, for to leave too many behind meant to get sniped in the back.
Such was the method of assault. Not the wild, hot-headed charge of former battles, but a deliberately-timed advance, with a dogged determination to push forward.
Our artillery worked splendidly, and lifted the barrage of curtain fire from trench to trench as we advanced.
The ground we had to cover resembled a ploughed field, rent and torn in an indescribable manner — a perfect honeycomb of shell holes.
The bombardment had done its work. The trenches lay so flattened out as to be almost unrecognisable, and the barbed wire entanglements lay in a broken mass half buried in the ground. Small wonder that the Germans appeared paralysed.
The attack, more-over, had taken them altogether by surprise. They had undoubtedly expected us at dawn, but when dawn came and no attack they had gone about their business, and were probably contemplating breakfast when our attack commenced.
The final bombardment was scarcely more severe than the others had been, and they had retired to their dug-outs till the air should clear again.
Here it was that our bombers took a heavy toll. Following up directly in the rear, the dug-out clearing parties discovered many a German just awakened from sleep and ‘whizz-bang,’ a bomb flew down the dug-out steps. Some had their boots off, and in one dug-out two men sat side-by-side, with folded arms in an attitude of deep sleep.
Most of the dug-outs had two entrances and were extraordinarily deep and strongly made. They had been a blessing during the bombardment, but proved a death-trap in a surprise attack.
Rifles, equipment and ammunition lay about in great profusion. There were stores of brown rye bread and a quantity of fatty foods, chocolate and cigars, but no meat.
Each valise pack contained a complete change of clean under-clothes, socks, candles and such-like things, and there appeared to be no lack of serviceable clothing. And then – helmets! Rows of them; all nicely polished, with the eagle still crying out defiance! These, sooner or later, found each a new owner.
In the officers’ dug-outs we discovered several ‘cat-o-nine-tail’ lashes made of strong leather thongs, and in one place was found evidence of the way in which they were used. This was on the bottom step of an officer’s dug-out, where lay a man — probably the officer’s servant – killed by a bomb wound in the head. His shirt had been partially ripped from his back, and underneath were plainly visible the marks where the lash had cut and torn the skin.
Another tale is told of a machine-gunner, found chained, to his post, but I cannot verify this. Sufficient is it that the prisoners gave no good account of their officers, and the impression gained is that the men obey when officers are present, but get out of hand as soon as their backs are turned.
All that night we ‘stood to’ in our last captured – and seventh – line of trench, hourly expecting the counter-attack which never came.
Fritz, however, thought better of it, and no doubt -spent his time in ‘strafing’ the British and manufacturing more hate.
Article submitted by Loughborough Library Local Studies Volunteers.
*W Arthur Deakin was the son of Joseph Deakin, the founder of The Loughborough Echo. Arthur survived WW1, returning to Loughborough and taking over as Managing Director of the company following Joseph’s death in 1929.